MPs for MAs? The fall of Oxford University’s parliamentary constituency
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
As the dust settles on another general election, a growing divide within the British voting public has entrenched itself further (and no, I’m not talking about Brexit). During the last decade, gender, wealth, and social class have all been eclipsed by education as a predictor of political allegiance, to the point where the Conservatives now lead Labour by 58% to 25% among those who left school after their GCSEs, whereas Labour are ahead by 43% to 29% among university graduates. This is therefore an interesting moment to look back at the past voting habits of Oxford’s alumni, and at one electoral institution in particular. For it is a curious and oft-forgotten fact that – within living memory – the university had its own permanent seats in the House of Commons.
On 16 February 1948, MPs gathered in Westminster to debate the Representation of the People Bill introduced by Clement Attlee’s Labour government. In addition to a variety of boundary changes, the bill proposed to abolish the twelve MPs elected exclusively by graduates of UK universities, including the two chosen by alumni of Oxford. Many of the reasons advanced for this change appear to us self-evident; it was proclaimed to be unfair and undemocratic that graduates (then making up around 7% of the UK population) should possess two votes when other citizens had only one. Furthermore, the government claimed that reserving positions for particular social or vocational groups was reminiscent of Mussolini’s fascist policy of corporatism. Nonetheless, it was also true that Labour’s targeting of the university seats was not entirely disinterested, as the party had failed to capture a single one of them during its recent landslide victory.
This result was consistent with the constituencies’ history, and particularly Oxford’s, given that the university has a reasonable claim to be the birthplace of Toryism. The term ‘Tory’ first entered political usage in 1681, the year that the victory of Charles II’s faction over the Whigs in the Oxford Parliament laid the groundwork for the modern two-party system. Among the MPs gathered in Convocation House on that occasion was the university’s representative, Sir Leoline Jenkins, whose fierce loyalty to the House of Stuart perhaps reflected the fact that he very literally owed it his seat. The existence of specific MPs for university scholars might seem like a classic relic of England’s medieval constitution, but in fact the practice had been imported from abroad by Charles’ cerebral grandfather. Having himself penned intellectual treatises on subjects ranging from witchcraft to the dangers of smoking, when James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne as James I in 1603 he gave both Oxford and Cambridge two Parliamentary seats in imitation of those reserved for Scotland’s universities.
Those seats would continue to overwhelmingly support the Tory cause long after the dynasty which had spawned it had fallen and, although in Cambridge’s case this seems to have involved a certain amount of vote-fixing (the Crown reserved the power to confer doctorates there, and occasionally handed out batches of PhDs to loyalists in order to rig elections), Oxford’s conservatism appears to have been sincere. During their nineteenth-century heyday, the Whigs’ Liberal heirs were only able to secure a single Oxford University MP; this was no less a personage than Gladstone, and even he was originally a Tory defector and failed to be re-elected in 1865. Small wonder that when socialism succeeded liberalism as the Conservatives’ main opponent in the twentieth century, left-wing leader Ramsay MacDonald called Oxford “a painted lady, from which Labour has nothing to expect.”
Faced with a Labour party inclined to view the universities as strongholds of its class enemies, the MPs defending university constituencies in 1948 perhaps did themselves few favours. Their main argument was that Attlee’s proposal violated a gentleman’s agreement not to abolish the seats made at the 1944 Speaker’s Convention, and they frequently relied on emotive appeals to collegiate spirit. Henry Strauss (Conservative MP for the Combined English Universities) began his speech by saying “I admit that I love my own University of Oxford more than I have loved any other human institution”, whilst Sir Cuthbert Headlam (a Magdalen graduate, also Conservative) suggested that university constituencies offered a superior form of representation as “a university man would feel more in touch with a university Member than he would be with a territorial Member, even though his political ideas might not be similar.” When Arthur Salter spoke up as one of Oxford University’s last two MPs, he expressed disbelief that Attlee could have turned against his alma mater; “the Prime Minister is a loyal and honoured son of my university”, he protested, adding “I was dining at his own college only last night”. Such arguments presumably had limited appeal among the mass of trade unionists, ex-miners, and trenchant socialists who now sat upon the government benches.
Nonetheless, it would be over-simplistic to see the abolition of the university seats as purely the triumph of the working class over a Tory old boys’ network. Electoral reform in 1918 had already widened the franchise in the university seats and (together with wider social changes) had begun to end the Conservative stranglehold. Both Salter and his colleague representing Oxford University were Independents, and a number of other non-traditional figures had achieved success among the graduate electorate. Chief among these was Strauss’ predecessor Eleanor Rathbone, a Somerville alumna, suffragist leader, and social reformer who was instrumental in creating the UK’s first system of child benefits. She died before the 1948 confrontation, but MPs cited her comments from an earlier debate in which she had claimed that university constituencies protected against majoritarian tyranny. She drew parallels with her experiences growing up as a woman without the franchise, saying “we were always told that it was all right because we could influence men, and from men we could get all we wanted. In the same way, the middle and upper classes and the learned professions are told that they do not need the security of direct representation, because they can get representation enough through the favour of the proletarians.” It is perhaps worth noting that, through the Oxford constituency, women gained the right to participate in the university’s political life two years before they were granted the ability to graduate or enter the Bodleian library.
Another interesting feature of the changes enacted in 1918 was that Oxford alumni began to elect the two MPs for their multi-member constituency using the Single Transferable Vote system, and not the First-Past-the-Post method that prevailed elsewhere. Thus, thirty years later, several Liberal MPs protested that abolishing the seats would in fact make Parliament less democratic and representative, with one claiming that “there has been one small example of proportional representation introduced into our system, namely in the form of the university elections. Now the Labour Government are sweeping even that away.” Once again, partisan advantage coloured MPs’ opinions (the Liberals stood to make substantial electoral gains from a nationwide rollout of proportional representation, then as now). Nonetheless, this prolonged experiment with STV provides useful context to more recent debates on electoral reform, which sometimes feature claims that First-Past-the-Post is the only tried and tested way of electing MPs in Britain.
The arguments in favour of university constituencies were thus more complex than mere knee-jerk conservatism, but ultimately they failed in 1948 and are likely to fail our modern standards of justice too. Whatever the advantages of proportional representation or educated voices in Parliament, it seems doubtful (to say the least) that a truly democratic society is compatible with having extra MPs reserved for a section of the population purely based on membership of elite educational institutions. Moreover, looking back from 2019, we can see the flaws in claims made even by the most distinguished member of the Oxonian electorate to weigh in against Attlee’s reform. This was opposition leader Sir Winston Churchill, who depicted Labour’s campaign to abolish the university seats as an admission that “they will never win the educated intelligentsia of this country”, adding “no brains wanted – this is the declaration of the Socialist Party”.
Seventy years later, the demographic figures cited at the beginning of this article have proven him thoroughly wrong. Oxford University constituency is no more, but the student vote has played a significant part in ensuring that Oxford East is now a Labour stronghold, just like Cambridge and other constituencies across the country with a strong campus presence. This is part of a wider international trend, described by economist Thomas Piketty as the rise of a ‘Brahmin Left’ which appeals chiefly to the highly educated rather than on the basis of class. The wider ramifications of this seismic realignment are beyond the scope of this piece – not least because they are still being thrashed out – but plainly they are not always to the advantage of the Left. As politicians through the ages have discovered to their cost, sometimes knowledge isn’t power.
Written by Louis Morris