Listen to this article
We straight white Oxbridge-educated males who rule Britain are used to periodic rumblings of discontent from below. Now the transvestite artist Grayson Perry, writing in the New Statesman magazine, has savaged what he calls “Default Man”: “With their colourful textile phalluses hanging round their necks, they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms and also in the media.” The writer Caitlin Moran half-jokes that she is the only working-class Briton with a newspaper column: “I have the entire quota.”
Indeed, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission notes that 59 per cent of the British cabinet, three-quarters of senior judges, half of diplomats, etc, went to Oxbridge. The typical chief executive attended Oxbridge or Harvard, says business data firm Qlik. Few of these people are women. Even those of us who groom the lower slopes of the establishment – pundits, MPs, and so forth – tend to be Oxbridge men.
My caste produces the opinions that most British people are expected to swallow. However, the one topic we seldom discuss honestly is our own rule. So let me try to describe how it looks from up here.
We didn’t have to work very hard to get here. Luckily, the British establishment doesn’t demand workaholism, except for a few months around exams. The gentleman dilettante is still honoured (see David Cameron).
Our competition to get into Oxbridge was mostly limited to other white upper-middle-class males. After that, we began recruiting each other. When I applied to the FT 20 years ago, I think I was interviewed only by white Oxbridge men, all of them straight (except for one who soon afterwards came out of the closet).
My start in journalism was unimpressive but then I didn’t have much to prove: I already was a white Oxbridge male. Aged 28, I became a columnist at another British newspaper. Perry quotes the American writer John Scalzi, who “thought that being a straight white male was like playing the computer game called Life with the difficulty setting on ‘Easy’”.
About the same time as I began work, a black friend started out at another newspaper. His news editor had little confidence in him, and my friend never got the career he wanted. Perhaps I now have his job.
We Oxbridge males help each other throughout life. Perry remarks that nobody talks about the “white middle-class community”. But it exists. Once, in a faraway land, I visited the British ambassador. Lo and behold, he was a straight white Oxbridge-educated male! He was like a friend I’d never met. He ended up giving me a briefing in his swimming pool. We Oxbridge males display exemplary class solidarity.
Our basic ideology is: trust in the system. After all, the system is run by chaps like me. I did my degree two minutes’ walk from Cameron’s college, and five minutes from the opposition leader Ed Miliband’s. I don’t identify with everyone in the establishment, because of intra-caste divides that are invisible to outsiders (for instance, Cameron is far posher than me) but the current popular rage at politicians bewilders me.
Like the communist rulers in 1989, we white Oxbridge males cannot defend our dominance with arguments. Most of us know we didn’t get here through individual brilliance. Perry is wrong when he says, “Default Man will never admit to, or be fully aware of, the tribal advantages of his identity.” I’m very aware of those advantages. That’s why, although I currently have a decent job at a good newspaper, I feel very little sense of achievement. My dad went to Cambridge. I was born to be a minor establishment functionary. That’s also why I’m not desperate for my children to join the establishment. What would it prove?
Our caste is always changing, just enough to make sure that everything stays the same. Lately we’ve learnt to lament the suffering of the disadvantaged. (I’m told that even younger members of the kleptocratic Angolan elite have mastered this rhetoric.) Indeed, many of the most stirring attacks on inequality and sexism are now produced by Oxbridge males – but then we produce most attacks on most things in Britain.
Given our podium, many of us feel a responsibility to lament our own power. But it’s hard to feel this viscerally. I believe that other people should rule. However, I’d like to hang on to my own spot. We will not make the revolution – or as the British say, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
We have expanded our caste a little. We now recruit some non-whites (preferably Oxbridge men). We’ve even begun admitting Oxbridge women. We just sideline them professionally the moment they make the mistake of giving birth. Still, our caste has kept raising the age at which females hit the glass ceiling: from zero, to 17 once they were allowed proper education, to 21 when we let them into Oxbridge, and now to 38. That’s progress, of sorts.
Perry warns darkly that Default Man might not rule for ever: “Things may be changing.” But I think we’ll hang on for a while yet.
Illustration: Luis Grañena
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published