The Long Read: An extraordinary number of Britains elite analyse doctrine, politics and economics at Oxford. But does it create an out-of-touch ruling class?
Monday, 13 April 2015 was a typical day in modern British politics. An Oxford University graduate in doctrine, politics and economics( PPE ), Ed Miliband, launched the Labour partys general election manifesto. It was examined by the BBCs political editor, Oxford PPE graduate Nick Robinson, by the BBCs economics editor, Oxford PPE graduate Robert Peston, and by the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Oxford PPE graduate Paul Johnson. It was criticised by the prime minister, Oxford PPE graduate David Cameron. It was defended by the Labour shadow chancellor, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Balls.
Elsewhere in the country, with the election three weeks away, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, Oxford PPE graduate Danny Alexander, was preparing to visit Kingston and Surbiton, a vulnerable London seat held by a fellow Lib Dem minister, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Davey. In Kent, one of Ukips two MPs, Oxford PPE graduate Mark Reckless, was campaigning in his constituency, Rochester and Strood. Remarks on the days growths were being posted online by Michael Crick, Oxford PPE graduate and political correspondent of Channel 4 News.
On the BBC Radio 4 website, the Financial Time statistics expert and Oxford PPE graduate Tim Harford presented his first election podcast. On BBC1, Oxford PPE graduate and Newsnight presenter Evan Davies conducted the first of a series of interviews with party leaders. In the print media, there was an election special in the Economist magazine, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Zanny Minton-Beddoes; a clutch of election articles in the political magazine Prospect, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Bronwen Maddox; an electoral column in the Guardian by Oxford PPE graduate Simon Jenkins; and more election coverage in the Times and the Sun, whose proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, analyse PPE at Oxford.
More than any other course at any other university, more than any revered or resented private school, and in a manner probably unmatched in any other democracy, Oxford PPE pervades British political life. From the right to the left, from the centre ground to the fringes, from analysts to protagonists, consensus-seekers to revolutionary activists, environmentalists to ultra-capitalists, statists to libertarians, elitists to populists, bureaucrats to spin doctors, bullies to charmers, successive networks of PPEists have been at work at all levels of British politics sometimes prominently, sometimes more quietly since different degrees was established 97 years ago.
It is overwhelmingly from Oxford that the governing upper-clas has reproduction itself, generation after generation, writes the pre-eminent British political biographer, John Campbell, in his 2014 study of the postwar Labour reformer and SDP cofounder Roy Jenkins, who analyzed PPE at the university in the 1930 s. The three-year undergraduate course was then less than two decades old, but it was already the course of option for aspiring politicians: the future Labour leaders Michael Foot and Hugh Gaitskell, the future prime ministers Edward Heath and Harold Wilson.
But Oxford PPE is more than a factory for political leaders and the ones who judge them for a living. It also dedicates many of these public figures a shared outlook: confident, internationalist, intellectually flexible, and above all assured that small groups of supposedly well-educated, rational people, such as themselves, can and should improve Britain and the wider world. The course has also been taken by many foreign leaders-in-the-making, among them Bill Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Australian “ministers ” Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke. An Oxford PPE degree has become a global status symbol of academic achievement and worldly potential.
The Labour peer and thinker Maurice Glasman, who examined modern history at Cambridge, says: PPE blends the status of an upper-class university degree PPE is the ultimate kind of being good at school with special stamps of a vocational course. It is perfect training for cabinet membership, and it gives you a view of life. It is a very profound culture form.
Yet in the new age of populism, of revolts against elites and professional legislators, Oxford PPE no longer fits into public life as smoothly as it once did. With corporate capitalism misfiring, mainstream legislators blundering, and much of the traditional media apparently bewildered by the upheavals, PPE, the supplier of supposedly highly trained talent to all three fields, has lost its unquestioned authority. More than that, it has become easier to doubt whether a single university course, and its alumnus, should have such influence in the first place. To its proliferating critics, PPE is not a solution to Britains problems; it is a cause of them.
Oxford PPE remains opaque to outsiders. It is often mentioned in the media but rarely explained. Even to know what PPE stands for must therefore be remarkably well-informed about British education and power often, to be part of the same Oxford milieu as the PPEists. When I asked one former party leader what he got from different degrees, he said with studied insouciance: Why would you want to write about PPE? As the establishment often says when scrutinised: nothing to see here.
PPE is particularly associated with Labour. The degree helped shape party figures as different as Tony Benn, Tony Crosland and Peter Mandelson. In office, says Glasman, Labour has often effectively been the governing wing of the PPE course. Yet the same could be said of the Tories. The former cabinet ministers Michael Heseltine, Nigel Lawson, William Hague and David Willetts, and Camerons former Downing Street guru Steve Hilton, are all Oxford PPE graduates. Current Conservative PPEists include the health secretary Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor Philip Hammond, the work and pensions secretary Damian Green, and the justice secretary Elizabeth Truss.
PPE thrives, says Willetts, a former education pastor who is writing a volume about universities, because a number of problems of English education is too much specialisation too soon, whereas PPE is much closer to the prestigious degrees for generalists available in the United States. As a PPE graduate, you end up with a broad sense of modern political history, youve cantered through political believe, done[ philosophical] logic, wrestled with economics from monetarism to Maynard Keynes. Youve had to get through a lot of work 16 essays a word. Thats very useful later when you have to write a speech to a deadline. Willetts adds: As prime ministers, you do sometimes think that British political life is an endless recreation of the PPE essay crisis.
Not everyone thinks that last-minute cramming and improvisation Camerons hastily-arranged EU referendum comes to mind is the best route to run a country. Last October, the leading Brexit campaigner and former government education adviser Dominic Cummings wrote on his influential blog: If you are young, smart, and interested in politics, guess very hard before analyzing PPE It actually causes huge problems as it encourages people like Cameron and Ed Balls to spread bad ideas with lots of confidence and bluffing.
Other critics of PPE are blunter still. All the Worst Remainers Read PPE at Oxford, jeered James Delingpole on the far-right website Breitbart last year. Nigel Farage of Ukip sometimes calls over-complicated political notions PPE bollocks. In the tabloids and on the internet, PPE has become synonymous with elitist, impractical, inadequate. In 2014, the columnist Nick Cohen, himself an Oxford PPE graduate, published his much-cited thinks on the course in the conservative Spectator magazine. PPEists, he wrote, form the largest single component of the most despised governing class since the[ 1832] Great Reform Act.
Read more: www.theguardian.com