I blame the school

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It’s only in Johnson’s final hours that the nice people whose comment pieces dominate the Guardian (let alone the Times, or the Telegraph) have noticed that he is the same serial liar and thief that he was when he first came to public attention, for offering to help an old school friend crack the ribs of a journalist. Who would have guessed that all those columns insisting that the public should vote for anyone except Jeremy Corbyn would have left us with the Prime Minister tied to the mast of our own latter-day Raft of the Medusa. Who, indeed?

Here, though, I want to focus on Johnson’s education – his Eton education – and ask what he picked up at that school, home as it has been to 20 of our prime ministers, and two of the last three. After all, the parents spend their small fortune on fees and expenses, c£20,000 p/a in the first years when I was there in 1986-1991, and around four times as much these days. What they’re paying for is a training. So what exactly are the boys taught?

Let’s begin in October 2019, and a letter read out by Rory Stewart. Two months earlier, Johnson had won the Conservative leadership contest, making himself prime minister, and defeating rivals including Stewart. The latter’s days in politics were running out; as leader of the party Johnson was able to deselect him as a Conservative MP. Before he left the stage, Stewart gave one last effort at embarrassing Johnson by reading out a letter sent home to Johnson’s parents by his housemaster in his final year:

“Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the School for next half): I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

Stewart felt confident his audience would see the point for themselves; Johnson was a bad sort, indifferent to the rules which bound those in authority. As he had behaved when he was a prefect, so he would as Prime Minister.

You will further note that in this self-description, Eton College (as expressed by the teacher, the custodian of its values) is supposedly against Johnson. He isn’t the type that the school is seeking to produce. What then is the ideal Etonian, to which Johnson is the shadow?

Seen from its champions’ perspective, the ideal which Eton absorbs is the English upper-class ideal of the gentleman amateur. The school tells new pupils that they should aspire to be intelligent, hard-working and self-disciplined and that they should be incredibly ambitions. Crucially, they should be capable of concealing the public show of that ambition so that if they do arrive in power this will seem to be at just the same time both the most natural thing in the world (reflecting their innate talent) and the most extraordinary surprise, so that the recipient of power will be unassuming and modest.

Eton doesn’t just absorb that ideal passively, it is one of the institutions which teaches and spreads it, so that it becomes the norm for all our systems of government. Why, for example, are the education ministers never teachers? It is because of the same, destructive culture going back to the days of the British empire of the senior civil whose deep ignorance of the fields they administer is supposedly the guarantee of their objectivity.

Reflect on this ideal mixture of gravitas and humility and compare it to the most prominent Old Etonians you have seen: Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Were either of them this combination of talented, ambitious and modest? Ambitious, they were, but not one iota of the rest.

The fallacy is that you can teach people at the same time to be both privileged and gracious. When it is the very experience of knowing that the way is being eased for you which drives away the humility.

Beneath all of this, there are certain other myths which are equally ridiculous. There are around 750,000 people aged 18 in Britain at any time. Just 250 of them, or one in every 3,000, are pupils at Eton College. Saying that of those 250 boys, probably 1-2 in every year will end at some point in the Cabinet – means that 1 in every 3,000 people hoards the chance to make the decisions and 2,999 out of 3,000 are excluded.

The chief qualification for getting into Eton is that your parents are capable of paying for you to stay there. These days it’s equivalent to a one-off payment of around £400,000. Saying that people should get fast-tracked to these life opportunities just because they are rich is as obscene as saying that someone should be a poet because their parents were; or that purely on account of their wealth they should be made King or Queen and lord it over all of us.

Eton College is not a difficult school to get into. Many of its pupils are products of schools for those aged 7-12 which are little more than exam factories. It produces very few people who are both humble and talented. What it does produce, in vast number, is people who have been told since an early age that they will end up in positions of power. And because that’s what will happen, so it must reflect some virtue in them. In other words it teaches people to be like David Cameron (shallow and privileged) and it takes people to be like Boris Johnson (shallow and privileged and desperately vain).

I was at Eton in the same cohort as Rory Stewart, and in every class there was half a dozen David Cameron, and in every class there were 2-3 Boris Johnsons. Not Johnson himself, not exactly. He was something like 8-9 years older than me (as there are only 5 years of pupils at Eton at any on time), and we didn’t so much as overlap. And yet he was a constant presence: there in the autumn half-terms, joking with the younger boys at the summer Fourth of June parties. Even after his formal schooling had ended, he kept on coming back year after year, as if he knew he had left something behind there, something that he would never get back – whether the mirage of talent, a route towards advancement, or the availabilty of contacts. He needed the school, he idolised it, long after he’d left.

As for me, in my five years, I tried everything I could to tear the place down, brick by brick, like Samson’s temple. One day, I like to think I’ll go back – or someone like me – but this time, there will be whole crowds waiting, and hammers at the ready. So long as it stands, we’ll never have a true democracy.

4 responses »

  1. Hi David, not familiar with your work but sent link by a friend, also an OE and feel fairly similar.

    Tend to feel it’s an institution, sometimes not much more than a brand, with a narrative that completely warps the kids it touches. It’s hard for anyone emotionally insecure not to be affected by a narrative that proclaims: “you’re in this ‘special place’ maybe you deserve it, maybe you don’t, but don’t squander it! You have every opportunity, look at these exemplars! if you can’t at least match them – well – you’re a massive loser’.

    With Alan Bennett view – get rid of private schools (& get rid of single sex education too)

    Jim

      • Its an illuminating article – hadn’t quite appreciated how much of a quasi-parent it had been to him – have a memory of him coming back to the school for a talk & giving a speech very much along the lines ‘when I was here we all just assumed we run the world after leaving’ and then moaning about how difficult this was (would have been late 90s) – I didn’t go to see him so must been a report in the Chronicle somewhere . [Stewart ofc every bit as vain in his way]. I better to stop here before I go off on a long rant, but took some time for scales to fall for me, or at least in any coherent fashion. At least it offers a space for dissent – even if that partly trains the Johnsons of the world to dissemble more effectively

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