Date of Publication: 19 April 2021
For over 900 years, Oxford has educated some of the greatest political leaders in the world. And none more so than some of the most recognised British Prime Ministers in history. From 17th-Century leader, Earl of Wilmington through the centuries to current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, Oxford has long held an association with politics.
With 28 British Prime Ministers having studied here so far, Oxford tops the ranks as the university in the UK to have educated the most political leaders. Second to this is Cambridge, who, by comparison, has educated just 14.
How Many Prime Ministers Went to Oxford?
As of April 2021, a total of 28 British Prime Ministers have been educated at the University of Oxford.
According to the university’s website;
“Of these, thirteen were educated at Christ Church, three at Trinity, four at Balliol, two at Brasenose and one each at Hart Hall (now Hertford), Jesus College, St Hugh’s, St John’s, Somerville, and University College.”
12 British Prime Ministers Who Studied at Oxford
Below, we’ve selected 12 of the most recognised Prime Ministers to have studied at Oxford. Spanning the past 350 years, each of them have left their mark firmly in British history and played a key role in shaping modern politics into what we know it as today.
1. Boris Johnson (1964- )
Political Party: Conservative
Time as Prime Minister: July 2019 – [Currently serving as Prime Minister]
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – more widely known as Boris Johnson – is a British politician and writer, currently serving as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party (since July 2019).
He’s had a 20-year political career so far, officially beginning in 2001 when he was elected MP for Henley until 2008. His other roles have included; Mayor of London from 2008 to 2016, MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip since 2015, and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs from 2016 to 2018.
Boris Johnson in Oxford
In line with three other Prime ministers who studied at Oxford, Mr Johnson completed his university studies at Balliol College, where he read ‘Literae Humaniores’ – a four-year course revolving around the study of Classics, Ancient Literature and Classical Philosophy. Here, he was awarded an upper second-class honours degree.
Outside of his academic studies, Mr Johnson was heavily involved in the university’s extracurricular opportunities. Whilst in Oxford, he co-edited the university’s satirical magazine Tributary and involved himself heavily with the Oxford Union – the university’s prestigious debating society. In 1984, he was elected secretary. Two years later, in 1986, he ran successfully for the role of Union President – foreshadowing his future leadership as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
2. Theresa May (1956 – )
Political Party: Conservative
Time as Prime Minister: July 2016 – July 2019
Theresa May’s political career began in 1997 when she was elected MP for Maidenhead. During her involvement with British Politics, Theresa May has acted as chairwoman of the Conservative Party (2002 – 2003), served as Home Secretary (2010 – 2016) under David Cameron’s government, and of course, served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party from 2016 to 2019.
Under David Cameron’s resignation, Theresa May was appointed to trigger Article 50, officially beginning the process of withdrawing the UK from the European Union in March 2017. After attempting to hold a snap general election to strengthen her Brexit negotiations, May was forced to form a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to support a minority government.
Despite holding office while unemployment in the UK fell to record lows since 1975, May’s legacy remained in her inability to pass a withdrawal agreement for Brexit through Parliament. After three attempts, she resigned and was succeeded by Boris Johnson, her former Foreign Secretary.
Theresa May in Oxford
Theresa May grew up in Oxfordshire, where she was educated through her primary and secondary years before attending St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Here, she read the subject of Geography and graduated with a second-class BA degree in 1977.
Despite studying Geography, Theresa May apparently had great political ambitions throughout her university education, apparently telling her university friend, Pat Frankland: “I cannot remember a time when she did not have political ambitions.”
3. David Cameron (1966 – )
Political Party: Conservative
Time as Prime Minister: May 2010 – July 2016
David Cameron, British politician, businessman, lobbyist, and author, served as Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016. Before, he had been a Member of Parliament for Witney in Oxfordshire for 15 years, and the leader of the Conservative Party between the years 2005 to 2016.
Initially, Cameron’s first term as Prime Minister was in coalition with the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, where the pair led a hung parliament. When both parties took office, the UK was still emerging from the earlier financial crash. Cameron’s government brought in strict austerity measures which, although were met with criticism, earned him the support of the majority when the Liberal Democrats lost the 2015 general election.
However, to secure the support for that win, one of the biggest promises Cameron made during his campaigning was to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. Despite campaigning for the Remain campaign, he lost to the 52% majority of the Leave campaigners in June 2016’s referendum, where he then announced his resignation.
David Cameron in Oxford
It was October 1985 when David Cameron began his Bachelor of Arts course in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) at Brasenose College, Oxford. Despite his interest in the subject, Cameron apparently avoided student politics while in Oxford because, as he told his friend of the time, “he wanted to have a good time.”
He graduated from Oxford with a first-class honours degree in 1988, which was later promoted to an MA. His academia was praised by one of his tutors, for Cameron being “one of the ablest” students he had taught. From here, he went on to join the Conservative research department where he worked for then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her successor, John Major.
4. Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013)
Political Party: Conservative
Time as Prime Minister: May 1979 – November 1990
Baroness Margaret Thatcher is one of the world’s most recognised female leaders in history. Her time in politics was ground-breaking for the time; she was the first woman to become British Prime Minister – a position she held for 11 years, earning her recognition as the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th Century.
But her worldly recognition goes beyond breaking these milestones; during her time as British Prime Minister, a Soviet Journalist dubbed her the “Iron Lady,” a nickname which became associated with her leadership style and uncompromising political ideas – ideas and policies which were implemented and have since become known as “Thatcherism.”
Margaret Thatcher in Oxford
Margaret Thatcher arrived at the University of Oxford in 1943, where she read Chemistry at Somerville College for four years. Under the supervision of Nobel Prize-winning Dorothy Hodgkin, Mrs Thatcher specialised in X-ray crystallography, and had a profound interest in the development of medicines and diagnostics in improving the human condition.
Outside of her tutorials, Baroness Thatcher pursued her interest in politics and successfully landed the position as President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1946. It was here that she became heavily influenced by political works such as Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944), which condemned the idea of economic intervention by the government.
5. Harold Wilson (1916 – 1995)
Political Party: Labour
Time as Prime Minister: October 1964 to June 1970; March 1974 to April 1976
Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, or Harold Wilson, is one of the few individuals on our list who have held office twice; once from October 1964 to June 1970, and again from March 1974 to April 1976.
He was first elected to office in 1964, after a narrow victory at the election. His first period as Prime Minister was mainly positive; there were low unemployment rates and signs of economic prosperity – although this was later hindered by problems with Britain’s external balance of payments. His government also oversaw significant changes within the UK, including the abolition of capital punishment, theatre censorship, decriminalisation of homosexuality, and relaxing the divorce laws.
Despite leading in opinion polls, Labour unexpectedly lost the 1970 election to the Conservatives. Wilson spent the next four years remaining as leader of the Labour party, before leading them to a semi-victory in 1974 with a hung parliament. During this time in office, Wilson oversaw the referendum for the UK’s membership of the European Economic Community. However, the economic crisis which was beginning to swarm many Western countries led him to suddenly announce his resignation as Prime Minister in 1976.
Harold Wilson in Oxford
There aren’t many Prime Ministers who went to Oxford and have achieved such academic excellence as Harold Wilson. It was 1934 when Wilson was matriculated at Jesus College, Oxford where he read Modern History. Whilst at university, he was a moderately active political member, joining the Liberal Party.
After graduating from Jesus college with a first-class Bachelor of Arts degree, he continued to follow his education, having become one of the youngest Oxford dons at the age of 21. He also held positions as a lecturer in Economic History at New College and as a research fellow at nearby University College.
6. Sir Alec-Douglas Home (1903 – 1995)
Political Party: Unionist / Conservative
Time as Prime Minister: October 1963 – October 1964
Sir Alec Douglas-Home was the last Prime Minister to hold office while also being a member of the House of Lords, which he was forced to give up due to the changing pressures of politicians in the 1960s.
For the short time in which he was appointed as Prime Minister, Douglas-Home was criticised for his “old-fashioned” and “aristocratic” demeanour. Many of his contemporaries believed his understanding of economics to be primitive, which he gave his Chancellor, Reginald Maudling, free reign to manage.
Instead, Douglas-Home preferred handling foreign policy, which he is remembered more for – due to the two terms in which he served as Britain’s foreign minister before his rise to power. During this period, he played an important role in two major milestones: supporting the United States to resolve the Cuban Missile Crises, and, being the UK signatory of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1964.
Sir Alec Douglas-Home in Oxford
Initially, Sir Alec-Douglas Home attended Eton College before going on to read Modern History at Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated with a third-class honours BA degree in 1925.
Unlike previous Prime Ministers who went to Oxford, Douglas-Home sacrificed much of his studying to playing sport. A keen cricketer in his younger years, he represented the Oxford University Cricket Club during his years in the city, as well as playing for Middlesex County Cricket Club and Marylebone Cricket Club. Between 1924 and 1927, he played ten first-class matches, scoring an average run of 16.3. Many of these took place internationally, leaving little room for academia.
7. Clement Attlee (1883 – 1967)
Political Party: Labour
Time as Prime Minister: October 1951 – November 1955
Another prime minister who studied at Oxford was post-war leader, Clement Attlee. Attlee’s rise to office was unexpected, after winning a surprising landslide victory in 1945, beating former wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Despite only being in office for just two years, Attlee’s government made significant changes to British society. After having spent a lot of time on the 1942 Beveridge Report, his time in office allowed him to establish a modern welfare state; creating the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), state pensions, free secondary school education, and many more public improvements. Many of these measures were controversial for the time, especially during a period of austerity caused by the war.
Because of this, Attlee’s government later faltered and caused them to lose the next election. However, it shouldn’t be underestimated the effects Attlee had on society – many of his policies, including the establishment of the NHS continue to be favoured as one of the most popular initiatives that the British government has ever introduced.
Clement Atlee in Oxford
In 1901, Atlee was matriculated at University College, Oxford, where he read Modern History. At university, he actually displayed little interest in Politics or Economics, instead, enjoying the generous stipend his father gave him for his university years – spending much of his time rowing, reading and socialising with his peers.
Attlee graduated from Oxford in 1904 with a second-class honours Bachelor of Arts degree. From here, he went on to train as a barrister at the Inner Temple, where he was called to sit his bar in March 1906.
8. H. H. Asquith (1852 – 1928)
Political party: Liberal
Time as Prime Minister: April 1908 – December 1916
Oxford-educated Herbert Henry Asquith was British Prime Minister in the earlier days of the 20th Century, where he held office for a total of eight years. His time as Prime Minister was significant, but for mixed reasons. He played a central role in designing and passing major liberal legislation, while also reducing the power of the House of Lords. He also introduced salaries for MPs, allowing those of lower incomes and backgrounds to take up the role.
However, it was his later years in office which ultimately led to his demise as Prime Minister. Contrary to the views of his party, Asquith opposed women’s suffrage, losing him valuable support from his peers. In addition, when Britain entered the First World War, Asquith struggled to manage the conflict and was blamed for a shortage of munitions.
As such, he was forced to form a coalition government with other parties, which ultimately failed to satisfy his critics. He resigned in December 1916 and left the legacy of being the last Liberal Prime Minister to have been able to form a majority government.
H. H. Asquith in Oxford
It was 1969 when Asquith was matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford, after having won a classical scholarship to study there. Very soon after joining, he found his passion for politics and debating – speaking at the Oxford Union after just one month of being at the university.
He was often found promoting his Liberal viewpoints, speaking in favour of the disestablishment of the Church of England and of non-intervention during the Franco-Prussian War. In his final term as an undergraduate in 1874, he was elected President of the Union.
After his graduation in 1874, Asquith was elected to a prize fellowship of Balliol, where he resided for seven years. However, he had no wish to pursue a career as a don – the traditional role for the politically ambiguous young men. Instead, during his time in Oxford, he entered Lincoln’s Inn to train as a barrister, before eventually crafting his career in politics.
9. William Ewart Gladstone (1809 – 1898)
Political Party: Liberal
Time as Prime Minister: December 1868 – February 1874, April 1880 – June 1885, February 1886 – July 1886, August 1892 – March 1894
In the 19th Century, William Gladstone was a key player in British politics, as demonstrated by his four terms in office as Prime Minister. In a career that spanned 60 years, he spent 12 of these as British Prime Minister, as well as an additional 12 serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
During his time in office, Gladstone was hugely popular amongst the working class, mainly due to his work promoting cautious government spend. He also introduced secret ballots, increased the number of men who could vote in an election, fought for the lives of those living in poverty, and campaigned passionately to improve the lives of farmers in Ireland, including fairer terms for renting land.
William Gladstone left Parliament in 1895. Aged 84, he was both the oldest person to serve as Prime Minister and the only Prime Minister to have served four terms.
William Ewart Gladstone in Oxford
Following in the footsteps of his elder brothers, Gladstone studied at Eton College before reading Classics and Mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford from 1828. He graduated with a double first-class degree in 1831, something which his peers said he had long pursued.
During his time in Oxford, Gladstone also served as President of the Oxford Union, where he developed a reputation as an excellent public speaker. As a supporter of the Conservative Party during his years at university, he spoke passionately about matters important to him, such as denouncing the Whig Party’s proposals to reform the government.
Note: He later joined the Liberal Party in 1859, after Lord Palmerston formed a new mixed Government composed of the Peelites and the Radicals of the time.
10. Sir Robert Peel (1788 – 1850)
Political Party: Conservative
Time as Prime Minister: December 1834 – April 1835, August 1841 – June 1846
Twice appointed as Prime Minister and as Home Secretary for the United Kingdom, Sir Robert Peel has become recognised as one of the most influential political figures of the 19th Century.
Unlike his predecessors, Robert Peel came from a far less aristocratic background, having grown up as the son of an industrial, self-made man. As such, he led the charge in what many believed to be the creation of the “modern” Conservative Party. One of his most well-recognised and favoured policies while in office was his founding of the Metropolitan Police Service, leading to a new type of officer known as “bobbies.”
However, his time in office didn’t come without some opposition. Firstly, he supported Catholic emancipation, a rather controversial topic at the time. He also supported repealing the old Corn Laws, which would restrict grain imports and thus, go on to raise the price of food and land ownership in the UK. Ultimately, this decision caused his party to split, with the “Peelites” merging with the Whigs to form what we know as the Liberal Party.
Sir Robert Peel in Oxford
Interestingly, Sir Robert Peel is just one of thirteen prime ministers who studied at Christ Church, Oxford. In fact, Christ Church is the Oxford college which has produced more British Prime Ministers than any other in the city.
He matriculated at Christ Church in 1805, where he was the first student at the university to study a double degree in Classics and Mathematics. In 1808, he graduated with a double first class degree.
Later, in 1817, he would return to the University of Oxford, where he ran as MP until 1829. During his time as MP, he paid homage to his tutor, Charles Lloyd, who he appointed as Bishop of Oxford (1827-1829).
11. William Cavendish-Bentinck (1738 – 1809)
Political Party: Conservative
Time as Prime Minister: April 1783 – December 1783, March 1807 – October 1809
William Cavendish-Bentick, more formally known as the 3rd Duke of Portland, was a British Whig and then Conservative politician during the late Georgian period. He served twice as Prime Minister; once of Great Britain (1783) and then of the United Kingdom (1807 – 1809). The 24-year gap between his terms of office is the longest of any British prime minister.
Despite later becoming a member of the Conservative Party, the Duke of Portland had always considered himself to be a Whig. However, he was an important figure in the reformation of British Politics, where the foundations for the Tory government were laid. This, interestingly, is what he is remembered for far more than his time spent in office.
As British Prime Minister, one of his major acts was the introduction of the Treaty of Paris 1783, which was the formal end to the American War of Independence.
William Cavendish-Bentinck in Oxford
Unlike many of the other British Prime Ministers who studied at Oxford, the Duke of Portland was initially educated at Westminster School, rather than the popular Eton College. However, like many of the other Prime Ministers on our list, he did complete his higher education at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was awarded his MA in 1757.
However, the Duke of Portland’s time in Oxford extended past his education. Between 1792 – 1809, he also served as the Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
12. Earl of Wilmington (1683 – 1743)
Political Party: Whig
Time as Prime Minister: February 1742 – July 1743
The 1st Earl of Wilmington, Spencer Compton, was a British Whig statesman who served continuously in the British government from 1715 until his death in 1743. He was only the second individual to have been considered Britain’s Prime Minister, after his fellow Whig party member, Robert Walpole.
His career began in the House of Commons in the year 1698. In 1728, he was raised to the peerage and sat in the House of Lords until he served as the British Prime Minister until he passed away on 2 July 1743.
Earl of Wilmington in Oxford
The Earl of Wilmington holds recognition as the first of the British Prime ministers who studied at Oxford. In line with the times, aged 15, the Earl of Wilmington was matriculated on 28 February 1690, at Trinity College.
Little is known about the Earl of Wilmington’s time in Oxford, as records are limited. However, what is known, is that Trinity College was one of the most common colleges for British Prime Ministers of the late 18th Century to attend, with Lord North and the Earl of Chatham also having studied there.
Study Politics in Oxford this summer
Want to follow in the footsteps of some of the influential politicians in British history?
You too could study Politics in Oxford this summer!
Join us for a two-week summer course, where we’ll immerse you in an authentic university experience; like the Prime Ministers on our list, you could be staying in some of the same colleges they studied, including Christ Church, Brasenose, and Somerville.
Your course will cover all the fundamentals of the subject, including fairness, equality and justice. Through engaging seminars and deep-dive tutorials, you’ll explore how they impact today’s modern political climate, including their place in debate and controversy.
You’ll also benefit from an exciting extracurricular timetable of activities where you’ll get up close and experience the best that Oxford has to offer students. Enjoy an afternoon of sport at the University Parks, or enjoy a study session in one of the city’s bustling coffee stores. Never tried punting before? Now’s your chance! There’s so much to see and enjoy in the city this summer – and we can’t wait to share it all with you.