Oxford and party leaders

Duncan Bowie on two excruciating books

Both these books make fairly excruciating reading.

Simon Kuper’s book focuses on the time Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Daniel Hannan and their chums spent at Oxford University. This is a timely book as it goes some way to explaining the extraordinary behaviour of our (outgoing) prime minister and his closest associates. Maybe it is because I’m of a slightly older generation, or perhaps I mixed in different circles, but the picture of university life painted comes closer to Brideshead Revisited than my own experience.  

Kuper focuses on the Oxford Union (as opposed to the Student Union) and the socialising and the drinking and the bad behaviour in groups such as the Bullingdon Club, where everything was fun and nobody did any serious academic work. Perhaps Kuper is right that the atmosphere all changed with Margaret Thatcher becoming prime minister. Kuper seems to state that Oxford dons were as casual as the students, which is not my experience, having been taught by some of the most respected historians of the time.

However, to Johnson and his chums, politics was a game, and so it still is. Kuper refers to a book of essays edited by none other than Rachel Johnson in 1988, Oxford Myth, when the cohort was in its final year. Boris Johnson writes a twenty-page essay on the political games of the Oxford Union (boycotted at the time as elitist by the Oxford University Labour Club), while his first-wife-to-be, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, writes on drugs, and Rachel Johnson writes on sex. There is also an essay on class by none other than Toby Young, the right-wing libertarian son of Michael Young, the author of Labour’s 1945 manifesto and discoverer of the ‘meritocracy’. Not much of a meritocracy here. Kuper’s argument is that the chums’ political network was maintained in the subsequent decades and was a basis for the Brexit campaign, which the chums treated as a political game, with no consideration for either facts or the impact on those not as privileged as themselves – an argument which, though hardly a revelation, certainly has some validity.

Nigel Cawthorne’s book is excruciating for a rather different reason. It is both badly written and quite tedious. Cawthorne claims to have written some 150 books, including some 12 books in a Sex Lives of… series and a book on Prince Andrew’s relationship with Epstein. This would appear to be his first political biography. The book appears to have been neither proofread or edited and is riddled with errors – for example, Peter Tatchell becomes “Peter Thatchell”. Cawthorne has some interesting material on Starmer’s childhood in Oxted in Surrey, but demonstrates an obsession with whether or not Reigate Grammar School was a state school or a private school – a saga which dominates the early chapters. There is little on Starmer’s time at Leeds University, but a focus on Starmer’s time as a postgraduate law student at Oxford, where he apparently challenged Ed Miliband and Stephen Twigg in the Labour Club from what Cawthorne describes as “left-left”. There is also a chapter on Starmer’s interest in socialist self-management, and Cawthorne or his researchers (there is an acknowledgement of the work of the publisher’s interns) has, like the researcher for Michael Ashcoft’s Starmer biography, read some of the articles in the journal, Socialist Alternatives, which Starmer co-edited (from a house in East Oxford opposite the house in which I had lived a few years earlier). It would, however, have been useful to have had more on the Socialist Alternatives group and their involvement in the Chesterfield Socialist Society conferences, on which Andrew Coates, who was also involved, has blogged. Starmer does not appear to have had any involvement in the local Labour Party or in any community organisations or campaigns in the area.

The second half of Cawthorne’s book tracks Starmer’s subsequent career, through the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, his human rights caseload and his career as Director of Public Prosecutions. This is comprehensive if tedious. Starmer’s more recent career as MP, shadow Brexit secretary and Labour Party leader, is only dealt with briefly as if the author has no interest in this. In contrast with Kuper’s volume, no connection is made between Starmer’s upbringing and his politics. I do not share the Financial Times review’s comment that the book “raises deep questions” or that by the Metro that the book is “shocking”.

by Simon Kuper
Profile Books, £16.99
Keir Starmer
by Nigel Cawthorne
Gibson Square, £20
Duncan Bowie, Chartist’s reviews editor, also happens to have published a study of Oxford politics: Reform and Revolt in the City of Dreaming Spires.


  1. what can be discovered about starmer’s early politics? I am familiar with the far left elitism of the IMG which had no interest in the grassroots of anything, and was largely public school, and Starmer has something of this in his makeup. Oxford and cambridge are destroying the party as none of their current labour graduates have any interest in the grassroots or – strangely but notably – any clear ideology, The era of GDH cole and co was a different century. Anything which can explain the current Labour front bench and their education would be valuable. trevor fisher

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