David Aaronovitch: Oxbridge’s ‘absurd snobbery’ and vomiting at Etonians

Jack May 30 April 2016

David Aaronovitch is much like you’d expect an opinion columnist to be, which would make sense, as he has written a weekly column for The Times since 2003.

He looks at you with a slightly stern gaze, takes some time after each of my questions trying to work out what angle I’m looking for, and then ploughs into an answer that is simultaneously headstrong, yet considered; argumentative, yet open to discussion.

It’s this temperament that sets him on a clear collision course with a new generation of students, at Cambridge and elsewhere, advocating policies of no- platforming, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and the old controversies we’re all sick of hearing about.

It’s a dangerous topic to get him started on. “What I see is a generation of student politicians which is incredibly up its own arse, just to the nth degree, inventing things which can make politics about it rather than about the wider world.

“In other words, we can’t deal with the wider world of international poverty or something, so what we’ll do is we’ll have a protest about a statue on the Quad. Because that’s close.” 

He’s quick to back-pedal and clarify on that one. “I’m not saying, for instance, that there might not be a valuable discussion to be had about Britain’s imperial past, but it is a way of turning a subject and diminishing it until it’s all about you, rather than about the bigger issues.

“There is that kind of self-regard masquerading as a bigger purpose.”

It’s from there that I drop in a mention of his infamous appearance on University Challenge in 1975. Having been booted out of Oxford University at the end of his first year, he moved up to Manchester to study History.

It was there that he was part of the team that responded to all questions in the final round with the names of famous Communist figures as a protest against the fact that “tiny little [Oxbridge] colleges are represented separately on University Challenge and then gigantic institutions get their one team”.

Is the system still skewed in favour of Oxford and Cambridge? “It is certainly true that amongst quite a lot of people I know, professionals, say, in North London, Oxford and Cambridge is a tick on your parental chart – ‘Oh, didn’t you do well’, and very, very good other universities which you should be proud to go to [are] somehow regarded as not as good.”

“It’s a ridiculous case of snobbery, it’s really absurd, but nevertheless it’s true.”

Oxbridge isn’t the only problem, either. “Private school people are always wanting to debate about private schools, if I have to hear the word ‘Etonian’ once more I swear I’ll vomit. I’m sick of people talking about ‘so-and-so’s an Etonian’. I don’t bloody care, we don’t talk about any other school like this. Get out of my face with your endless self-regard, your endless envy, it’s corrosive.”

Getting onto perhaps less corrosive territory, I ask what he makes of Corbyn’s Labour Party as a cheerleader of the successes of Blair’s government, and a supporter of the Iraq War.

The big question, then: could David Aaronovitch, the ‘Blairite’, vote for Corbyn’s Labour Party? Circumlocution kicks in, and I knuckle down for a long response.

“We often have to vote for the least worst option that we think can achieve something, so if there were an ultra-right- wing Conservative Party, I suppose.”

We get down to the heart of it: “Corbyn’s instincts over international affairs, his toleration of Putin, his effective renunciation of the alliance with the Americans and NATO — I’m not really interested in any of that.

“It would be bad for society and isn’t the direction I want to see the British people take.” Then comes the last flick of the knife: “If Jeremy Corbyn is still the leader of the Labour Party at the next election then I won’t be voting for him, and I’m a Labour Party member.”

Another tally added to the scores of moderate Labour members eyeing up their own party and not feeling entirely at home. Corbyn HQ would do well to watch out.