There’s a fascinating “long read” in today’s Financial Times: “How Oxford University shaped Brexitand Britain’s next Prime Minister.” (“Gift” link)

Its author, Simon Kuper, discusses how the student politics of Oxford University in the late 1980s have continued to play out through the Brexit and Tory leadership campaigns of the last few years.

Style vs Substance

Specifically, Kuper argues, the Oxford Union fostered a type of politician with “debating skills and ambition” but “without a cause.” His examples include Boris Johnson, for whom charisma trumps incompetence, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, for whom articulacy trumps eccentricity.

“One thing you learnt at Oxford,” writes Kuper, “was how to speak without much knowledge.”

On the one hand, this is all very dispiriting. Many of us are of the radical persuasion that political leadership should not be the preserve of a select few people from a select few schools. This is a story of superficiality, entitlement and unchecked privilege. It’s also a story, as Kuper points out, that has many precedents in British politics.

Style as Substance

On the other hand, we can learn something useful from this situation. There’s a lesson here about the importance of confidence and clarity in communications.

As Professor Kalypso Nikolaïdis says in the article, “This may sound superficial, but communicating is useful in life. Sometimes you need to convince people succinctly.”

Kuper himself confesses, “given that I too learnt at Oxford how to write and speak for a living without much knowledge, I can hardly talk.” (A poorly-chosen idiom, but you get the point!)

Kuper’s description of someone who can “write or speak for a living without much knowledge” might be applied to many of us who work in communications and speechwriting.

But perhaps our knowledge is precisely how to write and speak. To put it another way: perhaps style can be substance. And perhaps that body of knowledge deserves as much recognition as, say, policy or research expertise.

With Boris likely to become PM, and Trump as President, it’s time to disregard the style-vs-substance dichotomy. We need to recognise that communications knowledge is political knowledge.

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