On Jeremy Corbyn and the ‘Oxbridge purge’

Owen Jones wrote a slightly odd article last week responding to the claim that Jeremy Corbyn has ‘purged’ the senior ranks of the Labour party of Oxford and Cambridge graduates, since most of his team come from less prestigious universities.* Unfortunately Jones spends the article rather labouring what seem to me to be a couple of obvious points. First, that you do not have to go to Oxbridge to be clever. Second, that being clever is not essential to being a successful politician.

On the first, Jones stretches the point that lots of intelligent people do not go to Oxbridge to the much stronger claim that “Oxbridge does not mean the best”. His main point is that Oxbridge students are more likely to be from rich households and privately educated, and so “Unless you are a social Darwinian who believes the richest are the brightest, in no sense can Oxbridge be described as an academic elite”. But this argument confuses talent (our natural endowment) and ability (what we are capable of doing now). Anne might be born with just as much innate intelligence as Bob, but if Bob goes to private school and a top university he will almost certainly learn things that Anne won’t, and so be equipped to do things that Anne can’t.

On Jones’ second point, he struggles to define how you can measure ‘success’ in politics, and so ends up appealing to arbitrary metrics. For example, his point that John Major won 42% of the vote is unlikely to defuse the criticism that Jeremy Corbyn is insufficiently intellectual. It’s perilously close to question-begging: Corbyn has already shown he can win votes (he did just win a thumping majority in the Labour leadership), but the fear is whether he can govern and make policy wisely. By contrast, Chris Dillow’s post on a similar topic sets out a list of mechanisms by which intelligence can undermine a politician’s activities.

All the same, my sympathies are with Jones and Corbyn on this debate, but it raises a couple of thoughts in my mind. Firstly, the whole way the argument arises (certainly in the original Harry Mount piece which raised the question) reflects an unhealthy tendency to categorically assess people’s intelligence at 18. This is particularly odd in the case of the 66 year old leader, to judge him on what he was (not) doing 45 years ago. Part of what is compelling about Corbyn and (particularly) John McDonnell is the extent to which they are self-taught, their interest in political ideas driven by curiosity and self-motivation, without the tailwinds that assisted many of their colleagues and opponents.** This might help to explain Corbyn’s promise of a National Education Service, and his belief that the Open University is “one of the most under-rated achievements of Labour in government”. Corbyn clearly wants to move beyond a world where the university you went when you were young to is a proxy for your capability and intelligence.

Second, I do believe that Corbyn is less intellectually able than his predecessors, but this could be an opportunity rather than a drawback. As Dillow observes, “Ability and knowledge lead to overconfidence”. If Corbyn and  his team can be more aware of their limitations, they are more likely to seek advice and learn from those with genuine expertise. There are promising signs here, too. Witness Corbyn’s insistence that “I don’t believe anyone has a monopoly on wisdom”, or John McDonnell’s Economic Advisory Committee.

* Though the likes of Angela and Maria Eagle, Andy Burnham and Lucy Powell have all been through Oxbridge, though it could be argued a) that this is still a reduction from previous cabinets, and b) none of these are Corbyn allies, so their long term future is uncertain.

** This background makes Martin Amis’ allegation that Corbyn is “essentially incurious” all the more, well, curious.

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