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Undoubtedly, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have both played a major role in educating Britain's elites in politics, business, entertainment etc.

However, when it comes to Prime Ministers, in the last 80 years the UK has had 13 Oxford-educated PMs (Sunak, Truss, Johnson, May, Cameron, Blair, Thatcher, Wilson, Heath, Douglas-Home, MacMillan, Eden and Attlee) while none were educated at Cambridge.

Statistically, this seems beyond a coincidence. Is it really much harder for those educated at Cambridge to rise the top in British politics?

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    why "inequality?" It sounds more like a Harvard v MIT difference. Cambridge is stronger in sciences and Oxford in humanities.
    – wrod
    Nov 4, 2022 at 23:16
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    @Greendrake Among LOTOs who didn't get to be PM in the same period: Oxford 4 (Miliband, Hague, Foot, Gaitskell), Cambridge 1 (Howard), Glasgow 1 (Smith), Cardiff 1 (Kinnock), LSE 1 (Miliband (master's)), North London 1 (Corbyn (programme incomplete)), Royal Military Academy 1 (Duncan Smith), no HE 1 (Morrison) Nov 5, 2022 at 11:16
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    5 of those 13 Oxford-University-educated PMs (Sunak, Truss, Cameron, Heath, Wilson) followed the same degree programme (Politics, Philosophy and Economics), so one promising place to look for answers might be in the learning outcomes of that programme. Nov 5, 2022 at 13:41
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    @DanielHatton Thatcher had degrees in both chemistry and law, didn't she? It seems like a law degree would contribute more to one's ability to become a Prime Minister.
    – wrod
    Nov 5, 2022 at 14:37
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4 Answers 4

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This is a cultural effect. In the 20th century, Cambridge positioned itself as the university of science and technology. Oxford positioned itself as the university of humanities and politics.

A school student with ambitions to become Prime Minister would know these traditions and would be more likely to apply to Oxford than Cambridge. The political clubs at Oxford (and particularly the Conservative club) do everything they can to continue this tradition. They are actively seeking potential prime ministerial material, and giving anyone who sees themself having a career in politics the connections to achieve high office.

So, although the 13-0 split is surprising, it may not be that surprising, when you consider the different cultures of the two universities.

As noted, Stanley Baldwin was from Cambridge, as was Rab Butler (deputy PM in the 1960s), Ken Clarke (Chancellor of the Exchequer 1993) (and Clarke's bête noire, Michael Howard), Charles Clarke (Home Secretary in 2005), Andy Burnham (Cabinet minister 2010), and Nick Clegg (Lib Dem leader and Deputy PM). All of these were potential Prime Ministers (perhaps not Clegg), as were Dominic Raab, Liz Kendall, Harriet Harman, Michael Portillo, David Owen, and Diane Abbot. And so it is partly a matter of chance that none made it to the top job.

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    Do you have any evidence for the arts/science divide you postulate? Looking the number of undergraduates by subject, at Oxford (ox.ac.uk/about/facts-and-figures/student-numbers) I see a fairly even split. I'm having difficulty finding comparable figures for Cambridge, but if qr.ae/pGBiUG is to be believed Cambridge has 2:1 Arts:Science divide. (The dividing line is a little grey, but won't change the ratios too much)
    – mikado
    Nov 5, 2022 at 18:23
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    I suppose the most obvious split is the 13-0 split in Prime Ministers, but also look at the number of Nobel prizes won by Cambridge alumni. This is a cultural phenomenon. The fact is both are universities of international standing in both humanities and Sciences. And yet the divide is spoken of: Even though the official line denies it, "There is a common perception that Cambridge is slightly better for sciences, while Oxford is marginally stronger for social sciences and humanities" theuniguide.co.uk/advice/ucas-application/…
    – James K
    Nov 5, 2022 at 18:39
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    To that "credible possibilities" list, one might add Dominic Raab, Liz Kendall, Harriet Harman, Michael Portillo, and David Owen - and if she'd delayed her leadership run until after the introduction of registered members shifted the party leadership electorate to the left, maybe Diane Abbot. Nov 5, 2022 at 19:08
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    Looking to a possible future: Keir Starmer studied at Leeds...and then Oxford. Nov 5, 2022 at 19:46
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    Being a Cantab grad myself, can quote the following quip; An Oxford man enters the room as though it belongs to him. A Cambridge man enters the room as though he doesn't give a damn who it belongs to. After a few decades of life I can declare that this is true.
    – RedSonja
    Nov 7, 2022 at 8:46
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The question of why Oxford rather than Cambridge really only begins after the Great War. Prior to this, it was about even between Oxford, Cambridge and everywhere else as to the education of a PM. (I see that there are two metallurgy men amongst the roll of honor.)

So what happened after the Great War that later brought Oxford to the fore as a nursery for budding PMs ? Basically, it was a realization that an education in Classics - hitherto seen as the only true education for anyone - would no longer be adequate in a world beset with industrial scale wars, revolution, mass media, air transport and instant communication via radio/telegraph across the globe. Put on top of that the increasingly complex task of understanding - let alone running - a major economy and its interactions with a global financial system and you soon see the hopelessness of a traditional education centered around Greece and Rome 2,000 years before.

Oxford dons may be vain. But they are never so stupid as to not see a danger to their own importance within UK society and the corridors of power when the world around them (cf. today and the MOOC courses) is changing. They had a confab on what sort of course would be useful and attractive to people running an empire in the 20th century: the result was a sort of "Modern Greats" ("Greats" = Classics) course that combined key elements of philosophy, politics and economics - hence the colloquial name of "PPE" for this course. This was the first "modern world" course of its day and although Cambridge, London and other universities have since then adopted courses along similar lines, none can rival that of Oxford in depth, variety and prestige. Hence the procession of - politically, at least - "ambitious" people to do PPE as a forerunner to a later career in politics, senior civil service, higher professions (useful contacts gained), journalism, diplomatic service - and entertainment !

Have a read through this useful article on Oxford PPE.

That explains why it's Oxford as opposed to anywhere else for the UK's movers and shakers.

Yet there is a question of whether it is a good thing or not to have all the loud souls coming from the same intellectual and moral foundry.

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    Note that Greats is a different degree programme from PPE. (Johnson and Macmillan studied Greats; Sunak, Truss, Cameron, Heath, and Wilson studied PPE.) Nov 6, 2022 at 15:39
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    @Daniel H Clarified.
    – Trunk
    Nov 6, 2022 at 15:50
  • PPE == "Politics, Philosophy and Economics" would be my guess based on context, and the Guardian link suggests "Philosophy, Politics, and Economics" so, close enough.
    – Criggie
    Nov 7, 2022 at 0:19
  • @njuffa Corrected as per your suggestion.
    – Trunk
    Nov 7, 2022 at 1:54
  • There used to be a lot of Labour politicians who didn't go to university, or went to university much later. Kier Hardie and William Adamson were coalminers; MacDonald was a teacher but didn't seem to have attended university; Lansbury did manual labor; Henderson and Barnes were skilled manual workers; etc. This died out with Attlee and Gaitskell who both went to Oxford Uni, reflecting changing access to education, increased professionalisation of politics, and later decline of trades unions.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 7, 2022 at 10:04
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Fourteen Prime Ministers have been educated at Cambridge:

  • Robert Walpole (King's), first Prime Minister 1721–1742
  • Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle (Clare), Prime Minister 1754–1756, 1757–1762
  • Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (St John's), Prime Minister 1765–1766, 1782
  • Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (Peterhouse), Prime Minister 1768–1770
  • William Pitt the Younger (Pembroke), Prime Minister 1783–1801, 1804–1806
  • Spencer Perceval (Trinity), Prime Minister 1809–1812
  • Frederick John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich (St John's), Prime Minister 1827–1828
  • Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (Trinity), Prime Minister 1830–1834
  • William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (Trinity), Prime Minister 1834, 1835–1841
  • George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen (St John's), Prime Minister 1852–1855
  • Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (St John's), Prime Minister 1855–1858, 1859–1865
  • Arthur Balfour (Trinity), Prime Minister 1902–1905
  • Henry Campbell-Bannerman (Trinity), Prime Minister 1905–1908
  • Stanley Baldwin (Trinity), Prime Minister 1923–1924, 1924–1929, 1935–1937

(Wikipedia)

Also take a look at the number of Nobel Lauraeates - Oxford has 69, but Cambridge 121.

This is a list of alumni of Cambridge - surely unequalled

Take a particular look at science and medicine.

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    The question asks about recent times (the last 80 years)
    – whoisit
    Nov 5, 2022 at 17:10
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    @whoisit So take a look at the Nobel Laureates. In "recent times" Cambridge has achieved pre-eminence in science.
    – WS2
    Nov 5, 2022 at 17:23
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    This answer shows that in older times Cambridge had more prime ministers, and also other famous alumni, but this doesn't really answer the question on why in recent time most PMs come from Oxford. Nov 5, 2022 at 21:15
  • Possibly relevant: this all-time list of Cambridge PMs breaks down to 8 Whig/Liberal and 6 Tory/Conservative. The all-time list of Oxford PMs breaks down to 10 Whig/Liberal, 17 Tory/Conservative, and 3 Labour. Nov 6, 2022 at 17:31
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    @DanielHatton But you cannot regard modern "Liberals" as an extension of 18th C "Whigs". I can see why the last-named MAY have had an association with Cambridge rather than Oxford. However even into the 19thC non-Anglicans were excluded from both Ox and Cam And the Tories were the Church party. The modern phenomenon is unlikely to have any connection with that of earlier centuries. What I suspect is that Oxford has a strong Conservative Assn and especially good connections with the leading public schools, the Bullingdon Club etc.
    – WS2
    Nov 6, 2022 at 20:51
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To add to previous answers, Oxford has a course which is especially designed to train future members of parliament, PPE, it's like an MBA for MP's, while Cambridge doesn't offer politics with macro-economics to train MP's.

Oxford harbors powerful organizations that help elites access power as opposed to other UK uni's except perhaps Cambridge. For example, the Bullingdon Club (a politital sydicate hatchery for hedge fund managers) and the Oxford Union. The Oxford Union works a bit like a small parliament where etonian and elite school students learn to debate and vie for leadership against other elite school students.

The problem of elite school as the only access to politics is even more focused in France. Two IMF directors and 15 presidents, prime ministers, presidential candidates, all studied at the same college, often at the same time.

The Bullingdon Club is a multi-millionaires-only club that forms syndicates of industrialists with leaders like Johnson and Cameron.

Now Oxford has started to diversify its student base with large quotas of ordinary students in an effort to reduce elitism.

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    Nov 21, 2022 at 20:04

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