John Lanchester · Party Leaders' Degrees
What’s unique about this election? The quality of the debate? The riveting closeness of the contest? The charisma of the party leaders? The visionary vistas opening up in front of the British people as we contemplate the party’s rival visions for out future?
None of the above. What’s unique is that it’s the first time (at least in the last hundred years or so) that both of the main parties are being led by somebody with a first-class degree. Brown got a first in history at Edinburgh, Cameron a first in PPE at Oxford. ‘Thick Nick’ Clegg only has a 2.1 (social anthropology, Cambridge). When I stumbled on this fact, I was prompted to wonder if Brown was the first PM with a first. Not so – Harold Wilson also had an Oxford first in PPE. Attlee, Heath, Thatcher and Blair all had seconds from Oxford (in history, PPE, chemistry and law, respectively); Balfour got his second from Cambridge in moral sciences. Baldwin was the only 20th-century politician to earn a third (Cambridge, history). MacDonald, Churchill, Macmillan and Major either did not start or did not finish degrees, for a variety of reasons.
One oddity is that Brown is the only non-Oxbridge PM with a degree, and also the only one to have taken a PhD. And his government has presided over the sharpest ever decline in working conditions for academics. Go figure.