This review was written by Daniel Dipper. Daniel is going into his third year of studying History and Politics at Magdalen College, University of Oxford, and is the current Oxford Union Librarian as well as Magdalen’s undergraduate president. Daniel was educated in a state comprehensive school and is the first in his immediate family to go to university.
I’ve been meaning to read Chums for months; ever since its release, friend after friend recommended the book to me, one buying it for my birthday leaving the note, ‘Just to be clear, it’s not a “how to” guide’.
Chums is a snapshot of a time gone by, bringing alive 1980s Oxford in vivid detail. It acts as a warning about a future without social mobility, showing the disproportionate influence closed networks can play. Simon Kuper’s writing makes the book a gripping read from start to finish, taking you step-by-step from university days and the Oxford Union right to Coronavirus and the heart of government. The book’s thesis, that Oxford (and specifically the Oxford Union) played a formative role in the rise of politicians like Johnson and the idea of Brexit, is thought-provoking; however, I feel we need to consider the counterfactual to judge the extent to which this is true. Ultimately, if Oxford was cut out of the story, would Johnson still be PM? I think the answer is most probably.
The book has so much resonance among contemporary audiences as it spotlights issues that still seem alive today; alongside Kuper’s writing style, these elements make the book a thrilling read. Opening sections of the book speak about how wealthy schools would have a ‘seventh term’ to prepare for Oxbridge admissions (hence them coming to university a year later), and many in Oxford today would still say there is discrimination on the basis of accent and background which the book so carefully amplifies. Pages describing the ‘essay crisis’, where students stay up until the early hours of the morning to complete academic work, are definitely a feature of student life for many, with traditional three-hour closed-book exams still being a staple of many courses. Oxford, in some ways, can be seen as a place frozen in time, with Boris Johnson and the other ‘characters’ who fill the pages of Chums just helping bring the place to life as familiar figures today.
The central thesis of Chums is that places like the University of Oxford, where in the 1980s strong arguments mattered more than substance, and where the Oxford Union rewarded funny quips and humour over serious discussion, are harmful to society when they play such a central role in our public life. What Kuper proposes instead is that Oxford should become fully a graduate university to avoid those pitfalls, and he strongly welcomes the increase in graduate intake that means more Oxford students are postgraduates than undergraduates now. I’m personally sceptical of Oxford becoming a graduate-only university, given the serious issues with graduate funding that means postgraduate study is out of reach for many from lower-income backgrounds.
In addition, I do feel academia is taken far more seriously than Kuper’s descriptions of the 1980s – tutors are constantly pushing me to delve further into the topics at hand and to achieve the next grade. Oxford is not just seen as three or four years of fun, but particularly for working-class students like me as a beacon of social mobility and a way to progress onto the next stage of their lives. Maybe national and international league tables alongside an increasing focus on research funding can be held partly responsible for that, alongside a more competitive jobs market.
The Oxford Union in the minds of many undergraduates most probably still has negative connotations; a place seen as a politician’s playground, or, as Kuper suggests for Johnson, a CV-filler. It would be wrong to deny that there is not a political element to the Society; however, I do feel there has been a marked tone shift since the 1980s. When speaking to recent presidents, of course there are some who go on to work for MPs or who have parliamentary ambitions themselves, but we have also had presidents who aspire to be poets or academics on African history or who serve as prison wardens. Many come out wanting to make change in wider society, and I do think that’s also the case within it. The Union is considering how to ensure everyone from all walks of life can get involved, may that be from ensuring committee work is financially accessible to considering how to modernise the Society for the 21st century so disabled members can fully access what we have to offer.
I don’t think many individuals Kuper describes would be involved in the same way today. The Union does still have an issue with private school students being over-represented on committee (though our membership is generally representative of the university), and the Union does still need to seriously consider how to encourage female members to run for elected office. However, I don’t anticipate Union leaders being as dominant on the world stage in 30 years as they are today, and those who may go on to higher office no doubt will be from a wider variety of backgrounds.
Any review of Chums would be remiss to focus on the title, the idea of a small network of individuals giving each other a foot up the ladder. How can a handful of Union presidents or officers (many of whom are from Eton) all go on to achieve higher office at a similar time without there being some sort of network or pattern behind it? I think elements of this still exist in our Society today. Even at Oxford, those who have the biggest networks at the University are generally due to relations formed at school or due to coming from similar backgrounds. Organisations like ‘Class Act’ or ‘First Gen Soc’ try and bridge this gap to build up state-school networks and are growing in strength particularly since emerging from coronavirus. However, we should not ignore the inequalities still present in our society which educational background can feed into.
The other point we should briefly reflect on is whether Johnson would be in power, and whether Brexit would have happened without Oxford’s involvement – I personally believe they likely would still be in power today due to the networks formed at an earlier age. We need to think earlier down the educational journey when reflecting on social mobility; to expect universities to change the entire playing field places too much burden on institutions that already do so much good.
The conversation about Chums will, no doubt, rumble on for years to come, and that conversation – if directed correctly – has so much value. The future doesn’t have to look like Chums and I don’t anticipate it will, but we all need to play our part to make sure that is truly the case.
Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK by Simon Kuper, 2022. Profile (£16.99).