Speaking of the British
By Simon Kuper
Running a country on eloquence alone hasn’t worked out disastrously for the UK’s ruling classes – or at least not yet
I recently went on a business trip with three members of the British ruling classes. The late-night banter over drinks was predictably excellent. Sometimes, though, we had to work. When that happened, my companions showed up unprepared and without notes – and did just fine. No wonder, because their entire education had been a lesson in winging it. They knew that all you need to succeed is to speak well, and that’s what the British ruling classes do: they speak well.
I’m talking about the caste of Britons who attended private school and/or Oxbridge before joining the establishment: senior politicians, civil servants, lawyers, pontificators and the better-dressed sort of banker. It’s the class of Tony Blair, David Cameron, Christopher Hitchens, Anne Robinson and Simon Cowell: the people who speak English better than the rest of the world.
Even the entrance exam for the British establishment chiefly tests the ability to talk without knowledge. Good grades are not enough. You also need to perform in a peculiarly British ritual: the Oxbridge interview. It works like this: you are 17 years old. You are wearing a new suit. You travel to an Oxbridge college for your interview. You find the tutor’s rooms. Perhaps you’re served sherry, which you’ve never seen before. Then you talk. The tutors, sprawled on settees, drawl questions about whatever is keeping them awake. I know an applicant who was asked: “Don’t you think the Piazzetta San Marco in Venice looks like a branch of Barclays bank?” If you speak well, you get handed your entry ticket to the establishment.
You arrive at Oxbridge knowing little. After all, you probably did school exams in just three subjects. At university, you only study one. Often it’s English literature or history or Latin and Greek – the sort of subjects that have parents in other countries asking anxiously: “But what use will that be later?”
Nor is workaholic study encouraged. A South African relative of mine started his first “supervision” at Cambridge by confessing that he hadn’t read every single book on the reading list. “Good God,” said his supervisor, “nor have I. I put them down hoping that you’d look at a couple, and tell me what they said.”
Oxbridge’s teaching methods reward good talk. Aged 18, perhaps hungover, you read out your pitiful but elegant essay. The tutor points out gaps in your knowledge. For an hour, you talk your way around those gaps.
Traditionally, elite Britons then leave education aged 21. Until recently they rarely bothered with graduate school. Consequently, they know very little but speak very well, albeit only in English.
C.P. Snow, in his “Two Cultures” lecture of 1959, marvelled at their ignorance of basic science. Winston Churchill, for instance, had approved the misguided “area bombing” of Germany based on a flawed statistical study by his chief scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell. Of course Churchill couldn’t check the numbers. His forte was rhetoric. It’s no coincidence that his Nobel prize was for literature. And it’s no coincidence that Britain’s wartime king, George VI, is now known chiefly for his struggle – depicted in the film The King’s Speech – to speak well.
Numbers remain a challenge for Britain’s ruling class. It treats the City as a magical moneymaking machine, whose demands are best granted because lord knows how the thing works. Even the finance minister, George Osborne, has no education in economics beyond whatever he picked up studying history at Oxford. British public debate just doesn’t feature many numerate people such as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or China’s ruling engineers. Britain’s own excellent engineers and quants are stuck in the engine room while the rhetoricians drive the train.
Britain’s rulers still struggle to judge scientific arguments about nuclear energy or climate change, writes the historian Lisa Jardine (who appears in this week’s Inventory). When Tony Blair hinted that Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” could hit London within 45 minutes, the establishment mostly believed him. Educated Americans would often praise Blair for arguing the case better than President Bush could. Yes, Blair spoke well. That’s what he did. Where there were gaps in his knowledge, he talked around them.
Blair had only one verbal shortcoming, which he shared with Margaret Thatcher: no sense of humour. But in general, Britain’s ruling classes are funny speakers. To quote Noël Coward, this class’s favoured playwright: “Since my life began/The most I’ve had is just/A talent to amuse.”
It was the urge to amuse that recently prompted Cameron to riff on an old TV ad and shout “Calm down, dear,” at a female Labour MP. No other western leader (except Silvio Berlusconi) would have risked the sexism, because they don’t need to be funny.
Admittedly, ignorance sometimes saves Britain’s rulers from error. Ignorant and suspicious of philosophy, they reject the daft ideas that sometimes ensnare the French or German elites. Anyway, running a country on eloquence alone hasn’t worked out disastrously – or at least not yet.