(Published in Village Magazine, October, 2016)
North Oxford is a heartland of academia where leafy halls of residence mingle with stately homes and rarefied hostelries. Bang in the middle of England a pervading windlessness favours scholarly reflection removed from the fugue of modernity. Only here do scholars walk the streets with books aloft. Even the traffic is orderly with streams of bicycles sensibly preferred.
The city of Oxford is located on the confluence of the Isis (the idiosyncratic name for the Thames here) and Cherwell rivers. Broadly, it may be divided into three zones with a clear north-south divide: the aforementioned affluent and mature north Oxford suburbs of Jericho, Summertown and Wolvercote; an historical and commercial centre linked to Botley and Osney Island; and predominantly twentieth century suburbs including Headington, Cowley and Blackbird Leys to the south. The centre, layered on top of the original, though poorly preserved, Anglo-Saxon settlement, contains iconic colleges such as Christchurch alongside an incongruous “any-town-UK” commercial centre and its array of gaudy chains.
Flanked by the rivers and their flood plains, the division of the city is maintained by extended parklands and a canal network that insulate the lush northern suburbs. The Cowley Road is a transition zone mostly inhabited by transient, though not particularly exuberant, students. The strip, nonetheless, has an energy not found elsewhere in Oxford.
Moving south, there is another Oxford as housing gets cheaper and industry more evident. The first industrial revolution passed Oxford by as colleges objected to the contagion of commerce. Only after World War II did significant manufacturing arrive as the city attracted a motor car industry.
By the early 1970s, 20,000 people were employed in the sector and the original Mini Minor was developed here in 1959. Unfortunately, as in much of the country, a significant proportion of heavy industrial jobs have departed.
The working class areas now face social problems familiar in many English cities in a country that is the most unequal in Europe. Living as a generally penniless, jobbing tutor and supply teacher in Oxford for two years I encountered classroom behaviour that made experiences in schools in socially-deprived areas of Dublin seem positively meditative. Oxford is a place of profound educational inequality. Secondary schools such as the Oxford Academy which was built along the lines of a prison seem to be on a different planet from the elite educational institutions.
The number of Prime Ministers that have passed through Oxford University is startling. Among post-war prime ministers only Winston Churchill, Jim Callaghan, John Major (none of whom had a university education) and Scottish Gordon Brown did not receive an Oxford education. Another alumnus Theresa May (St. Hugh’s 1974) joins a list that includes Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair (St. John’s, 1974), Harold Wilson (Jesus College, 1937) and Clement Atlee (University College, 1904) as well as Tories: Anthony Eden (Christchurch, 1922); Harold MacMillan (Balliol, 1914); Alfred Douglas-Home (Christchurch, 1925); Edward Heath (Balliol, 1939); Margaret Thatcher (Somerville College, 1947), and David Cameron (Brasenose, 1988).
Moreover, numerous Tory politicians maintain an association with the wider shire. Churchill himself was born in the nearby ancestral estate of Blenheim Palace where he also proposed to his wife. David Cameron lives in Chipping Norton close to Rebecca Brooks, Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the Chippy set. Michael Heseltine (Pembroke, 1954) is also nearby though he seems to look slightly askance at the gobby neighbours.
Meanwhile, Theresa May grew up in the village of Wheatley a few miles east of Oxford where her father served as vicar. Closer to London, Boris Johnson (Balliol, 1987), the new foreign secretary, lives in Henley-on-Thames.
Perhaps the county has a quality – an England of the imagination – that Tory grandees gravitate towards. It could be the low rural population density, a legacy of the Enclosure Acts (1760-1830) that placed formerly common land in the hands of expanding gentlemen farmers. Today, though located only an hour from some of the most inflated land prices in the world in London, it is possible to drive for long stretches without seeing a single dwelling.
As an Irish person living in the city of Oxford I was never made to feel unwelcome, or at least any alienation was no different to that felt by the bulk of the population beholden to a converging aristocratic and mercantile elite: unlike the ancient regime in France since the Tudor era nobility has been open to the highest bidder. One must however acclimatise to the southern English reserve and a sense of humour more sardonic than in Ireland. The historian Tony Judt writes that the English are perhaps “the only people who can experience schadenfreude at their own misfortunes”.
Succumbing to generalisation, I regard English friendships as firmer than Irish for all the latter’s sociability. But societies of companions generate mosaic communities often hostile to one another. Better the devil you know and bugger the rest.
In the age of the Internet which extinguishes old certainties a growing contempt is discernible towards politicians. Many are no longer content to be ‘shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour’ in the words of Uncle Monty in Withnail and I. The cultural dominance of Oxbridge (meaning both Oxford and Cambridge Universities) which extends to the media and business is threatened. This perhaps explains why maverick and grumpy (though otherwise profoundly different) outsiders such as Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage are appealing to a jaded electorate; a state of affairs the Oxbridge elite cannot abide as shown by the treatment of Corbyn even in some apparently left-wing media.
The excellence of the Oxbridge education contributes to the dislocation. Staff-student ratio at Oxbridge colleges are approximately one member of academic staff to every five students while other third level institutions are accustomed to 1:20. The hallowed tutorial system gives what are reckoned to be the brightest students, by the age of eighteen, individual or small-group tuition accelerating progress in their chosen fields.
Even if a student arrives from a lower-middle class or working class background – and the universities are constantly endeavouring to increases this cohort – and not from Eton or another public school that individual is stamped with the culture and polish of the elite institution. An Oxbridge degree brings enhanced job prospects and most are absorbed by an adaptable ruling class that grudgingly accepts infusion of new talent just as in Plato’s Republic there was a fluidity between the different casts of Gold, Silver and Bronze.
The major problem with the system, if we accept that a fixed sum is devoted to education in the country, is the opportunity cost of not investing in other institutions catering for a broader demographic. There seems to be an assumption as in Plato’s Republic that great swathes of the population are incapable of more than mundane labour. Irish third level education, for all its failings, is more republican in this respect.
The argument for disproportionate investment with finite resources on the cultivation of high academic achievers may be persuasive in the sciences but is less compelling in humanities where a wider diffusion of expert teaching could benefit English society as a whole.
Moreover, the Oxbridge education is at the apex of a system with a degree of specialisation unlike other European countries or the United States. School children take a mere three subjects at A-level beginning at sixteen, explaining the lowest rate in Europe of people speaking second languages.
Depth in a chosen field cohabits with a narrowness that might offer an insight into the closing of the English mind which the Brexit result has revealed.
One should generally avoid extrapolating grand narratives out of chance encounters, nonetheless a single incident sometimes crystallises understanding of a larger controversy. Three days after the result of the Brexit Referendum I arrived in Oxford to teach on a summer school. The following morning I encountered a man in his seventies purchasing strawberries in a pricey delicatessen. He was determined to ascertain whether the provenance of the strawberries was English and not grown indoors in a “ghastly poly tunnel” a method he attributed to the Dutch. After being reassured of their local origin he exceeded himself by declaring that after Brexit there would be more local production and it would now be possible for fishermen to bring in our fish.
As a matter of fact a recent report in The Guardian suggested that the British strawberry industry was threatened by withdrawal from the Europe, and the fishing industry will still have to contend with diminishing catches for the foreseeable future and negotiate with other countries for rights to offshore waters. But to me this man represented a whole generation who had come to despise the relentless march of progress in Britain where strawberries could taste of nothing but water and packaging, and for whom the European institutions had become a convenient whipping boy.
The lady serving him was, to be fair, taken aback by his ignorance of how Britain led the way with industrial food production. After he had left she reddened palpably when she referred to the “nonsense” of Brexit. The city of Oxford voted by 5:2 to Remain and some weeks later forlorn banners are still visible, with hardly an advertisement to Leave in sight. The University is closely tied to other European institutions and the populace is comparatively young, affluent and educated, all good indicators of a Remain preference.
In the wider county however less well-off towns such as Bicester (defined as a “Tescos Town” on account of the 6 branches for 29,000 people) ensured that the vote was much closer. Nonetheless, some large farmers anxious to retain EU subsidies along with affluent and cosmopolitan former Londoners ensured a Remain majority.
The hint of a skirmish I witness in the Oxford delicatessen took place on a charming street called North Parade containing a strip of pubs and restaurants. It is one of Oxford’s curiosities that North Parade is situated about one mile (remaining Imperial) to the south of another street called South Parade. This anomaly can be traced to the English Civil War of the 1640s when Charles I was forced to flee London and set up an alternative capital in Oxford, an idea revived by Hitler in his plans for the conquest of Britain. North Parade was the furthest extent north of the Royal lines while South Parade to the north was the equivalent parade ground to the south of the Parliamentary forces.
This fault line of English history throws up further symmetries. About a five minute walk to the north is St Hugh’s College where Theresa May read Geography, and even close to North Parade is sumptuous Lady Margaret Hall where Michael Grove (LMH, 1987), one of the prime ideologues of Brexit, studied English. This outsider who rose to President of the Oxford Union was adopted as a baby and grew up over five hundred miles away in Aberdeen. He is perhaps the leading spokesman for British nationalism in the Tory party.
During the campaign his notorious interjection that Britain had had enough of experts was disingenuous and calculated. Unlike some of his fellow politicians relatively humble origins may have given him a better understanding of the narrow outlook of many of his countrymen. The insights of his wife Sarah Vine as a columnist for the Daily Mail, a newspaper that has scapegoated the European Union as irredeemably bumbling and power-grabbing over decades, was also an asset. This portrait of the European Union compliments the generally negative perception of politicians. Furthermore in a society with an obsessive memory of its wartime sacrifices European institutions are constantly and not always subtly identified with Nazi perfidy by the right-wing press, including recently by Boris Johnson in The Telegraph.
Considering the weight of invective directed against the Union over so many years the Brexit vote was not surprising and the existential fear of a flood of migrants after the refugee crisis made attacking European institutions even easier. Brexit is the legacy of the takeover of the capital-intensive newspaper industry from the 1970s by the political right which has used sport and celebrity to stupefy much of an economically-distressed and poorly-educated population.
It is revealing that there was a split in the Murdoch media between the Sun which backed the Leave campaign with The Times backing a Remain vote. The Sun could hardly reverse forty years of Euro-bashing even though the danger was obvious to the British economy and acknowledged by the middle class Times.
Gove’s reason for deciding to campaign against “his friend” David Cameron were spelt out in a Spectator column some months before the referendum. He believed that “our” country would be “freer, fairer and better off outside the EU”. The article contained the usual lampooning of illogical rules such as how olive oil had to be dispensed in 5 litre containers – as if this changes with Brexit or matters in the least – and complaints about an unelected Commission; ignoring how Commissioners are appointed by elected governments in much the same way as a government minister – the member of parliament for a single constituency – is appointed to the national executive; and in exactly the way that US Presidents appoint their cabinets. The absence of a separation of powers in the English (and Irish) system is arguably more of the anomaly.
As an apparently intelligent, educated and reportedly well-read man it is hard to credit that Gove believed his own guff. More sinisterly, in just one six-line paragraph of his Spectator article the third person plural “we” is used seven times. Preserving a brittle “British” nation appeared foremost in his mind. It is axiomatic that the shrillest advocate of a nation has a dubious claim to that identity, the very identity “British” is being superseded by “English” and is under severe threat with the rise of Scottish nationalism.
Gove’s dismissal of expertise came from an individual who trusted his own wisdom to remodel the GCSE English syllabus removing favourites such as The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men and insisting on readings of whole Shakespeare plays and, more controversially, a plan to give the King James Bible to every school. Unusually, he has also argued for a formal British constitution to overcome the ambiguities of an unwritten one and a bill of rights in place of a European Convention on Human Rights despised by the Tory right. More benignly as a Minister for Justice he refused to do business with Saudi Arabia on account of the appalling excesses of their criminal justice system for which he was described as “naïve” by the new Chancellor Phillip Hammond (University College, 1976).
Some of Gove’s views on literature are, superficially at least, laudable. Leading literary critics such as Edward Clarke in his The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry argue that England’s great poetic heritage should be taught to all school children as a form of timeless scripture informing their lives. There is also a case to be made for the King James Bible as a prized work of Tudor literature. But it would appear that the cantankerous outsider Gove views literature instrumentally, as a way of shaping a common literary space – that first person plural again – for emboldened Britains that leaves aside a hyphenated sense of identity English-, Scottish- or even Muslim-. This idea of a nation sharing a literary space through reading books of this kind is identified in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Community as a formative experience, and European history shows how dangerous it can be.
During the leadership race another Tory grandee Ken Clarke (unusually a Cambridge graduate) perceptively muttered on Sky News that Gove would probably involve the country in three wars if he were selected, and his views expressed in a book on the Good Friday Agreement suggests he would be divisive influence. With Boris Johnson and the singularly unimpressive Andrea Leadsom inside the tent Gove remains the most credible Leaver to challenge May should she fail to maintain peace in the Tory party.
So it is left to the Vicar’s daughter to clean up the mess made by her younger Oxford fellow graduates. It remains to be seen whether the cultural cracks I witnessed on North Parade are part of a wider national schism generated by a long-standing inequality. Perhaps it is the case that the English (or was it a British?) revolution arrived too soon. Charles I was eventually defeated in Oxford and beheaded in 1649 but his son Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, and the country enjoyed a decadent Restoration. No foreign army has successfully invaded England since 1066 as every school child knows.
A contemporary of Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, wrote that knowledge is power. Through history the English elites did not parade their wealth in gastronomic excess like the French ancien regime, but with display in learning especially in the Classics, the apparent mark of truly refined men now embodied by Boris Johnson. In a Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman in 2011 he dismissed the idea that he was David Cameron’s intellectual inferior as the then prime minister’s first was in PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) as opposed to his 2h1 in a superior Classics degree. The Oxbridge system produces a cast that has long dominated English affairs in part through the networks established there but also because of the polish imparted by that education.
The Brexit result was to some extent a revolt against that paternalism, ironically stage-managed by ideologues from within such as Gove who cynically dismissed “expertise”. But the English ruling class is formidably resilient and it seems that only xenophobic demagoguery of the sort unheard in England since the days of Enoch Powell could lift Gove to power now that the European Union bogeyman can no longer be reached for. Instead we may hope that a resurgent left under the principled and iconoclastic Corbyn is capable of harnessing the country’s discontents, and provide a genuine alternative direction for Britain that is not mired in delusions of imperial grandeur.
It is hard to imagine the tranquillity of north Oxford as the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in English history four hundred years ago, but the strength of feeling generated by the Brexit result has produced divisions in British society that will take many years to heal. A growing contempt for expertise and the difficulty of defining Englishness or Britishness threatens the intellectual pillars of a consensus that has lasted for nearly four hundred years.