At Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday Boris Johnson repeated his claim that Britain was not a ‘corrupt’ country, but on the contrary one of the least corrupt in the world. As I posted last Friday, that got me thinking about the level of corruption that actually exists in the country, and maybe always has.
Of course it depends on how you define ‘corruption’; but maybe restricting places at top universities only to those whose parents were rich enough to send them to Public schools might qualify? That was certainly the case at my Cambridge college. I got in from what was called in those days a ‘Direct Grant’ Grammar school, mainly fee-paying but with some places (like mine) paid for by the local Education Authority. That was considered a step towards ‘democracy’; although it was the ‘independent’ status of the school that got me into Cambridge, where I found that nearly all my undergraduate contemporaries were from much posher schools. After six years there, and an MA and a PhD, I was elected to a ‘Fellowship’, and so to the ‘Governing Body’ of the college.
It was then that I learned about what now I would term the ‘corruption’ of the place. We had a debate on ‘Admissions’, and about which schools to encourage to send their boys (yes, only boys then) to the college, by inviting their Heads to a dinner. I suggested we include Comprehensive and ordinary Grammar schools, and was invited to send in a list of likely ones. I did some research to discover which of those more plebeian schools had irrefutable academic reputations, and presented the Senior Tutor with the list. (I didn’t want my fellow Fellows to think I was offering them the great unwashed. They already had me pigeon-holed as their ‘token Lefty’.) Come the dinner: and none of the schools I had suggested was represented. I asked why, assuming that these schools had turned their invitations down. But no. ‘We looked at your list, Bernard, and decided that we didn’t want boys from those types of schools coming here.’ ‘Fuck me!’ I thought, though probably not in those exact words – we were rather politer then; ‘what on earth am I doing here?’ And so I resigned from the fellowship – albeit not before I’d landed a job elsewhere, which made it look perhaps rather less ‘principled’; and went on to Hull University, where I immediately felt more at home. My Cambridge friends were aghast: Cambridge to Hull? – But I never regretted that career move. (I’ve regretted others.)
That sort of thing – buying university places, essentially, or buying the kind of education that can get you into the ‘top’ universities – is not generally classified as ‘corruption’. But shouldn’t it be? If we broaden the definition to include this, we might conclude that Britain is in fact, and always has been, one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
I’m sure Cambridge and Oxford have changed since my time, and have begun to admit a larger proportion – if not a majority – of State school pupils. (Even my old college now has ‘girls’.) That may be because they just can’t get the intellectual quality of students from the male Public schools alone. Just look at Cameron, Johnson and Rees-Mogg.