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Paul Vallely: Chumocracy has damaged our politics

29 April 2022

A new Netflix political drama is rooted in fact, Paul Vallely discovers

Netflix

Tom Southern (Jake Simmance) and James Whitehouse (Ben Radcliffe) as students at Oxford in the Netflix drama Anatomy of a Scandal

Tom Southern (Jake Simmance) and James Whitehouse (Ben Radcliffe) as students at Oxford in the Netflix drama An...

THE most bizarre juxtaposition of the week has been Angela Rayner’s legs and Boris Johnson’s Oxford Union debating skills. An anonymous Tory backbencher suggested that Labour’s deputy leader deployed her shapely limbs to combat the Prime Minister’s rumbustious rhetoric. The remark caused a row. Various objections — of sexism, misogyny, snobbery, and political trivialisation — were raised. But I was intrigued by a more marginal complaint.

Why Oxford, a couple of commentators objected. After all, debating skills could be acquired elsewhere. It was not the week’s only unhelpful stereotyping of Britain’s oldest university.

The latest Netflix No. 1 drama, Anatomy of a Scandal, was reviewed by Sasha Swire, wife of the former minister Sir Hugo Swire. She complained about tired posh-Oxford Tory tropes that depict “young men wearing penguin suits spraying Bollinger against the opulent surrounds of an Oxford college panelled interior”. This Tory tribe, she continued, was caricatured as “prone to indiscretions with penises and pigs’ heads”. Thankfully, she refrained from substantiating detail.

What is striking about the six-part drama — apart from a series of superlative performances from Sienna Miller, Michelle Dockery, Naomi Scott, and Rupert Friend — is that it is based on a novel written two years ago, and yet it echoes, with uncanny accuracy, so many of the headlines that have gripped the Conservative Party in recent days.

The Netflix drama tells the story of an MP whose meteoric career is arrested when he is accused of sexually assaulting a female aide in a House of Commons lift. It is a saga of champagne-swilling, testosterone-charged, political dissembling, and downright lying, which resonates uneasily with the conduct of the present Government.

Yet is all this merely cliché? A new book out this week by the Financial Times writer Simon Kuper suggests not. Chums: How a tiny caste of Oxford Tories took over the UK (Profile Books) catalogues the activities of a raft of the author’s Oxford contemporaries, including Mr Johnson, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Dominic Cummings. Mr Kuper argues that, since Margaret Thatcher had completed swaths of privatisation, deregulation, and tax-cutting, his peers were a generation “headed for power but without a project”.

But then they hit upon the idea of Brexit: “an entertaining story, wrapped in Oxford-tutorial-level plausibility, larded with quips and selected statistics and appeals to ancient English traditions of liberty, Burke and all that”. The Oxford Tories understood that “Brexit might not work out brilliantly,” but that it was a glorious romantic cause that could get them to Downing Street.

What this new book, the Netflix drama, and the Saga of Rayner’s Legs have in common is a sense of what undergirds our present political predicament. It is a culture of entitlement and privilege which enables someone such as Mr Rees-Mogg to turn the benches of the Commons into his personal chaise longue, and then leave bully-boy notes of specious politesse on the desks of civil servants. It is why jobs and contracts are handed out on the basis of chumocracy, and why rules are only for lesser mortals and do not apply to the elite.

Oxford may not be the cause of all of this. But, a generation ago, it clearly did not offer a sufficient corrective.

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