Sunday, May 23, 2010

Among the brightest and the best: the Magdalen men cramming the cabinet

RW Johnson

Of the 12 Oxford graduates who are full members of the new coalition cabinet, or are entitled to attend it on occasion, five are from just one college: George Osborne (chancellor), William Hague (foreign secretary), Chris Huhne (energy), Dominic Grieve (attorney-general) and Jeremy Hunt (culture, Olympics, sport). All went to Magdalen; and another Magdalen man, John Redwood, sits on the back benches in judgment on them.

Given that I was a tutor at Magdalen for 26 years — I taught William and Chris — I’m often asked “How come?”

True, Andrew Knight, when editor of The Economist, asked me to send along my best PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) people, which helped to account for the large number of Magdalen graduates on that magazine. But I’m afraid I can’t point to any giant conspiracy.

The heart of the matter lies instead in the two areas where Magdalen has often led Oxford since 1945: its modern history and PPE schools. Hague, Huhne, Hunt and the Tory MP Nick Boles were all PPE products, while not only were Osborne and Redwood products of the modern history school but so was the top law officer, Grieve. What made those subjects so strong was not just that the college had good tutors to teach them but also that it attracted such talented undergraduates.

In all my time as a tutor I never saw a more obviously first-class applicant for admission than Chris Huhne. He came from Westminster, an elite private school, but William Hague came from a comprehensive and was also clearly in the “must take” bracket.

Oddly enough, neither man seemed to fulfil that promise at first. Chris was far too busy rushing around being a student journalist, dressed from head to toe in blue denim, while William often seemed to be coasting — he was doubtless devoting much of his time to his career in the Conservative club and the union.

Both fitted easily enough into the general student milieu, which was considerably left-of-centre, Chris because he was then a strong Labour man, William because he was so amiable, pleasant and engaging that nobody of any political hue could possibly dislike him.

But not long before finals both of them went into overdrive and achieved very easy firsts. Only some 10% of Oxford graduates get firsts and both Chris and William were probably in the top 5%.

So it is not a matter of an old boys' network imposing its clients on the public as a form of outdoor relief. Most of the names above were, and are, exceptionally able people.

Hague, Huhne and Hunt were among the best we had. Boles also got a first in PPE while Redwood not only took a first in history but also won an All Souls fellowship and is a distinguished historian of 17th-century science.

And while these are all men, Magdalen has been co-educational since 1979 so it’s probably only a matter of time before Magdalen women start showing up in the cabinet too.

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