Simon Kuper is a Journalist and Author, most notably as a sports columnist for the Financial Times. He has written extensively on class and meritocracy in British society. His infamous book ‘Chums’ was published in 2022 and detailed the Oxford of the ‘80s through a group of Tories who were shaped by their experiences in the Oxford Union.
We spoke to Simon about his columns, writing on social mobility and particularly about ‘Chums’.
MAL: You’ve spoken about writing on sport from an almost anthropological perspective. What kind of similarities do you find between writing columns on current affairs and writing about Sport?
SK: Chums is anthropological in the sense that I’m there. Anthropologists have this concept of a ‘participant observer’, where you have to go into that as an outsider, and that’s sort of me in football, and also me at Oxford. I’m not of their world. I’m there to see them and try to understand their culture in a non-judgmental way. People ask me if I hate Etonians and I don’t at all. I don’t know them for the most part, but I understand that they’re products of where they came from. I’m trying to understand that.
MAL: In a recent column of yours, you reflected that a lot of people are moving back to cities now. And you spoke about a lot of ways for architects to make cities more livable. When COVID happened, I think there was a lot of enthusiasm for a potential new normal. Do you think we’ve actually done that? Or has that been a big, missed opportunity?
SK: One thing that has changed to a significant degree is working from home. The proportion of Americans doing that has shot up, and it’s not going to go back. Office properties have consequently taken a big hit. We have all these central business districts that we need to rebuild.
The other big change and it’s not that advanced in a lot of cities is the move away from the car. So you see that we are progressively moving towards this in Oxford, I’ve seen it coming back to see streets like St Michael’s or Turl Street, which in my day, would have had cars shooting through there. You have to make it more difficult, not easier. There’s a Kingsley Amis poem which I quoted in the book from the 60s or 70s, about driving into Oxford. Oxford, like Paris, is a city built before the car, so the car doesn’t easily sit in it except on the High Street. It’s one of those cities that is best suited to return to cycling.
MAL: So you have also written on the Fox News and Dominion case and tmainstream media recently, and you emphasise the importance of fact based journalism as an opposition to some of the worst parts of journalism. Do you see there being a way for journalists to be able to get back those people who have been consuming some kind of right wing media ecosystem for years. What are the kinds of ways that you think the journalists can rehash that process?
SK: Obviously in the US, that’s an enormous problem and I don’t easily see that coming back. One link is local reporters, you don’t really have them anymore. In large parts of the US, nobody knows a journalist, and there’s nobody writing about your town.
In the UK, we’re in a much better position because you have the BBC, which everyone likes to compain about all the time. However, most people get their needs met, and broadly accept it. An example is ‘Partygate’, where even Tories agree that ‘Partygate’ happened. Some of them said it wasn’t really a big deal but there was almost no debate about it being true. It’s very hard, because whatever you do, can be misrepresented but I think, certainly having more local reporters, which the BBC is now working on as well in places like Norwich or Halifax.
MAL: Onto ‘Chums’ now, do you think that something like abolishing private school charitable status, would be an effective way to make admissions more meritocratic at university?
SK: I certainly think they should do that. I was asked to give a talk at Eton recently and I was interested to go just to see it as a social phenomenon, I’ve never been inside Eton before. In the end, I said no because they wouldn’t even pay my train fare from London and a taxi.
A father of a child at the school said that what I may not understand is that Eton is itself a charity.
But I don’t think that makes the difference, and the difference is being made by Oxford or Cambridge admissions, to change radically. The parents of kids whose children have gone through the private school system must be thinking they worsened their child’s chances of getting into Oxford, because Oxbridge now has these complex algorithms and targets for state school entries. Although Oxbridge is obviously still not fully reflective of UK demographics, it has improved a lot in the last five years, much more than I ever expected, since 2017. And now, it’s about just over 30% private school. This is way higher than the portion of the population that goes to private school, not much higher however than the population of sixth formers at private schools. It’s the lowest in Oxford and Cambridge history. 10 years ago if you were paying for Eton or St Pauls, you were paying for Eton plus Oxford, where that is no longer the case.
MH: Which do you think should be the greater priority of British society: ensuring more kids from backgrounds like mine, for instance, a state school background, get into Oxford, or reducing the reliance that we have on Oxford graduates in top jobs?
SK: Both, I think. I’m told that in the foreign office for example, your application is University-blind, so they don’t know when you apply which University you went to. And you are not supposed to reveal it. In contrast, the Financial Times graduate trainee schemes used to recruit only people like me who went to Oxford. And now I think they try not to do that. So you can see that the British elite institutions make those reforms. But it’s difficult when you have these two Universities who obviously have a higher status. In the Private Sector you see that people will take graduates from Oxford over Reading.
MH: How do you respond to the argument that while class socialisation begins at school, it is only fully realised at University?
SK: It’s not the child’s fault. It’s not Boris Johnson’s fault that his upper middle class family very deliberately socialised him into the upper class. I don’t blame anyone from that background and I would like to see them happy and comfortable, contributing to the UK. It’s not their fault but they should recognise their privilege and try to change the system. People say to me that I’m privileged and I went to Oxford and got many benefits as a result, and I’m not denying that. That still leaves me free to criticise that system.
MH: So while your book focuses on Politicians and the influence of student politics at Oxford, do you not think there’s also just as interesting a story to write about, for instance, journalists or any other profession where there is a strong reliance on Oxbridge graduates?
SK: Politicians are a microcosm and an exaggeration of the system, but in journalism, in finance, it’s always like that. And the same principle that the acceptance letter you get at age 17 determines to a very large degree the future career you’ll have is a very cruel and absurd system, whether it’s for politicians or journalists. The difference in Politics is that other elite jobs in the UK are competed for internationally. So even in journalism, my colleagues really come from all over now, including, for example, Germans and Scandinavians and Indians. And that’s true in finance and in tech as well.
MH: The Oxford Union has become much more meritocratic in the comparison between what I have experienced and what you describe in ‘Chums’, with people of all socioeconomic backgrounds participating. What do you think the implications for that are?
SK: Maybe we’re moving towards a less fake meritocracy, where there’s more porousness to people of all classes. That’s certainly what I saw with the union during my visit, where there were a wider array of backgrounds than there would have been in my day. You still have the downsides of meritocracy however, as the elites become younger and from different backgrounds, almost more like the French elite.Then those students graduate themselves and they become part of the elite and their children join the Union when they come to Oxford.
MH: So do you think this plays into the argument that meritocracy in itself is a fallacy, in that it perpetuates a system whereby a new eliteis created, as Matthew Goodwin argues for instance?
SK: I’ve become very suspicious of meritocracy, even when meritocracy is constituted early in life and you need institutional zeal. Whether it’s a fair meritocracy, or an unfair one, even a fair meritocracy is very dangerous. I’d much prefer a kind of German, Scandinavian or Australian system where your life is made much more in your 20s and 30s. Because you’ve done well in your job, people think you’re good at what you’re doing. Not what’s the brand on your CV.
MH: Oxford now has a scheme called Opportunity Oxford, of which I was in the second year to participate, where students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are given a two week residential before coming to Oxford. Is this the sort of thing you think Oxbridge needs to be doing?
SK: They seem to be doing this more and more. I rewrote my last chapter of ‘Chums’ recently to reflect my admiration for things like this. And it’s difficult for Oxford to have to correct a very class-based school system. What they shouldn’t do, is what they used to do, and that’s to say that it’s not their fault. That they only accept the best, meaning the best prepared.
Clearly that’s not right, and these things play such a pivotal role in getting into Oxford. But it’s not easy. I spoke to the head of one college, and he said that they’re very happy with the new admissions systems because it turns out kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds do well on their Finals. However, he said it’s difficult because in the first year, they often have more mental health problems, and more disciplinary problems, because they don’t feel accustomed to Oxford, compared to if you come from Eton to Oxford and it’s a natural continuation. Whereas if you come from Portsmouth to Oxford it’s more of a shock.
A friend of mine works at Cambridge, and he says that the classic thing that happens in the first year is that women and people from all lower socioeconomic backgrounds will go to him and say that they’ve been admitted by mistake and that everyone else is much smarter than they are. My friend says he’s seen dozens of these examples and he introduces these people to people who can help them and reassure them that they can deal with any problems. But he said in our day, nothing would’ve been done, and those people wrestling with imposter syndrome in the ‘80s would’ve been lost.