Sir John Major was right when he recently described the dominance of a privately educated elite in the upper echelons of public life as “truly shocking”. However, his analysis overlooks the fact that there is a pecking order between private schools. The school that undeniably rules the roost is Eton. If you are educated at Eton – where fees are £33,370 p.a. before extras - you have a far higher chance of scaling society’s heights than if you go to a “bog-standard” private school, let alone than if you are one of the benighted 93% who go to state school.
Eton has supplied the country’s leaders for centuries. More than a third of British prime ministers have been Old Etonians -19 out of 53. And the power and influence of Old Etonians shows no sign of diminishing in the Twenty First century. Their number currently includes David Cameron, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Princes William and Harry, Boris Johnson, five close advisers to the PM and the Chancellor, both inside and outside the Cabinet, and countless powerful men (it is a single sex school) in the judiciary, the media and the City.
It is wrong to pre-judge anyone because they went to a particular school – every individual should be judged by their own words and actions. Here are three very different Old Etonians – the good, the patrician and the downright ugly.
Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell, is my good Old Etonian. After witnessing the injustice of colonialism when he was an imperial policeman in Burma as a young man, he turned his back on the comfortable path open to him and spent the rest of his short life (he died aged only 46) fighting against two evils – totalitarianism and poverty.
Orwell was a socialist who wanted to improve the lot of the poor through fundamental change to the structure of society. Such ideas would have been anathema to another Old Etonian, Harold Macmillan, who was PM between 1957 and 1963.
Macmillan was a patrician who assumed that people like him had both the right and duty to lead. The way that he, like all Tory leaders before 1965, rose to the top of their party, symbolised how society worked more widely. There was nothing as grubby as an election by MPs, let alone by party members. Tory leaders simply “emerged” from a “magic circle” of the party’s grandees.
Macmillan was concerned about those less fortunate than himself. His worldview was deeply affected by his experience serving in the trenches, when he was wounded at the Somme; and by the misery he saw in his Stockton constituency during the Depression in the Thirties. He believed in the feudal concept of noblesse oblige which means that the privileged – whilst staying privileged – should recognise that they have an obligation, within limits, to help and respect the less privileged.
Here is an extract from a speech of Macmillan’s in 1984 attacking Margaret Thatcher’s description of striking miners as “the enemy within”. It is not possible to imagine Cameron, the 19th Old Etonian PM, speaking in these terms.
“It breaks my heart to see…what is happening in our country today. This terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser's and Hitler's armies and never gave in…. Then there is the growing division of comparative prosperity in the south and the ailing north and Midlands. We used to have battles and rows but they were quarrels. Now there is a new kind of wicked hatred that has been brought in by different types of people.”
Cameron’s government’s odious attacks designed to smear the poor and powerless as “skivers” and “scroungers” are an example of the “new kind of wicked hatred” that Macmillan abhorred.
Cameron has only once stepped outside the rarefied worlds of Eton, Oxford and Westminster, when a relative obtained a job for him on a six figure salary as head of PR for a TV company. He has been shaped by Eton and Thatcher.
From Eton, he has had a smoothed path through life and the same sense of entitlement as Macmillan.
From Thatcherism, he has a mistaken belief that he has risen through a meritocratic process, which has made him arrogant, and he also has a hard-faced attitude towards those at the bottom of society. He has no sense of Macmillan’s noblesse oblige.
Cameron believes the Thatcherite rhetoric that anyone can succeed if they have talent and work hard enough. But this is a cruel myth. Inequality and social mobility in the UK are among the very worst in the Western world. There are exceptions, of course, but most people who are at the bottom of British society are stuck there, however hard they work.
Cameron is arrogant and heartless. He is a downright ugly Old Etonian.