Demonstrations protesting against Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament were taking place in more than 30 cities across the UK on Saturday but perhaps the one with the greatest symbolic value was being held outside Balliol College in Oxford.
After Eton, it was here that Britain’s current Prime Minister experienced a widening of the intellectual horizons and developed his political values.
He came up as an undergraduate in 1983 to do a four-year course in classical literature, history and philosophy known as Literae Humaniores.
This partly explains why he is able to reel off snatches of poetry, Latin quotes and literary references and leave the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, for example, floundering. Corbyn, more a product of the university of life, joined the Labour Party at 16 and achieved two A-Levels, with “E”s, the lowest-possible passing grade, before leaving school at 18. Much later he began a course in trade union studies at North London Polytechnic but left after a year without a degree.
In contrast, the Balliol College register for 1983 contains an entry that carries the whiff of privilege: “JOHNSON Alexander Boris de Pfeffel: JOHNSON, Boris – b. 19 June 1964. New York. American. Generally known while at Balliol as Boris Johnson. Eton; Balliol 1983–7.”
Anthony Kenny, Master of Balliol at the time, noted recently: “On the basis of the tutors’ reports, I formed the judgment that, while Boris had the necessary intelligence, he lacked the appropriate diligence to achieve the first-class degree that he clearly felt was his due. Though he sat lightly to formal academic obligations, Boris did acquire a genuine love of the classics during his undergraduate years, and he was far from idle in social and political pursuits.”
Outside Balliol on Saturday, protesters, angry with the “coup” Boris is alleged to have mounted against parliamentary democracy, waved placards. One read, “Stop this Eton Mess, Give us back our democracy”. Eton Mess is actually the name of a popular British dessert.
One of the protesters, Lesley McKie, who was joined by current students at Balliol and other Oxford colleges, said: “Being outside the very institution where he developed political profile with students at the college today denouncing him sends a powerful message to Johnson.”