10 Prime Ministers Who Studied at Oxford
The University of Oxford has educated no fewer than 27 British Prime Ministers – out of a startling total of 75. Beyond even that, there are additional Prime Ministers who didn’t study at Oxford, but who are strongly associated with the city. The most notable example is Winston Churchill, who didn’t go to university at all, but whose family home was Blenheim Palace, just a short journey away from the city. The second most popular university for British Prime Ministers is Cambridge, which has educated 14.
You might expect that this trend would change in the 21st century, with more universities open in Britain and around the world than ever before, but if anything it’s accelerated – of the four 21st century British Prime Ministers, three are Oxford graduates. We’ve selected the most notable and interesting Oxford-educated British Prime Ministers for this list, spanning the past 250 years.
1. Pitt the Elder (Whig, 1766-1768)
Pitt the Elder might only have been Prime Minister for two years, but his influence on British politics was felt for much of the 18th century. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he was known above all for his brilliant oratory, including an occasionally spiky wit. He rose to prominence during the Seven Years’ War, a global conflict headed by Britain on one side and France on the other, where Pitt was the de facto leader of the British-led coalition. In attacking France’s colonial possessions, Pitt laid the foundations for much of the expansion of the British Empire. His impassioned patriotism made him hugely popular with the general public.
Yet much of the rest of government was unwilling to continue funding wars, so Pitt gave his resignation before the war was done. While his star rose again, by the time he was officially appointed Prime Minister, his health was declining, and he was unable to continue in the role for long. Just 17 years after Pitt the Elder left office, his son – Pitt the Younger – became Prime Minister, at the age of just 24. Sadly, Pitt the Elder did not live to see it.
2. Robert Peel (Conservative, 1834-1835 and 1841-1846)
Christ Church has produced thirteen British Prime Ministers, more than any other Oxford college. One of them is Robert Peel, who has an unusual tribute in the college. Nails hammered into the door at the foot of the Hall stairs in the college spell out the message “No Peel” – a protest against Peel from 1829, when Peel was MP for the university. He supported Catholic emancipation, a controversial topic at the time, and protesters made their opposition to his stance known in what is now effectively two-hundred-year-old graffiti.
Unlike previous Prime Ministers, he came from an industrial background; though the son of a baronet, his father was effectively a self-made man, and Peel did not share the aristocratic roots of Prime Ministers before him. Peel had a huge impact on British politics, founding the modern Conservative party, instituting the first police force (still sometimes nicknamed “bobbies” or more rarely “peelers” as a result) and promoting free trade. His support for repealing the Corn Laws, which restricted grain imports, caused his party to split; the Peelite faction then merged with the Whigs to form the Liberal party.
3. William Gladstone (Liberal, 1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1894)
Two men dominated British politics in the second half of the nineteenth century. One was Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (who didn’t go to university, though he was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford). The other was William Gladstone, another Christ Church graduate and President of the Oxford Union.
Initially a Tory, Gladstone was among the Peelites who became Liberals. He was hugely popular among the working class in particular, who nicknamed him the ‘Grand Old Man’. He is the only British Prime Minister to have served four terms. In that time he introduced secret ballots, outlawed the use of flogging in peacetime, extended the franchise, and worked hard to promote cautious government spending – the latter of which has him remembered fondly by modern-day Conservatives perhaps more than modern-day Liberals. However, he faced struggles in foreign policy and despite dedicating considerable efforts to ensure Home Rule in Ireland, this repeatedly failed and was eventually superseded by demands for Irish independence after Gladstone’s death.
4. Herbert Asquith (Liberal, 1908-1916)
Balliol graduate Herbert Asquith was another President of the Oxford Union who went on to become Prime Minister. Initially Asquith’s time in office was a success, in particular in reducing the power of the House of Lords, a long-term Liberal goal, and by beginning to lay the foundations for the welfare state, despite considerable opposition. He also introduced salaries for MPs, which meant that no one had to be independently wealthy in order to become an MP.
However, Asquith’s later years in office were more troubled. His opposition to women’s suffrage – contrary to the views of the majority of his party – cost him support, and the question of Irish Home Rule continued to be complex and challenging. While the outbreak of the First World War saw a brief boost to his popularity, he struggled to manage the conflict, and by 1916 he had lost the support of his party. The Liberal Party was effectively split between supporters of Asquith and supporters of his replacement David Lloyd George, and Asquith refused attempts at reconciliation. Under Asquith was the last time the Liberals formed a majority government.
5. Clement Attlee (Labour, 1945-1951)
Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, was voted the greatest Briton who ever lived in 2002. Yet in 1945, after winning the war, he failed to persuade the British public that he could win the peace. The man who could was Labour’s second-ever Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. A graduate of University College, Oxford, he won an unexpected landslide victory in 1945. Despite his relatively short time in office, Attlee’s government had a huge and enduring impact on the nature of British society. Working from the 1942 Beveridge Report, he instituted the modern welfare state, creating the NHS, establishing the right to free secondary school education, establishing state pensions, extending workers’ rights, nationalising public utilities, and building vast numbers of houses to replace those destroyed in the war – all while dealing with public finances nearly bankrupted by war.
Many of these measures were controversial, and continued rationing and postwar austerity caused Attlee’s government to falter and then lose the 1951 election. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that while subsequent governments have changed some aspects of the way the welfare state operates, even the furthest right-wing governments since Attlee have not attempted to remove such fundamentals as the NHS, which must rank as one of the most popular policies any British government has ever pursued.
6. Harold Wilson (Labour, 1964-1970, 1974-1976)
Few British Prime Ministers have been such strong academic achievers as Harold Wilson. A graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, he became a fellow of University College, where he collaborated with William Beveridge, the Master of University College, on the report that helped to shape the welfare state. At the age of 31 he became the youngest cabinet minister since Pitt the Younger. In 1964 Labour won the election only narrowly, so Wilson gambled on a second election that produced an increased majority. In two elections in 1974, he repeated the same pattern, though won only a very narrow majority.
In his two periods as Prime Minister, Wilson achieved significant liberalising reforms on key questions such as capital punishment and gender equality. However, his party was dogged by disagreement on European integration and the role of trade unions. By 1976 the strain of steering the country through economic difficulties was beginning to take a toll on his health, resulting a shock resignation.
7. Margaret Thatcher (Conservative, 1979-1990)
Britain’s first female Prime Minister was also perhaps the most controversial postwar Prime Minister, and opinions on her legacy are deeply divided. A graduate of Somerville College, Oxford, she was a rare science graduate; most Prime Ministers have taken Arts degrees, while Thatcher studied Chemistry. She became Prime Minister at a time of high unemployment, trade union disputes and recession. Though these continued, her defiant stance in the 1982 Falklands War saw a boost to her popularity, which has been credited with a landslide victory in the 1983 general election.
The ensuing years saw Thatcher clash with the unions to an extent that has weakened trade union power to this day; privatise many of the industries nationalised under Attlee; survive an assassination attempt by the IRA; increase ties with the US under Ronald Reagan; and deregulate the financial sector. Rioting after the attempt to introduce a flat-rate “poll tax” lost her much support, and her own party eventually forced her resignation.
8. Tony Blair (Labour, 1997-2007)
By 1997, Britain had been governed by the Conservatives for 18 years, and the Conservative Party had been dogged by infighting over the EU and a plethora of scandals. By contrast, Tony Blair – a graduate of St John’s College, Oxford – seemed fresh-faced and new, presenting his party as a more centrist force than Labour had been previously, dubbed New Labour. The result was the biggest landslide victory seen since the war, and for his first term, the success continued as he contributed to the end of conflict in Northern Ireland; introduced the National Minimum Wage; and reformed the House of Lords. The result was an election victory in 2001 where he lost just 5 seats from his historic 1997 landslide.
But from that point on things began to go downhill. His close relationship with US President George W Bush was criticised, and while his 2003 decision to invade Iraq was initially popular, public opinion soon turned against it. He won a third term in 2005, but with a reduced majority and perhaps due to the weakness of the Conservative opposition. In 2007 he was forced to resign in favour of his long-standing colleague and rival, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.
9. David Cameron (Conservative, 2010-2016)
David Cameron, a graduate of Brasenose College, Oxford, was in many ways a duplicate of Blair: a fresh, younger politician promising a move to the centre and a break from the past. By 2010 Britain was struggling through the aftermath of the financial crisis, and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown was seen as dour and stale after 13 years in government. The election result of 2010 resulted in a hung parliament, leading to a coalition between David Cameron’s Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – the successor party to the Liberals.
Cameron’s policy of austerity to tackle the financial crisis was met with criticism, but his party continued to poll well, and the collapse of support for their Liberal Democrat coalition partners delivered a shock majority win in the 2015 general election. However, to gain the support needed for that win, Cameron had promised his party a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union – a promise widely believed he never expected to keep, in the belief that Liberal Democrats would refuse it in coalition negotiations. Cameron campaigned for continued membership, but the Remain campaign lost with 48% of the vote to the Leave campaign’s 52%, and he announced his resignation the day the results were declared.
10. Theresa May (Conservative, 2016-present)
Britain’s current Prime Minister, Theresa May, studied at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Her success in winning the leadership of the Conservative Party – and thus becoming Prime Minister – was unexpected, after rivals Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom dropped out of the race to leave it uncontested.
Initially she was seen as a safe pair of hands and her early popularity was considerable, leading her to call a snap general election in 2017 as a means to increase her slender majority and give her a renewed mandate in Brexit negotiations. The gambit backfired after a misjudged election campaign, and she continued as Prime Minister only with the support of a Northern Irish political party, the DUP. Despite earlier speeches on supporting the working class and combating the injustices in British society, she has thus far made few changes to Cameron-era policies, with the continued struggle to achieve a resolution on Brexit taking up virtually all her time and energy. What the verdict will be on her time as Prime Minister remains uncertain. What is likely is that her replacement will have attended the same university as her: of the five people currently believed to be most likely to be the next Prime Minister, four are Oxford graduates.