Rohan Banerjee is a comment writer based in South Thanet.
Brasenose College, Oxford, whose alumni include the current Prime Minister, were well and truly spanked on Monday’s episode of University Challenge. Their conquerors, Durham, an oft-mocked alternative for those bested by the Oxbridge admissions gauntlet, ran out convincing winners 250 to 35. Couple this with Imperial College London leapfrogging Oxford and equaling Cambridge in the QS World Rankings last month, and you might entertain a bit of Oxbridge doubt. Just a bit, mind.
While neither of these incidents detracts from Oxbridge’s status as two of the best universities in the world, what they do convey is that there are other top universities out there that deserve our recognition as well.
Yet the Oxbridge demagogue persists; and no more evident is this than in the make-up of our MPs. The statistics, readily available in most copies of The Guardian, are pretty jarring. 14 of 22 in the current cabinet were educated at either Oxford or Cambridge; so were over a third of all incumbent Tories and, indeed, eight of the party’s last ten leaders. Naturally, most of them went to private school.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, of course, if they are the best for the job; but there’s something to be said about broadening our horizons. At a sensitive juncture in British politics, where personality matters as much policy, that politicians appear to be selected from such a slender cohort has been an enduring cause for public concern. Many voters feel alienated or under represented through a lack of resonance with their MPs.
Presently, this forms the basis for much of UKIP’s iconoclastic narrative, which self-defines as ‘something different.’ And people are starting to listen.
Obviously, criticisms of Tory toffery are no new trick. It’s something the party has always had to deal with, but as the electorate stews on immigration, tax and cuts, all the while soothed by Nigel Farage’s silver tongue; perhaps it’s about time we faced the elephant in the room.
There’s no need for anything drastic, like ousting all the Oxbridge grads from their roles, though it might be worth making a conscious effort to stage a recruitment drive elsewhere. The Conservative Party should still seek out the best talent from Oxbridge, but it’s important that it also considers candidates from other universities or even those who didn’t go. And far from any charge of tokenism, I am fully confident in the capabilities of a great deal of Tories educated and experienced in a variety of ways.
I remember, in 2010, someone telling me that they were going to vote for the Liberal Democrats because Nick Clegg was the only atheist amongst the big three. In 2015, I can expect plenty of equally strange motivations, and while it’s not ideal for politics to be won or lost like this, what’s an election without a little statecraft? If the Conservative Party wants to go some way towards getting more of the public back on side, it must be willing to adapt and change its face. It must prove that it can and does attract support from outside of a narrow elite by enhancing their involvement.
And David Cameron’s recent spat with Labour’s Tristam Hunt confirms this an issue very much on the top of the pile. Writing in The Observer, Prince Harry’s doppelganger suggested of the conservatives: “Theirs is a simple worldview. If you come from an advantaged background, your first priority is to pull up the ladder,” before equating the Big Society to “sorting out an internship for your first cousin.” This just simply isn’t true, but the Conservative Party not showcasing its most diverse members does not help its cause.
It is important for political parties to be welcoming and representative. They need to include a range of different backgrounds within their ranks in order to satisfy the multiple demands of a similarly diverse electorate. The current antipathy towards the ‘political class’ stems from a perception that is not only seen as far-flung from the general public, but also self-serving. A good way of reconnecting with voters therefore would be to demonstrate accessibility and direct influence on every day life.
After all, what can the Conservative Party do for a working class kid from Brixton?