Starters for No 10: UK universities’ prime ministerial connections

Oxford has educated almost all post-war British leaders. Anthony Seldon looks at Oxbridge’s powerful political role

June 8, 2017
Thatcher Heather May and Blair as rowers at Oxford
Source: Images: Getty/Rex

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair are the only post-war UK prime ministers to have won three general election victories in a row. Yet it is striking that neither was remotely the star pupil of their generation at their common alma mater, the University of Oxford, and many of their contemporaries struggled to remember who they were.

Thatcher was the more serious figure, her life experience much harsher and more ascetic. She was the first person from her family to go to university. She narrowly missed out on a scholarship, which created financial hardships for her at Oxford, and she fretted endlessly about what clothes she should wear. Her parents sent her what little money they could spare, as well as cakes when wartime rations permitted, but only after she had worked in her first summer vacation, in 1944, could she afford to buy a bicycle. Contemporaries recall her as hard-working but somewhat “brown” in hair, clothes and personality. She was known as a “slogger”, without star quality.

Thatcher went to Somerville College. The journalist Charles Moore reminds us of a contemporary anecdote that described the differences between the then four all-female colleges. On meeting an eligible man, the student from Lady Margaret Hall asked: “Who are his parents?” The one from St Hilda’s enquired: “What games does he play?” The one from St Hugh’s wondered: “Where is he?”, while the more serious-minded one from Somerville wanted to know: “What is he reading?”

Thatcher’s exclusion from the vivacious Oxford scene, which endured even during wartime, owed something to the fact that she was a chemist. Then, as now, scientists had to work much longer hours than students of the humanities, including much time in the lab and attending compulsory lectures. She stayed on for a fourth year, which was then required to achieve a full BSc, graduating with a second-class degree. Janet Vaughan, her principal at Somerville in her later years, recalled: “She was a perfectly adequate chemist. I mean nobody thought anything of her.”

When Thatcher returned from her summer vacation in October 1945, the country was at peace and had elected a Labour government. She had already become more involved in the Oxford University Conservative Association, and by dint of hard work and tenacity she rose to become its president in October 1946. Politics blew away her dowdiness, and she was soon donning black velvet dinner frocks and putting on sheer silk stockings. Quite a picture.

Almost exactly 30 years after Thatcher arrived, Blair went up to St John’s College. Like her, he was an unexceptional student academically, but he achieved even less than she did beyond serious study. He too acquired a second-class degree, although his was in law. He later told Roy Jenkins: “I wish to God I’d read history instead of the boring Oxford School of Jurisprudence!”

Blair, frankly, tooled around at Oxford, playing a bit of music, dabbling in drama and participating in quasi-political discussion groups. Like Thatcher, he was almost invisible. He did not become president of the Oxford Union, nor a leading actor, nor a sportsman, nor well known as a socialite, debater or legal intellect. He did not even join the University Labour Club, never mind become its head.

But his carefree life dramatically fell away from him immediately after he left Oxford for the last time. Meeting him at Durham railway station, his father, Leo, said: “I’m afraid Mum’s a lot more ill than we thought.”

“She’s not going to die, is she?” Tony replied.

“Yes, she is.”

It’s no surprise that both Thatcher and Blair went to Oxford. Since 1945, no other university has been so dominant in providing leaders to the Western world. When it comes to British prime ministers, it has had almost a complete sweep of the board. As well as Thatcher (prime minister from 1979 to 1990), Blair (1997-2007) and most recent incumbents David Cameron (2010-16) and Theresa May, Oxford also educated Labour’s Clement Attlee (1945-51), Conservative Anthony Eden (1955‑57), Conservative Harold Macmillan (1957-63), Conservative Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64), Labour’s Harold Wilson (1964-70, 1974-76) and Conservative Edward Heath (1970-74). During the post-war period, only Labour’s Gordon Brown (2007-10), who studied history at the University of Edinburgh, attended any university other than Oxford.

Tony Blair at Oxford
Source: 
Getty

Philosophy, politics and economics has long been assumed to be the subject that best prepared students for a life at the top of politics, but although it may have dominated the Cabinet, its influence in 10 Downing Street is not as strong. Since 1900, three prime ministers have studied PPE: the same number who have studied science, technology, engineering and mathematical subjects and considerably fewer than the seven who have studied history or Classics. In addition, two post-1900 prime ministers studied modern languages and one each studied philosophy, law and geography.

In total, 54 prime ministers have served since Robert Walpole, who is generally acknowledged to have been the UK’s first prime minister, began his 21-year incumbency in 1721. Of those, 46 attended university, with 27 going to Oxford – 13 of them to just one college: Christ Church. Another 14 went to the University of Cambridge, including Walpole himself and William Pitt the Younger (1783-1801; 1804-06), the founder of the modern premiership. But Stanley Baldwin (1923-24, 1924-29, 1935-37) was the last Cambridge graduate to win the keys to No 10.

It is difficult to explain with complete certainty how Oxford’s post-war domination came about. Explanations given have included Cambridge’s greater emphasis on science, and the existence of Oxford’s political clubs and the high-profile Oxford Union, in which some of the future prime ministers were active and of which some, like Heath, became president. But neither of these explanations is particularly convincing.

Perhaps we can put the Oxford supremacy down to mere chance. Cambridge alumni have certainly had some near misses in the past few decades. Under different circumstances, figures such as R. A. Butler, Iain Macleod and Douglas Hurd might have gone on to be Conservative prime ministers. However, Oxford has had a far longer list of near misses, especially in the Labour Party. These include, most recently, Ed and David Miliband, as well as former party leader Hugh Gaitskell, who died in 1963, Gaitskell’s later torchbearer Tony Crosland, who died in 1977, Denis Healey, who missed out on the party leadership in 1980 and 1983, and Michael Foot, to whom Healey lost in 1980 and who sought to defeat Thatcher in the 1983 general election.

But while the Oxford-Cambridge imbalance is hard to explain, the complete dominance of those two universities is a lot less mysterious, being a clear consequence of their history, reputation and attachment to public schools. Only five prime ministers who attended university avoided Oxbridge entirely: as well as Gordon Brown, there was John Stuart, Third Earl of Bute (1762-63), who went to Leiden University; John Russell (1846-52, 1865-66), who also went to Edinburgh; Bonar Law (1922-23), who went to the University of Glasgow, and Neville Chamberlain (1937-40), who went to Mason Science College, a predecessor of the University of Birmingham.

Yet universities beyond Oxbridge have been able to enlist a surprisingly high number of former prime ministers to fight their corners. Of the six post-war prime ministers who have gone on to be chancellors or university presidents, only one, Macmillian, chose Oxford. Churchill chose the University of Bristol, Eden went for Birmingham, Wilson opted for the University of Bradford, and Callaghan chose the University of Swansea. Meanwhile, Thatcher, who felt spurned by Oxford after its academics famously voted in 1985 to deny her the honorary degree traditionally bestowed on Oxford-educated prime ministers, threw her weight behind the University of Buckingham, which she had helped to found in 1976. She set great store by her work as chancellor there, staying at the university during graduation and announcing – to the alarm of some of the senior fellows – that she intended to move into a house at the very heart of the university (which is now the vice-chancellor’s house).

Indeed, prime ministers have often been oddly cool towards their university alma maters, just as most have been aloof from their schools – especially if those were posh public schools such as Eton, attended by a staggering 19 British prime ministers. Presumably this stems from embarrassment about their perceived privilege. But, whatever the explanation, it is hard to see Blair, Cameron or even May taking over as Oxford chancellor when former Tory Cabinet minister Chris Patten decides to hang up his gown.

Only eight British prime ministers did not attend university at all, but these include some very notable ones. One example is Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George (1916-22), who, according to the historian Kenneth Morgan, was as formidable a leader in the First World War as Churchill, another non-graduate, was in the Second. Another is Ramsay MacDonald (1924, 1929-35), whose achievement in becoming Labour’s first prime minister was all the more extraordinary given the relative newness of the party and the continuing vitality of the Liberals. Other notable prime ministers who didn’t attend university include the Duke of Wellington (1828-30, 1834), Benjamin Disraeli (1868, 1874-80) and, most recently, John Major (1990-97).

Major was much patronised by intellectually superior Tory grandees, as well as by the Essex tendency, for not having attended university. But he was one of the most intelligent and underrated prime ministers to have served in the past 100 years, and he would certainly have achieved a first-class degree had he had the opportunity and money to go to university. Moreover, some prime ministers have suffered from over-intellectuality, few more so than Arthur Balfour (1902-05), who was the nephew of his predecessor, Lord Robert Salisbury, giving currency to the term “Bob’s your uncle”. Balfour wrote a book called A Defence of Philosophic Doubt in 1879, but his philosophical doubts often presented him with too many options when choosing one clear course might have been preferable.

While it is debatable whether universities have made their prime ministerial alumni any brighter or wiser, friendships formed at university have certainly been very influential on some. For Ted Heath, for instance, the formative experience of his life was his journey with Oxford friends, including the future politician Madron Seligman, to Nazi Germany and civil war-torn Spain in the late 1930s. This convinced him that the only way forward was for the countries of Europe to work together, leading to his later decision to take the UK into what became the European Union.

And while Thatcher and Blair may have underwhelmed academically, university has also offered other future prime ministers a platform on which to display their abilities. In November 1808, for instance, future prime minister Robert Peel (pictured inset) – creator of the Bobbies, founder of income tax and repealer of the Corn Laws – took his Oxford examinations. These were oral and held publicly, and Peel’s brilliant reputation preceded him.

One eyewitness remarked that “the crowd that went to hear him resembled more the assembly of a public theatre than that attending a scholastic examination.”

Despite this immense public pressure, Peel delivered such a performance that “it seemed as if the whole assembly was actuated with one sentiment of applause”, giving comprehensive answers on divinity and Aristotle, before batting away Sophocles, Aeschylus, Pindar and Lucretius with ease. He would earn a double first in more than one sense because, before him, no Oxford student had earned a first-class degree simultaneously in both the School of Classics and the School of Mathematics and Physics.

They don’t make them like that any more. 

Sir Anthony Seldon is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and has written inside biographies of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.


Prime ministers educated at Christ Church, Oxford

George Grenville (1763-65)

Earl of Shelburne (1782-83)

Duke of Portland (1783, 1807-09)

Lord Grenville (1806-07)

Earl of Liverpool (1812-27)

George Canning (1827)

Sir Robert Peel (1834-35, 1841-46)

Earl of Derby (1852, 1858-59, 1866-68)

William Gladstone (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886, 1892-94)

Marquess of Salisbury (1885-86, 1886-92, 1895-02)

Earl of Rosebery (1894-95)

Sir Anthony Eden (1955-57)

Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64)


Prime ministers educated at other Oxford colleges

Prime minister

College

Earl of Wilmington (1742-43)

Trinity

Henry Pelham (1743-54)

Hart

William Pitt the Elder (1766-68)

Trinity

Lord North (1770-82)

Trinity

Henry Addington (1801-04)

Brasenose

H. H. Asquith (1908-16)

Balliol

Clement Attlee (1945-51)

University

Harold Macmillan (1957-63)

Balliol

Harold Wilson (1964-70, 1974-76)

Jesus

Sir Edward Heath (1970-74)

Balliol

Baroness Thatcher (1979-90)

Somerville

Tony Blair (1997-2007)

St John’s

David Cameron (2010-16)

Brasenose

Theresa May (2016-)

St Hugh’s


Cambridge-educated UK prime ministers

Prime minister

College

Sir Robert Walpole (1721-42)

King’s

Duke of Newcastle (1754-56, 1757-62)

Clare

Marquess of Rockingham (1765-66, 1782)

St John’s

Duke of Grafton (1768-70)

Peterhouse

William Pitt the Younger (1783-1801, 1804-06)

Pembroke

Spencer Perceval (1809-12)

Trinity

Viscount Goderich (1827-28)

St John’s

Earl Grey (1830-34)

Trinity

Viscount Melbourne (1834, 1835-41)

Trinity

Earl of Aberdeen (1852-55)

St John’s

Viscount Palmerston (1855-58, 1859-65)

St John’s

Arthur Balfour (1902-05)

Trinity

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1905-08)

Trinity

Stanley Baldwin (1923-24, 1924-29, 1935-37)

Trinity

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