To understand the situation the UK has got itself into, it helps to know that Brexit isn’t simply an anti-elitist revolt. Rather, it is an anti-elitist revolt led by an elite — a coup by one set of public schoolboys against another.
I went to university with both sets, and with hindsight I watched Brexit in the making. When I arrived at Oxford in 1988, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had just left the place. George Osborne and the future Brexiters Jacob Rees-Mogg and Daniel Hannan were all contemporaries of mine.
I wasn’t close to them, because politically minded public schoolboys inhabited their own Oxford bubble. They had clubs like the Bullingdon that we middle-class twerps had never even heard of. Their favourite hang-out was the Oxford Union, a kind of children’s parliament that organises witty debates. A sample topic: “That sex is good . . . but success is better”, in 1978, with Theresa May speaking against the motion. May is now running for Tory leader without the usual intermediate step of having been Union president, though her husband Philip, Gove and Johnson did all hold that post. (Beautifully, Gove campaigned for Johnson’s election in 1986.)
You could recognise Oxford Union “hacks” by the suits they wore, though none took it as far as Rees-Mogg, a rail-thin teenager who promenaded along Broad Street dressed like a Victorian vicar with an umbrella. Three times a year, when the Union elected new officers, the hacks would go around town tapping up ordinary students with the phrase, “May I count on your vote?” The traditional climax of a Union election was one Etonian backstabbing another for the presidency.
It’s no coincidence that the Houses of Parliament look like a massive great Gothic public school. That building is a magnet for this set. Whereas ordinary Britons learn almost no history at school except a UK-centric take on the second world war (as evidenced in the Brexit debate), the Union hacks spent their school years imbibing British parliamentary history. Their heroes were great parliamentarians such as Palmerston, Gladstone and Churchill. I don’t think most Union hacks dreamed of making policy. Rather, Westminster was simply the sort of public-school club where they felt at home — or in the case of middle-class wannabes like Gove, aspired to feel at home.
Their chief interest was oratory. From age six they had been educated above all to speak and write well. After Oxford, Union hacks usually found jobs in communications: Cameron went into PR, while Gove, Johnson and Hannan became journalists churning out the kind of provocative essays that are valued at Oxford. Osborne applied to do likewise at the Economist but was turned down at interview by my FT colleague Gideon Rachman. Only Rees-Mogg went into finance, possibly because his dad had already been editor of the Times.
The autumn I started university, Margaret Thatcher gave her legendary anti-European “Bruges speech”, and this set began obsessing about Brussels. Ruling Britain was their prerogative; they didn’t want outsiders muscling in. Tory “Euroscepticism” is in part a jobs protection scheme akin to Parisian taxi drivers opposing Uber.
The public schoolboys spent decades trying to get British voters angry about the EU. But as Gove admitted to me in 2005, ordinary voters never took much interest. Perhaps they didn’t care whether they were ruled by a faraway elite in Brussels or ditto in Westminster. And so the public schoolboys focused the Brexit campaign on an issue many ordinary Britons do care about: immigration. To people like Johnson, the campaign was an Oxford Union debate writ large. Once again, their chief weapons were rhetoric and humour. In Britain, humour is used to cut off conversations when they threaten either to achieve emotional depth or to get boring or technical. Hence Johnson’s famous, “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it”, a line that doesn’t seem quite so funny now.
The moment Brexit was achieved, Johnson and Hannan airily informed Britons that immigration would continue after all. No wonder, because the public schoolboys don’t care about immigration. Whether Poles and Bangladeshis live in unfashionable English provincial towns is a matter of supreme indifference to them.
The public schoolboys turned out to have no plan for executing Brexit. I’m guessing they considered this a boring governance issue best left to swotty civil servants. Johnson actually spent the Sunday after Brexit playing cricket. In the great public-school tradition, he was a dilettante “winging it”.
Now Britain seems headed for recession. When I mentioned this in an email to a privately educated Oxford friend, he chastised me: “You seem unduly concerned about short-term financial impacts. This is a victory for democracy.” I see what he means. If you make £200,000 a year, a recession is just an irritation. But if you make £20,000, it’s a personal crisis, and if you now make £15,000, then soon you may be struggling to feed your children.
Anyway, the public schoolboys have already moved on, first backstabbing each other and now extracting favours from their preferred candidates in the Tory leadership election. “May I count on your vote?” What fun!
Illustration by Luis Grañena