Politics

The Oxford Union parades ignorance with no shame – no wonder the Tories love it | Zoe Williams

The battle rages on about the Mail on Sunday story that final weekend accused Angela Rayner of utilizing her sexual wiles to distract the prime minister. Lindsay Hoyle, the House of Commons Speaker, summoned the newspaper’s editor to account for this weird eruption of misogyny. In the title of “free speech”, a notion that turns into extra laughable as the flaws it seeks to justify mount up, its sister paper, the Daily Mail, stuffed Wednesday’s entrance web page with the phrases: “No, Mr Speaker!”

However, what has troubled me most will not be the assertion that, in having legs and typically shifting them, Labour’s deputy chief was making an attempt to distract and manipulate Boris Johnson. It’s not 1,000,000 years in the past (truly, 5) that the identical newspaper headlined a meeting between Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”. Both girls had been sporting tights, you see, so that they had been asking for it.

No, what bothered me, as a result of it appears to be extra readily and extensively parroted, was this line: “[Rayner] knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training, but she has other skills which he lacks.”

This concept that Oxford and, earlier than it, Eton educate rhetorical abilities which might be past the creativeness of bizarre individuals is deployed to a selected objective. It’s a approach to disinfect snobbery. It doesn’t do an excellent job, you continue to wouldn’t eat off it, however it is extra socially acceptable than saying straight out “a rich person will always be better, more intelligent and persuasive than someone from a council estate”.

However, even these with out a wealth-supremacy agenda swallow these concepts regarding posh individuals and their magic speech-making talents. In Simon Kuper’s guide Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK, he meticulously traces this notion again to its foundations. The union – of which Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Theresa May, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nick Robinson and a bunch of others in British politics had been members – he describes as “a kind of children’s House of Commons” that options busts of former prime ministers.

The debates there create a “spirit of unashamed glamour, excitement and competition” (in accordance with Michael Gove). It is a spot the place Old Etonians have a “huge head start”, having already had debates with “incredible heavy-hitters” who had come to go to them in school (says Rachel Johnson, the prime minister’s sister). Or, as Kuper writes: “The Tory public schoolboys arrived at Oxford almost fully formed.” They left, he says, as a category of people that didn’t significantly aspire to vary “anybody’s lives except their own”. And that relentless self-interest is, not less than, demonstrable.

I can’t communicate with complete authority, as I used to be a member of the Oxford Union later than Gove et al. But a category of “fully formed” rhetoricians I didn’t see. I went to only one debate; it was some provocation about the movie trade during which the movie producer (and now peer) David Putnam was talking. He mentioned one thing alongside the traces of, “The main difference between us is that I actually care about films and you don’t.” For me, this appeared to sum up the whole course of. There had been loads of boys, who appeared rather a lot youthful than they had been, making factors on a theme about which they knew little or no and cared about even much less. It was solely “glamorous” in case you had been impressed by individuals who might parade their ignorance with out being embarrassed.

Does Johnson even have any actual debating prowess? He actually doesn’t have a memorable flip of phrase. His analogies are pedestrian and dishevelled. He impresses individuals by quoting Latin, except they themselves are classically educated, during which case they will normally pinpoint his information as topping out at round 15 years outdated. He is rattled very simply in debate, and tends to not build an argument with rhetoric a lot as string collectively one drained one-liner after one other.

His intoxicating allure, his disarming wit: how one can sq. these traits that individuals insist upon with the bruiser we see earlier than us, rambling on about Peppa Pig World? Dominic Cummings can catch consideration primarily with the drive of his certainty. Rees-Mogg makes use of his drawl greater than his phrases to convey that he’s omniscient to the level of perpetual boredom. If you bought an actor to voice his utterances, you’d hear them for what they’re, loads of “do as you’re told”, or the occasional legislation of cricket.

The accents of those former Oxford Union varieties are so laboured that it’s extra like a vocal cosplay of aristocracy than an genuine voice; the flights into Latin, Greek or the personal language of closed instructional communities are there to exclude, to not encourage. When they stoop to make a joke that the lots will perceive, it’s extremely lame. (Turns out I can recall one speech of Johnson’s, an early levelling-up event in 2021: “It is an outrage that a man in Glasgow or Blackpool has an average of 10 years less on this planet than someone growing up in … Rutland. I don’t know what the people of Rutland do to live to such prodigious ages … but they do!” Geddit? GEDDIT? It’s as a result of they rut.)

This will not be a timeless tragedy of British public life: many many years glided by when an costly schooling was nothing to peacock, nonetheless much less did we in any method agree that it made you a extra ready speaker, thinker or politician. It is a distinctly trendy fallacy.

When we settle for this verbal prowess at face worth, it’s to keep away from asking the deeper question: what type of cussed self-hatred has taken maintain of the citizens that any of us – voters, commentators, pollsters, bystanders – would venerate these individuals? Because the actual distinction of their rhetoric is the sheer boldness of its contempt for us.

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