PPE: the Oxford degree that runs Britain
The Long Read: An extraordinary number of Britains elite studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford. But does it produce an out-of-touch ruling class?
Monday, 13 April 2015 was a typical day in modern British politics. An Oxford University graduate in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), Ed Miliband, launched the Labour partys general election manifesto. It was examined by the BBCs political editor, Oxford PPE graduate Nick Robinson, by the BBCs economics editor, Oxford PPE graduate Robert Peston, and by the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Oxford PPE graduate Paul Johnson. It was criticised by the prime minister, Oxford PPE graduate David Cameron. It was defended by the Labour shadow chancellor, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Balls.
Elsewhere in the country, with the election three weeks away, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, Oxford PPE graduate Danny Alexander, was preparing to visit Kingston and Surbiton, a vulnerable London seat held by a fellow Lib Dem minister, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Davey. In Kent, one of Ukips two MPs, Oxford PPE graduate Mark Reckless, was campaigning in his constituency, Rochester and Strood. Comments on the days developments were being posted online by Michael Crick, Oxford PPE graduate and political correspondent of Channel 4 News.
On the BBC Radio 4 website, the Financial Times statistics expert and Oxford PPE graduate Tim Harford presented his first election podcast. On BBC1, Oxford PPE graduate and Newsnight presenter Evan Davies conducted the first of a series of interviews with party leaders. In the print media, there was an election special in the Economist magazine, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Zanny Minton-Beddoes; a clutch of election articles in the political magazine Prospect, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Bronwen Maddox; an election column in the Guardian by Oxford PPE graduate Simon Jenkins; and more election coverage in the Times and the Sun, whose proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, studied PPE at Oxford.
More than any other course at any other university, more than any revered or resented private school, and in a manner probably unmatched in any other democracy, Oxford PPE pervades British political life. From the right to the left, from the centre ground to the fringes, from analysts to protagonists, consensus-seekers to revolutionary activists, environmentalists to ultra-capitalists, statists to libertarians, elitists to populists, bureaucrats to spin doctors, bullies to charmers, successive networks of PPEists have been at work at all levels of British politics sometimes prominently, sometimes more quietly since the degree was established 97 years ago.
It is overwhelmingly from Oxford that the governing elite has reproduced itself, generation after generation, writes the pre-eminent British political biographer, John Campbell, in his 2014 study of the postwar Labour reformer and SDP cofounder Roy Jenkins, who studied PPE at the university in the 1930s. The three-year undergraduate course was then less than two decades old, but it was already the course of choice for aspiring politicians: the future Labour leaders Michael Foot and Hugh Gaitskell, the future prime ministers Edward Heath and Harold Wilson.
But Oxford PPE is more than a factory for politicians and the people who judge them for a living. It also gives many of these public figures a shared outlook: confident, internationalist, intellectually flexible, and above all sure that small groups of supposedly well-educated, rational people, such as themselves, can and should improve Britain and the wider world. The course has also been taken by many foreign leaders-in-the-making, among them Bill Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Australian prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke. An Oxford PPE degree has become a global status symbol of academic achievement and worldly potential.
The Labour peer and thinker Maurice Glasman, who studied modern history at Cambridge, says: PPE combines the status of an elite university degree PPE is the ultimate form of being good at school with the stamp of a vocational course. It is perfect training for cabinet membership, and it gives you a view of life. It is a very profound cultural form.
Yet in the new age of populism, of revolts against elites and professional politicians, Oxford PPE no longer fits into public life as smoothly as it once did. With corporate capitalism misfiring, mainstream politicians blundering, and much of the traditional media seemingly bewildered by the upheavals, PPE, the supplier of supposedly highly trained talent to all three fields, has lost its unquestioned authority. More than that, it has become easier to doubt whether a single university course, and its graduates, should have such influence in the first place. To its proliferating critics, PPE is not a solution to Britains problems; it is a cause of them.
Oxford PPE remains opaque to outsiders. It is often mentioned in the media but rarely explained. Even to know what PPE stands for is to be unusually well-informed about British education and power often, to be part of the same Oxford milieu as the PPEists. When I asked one former party leader what he got from the degree, he said with studied insouciance: Why would you want to write about PPE? As the establishment often says when scrutinised: nothing to see here.
PPE is particularly associated with Labour. The degree helped shape party figures as different as Tony Benn, Tony Crosland and Peter Mandelson. In office, says Glasman, Labour has often effectively been the governing wing of the PPE course. Yet the same could be said of the Tories. The former cabinet ministers Michael Heseltine, Nigel Lawson, William Hague and David Willetts, and Camerons former Downing Street guru Steve Hilton, are all Oxford PPE graduates. Current Conservative PPEists include the health secretary Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor Philip Hammond, the work and pensions secretary Damian Green, and the justice secretary Elizabeth Truss.
PPE thrives, says Willetts, a former education minister who is writing a book about universities, because a problem of English education is too much specialisation too soon, whereas PPE is much closer to the prestigious degrees for generalists available in the United States. As a PPE graduate, you end up with a broad sense of modern political history, youve cantered through political thought, done [philosophical] logic, wrestled with economics from monetarism to Maynard Keynes. Youve had to get through a lot of work 16 essays a term. Thats very useful later when you have to write a speech to a deadline. Willetts adds: As a minister, you do sometimes think that British political life is an endless recreation of the PPE essay crisis.
Not everyone thinks that last-minute cramming and improvisation Camerons hastily-arranged EU referendum comes to mind is the best way to run a country. Last October, the leading Brexit campaigner and former government education adviser Dominic Cummings wrote on his influential blog: If you are young, smart, and interested in politics, think very hard before studying PPE It actually causes huge problems as it encourages people like Cameron and Ed Balls to spread bad ideas with lots of confidence and bluffing.
Other critics of PPE are blunter still. All the Worst Remainers Read PPE at Oxford, jeered James Delingpole on the far-right website Breitbart last year. Nigel Farage of Ukip sometimes calls over-complicated political ideas PPE bollocks. In the tabloids and on the internet, PPE has become synonymous with elitist, impractical, inadequate. In 2014, the columnist Nick Cohen, himself an Oxford PPE graduate, published his much-cited thoughts on the course in the conservative Spectator magazine. PPEists, he wrote, form the largest single component of the most despised governing class since the  Great Reform Act.