David Cameron visits Brasenose

By skepticlawyer

As many people would know, David Cameron is a Brasenose alumnus. 2009 is the college’s 500th anniversary (yes, I attend a college more than double the age of my country), and to that end has been putting on various rather pleasant events. There’s been the usual round of balls, parties, guest speakers and lots of monogrammed college stash, but on Saturday Cameron paid a visit to his old college, treated us to a (pretty decent) stump speech and took a goodly number of questions — unscripted and unexpected — from the floor. 

The college used the famed Sheldonian Theatre — Christopher Wren’s brilliant attempt to recreate a Roman theatre in the midst of Oxford — made especially enjoyable thanks to the recently renovated ceiling, which really is a marvel. The event was restricted to current Brasenose students and Fellows, so I thought it might be worth recording some of my impressions for people outside the college.

On the most general level, David Cameron is a very good speaker. He needs no notes or teleprompter; he speaks in complete sentences; he looks at people who have asked him questions; he persuades rather than harangues. He is more skilled but less soaring than Barack Obama, the former because he does not need notes, the latter because British politicians are only allowed to soar in wartime: think Winston Churchill. I do not normally pay this kind of attention to speechmaking skill, but I have seen too many debaters turn into miserable barristers because they harangue judges and juries to distraction. It is something that my pupilmaster insisted must be avoided at all costs: his favourite line was ‘one always catches more flies with honey than with vinegar’. It is a lesson Cameron has learnt well.

Of course, the danger with a very skilled speaker is that he can get away with saying very little of substance, or burying what he does say in gorgeously orotund Ciceronian diction. On the whole, Cameron did not do this, although there were a couple of spots where he strayed perilously close to saying nothing at all. He will have to be watched is probably the fairest assessment.

With respect to policy, the heart of his speech concerned his view that while many traditional left-leaning ideas were good (greater equality of opportunity, less child poverty, better quality education and health care more diffused through the general population), top-down attempts to achieve them had failed. In this he was on secure classical liberal ground, and he made his points about centralised target setting in the NHS, for example, movingly and with great skill. I was impressed with the way he tied targets that could be ‘gamed’ to the Staffordshire Hospital Disaster; it was a textbook example of the economist’s law of unintended consequences and the danger of attempting to plan without adequate knowledge (Hayek’s ‘problem of information asymmetry’) from some central office.

His view, then, is that private and localised solutions to large problems of inequality and injustice will work better than centralised solutions. He is clearly a fan of subsidiarity (probably Catholic social teaching’s greatest contribution to political theory). He also seems to be aware (albeit sometimes dimly) that there are large problems with the scale of Britain’s welfare state that take in not only obvious things like the size of the country’s benefits bill, but the amount of things the state has to pay for out of the Exchequer (the NHS, education and so on). He is also aware that doing something realistic about climate change will lead to a more unequal society: much of our current prosperity in economic terms is not about how much money we have, but how cheap so many things have become relative to the incomes that we all earn. He is bright enough to be aware of the tension and did not during the course of his speech pretend that all of these incommensurables could be resolved.

His responses to our questions were for the most part good, although that said he was not asked many very difficult questions (I asked him one; more of that later). He is a supporter of a Swedish-style system in education (vouchers) and is clearly rankled by the annual spectacle of British parents playing musical houses in order to get little Johnny and little Julie into the best local school, coupled with attempts to prosecute parents for lying about where they live when they have been beaten by the real-estate market. The simple solution is to let parents choose their schools, and to let bad schools close.

At one point he gave a spirited (and deeply Burkean conservative) response to a question favouring the introduction of proportional representation in the UK, pointing out that single member constituencies forced people like him to engage with their constituents and to retain knowledge of at least one chunk of the country. He tied this to first-past-the post, and the obvious response would have been to suggest Australia’s preferential voting system (called instant runoff vote over here), which both allows a protest vote and has the effect of preserving single-member constituencies. Ever since I began to travel, I have become more and more impressed with the way Australians elect their House of Representatives, and believe that other democracies would do well to copy it.

The two questions with which he struggled most concerned aspects of welfare policy. One student pointed out that he had pointed to clear situations where the state had obviously failed; how would he react if a private charity or NGO — given the same job to do — also failed to deliver. He faffed about for a bit but in the end came up with a version of an argument that I first heard from Richard Epstein: ‘95% is good enough’. In other words, it is necessary to accept that large scale actions will sometimes fail, whether they be public or private. He thought private ones would fail less often (and the economics bears him out on that), but to pretend that they would never fail was delusional. For a brief moment, he reminded me of Peter Beattie, who was a study in getting electoral mileage out of admitting that his government had cocked up.

My question concerned welfare policy, and was inspired by a serious of long conversations with DEM, one of my co-bloggers, and ran as follows: ‘both Labour and Conservative have made a great deal of mileage out of demonizing benefit recipients as cheats and scroungers, despite the fact that it is becoming increasingly clear that the welfare state in its current form is unsustainable over time (mainly due to the demographic transition). Why not just be honest and admit that we can no longer afford such largesse and that it will simply have to be cut? Why is it necessary to create a hated out-group first?’ I particularly had in mind this risible exercise in demonizing, produced by the BBC, no less.

He was frank about the fact that politicians needed to be more careful with their language, and argued that Labour has been much worse (although, that said, Labour has had a long time in office to be worse) but ultimately fell back on research pointing out that the higher rates of benefit attract considerable fraud thanks to the inevitable moral hazard involved. My next question (had I been permitted one) would have been to point out the futility of getting disabled people into the workforce when (in the UK at least) they often cop effective marginal tax rates upwards of 200%.

There were other questions and issues, including one on Trident (Cameron wants to keep it, in part because he thinks it will help to underwrite an independent UK foreign policy) and several on education. There were none on Afghanistan or Iraq, which are squarely sheeted home to Labour in this country thanks to the party’s long period in office (since 1997).

All in all, an interesting event. I think David Cameron will be Prime Minister (so we will get a new portrait in Hall, natch), but I don’t know if he has what it takes to tackle the really difficult issues.

Comments from other Brasenostrils also in attendance welcome; this is very much a personal recollection.


  1. Posted November 18, 2009 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Please watch your language and provide evidence if you choose to refer to people receiving welfare in comments – lazy abuse will not be tolerated. I will be reading and I WILL mod your *ss!

    [declaration of interest: I receive Incapacity Benefit and various other disability-based welfare benefits. Call me a bludger at your peril – ADMIN DEM]

  2. Posted November 18, 2009 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Don’t be shy, people… I know from our stats that people are reading this 😉

  3. Posted November 18, 2009 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Hmmmm. “alumnus”. Is there a politically correct version of this “alumna” for plural of “alumnum” for example, even though confusable with “alumna” singular of “alumnae”.

    And I’m thinking better about flamebait involving “bludgers” and “profiteers” and “workers” and “corporate welfare”…. well, not really 😉

    And what is the UK equivalent of a “drover’s dog”?

  4. Posted November 18, 2009 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    I must admit I have shared the story of the drover’s dog with a few people over here in the last week or so…

    On alumnus, wiki is useful, for once. Obsession with gender neutral language is generally inversely proportional to the amount of language study (especially Romance languages) one has done…

  5. Posted November 18, 2009 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    You want obsession on gender neutral? Traditional hacker (good sense, usually MIT/Unix/DEC stuff) documentation, including official user guides, were often made “politically correct” either by lots of effort, or by widely-used programs that went through alternating the gender of his/her/he/she etc, leading to “The programmer should enter her name and then his password” or similar phrases.

    And yes, nowhere near your study… only “The soldier killed the slave with the sword” up to Virgil, Catullus and Petronius translations, and rarely from english. In French, never got much past “Mr Dupre and the cat are in the loungeroom”. From what I’ve seen of modern secondary latin, it’s got as unexciting as Mr Dupre’s adventures.

  6. Posted November 19, 2009 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    I’m not THAT scarey, surely?

  7. Jayjee
    Posted November 19, 2009 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Eton; a 1st in PPE at Oxford; a member of the Bullingdon Club; part of the Boris Johnson set; and a career in televison before politics equals a very bloke who can talk under water to both the prince and the pauper at the same time.

    Alas, Australia lacks the institutions to produce such types.

  8. Jacques Chester
    Posted November 19, 2009 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    On alumnus, wiki is useful, for once.

    Holy moly, I get to correct your writing! 😀

    Alas, Australia lacks the institutions to produce such types.

    We outsource it to Oxford via Rhodes Scholarships, or to the USA via Fulbrights.

  9. Jayjee
    Posted November 19, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    THE key link there is undoubtedly Eton.

  10. Jacques Chester
    Posted November 19, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Jayjee: maybe. But Sir Humphrey Appleby attended Winchester.

  11. Jayjee
    Posted November 19, 2009 at 2:13 pm | Permalink


    When I was living in the UK, a few Aussie mates and I did a cost/benefit analysis of the education/experience/prospects of going to Eton/Winchester/Westminster and were unaminous the fees were a bloody bargain!

    There is nothing like any of these schools in Australia.

  12. Posted November 19, 2009 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    A lot of the Grammars would argue with you there Jayjee, and in terms of straight education many would have a point… but the education is only ONE of the benefits of Eton et al.

    Fortunately success isn’t set in stone so early in British culture, the key is actually Oxbridge. If you can find a copy of the excellent Oxbridge Conspiracy it details the stranglehold that graduates of these two universities have over advancement in British society quite accurately.

  13. Jayjee
    Posted November 20, 2009 at 7:32 am | Permalink


    Interesting and valid points

    DEM, not sure if you are talking about Aussie or Brit Grammar schools. In Australia, for example, there in no question that Sydney Grammar is up there with Eton, etc, academically – in fact, the two schools regularly trade masters – but the experience of a day school squeezed into a few square metres of Darlinghurst does not compare to “the playing fields of Eton. OTOH, while Geelong Grammar may share certain experiential aspects of the top British public boarding schools, it is not an academically focused school; and that is an understatement. 🙂

    If you are talking about the British “grammars” be careful to distinguish between – on the one hand – those that are the equivalent of what we in Oz call “selective state schools” – of which, as you note there are some very academically successful ones in Britian, such as Colchester Grammar and King. Edward VI Grammar.

    On the other hand, there are UK ‘grammar’ schools that might have been founded as state-funded schools, but nowadays are academic-selective elite private schools, charging up to 10,000 pounds per year overhwlemingly day schools, such as Manchester Grammar.

    BUT, when you take into account the % of Oxbridge entrants from about ten English public (private) boarding schools, the claims of the grammar schools to be anywhere near this league are unfounded.

    About 50% of the graduates of Eton/Winchester/Westminster/Charterhouse/St.Paul’s (Boys) are admitted to Oxbridge. The exclusive private girls schools such as the private day-school St. Paul’s (for Girls), and the upper class boarding schools Cheltenham Ladies College and Wycombe Abbey also achieve about 50%. In fact, St. Paul’s School for Girls is, I think, the most academically successful school in the UK, including Oxbridge admissions. But these girl’s schools are much smaller (about 600 girls) compared to, say, Eton which has about 250 boys in the final Year.

    There was a series of articles in The Guardian this year about how the top public/private schools were actually increasing their lead over the rest in terms of both A-level results and Oxbridge admissions. In fact, of the top 30 schools (in terms if numbers going to Oxbridge), 29 were public/private and and only 1 was a a state grammar school.

    One reason, of course, is cultural. While a very bright comprehensive/state grammar student might get 5 As at A-level, they might be less inclined for a number of reasons to apply to Oxbridge than the public/private student. OTOH. Both Oxford and Cambridge are acknowledged as having gone out of their way developing very sincere and extensive outreach programs to try and increase the % of state school students. They have had some successes, but in the past few years, the numbers have actually reversed.

    I put it down to the brilliance of the English upper classes, who have been phenomenally successful at adapting to changing social circumstances for hundreds of years.

  14. Jayjee
    Posted November 20, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink


    Of course I have met them. I have many pals who went to these schools. And by the way, growing up among the lowest classes, I can tell you whom I’d rather hang out with!

    By “brilliance” I did not mean in some general IQ type way, I mean tactically. And I deliberately said upper classeS, which includes the upper middle-class, or at least the Upper-upper middle class. The actual land-owning titled aristocracy is a marginal player in British society nowadays, except to the extent they have done what they have always done: marry money made by the bourgeoisie.

    Recall the disdain the upper classes once had for ‘trade’. They soon got over that. Why, you will even find Etonians on the trading floors of US investment banks nowadays! I mean, quelle horreur, sweetie!

    And the days of “daddy” pulling strings are long gone. Most sons OF Old Etonians are rejected nowadays. Indeed only 25% of the boys currently at Eton had fathers and/or grandfathers who went to Eton. It would be impossible for Eton to maintain its academic stature otherwise. Compare, say, Harrow, which has not become meritocratic, and is the English public school academic equivalent of Geelong Grammar.

    Nowadays at Eton/Winchester/Westminster/blah you will find stacks of kids whose parents are ordinary pharmacists, GPs, book-shop owners, solicitors, academics. There was every likelihood that Prince Harry was not even going to apply to Eton, because he would not pass the entrance exam, but the Palace decided it would be quite bad if “the boys” were split. Now, here, sure, the future king’s brother gets a pass, but you won’t find too many others.

  15. Posted November 20, 2009 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Boris was a scholarship boy at Eton. Just sayin.

  16. Jacques Chester
    Posted November 21, 2009 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    There was a series of articles in The Guardian this year about how the top public/private schools were actually increasing their lead over the rest in terms of both A-level results and Oxbridge admissions.

    There’s two (not mutually-exclusive) ways this could be happening.

    1. The fancy schools are pulling ahead. In the past few years they’ve discovered some new method of education or heretofore unknown pool of privileged students and have been mining that newfound advantage.

    2. The public system has been getting progressively worse, making the private schools look better by comparison.

    As Einstein might say, it’s all a matter of your frame of reference.

    Given that some of those fancy schools have had hundreds of years to perfect their teaching, institutional integration and have had the time to sniff out every privileged family of any kind, I don’t think that they’ve just now discovered some new way to pull ahead. That said, one could expect incremental improvements — a percent here, a percent there — but nothing dramatic.

    I reckon I’ll award the bulk of the widening gap to worsening mass education.

  17. Posted November 21, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    Both Oxford and Cambridge are acknowledged as having gone out of their way developing very sincere and extensive outreach programs to try and increase the % of state school students. They have had some successes, but in the past few years, the numbers have actually reversed.

    I have participated in one of these, as someone with both parents who did not complete high school (in the UK). I’m a dual national, my parents were English/Irish assisted passage migrants (I’d say £10 Poms, but the ghost of my mother is likely to visit me from the grave quoting ‘Easter 1916’).

  18. Jayjee
    Posted November 21, 2009 at 6:09 pm | Permalink


    No need to apologise AT ALL. I experienced the UK by parachuting in straight into plum jobs and a social network filled with many (though by no stretch ALL) plummy voices. If I had grown up in Britain with the circumstances and social position of my own youth in Australia simply transfered, I’d be more Guy Fawkes than that pansy Trotsky!


    I agree with your conclusion. I actually have a very tentatiive hypothesis about the deeper, structural causes of the so-called GFC; an hypothesis that also relates to your comments. It’s only very tentative, and I wasn’t going to start on it until my data collection and analysis was complete. But what the fuck, I’m a blabber-mouth! 🙂

    My hypothesis is that since WWII the IQ standard deviation in the US and UK has increased. I hypothesis that rather than the bell-curve of the nornmal distribution, we are seeing a collapse of the upper-middle cognitive classes – say IQ 105 to 115 to a more biploar distribution, with peaks around 90 and 120.

    Now, I know this is technically impossible, because all an IQ is a ranking on a bell-curve with mean of 100 and s.d of 15/16; so my hypothesis is using IQ more as metaphorical way of positing a cognitive split in the two nations, especially the US.

    One of the greater – perhaps greatest – cause of the upper pole is immigration policies focused on skilled immigration. So all these brilliant Indians, Chinese, Ukranian, Australian people creamed of by MIT, Stanford, and the rest of the 50 or so US universities with the cache to attract the foreign cognitive elite increases the spike at IQ of 120 or above. Similar with the top UK universities. Outside the universities, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and so on draw away the cream from the global periphery. This in itself pushes down the less able indigenes.

    But most apposite to JC’s observations is that since sometime post-WW2, something has happened to increase the % and raw numbers of the ‘Cognitively Left Behind’ in both the UK and US.I think the data and picture we are drawing here of Britain is related to my hypothesis.

  19. Jayjee
    Posted November 21, 2009 at 6:19 pm | Permalink


    By the way, an Etonian ‘Kings Scholar’ – as was George Orwell, Keynes, Harold McMillan – is not your typical posh school gives a pauper a hand-up!

    An Eton King’s Scholar is chosen by examination. I think there are about 15 each year. They all live in the same boarding house and have certain privileges. I don’t know a great deal more. Schools like Eton have – as Jacques notes – several centuries to develop the most arcane traditions, lingo, etc.

  20. Posted November 22, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Regarding government schools

    (1) the provider is also the regulator: wee bit of a conflict of interest there
    (2) that conflict of interest also has effects on private schooling, since they share the compromised regulator
    (3) it is a fairly well established observation in development economics that government provision has declining productivity over the longer term: there is no reason to think government schools are exempt from this trend
    (4) those in charge of developing curricula and teacher training tend to be highly removed from the consequences of their theories/performance, as are those in charge of administering government schools.

    There are good reasons to have government funding of schooling (on grounds of fairness and we have a common interest in interacting with literate and numerate folk). Governments running schools? Not so much.

  21. Posted November 23, 2009 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    “both Labour and Conservative have made a great deal of mileage out of demonizing benefit recipients as cheats and scroungers”

    Thank you for making this point, and the others concerning disability and incapacity benefits.

    None of these politicians seem willing to address the real barriers to employment people with disabilities face, or have much awareness of the fact that their stereotyping of us as scroungers increases social stigma which can make our difficulties (particularly mental health problems) even worse.

  22. Posted November 23, 2009 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Cheers, Violet. Would be delighted to hear any particular insights you may have on the issue (I’m the lawyer at Brasenose who wrote the post).

  23. Posted November 23, 2009 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    It’s a topic I could rant about at some length!

    I’ve been on income support for incapacity for depression for 3 years, and have a number of friends who are on it for mental health problems, ranging from depression to schizophrenia. Even when doing voluntary work, we’ve all had to deal with people who clearly think we’re scroungers, and being asked “when are you going to go and get a job?” when you’re already struggling with the demons of depression is enough to send you into a state of outright despair. One friend got this from someone working at a community garden which has a scheme to help people with mental illness, right after he’d come out of 6 months in psychiatric hospital!

    I think the barriers to employment are complex, and there’s no easy political solution. If mental illness has disrupted your education and caused long gaps in your history of employment, it’s very difficult to find anything other than very low wage work, so you’d have to work full-time to have any hope of making up for the loss of benefits. And if you relapse and have a month or two where the depression is so bad you can barely move, you’re back to square one.

    There’s also the constant pressure to smile, look cheerful, fit in. No one wants someone serving customers if they’re not able to maintain the cheery mask. I knew someone who was fired from a job collecting trolleys from a supermarket carpark for looking too miserable.

    Overall I think many people, and not just the disabled, would benefit from a culture which put more value on sharing, kindness, and simple humanity than on consumerism, competition, and greed. Cameron’s vision of “big society” seems like rhetoric which gives the illusion of promoting those values, whilst offering nothing that actually promotes them in reality.

  24. Jayjee
    Posted November 24, 2009 at 9:20 am | Permalink


    I’m sorry, I can’t work out if you live in Britain or Australia. I was under the impression that one plus for the Blair years was a great effort into social services. Perhaps there was, but people with disabilities were not great beneficiaries?

    If, as you sound, the disabled person is able to work/study, I would say that in Australia, things have changed immensely over the past five to ten years. Universities have very high-profile “Disability and Equity” teams, and very high-profile pro-disabilities support programs and mechanisms in place.

    Both the universities and government provide a great many bursaries, scholarships, fee remissions, extra DSP to help you study. The public service is overflowing with policies and programs to help disabled workers. I know of many employers who are also, but I don’t know how deep that goes.

    As to the average person in the street, Australia excels at high profile public health/awareness programs. True, they can often become irritatingly nanny-statish. But there are many others. There are initiatives here such as BeyondBlue and the Black Dog Institute, which are always attracting new high profile public figures “coming out” about their mental illnesses.

    Of course the big downside is for people whose disability really constrains their ability to work/study. They are stuck with low pensions, and face the boundary of the otherwise flattering picture I have painted of Australia above.

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  1. By Skepticlawyer » Fraud, Error & Waste ™ on October 11, 2010 at 12:17 am

    […] only 3.5% of Incapacity Benefit and 0.5% of Disability Living Allowance by previous counts). When challenged personally by SL about the demonisation of people on benefits back in November 2009 Cameron’s excuse was fraud […]

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