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Oxford, Britain

Though it has produced nearly all modern Prime Ministers and is solidly pro-EU, this elitist university town antagonises the UK more than it defines it.

North Oxford is a heartland of academia where leafy halls of residence mingle with stately homes and rarefied hostelries. Situated in almost the very centre of Britain a windless calm favours scholarly reflection removed from modernity’s fugue. Even the traffic is orderly with bicycles sensibly preferred. It is one of the most attractive places in the world. Spend an afternoon on the lawns at Christchurch if you doubt it. Oxford is world-class in so many ways: the city and the university. PWC and Demos rated it the best place to live in Britain, in 2012, across a wide range of criteria. Shanghai ratings names Oxford University the seventh best in the world.

South Oxfordshire was recently named Britain’s best rural place to live. It is transcendent England.
What has this to say about Brexit, the political issue of this generation?

The City of Oxford is located on the confluence of the Isis (the idiosyncratic name for the Thames here) and Cherwell rivers. Broadly, it may be divided into three zones with a clear north-south divide: that affluent and mature north Oxford of Jericho and Wolvercote; predominantly twentieth-century suburbs including Cowley to the south; and the historical and commercial centre linked to Botley and Osney Island, built around an Anglo-Saxon settlement of which little remains. This contains renowned colleges such as Christchurch, Balliol and Magdalen. The first sign of incongruity is how close it nestles to the ‘any-town-UK’ commercial centre and its array of gaudy chains.

Moving south, there is yet another Oxford as housing gets cheaper and industry is evident. The first industrial revolution passed Oxford by as colleges objected to the contagion of commerce. Only after World War II did significant manufacturing arrive as the city attracted a car industry. By the early 1970s, 20,000 people were employed in the sector and the original Mini Minor was developed here in 1959. Unfortunately, as in much of the country, a significant proportion of heavy industrial jobs have departed.

The working class areas now face social problems familiar in many English cities. Living as a jobbing tutor and supply teacher in Oxford for two years I encountered classroom behaviour that made experiences in schools in socially-deprived areas of Dublin seem almost meditative. Oxford is a place of profound educational inequality. Oxford accomodates a great literary tradition: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Graham and Irish Murdoch wrote from Oxford.

The number of Prime Ministers that have passed through Oxford University is startling. 28 overall. Only Jim Callaghan and John Major, who revelled in his immersion in the university of life, among English Prime Ministers since Winston Churchill (who finally left office in 1955) did not pass along its quads. Alumna Theresa May (St Hugh’s, 1974) joins a list that includes Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair (St John’s, 1974), Harold Wilson (Jesus College, 1937) and Clement Atlee (University College, 1904) as well as Tories Anthony Eden (Christchurch College, 1922), Harold MacMillan (Balliol College, 1914) Edward Heath (Balliol College, 1939), Margaret Thatcher (Somerville College, 1947), and David Cameron (Brasenose College, 1988). Oxford indubitably has seeded the post-War UK political establishment.

Moreover, numerous Tory politicians maintain an association with the wider shire. Churchill himself was born in the nearby ancestral estate of Blenheim Palace (though he passed some of his early childhood in Dublin’s Phoenix Park). David Cameron, MP for Witney, Oxfordshire, lives in Chipping Norton close to Rebekah Brooks, Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the well-placed Chippy set. Michael Heseltine (Pembroke College, 1954) dwells in style nearby though one imagines he looks slightly askance at the gobby neighbours.

Theresa May grew up in the village of Wheatley a few miles east of Oxford where her father served as vicar. Further east towards London, Boris Johnson (Balliol College, 1987), the new foreign secretary, lives in Henley-on-Thames. Jeremy Paxman, Richard Branson, Kate Moss, Kate Winslet, Rowan Atkinson, Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley: celebrities, high-and-low-brow, live in Oxfordshire.

David Cameron and former Labour Deputy Leader, harriet harman, campaigning Remain in Oxford

Perhaps the county has a quality – an England of the imagination – that grandees of all sorts gravitate towards. It could be the low rural population density, a legacy of the Enclosure Acts (1760-1830) that placed formerly common land in the hands of expanding gentlemen farmers. Today, though located only an hour from some of the most in ated land prices in the world in London, it is possible to drive for long stretches without seeing a single dwelling. The hoi polloi were kept at bay, in Oxford and swathes of its hinterland.

As an Irish person living in the city of Oxford I never had a sense that I was unwelcome, or at least any alienation was no different to that felt by the bulk of the population before a converging aristocratic and mercantile elite: unlike the ancient regime in France since the Tudor era, nobility has been open to the highest bidder and an Oxford education provides the polish.

One must however acclimatise to the southern English reserve and a sardonic sense of humour. The historian Tony Judt (St Anne’s College 1980- 87), who concededly knew little of Ireland, wrote that the English are perhaps “the only people who can experience schadenfreude at their own misfortunes”.

Succumbing to generalisation I regard English friendships as firmer than Irish for all the latter’s sociability. But these societies of companions generate mosaic communities often hostile to one another. Better the devil you know and bugger the rest.

In the era of the Internet there is a growing suspicion of the ruling class of politicians. Many do feel “shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour” in the words of Uncle Monty in ‘Withnail and I’. They are often seen as a separate cast reflecting the cultural dominance of Oxford and Cambridge Universities (‘Oxbridge’) which extends to the media and business. This trend perhaps explains why maverick and grumpy (though otherwise profoundly different) outsiders such as Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage (and Boris Johnson who went rogue over Brexit) are appealing to a jaded electorate; a state of affairs the Oxbridge elite cannot abide.

The excellence of the Oxbridge education contributes to the dislocation. Staff-student ratios at colleges are approximately one member of academic staff to every five students while other third level institutions in the country are usually about 1:20. The hallowed tutorial system gives the best-performing students, by the age of 18, individual or small-group tuition, accelerating progress in their chosen fields.

Even if a student arrives from a lower-middle class or working class background – and the universities are constantly endeavouring to increases this cohort – and not from a grandiose public school, that individual is stamped with the culture and polish of this elite institution. An Oxbridge degree brings enhanced job prospects and most alumni are absorbed by an adaptable ruling class that grudgingly accepts infusion of new talent – just as in Plato’s Republic there was a fluidity between the different castes of Gold, Silver and Bronze.

The major problem with the system, if we accept that a fixed sum is devoted to education overall, is the opportunity cost of not investing in other institutions catering for a broader demographic. The fruits of this and the age-old problem of Class is that many – Brexit suggests most – English feel alienated from the elite, from the rarefied, educated establishment with all their logic and polish. Michael Gove, one of the prime ideologues of Brexit, studied English in Lady Margaret Hall and was President of the Oxford Union. He will forever be remembered for his campaign interjection that Britain had had enough of experts. Perhaps his own background as an adopted baby who grew up over 500 miles aways in Aberdeen explains a continued sense of alienation from that elite despite his educational achievements.

A background in public-school and Oxbridge is wind in the sails of the rich and powerful. And it generates perhaps understandable resentment. More than a third of Britain’s 54 Prime Ministers went to Eton (annual fee £37,000). Independently schooled pupils still make up around two-fifths of the intake at both Oxford and Cambridge. Poor children who are high-attaining at 11 are four times less likely to go on to an elite university than their high-attaining wealthier peers. It cannot be coincidental that according to British Social Attitudes 43% think there are too many university graduates in the labour market. The penumbra of Irish third-level education, for all its failings, is more republican in this respect.The argument for disproportionate investment with finite resources on the cultivation of the best and brightest may be persuasive in the sciences but is less compelling in humanities where a wider diffusion of expert teaching could benefit English society as a whole.

Moreover, the Oxbridge education is at the apex of a system with a degree of specialisation unlike other European countries or the United States. School children take a mere three subjects at A-level from age sixteen, explaining – among much else – the lowest rate in Europe of an ability to speak a second language. Depth in a chosen field cohabits with a narrowness that might offer an insight into the closing of the English mind which the Brexit result has uncovered.

The Oxford ethos does not even run throughout the town.

One should generally avoid extrapolating grand narratives out of chance encounters, nonetheless a single incident sometimes crystallises an understanding of a larger controversy. Three days after the result of the Brexit Referendum I arrived in Oxford to teach on a summer school. The following morning I encountered a man in his seventies buying strawberries in a pricey delicatessen. He was determined to ascertain whether the provenance of the strawberries was English and that they had not been grown indoors in a “ghastly poly tunnel”, a method he attributed to the Dutch. After being reassured of their local origin he exceeded himself by declaring that after Brexit there would be more local produce and it would now be possible for fishermen to bring in our fish.

As a matter of fact a recent report in The Guardian suggested that the British strawberry industry was threatened by withdrawal from the Europe Union, and the shing industry will still have to contend with diminishing catches for the foreseeable future, and negotiate with other countries for rights to certain waters.

Pre-Brexit strawberries, grown in ghastly foreign polytunnels

The lady serving him was, to be fair, taken aback by the man’s ignorance of how British supermarkets have often pioneered industrial food production. She reddened palpably when she turned to the “nonsense” of Brexit. The city of Oxford voted by 5:2 to Remain and some weeks later forlorn banners are still visible, with hardly an advertisement to Leave in sight. The University is closely tied to other European institutions and the community is comparatively young, affluent and educated, all good indicators of a Remain preference.

In the wider county however less well-off towns such as Bicester (defined as a “Tescos Town” on account of the 6 branches directed at its 29,000 people) ensured that the vote was much closer (52:48%). Large farmers, anxious to retain EU subsidies, along with affluent and cosmopolitan former Londoners ensured a Remain majority, against national trends.

And so the United Kingdom is left with the vicar’s daughter to clean up the mess made by her younger Oxford fellow-alumni. It remains to be seen whether the cultural cracks are best represented by England’s failure in the European Soccer Championships, or its elevated Olympics medal haul.

Perhaps the English (or really British) revolution arrived too soon. Charles I was eventually defeated in Oxford and beheaded in 1649 but his son Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, and the country enjoyed a decadent Restoration.

It is hard to imagine the tranquillity of Oxford as the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in English history, but the strength of feeling generated by the Brexit result has produced divisions in British society that will take many years to heal. And they are evident in Oxford. A growing contempt for expertise and the difficulty of defining Englishness or Britishness threatens the very intellectual foundations of a consensus that has lasted these four hundred years. Oxford thinking alienates too many. If England is to ower Oxford must popularise.

Frank Armstrong