Importance of being Eton

How just one school has ended up with such a grip on British politics

May 26, 2021
Photo: Simon Webster / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Simon Webster / Alamy Stock Photo

George Eliot was right: “Among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous.” Proof positive are my political predictions, which often as not are wildly off beam.

Among my worst, as a young politics lecturer at Oxford in the 1980s, was that there would never be another Etonian in No 10. Thatcher’s Tories were too canny for that, since Lord Home, the third out-of-touch Etonian prime minister in a row after Eden and Macmillan, was defeated by meritocratic Harold Wilson in 1964.

“Alec” Douglas-Home made a good joke in reply to Wilson’s jibe about being a 14th earl—“I suppose when you think about it Mr Wilson is the 14th Mr Wilson”—but he was rapidly replaced by a grammar school boy, Ted Heath. Heath in turn was succeeded by the most famous grammar school girl in history and the coup de grace, so it seemed, was the Tory leadership election after Thatcher’s defenestration in 1990. John Major, a Brixton grammar school boy who hadn’t even gone to university, aced it over both Michael Heseltine (Shrewsbury and Oxford) and Douglas Hurd (Eton and Cambridge). William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard all attended state schools of different types.

Even when the Tories elected Cameron as leader in 2005, I thought Eton might be his undoing. He half suspected so too, hence the elaborate steps to buy the copyright of the famous Bullingdon Club photographs, and the announcement that the little Camerons were all being sent to state schools. Gordon Brown’s government, two years later, is the only government in British history not to have contained a single Etonian.

But then history slammed into reverse, as it is wont to do. In 2010 Cameron squeezed into No 10, courtesy of Nick Clegg (Westminster and Cambridge, famously portrayed in Brookes’s cartoons as Cameron’s Eton fag). Then Boris. Floreat Etona (“May Eton Flourish”) turns out to have been more a command than a motto. And if there is a vacancy at No 10 any time soon, Rishi Sunak (Winchester and Oxford) only looks down-market to, well, an Etonian.

So what happened?

Poring over the data, I now realise that even in the supposedly meritocratic 1980s, the Etonians never actually left the Tory high command. They were just tactically moved away from front of stage. Even as I was predicting their demise, an astonishing 61 Etonians served as ministers in the Thatcher/Major governments, about the same number as under all those Etonian prime ministers in the 1950s and 1960s. This included three of Thatcher’s five foreign secretaries.

“Thatcher didn’t mind toffs as long as they did not attempt to patronise her,” says William Waldegrave, Etonian younger son of the 12th Earl Waldegrave and a minister for almost the entirety of the Thatcher/Major era. Waldegrave is now provost of Eton—a post unique to Eton, a kind of full-time “chancellor” of the school with a palatial residence in its medieval quad, where he gives delightful dinners and receptions to the boys with political and distinguished guests. (A fellow guest when I was kindly invited was Lord Carrington, Thatcher’s first foreign secretary, who fascinated me with stories of Eton in the 1930s). Waldegrave’s own recently published memoir frankly parades that “ever since I could remember one consciously constructed goal [to become prime minister] had been the magnetic pole around which everything I did was centred.”

Eton’s leadership in the 1960s and 1970s could see the meritocratic grammar school threat all too clearly. So having previously been essentially a comprehensive school for the aristocracy, they decided to turn Eton into an oligarchical grammar school instead. In practice this mostly meant recruiting the same sort of boys—no girls, even now—but they had to work harder and pass exams with top grades.

Given the quality of the teaching at Eton and its feeder prep schools, this wasn’t hard to pull off. About a third of Eton’s staff now have PhDs, recruited directly from the cream of Russell group universities.

Just as Eton made this meritocratic transition, the state grammar schools were abolished, so its competition left the political field. It wasn’t just the Tories who had no successor to the post-war grammar school generation. Nor did Labour – and since the Etonians remained overwhelmingly deep blue, they had to look elsewhere. Ironically, or maybe logically, Labour’s only successful leader since Wilson went to Fettes, dubbed “Scotland’s Eton,” although far less elitist and Establishment. Tony Blair’s headmaster there was Eric Anderson, who went on to become the modernising headmaster of… you guessed it.

What does all this mean in the real lives of real people? In a moving memoir just out by Musa Okwonga, one of Eton’s rare black students, writing in the counter-cultural tradition at which Eton excels (think George Orwell), we read: “I ask myself whether this was my school’s ethos: to win at all costs; to be reckless, at best, and brutal, at worst. I look at its motto again—‘May Eton Flourish’—and I think, yes, many of our politicians have flourished, but to the vast detriment of others. Maybe we were raised to be the bad guys.”

As for non-Etonians, only yesterday I was present at a political focus group—looking ahead to the currently-remote prospect of life after Johnson’s Tories—and one of the first people to speak, an articulate woman in her mid-20s, said this unprompted: “It would be great to know that I could sign up for politics and work hard and maybe become prime minister. But I didn’t go to Eton.”