I’ve been reading Love and Let Die by John Higgs, the book that interleaves the stories of the Beatles and James Bond. I haven’t finished it yet, but like all good books it has sent me down the occasional rabbit hole.
One passing comment from Higgs, about the mediocrity of the British Secret Intelligence Services (SIS) has had me pondering for days, trying to articulate something. Higgs’ comment concerned the general seedy incompetency of the SIS, in contrast to the fantasy version of a spy served up by the mediocre writer and all around terrible person Ian Fleming. Higgs goes on to say that the amateurism of the SIS was also well known to John Le Carré, who created his own fantasy version of an even more secret but competent Service in the person of George Smiley.
The reality was the rather squalid gentleman’s club atmosphere of the SIS, which was under the control of people whose disappointing degrees from Oxford and Cambridge left them supposedly unfit for other branches of the civil service and government.
The whole sorry picture is starkly illustrated by the story of the Cambridge spies, and Kim Philby in particular, a Soviet spy who was given charge of the Soviet Section of the SIS, and then allowed to escape to Moscow. The story of his end is retold in A Spy Among Friends, which details the story of the MI5 investigation into MI6 failures, which was resented by ‘6’ because ‘5’ were considered to be little more than glorified coppers, the kind of people who really ought to use the tradesmen’s entrance.
It all comes down to snobbery. Fleming himself was a dreadful snob, as was his literary creation James Bond; and Philby counted on the snobbery of others to maintain his cover as a clubbable team player, even as he sent hundreds of people to their deaths.
All of which is a preamble to my larger thesis, which is that the SIS wasn’t unusual in being blighted by Oxbridge mediocrities. The point is that, behind their snobbery (gowns, book lined studies, ‘impossible’ interview questions, the stink of tweed), Oxford and Cambridge are themselves mediocre institutions, providing an anachronistic education to generation after generation of the undeserving rich as well as those (un)lucky enough to gain entry without the prerequisite of rich parents and a private education.
And this is the dilemma I always face as a teacher. Because the whole vibe of our sixth form in particular is tied up with getting our best and brightest into Oxford or Cambridge. Announcements are made. Special treatment is given. Hopes are raised. Efforts are praised. And all the while, I’m sitting at the back of the room, thinking, why? Why do you want to go to that shithole and enter their brainwashing programme? It genuinely makes me sad, and I don’t know where to put myself when students I teach put themselves through the application process. On the one hand, I hate to see their hopes crushed; on the other, it’s not even close: I honestly think they would be better off elsewhere, and society better for it.
Because where is the evidence of brilliance? Where is the evidence that the government, the civil service, the SIS, the BBC, the health service, the education system, the police, the military, you name it, is being run by competent, well-rounded people? And don’t get me started on the think tanks and the rest of the media industrial complex.
Oxford and Cambridge have always been machines for reproducing the ruling class in its own image, and the kind of groupthink they encourage is what makes this country so terrible to live in — especially at the moment.