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The staying power of the English ruling classes

When the UK Conservative Party had a leadership contest in 2019, an astonishing 6 of the 7 candidates had attended Oxford University. Three of them, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt were contemporaries. It really underlined the privilege of the UK’s ruling classes who have demonstrated staying power compared to their equivalents elsewhere in Europe.

The entrance exams for Oxford are brutally difficult with approximately 15% of applicants gaining entry. Why they are so elitist is that the preparatory work ahead of application takes time and money. Despite best intentions it has remained elitist and has created a perception of a gilded class apart from the norm.

The French Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) was established in 1945 to democratise access to the top echelons of the French civil service. Two years ago, in response to the Gilets Jaune protests, President Macron decided to abolish it.

Macron, Francois Hollande, Jean Castex (current PM), Eduoard Philippe (the previous one), Segelene Royal and Jacques Chirac all attended ENA, the post-graduate college that graduates just 80 students every year.

Yet there is almost no chance that Oxford University could be abolished. Somehow or another the class system in the UK seems so much more acceptable. Perhaps it is the royal family, with its cross-class appeal, that holds everything together.

George Orwell explained to some extent why the working classes tolerated the upper classes in England. Orwell noted that whatever their other faults, at least the upper classes had the good manners to die in battle from time to time, noting that “several dukes, earls and what nots were killed in the recent campaign in Flanders”.

The vague interest of those Oxford graduates in policy is revealed in the attitude to Ireland. Cameron, May and Johnson agree to things to get past them and then try to deny them. In December 2017, May agreed to the ‘backstop’ before claiming it was unworkable. You might remember David Davis, the UK’s Brexit negotiator almost immediately dismissing the backstop as ‘not legally binding’. In October 2019, Johnson agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol before ‘sandpapering’ it via breaches of international law.

As Kuper pointed out, they were debaters not policymakers. Boris Johnson developed his persona ‘based on the Beano and PG Woodhouse’ while at Oxford according to Simon Kuper in the Financial Times and hasn’t deviated from that since. Both David Cameron and Hunt are related to the Queen.

Jacob Rees Mogg stood out in 1980s Oxford as the only student who always wore a suit.

Rees-Mogg is currently Leader of the House of Commons, a routine administrative role that gives him a platform for his carry on. He is no fool, but seems to enjoy playing up the role of the upper class pompous twit with his Pathe news accent and over-wrought manners.

Recently he was asked in the House of Commons what the Government was going to do about the undermining of British heritage by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and others that are, for example, questioning Churchill’s legacy.

He listed off the good and the great of English (note, not British) history; Bodiciea, Alfred the Great, Richard the Lionheart (actually French), the Black Prince (white, of course), Henry V, Francis Drake, Prince Rupert, Marlborough, Wellington (actually Irish), Gordon and Montgomery.

Finishing with a flourish he mentioned the great Caractacus, because he “so impressed the Romans that, when they took him to Rome in chains, they freed him because they thought he was a fine and noble warrior”.

The implication was that these were real heroes and should be celebrated and forget all this ‘woke’ nonsense about making sense of our history.

It would be a mistake to mock this English jingoism as it does create a valuable national identity. Brexit has been a coup by the old guard - rebellion is usually directed at the ruling classes not by the ruling classes. The question is whether they can answer the question posed by Kipling; “What do they know of England who only England know?”

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