Surely we should be welcoming the return of society's most privileged to political leadershipby Stephen Pollard / June 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Does an education at an elite public school diminish a politician’s legitimacy? Gordon Brown’s dismissal of David Cameron as “just an Old Etonian” signifies not just his view that products of privilege have no place in politics, but also that the electorate will, as a matter of course, reject him ab initio because of his background. Boris Johnson’s election as mayor of London appears to have put paid to that idea. There could hardly be a more caricature Old Etonian than the foppish Johnson, but it did not stop voters in the most cosmopolitan city in the world from electing him. Far from seeing him as a pre-modern relic, they relished his postmodern idiosyncrasy. It is difficult to understand why some people have a problem with a political system in which the products of privilege involve themselves in politics. First, to put this in the proper context, the influence of public schooling on the Conservative party hasn’t increased, it has sharply declined: the percentage of privately educated MPs in the shadow cabinet is, at 62 per cent, lower than any (actual) Tory cabinet from 1938 to 1992; John Major’s was 80 per cent privately educated. The only two old Etonians in the shadow cabinet are Cameron and Oliver Letwin. Heath’s cabinet was 22 per cent old Etonian, Thatcher’s 20 per cent. In a more meritocratic world, the privileges of birth would count for less in professional and political life. But until we reach that world we should welcome the participation in politics of the most privileged. After a long period in which elite public school alumni abandoned noblesse oblige for private enrichment, society can only benefit from their renewed involvement. The traditional purpose of public schools has been to produce “good chaps” whose character will benefit society. As Old Squire Brown put it in Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays: “What is [Tom] sent to school for? Well, partly because he wanted so to go. If he’ll only turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a gentleman, and a Christian, that’s all I want.” Michael Mavor, former headmaster of Gordonstoun (the Prince of Wales’s alma mater), wrote in similar vein to the Times in 1989: “What heads, deputy heads and those who run boarding schools spend most time doing is trying to instill in teenage boys and girls a real sense of decency… common sense and loyalty.” If the phrase “one nation” is ever to mean anything, then politics and public life can only gain from the participation of such people. In a vibrant democracy, they cannot, even if they want to, stand simply for their own class interest. As Cameron shows, they can win power only if they demonstrate an understanding of the lives of the less fortunate and a grasp of policy detail—of welfare, means-testing for care homes for the elderly, state education, tax credits, town planning and so on. None of this is to assume that privileged politicians are not as egotistical and vainglorious as those from any other background. But how can it not be a good thing to have as wide a pool as possible from which to draw? After all, it is not as if we are overendowed with first class politicians.