Image of the Oxford Union chamber
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Union debates the role of class in British politics

On 18th May, the Oxford Union debated the motion “This House Believes That Class Defines British Politics”, questioning the UK’s institutional inequality.

The night began with members voting down the emergency motion of whether “This House Would Abolish Private Schools”. How class impacts Britain’s education system inevitably became a theme, with passionate contributions on equality of opportunity rooted in the students’ own experiences.

Proposition speakers included Labour MP Emily Thornberry, former MP Dave Nellist, and author Simon Kuper, who are well-versed on the partisan divide of UK politics. Thornberry has served in the shadow cabinet, while Nellist turned from Labour to the Socialist Party. Kuper wrote “Chums”, which examines the trend of Oxford Tories dominating government.

In the opposition, actor Vas Blackwood and George Herbert, the Earl of Carnarvon, spoke. The latter is the owner of Highclere Castle, the building featured in Downton Abbey.

Discussion began with the Union’s Director of Communications Amy Ellis Winter introducing the proposition. Her message that “talent is spread evenly, opportunity is not” was highlighted in the statistic that the current cabinet is 65% privately-educated.

The opposition started with student ​​Silvan Bennett-Schar joking with Thornberry that even the Labour Party is now run by an Oxford-educated KC Knight of the realm, showing weakening party distinction. He posited that universal suffrage and House of Lords reform opened up politics, and viewing class as definitive was too constrictive for modern diversity.

Kuper’s speech focused on the recent history of Conservative dominance in the ruling class. He began by stating that rule of the Tories began in 2010 and would end next year, met with a resounding cheer.

Oxford was emphasised as the birthplace of this trend, calling it “the place where newcomers mix with the hereditaries” to produce toff politicians. Kuper’s discussion on how certain debates can treat politics as a game rather than emphasising the real people they impact forced the Union into self-reflection.

Chair of the Consultative Committee Abigail Bacon continued for the opposition, arguing that class’ former significance was “no longer the case” in the modern era. Bacon spotlighted how sex-based rights are often at the centre of British politics, and how class was too broad a generalisation for people’s political views.

National Chair of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition Dave Nellist used Tony Benn’s five questions to the powerful in his speech, asking whose interest political power is exercised for. He mourned the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s truly socialist Labour Party, while still maintaining that class interests dominate politics.

Nellist looked forward to a party rooted in working-class interests, which would instil radical change against capitalist consensus.

Vas Blackwood put forth his case for the opposition by highlighting the importance of race and culture in British politics. His example of the black community being “proud” of Eton-educated Kwasi Kwarteng was seen as being the pale of party politics.

Blackwood further criticised Kuper for his opposition to Oxford dominating government while himself being an alumnus, saying there is “nothing wrong with being privileged, as everyone here is privileged”.

Floor speeches featured OUCA President Charles Aslet suggested that saying toffs dominate the Conservatives is a generalisation, as newcomers showed the potential for a more accessible ruling class. Kuper countered this, calling Oxford the “portal” to join the ruling class, again centring the discussion on education.

Emily Thornberry MP concluded the proposition, supporting Labour’s aims for candidate selection based on “egalitarian” principles of “meritocracy”. However, politics in general uplifts the private school “golden essence that is confidence”.

She ended by asking how a system “weighted against working people” could be changed: either changing that system or supporting those less privileged on the path to power.

The Earl of Carnarvon closed the debate, endorsing the conservative cause of “stewardship for the future”. This was based on an affectionate hierarchy likened to the characters of Highclere Castle’s Downton Abbey. Ending with The Frost Report’s class sketch, his message of order as a positive to politics rang clear.

However, the proposition passed by 143 to 23 votes in opposition, so the majority concluded that class remains a central part of British politics.