I hesitate to write about the internal politics of another country. But the inner struggles of the UK Conservative Party have had such a profoundly damaging impact on both parts of Ireland, that it is impossible to avoid the topic.
On the day that Boris Johnson faces a vote of confidence, I would like to reflect on a recently published book on the common background of David Cameron and Boris Johnson, and how it has shaped their approach to political leadership.
Both of them attended Eton and Oxford, and were friends while there.
Both were members of the aristocratically oriented Bullingdon club, a self styled elite within the university, who dined together in white tie and tail coats.
Cameron studied economics and politics and concentrated on getting his exams.
Johnson studied Classics and concentrated on becoming President of the Oxford Union, a debating chamber which mimicked the superficial smart ass style of Prime Ministers questions (PMQs).
Clever one liners rather that searching questions are the order of the day at PMQs and in the Oxford Union. Entertainment rather than enlightened analysis is what works there.
Simon Kuper, a Financial Times journalist, has written
“Chums, How a tiny caste of Oxford Tories took over the UK”,
which describes the group of 1980s Oxford undergraduates who have came to dominate the top layer of UK politics in the 2014 to 2022 era.
Among this Oxford elite were David Cameron, Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Liz Truss, Teresa May, William Hague, Rory Stewart, Dan Hannan and Jacob Rees Mogg. As the author put it, the pre admission Oxford interview process
“tested your ability to speak while uninformed”.
Roy Jenkins, Chancellor of Oxford, said tht , as a result , Oxfors was often
“glib and flippant”
Keir Starmer also attended Oxford but as a post graduate student, which is not quite as formative (or deformative) an experience as that of an undergraduate.
Allowing people, drawn from such a narrow elite, to dominate politics of any country is unhealthy in itself. Diversity at the top allows more options to be considered.
Oxford in the 1980’s also allowed a form of nostalgia for pre Industrial England to develop among the medieval spires of the university town, a nostalgia that underlay Brexit.
Living in the past enabled some of the Oxford undergraduates, who went on the become advocates of Brexit, to persuade themselves that it was still possible for Britain to make the global rules of trade policy , as it had been able to do from 1820 to 1880.
Boris Johnson successful career in the Eton debating society and the Oxford Union, presaged his successful political career. As Kuper puts it, he learned to
“defeat opponents whose arguments were better simply by ignoring their arguments “ .
Thus he could ignore the content of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which he probably never read, by confidently asserting that he was getting Brexit done. Treaties were just pieces of paper, details could be sorted out later.
It also enabled him to
“ to win debate not by boring the audience with detail, but with well times jokes, calculated lowerings of the voice and ad hominem jibes”.
This quality enabled him to get away with absurd claims during the 2016 Brexit Referendum.
Johnsons high verbal intelligence absolved him from ever developing his analytical intelligence.
Irish politics is far from perfect. But it does allow serious people to aspire to leadership. The UK might learn something useful from studying Dail Eireann!