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Earlier today my brother, who is currently applying for university, remarked that Tony Blair’s government seemed to contain more graduates of Scottish universities than the government of current prime minister David Cameron.
Education is something of an English obsession, Cameron’s government being notorious for being full of Etonians, many of whom went on the join the Bullingdon Club, a rich boys’ society at Oxford University that is infamous for trashing restaurants.
But whilst many lament the role of Eton and private schools more generally for stocking the establishment, less remarked upon is just how narrow Cameron’s cabinet is when it comes to the universities its members attended.
By and large they come from a single university: the same one that is home to the Bullingdon Club:
|David Cameron’s cabinet, October 2015|
|Stephen Crabb||Welsh Secretary||Bristol and London Business School|
|Theresa Villiers||Northern Ireland Secretary||Bristol and Oxford|
|Chris Grayling||Commons Leader||Cambridge|
|Oliver Letwin||Chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster||Cambridge|
|Greg Clark||Local Gov Secretary||Cambridge and LSE|
|Amber Rudd||Energy Secretary||Edinburgh|
|David Mundell||Scottish Secretary||Edinburgh and Strathclyde|
|Sajid Javid||Business Secretary||Exeter|
|Baroness Stowell||Lords Leader||None|
|Patrick McLoughlin||Transport Secretary||None|
|Iain Duncan Smith||Work and Pensions Secretary||None (Sandhurst)|
|David Cameron||Prime Minister||Oxford|
|Theresa May||Home Secretary||Oxford|
|Philip Hammond||Foreign Secretary||Oxford|
|Michael Gove||Justice Secretary||Oxford|
|Jeremy Hunt||Health Secretary||Oxford|
|Nicky Morgan||Education Secretary||Oxford|
|Elizabeth Truss||Environment Secretary||Oxford|
|Justine Greening||International Development Secretary||Southampton|
|Michael Fallon||Defence Secretary||St Andrews|
|John Whittingdale||Culture Secretary||UCL|
Fully nine of the 22 current cabinet ministers have passed through Oxford as a student in some point of there lives, mostly as a first degree, but also as a second in the case of Northern Irish secretary Theresa Villiers.
Indeed, all of the great offices of state are filled by Oxford graduates: Cameron himself as prime minister, George Osborne as chancellor, Theresa May as home secretary and Philip Hammond as foreign secretary.
Cambridge supplies only three graduates to the current cabinet, the same number that hail from London’s various colleges or Scotland as a whole, meaning that to a great extent the cabinet is dominated by Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Bristol graduates.
When compared to the composition of the first Blair cabinet from May 1997 the difference is striking:
|Tony Blair’s cabinet, May 1997|
|Alistair Darling||Chief Treasury Secretary||Aberdeen|
|Ann Taylor||Commons Leader||Bradford|
|Chris Smith||Culture Secretary||Cambridge and Harvard|
|George Robertson||Defence Secretary||Dundee|
|Jack Cunningham||Farming Minister||Durham|
|Mo Mowlam||Northern Irish Secretary||Durham and Iowa|
|Robin Cook||Foreign Secretary||Edinburgh|
|Gavin Strang||Transport Secretary||Edinburgh and Cambridge (Diploma)|
|Donald Dewar||Scottish Secretary||Glasgow|
|Derry Irvine||Lord Chancellor||Glasgow and Cambridge|
|John Prescott||Deputy PM||Hull|
|Jack Straw||Home Secretary||Leeds|
|Clare Short||International Development Sec||Leeds and Keele|
|Frank Dobson||Health Secretary||LSE|
|Margaret Beckett||Trade Secretary||Manchester|
|Nick Brown||Chief Whip||Manchester|
|David Clark||Chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster||Manchester and Sheffield|
|Tony Blair||Prime Minister||Oxford|
|Ivor Richard||Lords Leader||Oxford|
|Ron Davies||Welsh Secretary||Portsmouth and Cardiff|
|David Blunkett||Education Secretary||Sheffield|
|Harriet Harman||Social Security Secretary||York|
My brother’s guess was correct: Seven members of Blair’s first cabinet attended Scottish universities, and the prime minister himself was educated at Fettes College on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
More generally just by looking at the tables one can see a greater range of British universities represented in the Blair cabinet, though it is notable that all of the cabinet did attend university, which is not true of Cameron’s cabinet.
Much has already been made of the swarms of career politicians who go from private school to Oxford (studying philosophy, politics and economics) then to a role as a special advisor, and then finally to the final destination as government minister.
Some academics have argued that educational diversity is a boon to businesses, whilst some would say it is encouraging that so many from the best universities go on to run the country.
But what isn’t disputable is that since Blair left office the pool of unis from which the cabinet is being drawn has narrowed. We are all Oxonians now.
PS: This list was compiled from numerous sources, but the main selection of cabinet ministers was taken from the government’s own website and those pictured in the photograph of Blair’s first cabinet, minus the cabinet secretary Robin Butler, who is a civil servant rather than a politician.
One could well have argued for the inclusion of those who also attend Cameron’s cabinet but are not listed as cabinet ministers, though the general picture would not much change.