Power structures in this country are dominated by a narrow section of the population: the 7% who attend independent schools, and the roughly 1% who graduate from just two universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Lee Elliot Major’s recent article highlights the persistence of social elites at the top of British politics, particularly the fact that every Prime Minister who has attended an English university since 1937 has attended Oxford University.

As of today, Keir Starmer has now joined that group, having attended Oxford as a postgraduate, graduating with a Bachelors in Civil Law from the university. But why have so many Prime Ministers been to Oxford and how does the new Prime Minister compare to those who have come before him?

Oxbridge together has produced 45 Prime Ministers, and amounted to 21% of MPs at the last election. But one university has a particular stranglehold over the top political job in Britain. With one exception, Gordon Brown, every Prime Minister since 1937 who attended university, was educated at Oxford, whereas Cambridge has not produced a single Prime Minister since Stanley Baldwin in 1935.

Journalist and Oxford alum, Simon Kuper, offers a range of reasons as to why this may be, with one of the most widely discussed explanations being the prominence of the Oxford Union. Founded in 1823, it has been described as a kind of “children’s House of Commons” where the parliamentarians of the future “cut their teeth and learn how to debate”. At least 12 Prime Ministers have learned their trade at the union. Edward Heath and Boris Johnson were Presidents, Harold Macmillan held multiple other positions, and Theresa May was also very involved.

The networks and contacts made through the Union are said to be particularly helpful, with 20-year-old union “hacks” – the name given to union politicians – often mingling with politicians and other important powerful individuals. The Cambridge Union, while notable, has a less illustrious history than the Oxford Union, so the comparative reputation of the Oxford Union has therefore been a key “pull factor” for politically ambitious students, especially those from independent schools.

Whilst the most prominent and visible network is the Oxford Union, other networks, including political societies, and ‘old boys clubs’ such as the Bullingdon Club are also likely to have had an impact, according to Kuper. These networks are likely to have begun at many of the elite independent schools that previous Prime Ministers have attended, in particular Eton. Analysis shows that out of the UK’s 55 heads of government, 28 went to Oxford, 19 went to Eton, 13 went to both, and of those, nine ended up in Christ Church College, which historically has strong ties with the public school.

The networking done through the political associations and clubs at Oxford can also explain its prominence. The University Conservative Association is the largest student party-political society in Europe according to their website, and the University Labour Club, which Starmer was a part of, describe themselves as “the largest and oldest Labour club in the country.” Both societies have strong networking opportunities and crucial interaction with their ‘mother’ parties, with the Conservative Association even being said to actively seek potential prime ministerial potential, giving anyone who sees themselves as having a career in politics the connections to achieve high office.

However, the number of Oxford Prime Ministers can’t just be put down to the social networks. Academically, from the 20th Century onwards in particular, Cambridge and Oxford have had differing identities in terms of what type of university they were. Cambridge had very much positioned itself as the university of science and technology, whilst Oxford positioned itself as the university of humanities and politics. This is reflected in data showing that, outside of Prime Ministers, Oxford is strongly represented in politics and the media in particular, while Cambridge has higher numbers of senior judges, Nobel Prize winners and Tech company CEOs.

The prominence of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) course in particular has also been evident in recent times, with three of the last six Prime Ministers having studied PPE at Oxford. This is not the case for Keir Starmer, however, who attended the university to study for a postgraduate degree in law, making him an unusual outlier in Oxford’s run of Prime Ministers. The prominence of PPE is not only seen in the Commons though, where there were 24 MP’s in the last parliament, but in the sector more generally. Oxford PPE is said to pervade British political life more than any other course at any other university and alumni are seen across the political spectrum in parliament, in the media, as activists, advisors and civil servants, with the accompanying valuable networks available to them. When this is the case, it is no wonder that inequalities persist within politics.

It is clear that, particularly in the 20th and 21stcenturies, Oxford has very much taken over the political realm. This is no accident, with a combination of the factors discussed above all playing a role in Oxford’s position, from the ‘pull factor’ of its reputation as a cradle for the political elite through its Union, political societies and PPE course, through to the connections and networks it provides to those who attend. Despite a change of government, there is little sign of this ending, and whilst Keir Starmer departs from the usual image of an Oxford Prime Minister, coming from a working-class background, and having done his undergraduate degree at the University of Leeds before attending Oxford, he carries on the trend of Oxford-educated Prime Ministers, and the prominence of elite institutions in accessing the country’s top jobs. However, with early indications of an increased share of state-educated MPs in the new parliament, it can only be hoped that this election will mean a House of Commons that is more representative of society, with policymaking that reflects this by widening opportunity for all.

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