Wednesday, 12 May 2010

David Cameron can be proud of Brasenose

During the election campaign, and in the days since the new coalition government was formed, there has been a lot of talk in the media about the fact that so many of the Cabinet went to Oxford. Magdalen College alone has produced five ministers in the new Cabinet; not only the Prime Minister but the Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary were all educated at Oxford. Every profile of David Cameron is careful to point out that he went to Brasenose after Eton, and people who knew him there have hastened to share their memories of him as a student.

So let me tell you what I know about Brasenose. It is a wonderful place to have been educated; I think it's the very pinnacle of what an educational community ought to be. I didn't come to Oxford from the same background as David Cameron - none of my family have ever been near a public school (let alone Eton!) and none of them had ever been to Oxford before me, nor ever hoped to. I came to Oxford knowing nothing more about it than what I had read in books, and just hoping it wouldn't be as snobby and unwelcoming as I had heard. And for a little while, unfortunately, it was. During my first two years at Oxford I felt very much on the outside, though intellectually I was very happy and fulfilled. The place seemed to be populated by over-privileged, over-confident adolescents - with all the immaturity and selfishness that implies - with more money and freedom than brains or common sense. Their belief in themselves was endless; their intelligence was not.

(I have to point out in passing here something I have never heard anyone mention in media scepticism about Oxford, and that is that it's not the 'old money' kids like Cameron who are the real snobs in Oxford; it's not like there's the aristocracy and then the rest of us. The most exclusionary and self-absorbed people I've met here have been people with parents high up in business, government and the media, who adhere strictly to left-wing principles but nonetheless send their children to independent schools in London, venturing outside the capital only to visit their second homes in pretty parts of southern England. The gulf between the metropolitan elite and those of us from the rest of the country has been the most obvious and damaging of any class division I've experienced in Oxford. But enough of the diversion...)

Anyway, I was disappointed by the people I met in Oxford during my first few years. I didn't come here for the Brideshead experience - I knew that was never going to be for me - but I was looking for what Evelyn Waugh calls "the low door in the wall":

...that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.

I found that door when I came into contact with Brasenose. This is my sixth year in Oxford, so I've had plenty of time to see its best and worst characteristics, and Brasenose has a lot of both; but a large part of the good I've had here, and the progress I've made here, has been directly or indirectly down to Brasenose. Yes, it has a lot of students from public schools, and many of them are, indeed, over-privileged little twits. Yes, like all Oxford colleges, it has traditions which to the outside world may seem archaic and arbitrary - and it has a funny name! If you peer in from the street, you may well assume it's intimidatingly stuck-up and oppressively posh. It's not. It's a welcoming, friendly, happy place, collegiate in the best sense of the term. It's the ideal of what an academic community should be, where people are encouraged to share their own ideas and are eager to learn from the ideas of others. The students - many of them from public schools, many of them not - are bright, confident, creative, open-minded, original and full of energy. You can't help but admire them. I can only hope that in twenty years, some of the people I know right now at Brasenose will be running the country. If David Cameron was anything like these kids when he was here, there's some chance that he will be a good Prime Minister.

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