‘Repeat after me, gentlemen: “Thank you for not letting me into your Oxbridge college because I belong to the wrong social class and I have been too well taught.’’’
I do hope they include this catechism in the new ‘gratitude’ lessons that they’re about to introduce at Eton. They should do because it’s true. Across the country, private school parents who have scrimped and saved about £40,000 a year for fees are increasingly finding that their sacrifice is being rewarded by near-automatic Oxbridge rejection for their blameless offspring.
And who is speaking out against this class war-driven injustice? Almost no one.
It’s so much easier to voice right-wing views if you’re a horny-handed son of toil.
‘No one wants to send their son to Eton any more,’ I learned from last week’s Spectator Schools supplement. It explained how parents who’d been privately educated themselves were increasingly reluctant to extend the privilege to their offspring; some because they can’t bear for their darling babies to board, others because the fees are way out of their reach, or because class prejudice is so entrenched these days it means their kids probably won’t get into Oxbridge.
Then again, if you don’t send your kids to public school, you’ll be denying them never-to-be-repeated opportunities like the ones that boys at Radley have had this week: the chance to see not one, but two of your favourite Spectator writers — me and Brendan O’Neill, both invited as part of the school’s admirable Provocateur in Residence programme — slugging it out in class after class on vexed political issues from Donald Trump to safe spaces, #MeToo to student snowflakes, Antifa to Islamism.
In both cases, my thought was the same: if only these were the private holiday photographs of private people of whose existence we never had to know!
What I mean by this is that I know lots and lots of people just like Cameron and Carney. They have good degrees from good universities; they have big houses in London and stonkingly gorgeous retreats in expensive parts of the country; they’ve married well (Cameron to a baronet’s daughter and heiress; Carney to the sister of Lady Rotherwick, chatelaine of the big house at Cornbury Park where the Wilderness Festival is staged); they’re all mates with Jeremy Clarkson; they’ll all be spending at least a week this summer in Cornwall to go with their Mediterranean fortnight either in a £20,000 a week villa or on a mate’s yacht; they’re all tremendous fun to be with because they’re very comfortably off and actually money does buy you happiness; they’ve all got kids at Eton, Radley and Marlborough or Wycombe Abbey; and so on.
But here’s where the similarity ends: unlike Cameron and Carney you’ve never heard of these people – at least outside the Bystander pages of Tatler – because they keep themselves to themselves.
They’ve spent their lives doing what most people from moneyed backgrounds do: keeping what they’ve got and accumulating more of it in order that their beautiful, immaculately mannered children can go on to enjoy existences as charmed as their parents’.
Personally I have no objection to this because I’m not a class warrior and anyway some of these people are my friends. (Also, I like to think that one day my children will marry into one of those families and I rather like the idea of being able to spend my twilight years in one of the tied cottages on a 20,000 acre Cotswold estate.)
There’s only one set of circumstances where I do find myself set against these people – when, indeed, it occurs to me that the sans-culottes who offed Marie Antoinette and the rest might have had a point: and that’s when you catch them trying to pull up the drawbridge to ensure that no one else gets to enjoy what they have.
The most obvious recent example of this was the Brexit referendum when they voted en masse to preserve their special privileges by keeping us proles locked inside the European superstate.
Usually, the only time they cause genuine harm to the rest of us is when they go into public office.
Even then, this wouldn’t be a problem if they were capable of acting against their class interests. But neither Cameron nor Carney has possessed the moral fibre to achieve this.
Ex-pupils from a bog-standard London comprehensive school are trying to nix a visit by Homeland and Band of Brothers star Damian Lewis because he is too posh.
Since Lewis was privately educated at £30,000 a year Eton, they claim, he represents a “wholly inappropriate choice” of celebrity guest to launch the 50th anniversary celebrations of Acland Burghley school in Tufnell Park, North London.
The campaign to ban Lewis was launched by a former pupil of the school called Rachel Cohen, 30, who has now risen to the dizzy heights of lecturing in Sociology at the University of London.
“Damian Lewis, was educated at Eton a school that, more than any other, represents the reproduction of privilege and inequality in the UK.
“We have nothing against him as an actor or local resident, but he is a wholly inappropriate choice for this celebration of a wonderful local comprehensive school.”
So far her campaign has attracted 90 signatures. (Not literal signatures, obviously, because that might involve an ability to write with a pen).
There are many reasons to celebrate Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar last night – from his charming and refreshingly brief acceptance speech to the fact that the award didn’t go to Benedict “This is what a feminist looks like” Cumberbatch – is the wailing and consternation and gnashing of teeth it will cause among the chippy anti-public-school brigade, people who hate Eton (Redmayne’s alma mater) especially.
[US readers please note: when we say ‘public school’ in Britain, we are referring to ‘private schools’, not what you would call ‘public schools’ which we call ‘state schools’. Oh and we don’t know what you mean by ‘cilantro’ either. We call it ‘coriander’. Capisce?]
As Redmayne’s fellow Old Etonian (OEs, as they are known), Damian Lewis, once quipped: “Eton is a four-letter word.” And he’s absolutely right, for a lot of people it is. They see the penguin uniforms (black tail coats; waistcoats; stiff white collars) and they see the products (which currently include the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Mayor of London and the second in line to the throne, Prince William) and they’re filled with uncontrollable jealousy and rage and hatred which they try to dignify by couching it as an honest aversion to “elitism” and “unearned privilege” and “a sense of entitlement”.
True, Old Etonians can be irritating, as for example Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby reminded us recently with his lame-arsed attacks on capitalism and his feeble handwringing response to ISIS’s murder of those unfortunate Coptic Christians.
But if you’re going to blame an Eton education for Justin Welby (and David Cameron, Earl Spencer, the Hon Sir Jonathan Porritt, Oliver Letwin, etc) then how do you explain John Prescott, Dale Vince, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Jeffrey Dahmer – not one of whom, so far as I’m aware, is entitled to wear the black and turquoise striped OE tie?
No, the real reason people hate Eton is that its products are so spectacularly successful. In the world of acting, for example, besides Redmayne and Lewis, they include Tom Hiddleston, Harry Lloyd, Dominic West and Hugh “House” Laurie. And the reason they’ve succeeded – against the odds: the entertainment industry, like most industries these days is riddled with anti-‘elitist’ prejudice – is because they have benefited from the kind of classic, rigorous, old school, liberal arts education which the left has sought for so long to destroy.
Sure it probably helps having high cheek-bones, good breeding, and a natural affinity with the Queen’s English. But there are lots of boys from poorer backgrounds on bursaries at Eton too and these go on to perform at least as well in the outside world as the scions of the English upper classes.
That’s because among the life skills Eton continues unapologetically to instill in its boys, in return for its annual fees (circa £30,000 pa) are: self-discipline; independence of mind (despite its traditionalist air, Eton is run more like a libertarian experiment: there are no official bed times, for example, and you do your homework when you want to do rather than when you are told to do); impeccable manners; extreme competitiveness; well-roundedness (they don’t care what you do, whether it’s beagling, DJ-ing, calligraphy, gaming, rowing, or drama, just so long as you cultivate interests beyond the school curriculum); humility (yes, really: most Etonians I’ve met are hugely grateful for the privilege of their education, which they are encouraged to repay through schemes like the one where they ‘mentor’ state school pupils); wit (banter, is, of course, very important and on a very high level at Eton); and the ability to mask the immense ambition most of them have with that quality known as “Etonian charm.”
I can’t remember which massively successful Old Etonian actor said that – there are so many: Eddie Redmayne, Harry Lloyd, Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Damian Lewis – but whichever of the gazillions it was you know what he was getting at. An Eton education is as much as stigma for some as it is a badge of honour for others.
Two perfect examples of this are Prime Minister David Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
Both went to “School”, as Etonians will insist on calling it (the capital in the S is silent). But where David Cameron finds it an albatross round his neck, Boris Johnson exults in it. This tells us something about Eton; but much more about the characters of the two men.
What it tells you about Eton is that it can bring out the best and the worst in you. It is, by some margin, the world’s finest school – with the coolest uniform (white shirt and tailcoat), the most arcane traditions and terminology, the richest history, the largest number of famous old boys – and everyone who goes there is excruciatingly aware of this from the moment on day one where their Dame (like a cross between their honorary Mum and the house matron) shows them how to put on their starched, Edwardian-style collar and they head off towards a chapel built by the school’s founder Henry VI in 1440.
Surrounded by such magnificence, you have two basic options: to spend the rest of your life being quietly grateful at having had the very best education the world can offer; or to become a smug, arrogant wanker with the most massive sense of entitlement and a sly contempt for all those oiks beneath you who didn’t make the grade.
And guess which categories journalist’s son and scholarship boy Boris Johnson and rich stockbroker’s son David Cameron fit into…..
But it would be unfair to blame either Cameron or Johnson for the choices their parents made for them. Far more telling is the way they have chosen to respond to the experience.
Cameron, while surrounding himself in government with a cabal of fellow Old Etonians, has yet sought to distance himself from his educational background at every opportunity. He clearly sees it as a badge of shame that doesn’t play well with the public and doesn’t advance his mission to “modernise” the Conservative party.
Johnson, on the other hand, appears utterly unfazed by his Eton experience. He flaunts his rich vocabulary, his Latin and Greek, and his booming upper-crust accent (which, unlike Cameron, he has never sought to modify). The fact that he is lucky enough to have been educated at the world’s best school is clearly a source of great joy to him.
Since Johnson announced his return to Westminster politics this week by declaring his plans to stand as an MP, there has been much speculation as to whether he might be suited to the job of Prime Minister. Everyone has become instant expert on the subject – those who declare him a buffoon and a clown; those who think he’s as bad a faux-Tory as David Cameron and that his regime as London Mayor has been little more than Continuation Ken Livingstone; those who think he’s the great white hope of libertarian-ish right-wing politics who has come to save us all.
A new survey thinks it’s got Britons squeezed into seven categories – but the glory of our class system is that it offers us endless opportunities to become whoever we want to be.
Which class are you? I reckon I’m upper middle. Lower, fake, poseur, scumbag upper middle, to be more precise, because despite exhibiting many of the signs of reasonable-ish social smartness (public school and Oxbridge education; mildly fruity pronunciation; Georgian vicarage home), I’m secretly tinged with lots of hidden common.
For example, one of my grandfathers was the gaffer at the local electrical works – and that’s not posh. Nor are the Midlands and Black Country accents used by quite a few of my close relatives. Nor is having been born anywhere near Birmingham (as I was, arkid). Nor is the fact that I don’t own my gorgeous ironstone country rectory: I rent it because, while I have huge pretensions, I’m in fact totally skint.
Yet, were you ever to meet my upper-class landlord, you’d think I were the toff, not him. He dresses like a down-at-heel student; I wear a sturdy, Cordings hacking jacket. He’d happily spend his life chopping up logs or watching DVDs, whereas I’d rather be out huntin’, shootin’ or fishin’. I stride around his Capability-Brown-landscaped estate like I own it, whereas he acts more like the junior undergardener.
So where, exactly, would he and I fit in to the new study by the BBC Lab UK, and published this week in the Sociology Journal, which says there are now seven social classes in Britain: Elite; Established Middle Class; Technical Middle Class; New Affluent Workers; Traditional Working Class; Emergent Service Workers; and Precariat – or Precarious Proletariat? Nowhere, I’d say, for these definitions just aren’t up to the job. If you really wanted to capture the rich, glorious and oh-so-nuanced stratifications of the British class system, you’d need closer to 700 gradations than that measly, reductionist seven.
To be fair to the study, it does at least have a stab at finding a definition of class that extends beyond the usual “working, middle and upper”. Besides how well paid or wealthy you are, the study posits, your class is also a function of your social capital (how many people you know and what their status is) and your cultural capital (the extent and nature of your cultural interests).
All this is true and it’s one of the things that has always separated Britain’s social class system from, say, America’s, which is much more strictly income-dependent. This was evident even as far back as the 19th century, when the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited the US. He was at once impressed and appalled to discover a new kind of society where values such as noblesse oblige had no meaning: being upper class was more or less synonymous with being rich and since, in the land of the free, anyone could supposedly make their fortune through hard work, there was much less social guilt or sentimental pity for the plight of the poor.
But what the study doesn’t capture (how could it possibly? It would be the work of several lifetimes) is the degree to which, even in post‑Blair Britain, so many of us continue to eat, breathe, speak, work, play, dream, dress, make love and live every last detail of our lives in ways defined by an invisible code that no foreigner could ever hope to comprehend but which we all understand perfectly.
Let me give you one example of how obscure these nuances get. Waitrose is posher than Sainsbury’s; Sainsbury’s is posher than Tesco. But if you’re really über-posh you’re just as likely to go to bargain basement Aldi a) because if you’re really posh, you’re probably also asset-rich and cash-poor and b) because you’re so confident of your social status that you don’t need to show off, like lower-middle-class people do, by paying too much for your groceries at Waitrose.
Here’s another. The defining characteristic of posh English teenagers is that they have to dress head to toe in Jack Wills: this applies throughout, except at Eton – arguably the poshest school of the lot (except maybe Radley) – where boys wouldn’t be seen dead in Jack Wills because it has a branch on Eton High Street, which somehow renders it tainted and non-U. The way to tell an Etonian, in any case, is that he tends to dress and speak down, not up: it’s a survival tactic born of trying to avoid being beaten up by Windsor boys.
Another subtle signifier is the concept of shabby chic. To a visiting American, say, a big house that had been done up to the nines with everything beautifully finished by artisan craftsmen would be an obvious status symbol: this person has made it, they’ve arrived! To a certain kind of Englishman, though, it would mean the exact opposite. No one can be properly smart in a house where the furniture isn’t bashed and the carpets aren’t frayed and everything doesn’t smell of wet dog. Too much polish and cleanliness are vulgar.
The problem now – if you’re the sort of person who thinks it is a problem – is that socially ambitious oiks have cottoned on to this distinction. (How could they not? The concept of U and non-U goes back to the Fifties, and there have been loads of similar climbers’ guides since, such as my Eighties bible, The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook.) Companies such as Farrow & Ball have built a lucrative industry on this, catering to aspirational wives of new-money City types who’ve twigged that all you need to rise a couple of notches is to paint your hallway Elephant’s Breath and your guest room Mouse’s Back.
This is an important detail missed by those earnest class warriors who bang on about the limitations of being born in a country where – allegedly – you only have to open your mouth for another Englishman to despise you. The glory of our class system is not that it’s constricting but rather that it offers endless opportunities to become whoever you want to be. It’s not a straitjacket. It’s the equivalent of that marvellous changing room in the magical shop visited by Mr Benn where he escapes the dreariness of Festive Road to become an astronaut or deep-sea diver or knight errant.
Did being born Welsh (in a place called Splott) – the son of a hairdresser and a self-employed French polisher – really hamper John Humphrys’ entry into the snooty, Oxbridge-dominated British media establishment? Not so that you’d notice. No more, I’d say, than having been born the daughter of a lowly Nigerian oil tycoon has prevented Emma McQuiston from becoming the future Marchioness of Bath. This is the point about the British class system: it’s porous and has been since at least the days when a lowly actress like Nell Gwynne could become the King’s mistress and become mother of the Earl of Burford (and later Duke of St Albans).
A good friend of mine spotted this very early on. Born into a desperately poor working-class household in Nottingham, he realised that he would never get on unless he learnt to mimic the ways of the middle classes. At university, he instructed his flatmates to correct his every error of pronunciation (for example, making him pronounce “pass” with a bourgeois long “a”, rather than a clipped Northern one), with the result that he can become whoever he wants to be at a moment’s notice. In legal circles (he’s a top barrister), he can play an Old Etonian smoothie (he has even memorised all the rules of the Wall Game); if he’s at a football match he can revert to broad Nottingham.
This same friend’s children, on the other hand, have to play an entirely different class game. Public school-educated in a world where “posh” people are about the last minority it’s socially permissible to persecute, they spend their social lives desperately trying to demonstrate how down-to-earth, ordinary and unsmart they are. They’d probably kill to have the authentic working-class credibility their father had – but which they can never benefit from socially because their dad has striven so hard to shake it off.
It was ever thus. If you could go back to a time as socially stratified as Victorian or Edwardian Britain, I doubt you would find it easy to tell who belonged where: not in an era when Earls and Dukes often spoke not in upper-class drawls but in the thick rural accents of their region; not with keen young Mister Pooters mimicking the affectations of their social betters. Class in Britain is a bit like a virus: just when you think you’ve pinned it down, it mutates into something else.
But asking what Mr Cameron really thinks on the subject of Europe misses the point: what he really thinks is that he wants to remain Prime Minister for the next six or seven years.
Yes. That streak of patrician, Macmillanite complacency will be the death of us all. I blame Eton. When Eton is good, it’s very, very good: look at the wondrous piece of work it has created in the form of Boris Johnson. Its big problem – at least it was in the days when Cameron was there: thankfully it’s much more selective, nowadays – is that it also does tend to turn out the kind of chap who goes through life being ineffably pleased with himself without any obvious reason for being so.
Dave Cameron always knew he was born to rule. What he never stopped to analyse, unfortunately, is the more important question of why – ie to what useful purpose – he might have been born to rule. In Cameron there’s none of that self-doubt, that introspection we ordinary mortals have. On the plus side this gives him the aura of cool capability that some deluded fools still persist in admiring in him as “Prime Ministerial”. But on the negative side it means that when people much brighter, more experienced and more knowledgeable try patiently to explain to him where he’s going wrong on environmental and energy policy, or on the inflationary spending which will destroy our economy, he’s so puffed up with complacency he just doesn’t want to know.
Maybe we’d all be better off if, like Churchill, he’d gone to Harrow. Churchill had a horrible time at school, of course, where he was a bit of a dunce. But Young Winston’s early adversity was what helped formed the character and ambition that made him the great leader he became. The closest Young Cameron came to early hardship was being rejected by Pop – the elected Etonian society for Etonians who are popular and are thought likely to do well. Perhaps that’s another reason we’re being made to suffer now. “Think I’m unpopular, do you? Hah. You haven’t seen anything yet. I’ll show you just how unpopular a man can be. Damn it, I shall go down in history as the most unpopular Prime Minister of all time. Mwa ha ha ha ha!”