While it’s hardly news that the Cabinet of the UK government is a largely composed of Old Etonians, the most prestigious boys fee-paying school in the land, the row about the appropriateness of this has blown up again. Baroness Warsi, and Michael Gove, both senior Conservatives, have joined ranks to criticise the surfeit of posh boys running their party, and the country. It is as if the entire core of the Obama administration had attended Lawrenceville in New Jersey, said to be the most expensive in America.
Eton Mess is a pudding, composed of mashed up meringue, whipped cream and squashed strawberries, and is said to have been invented by the greedy schoolboys of said establishment. Sayeeda Warsi appeared on television holding a mocked-up newspaper, with the headline “Number 10 Takes Eton Mess Off The Menu.” The highly visual joke was intended to show her support for remarks by Michael Gove, the controversial education secretary, who had said the number of OE’s around the Prime Minister was “preposterous.” Only seven percent of British children are educated in public (private) schools, so how is it that such a high proportion from only one elite bastion of privilege end up in power?
David Cameron went to Eton, so did four others in his inner circle, the chief of staff, the government policy minister, the head of policy and the chief economic adviser. This just leaves the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who went to another top private school, St Paul’s.
The level of elitism has not been seen since the Tory government of Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, another Old Etonian, from where the phrase came about “Bob’s Your Uncle.” He too stood accused of both cronyism and nepotism. It was the ultimate old boy’s club then, as it is now. Sir Alec Douglas-Home beat Cameron by having eleven Old Etonians in his cabinet. In fact, nineteen other Prime Ministers have been OEs, none of them were Labor.
The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher was certainly an exception but she kept several in her cabinet, including the diarist Alan Clark who wrote Eton was “an early introduction to human cruelty, treachery and extreme physical hardship.”
Nick Fraser, author of The Importance of Being Eton, thinks that the way the school is run encourages confidence, self-belief and political aspiration. The boys run many of the clubs and societies, via elected positions, and many leading figures come to speak to them. It is this way they become so accomplished at the “Eton charm” as they get used to cajoling support.
An outsider waiting in the wings as potential new leader of the Conservatives, is the outspoken and flamboyant London Mayor, Boris Johnson. He too, went to Eton. His father Stanley appeared on the radio today to argue that his son should be exempted from having to go through the troublesome business of being voted in as a member of parliament before being allowed to accede to Leader.
As Gove pointed out in his attack, no other developed country has this level of dominance in public life by a group of ex-pupils of one school. Gove wants to see such a transformation in the state school provision that a situation like this becomes extinct. It currently costs £33,000 in fees alone to attend Eton College. A huge proportion of those with cabinet positions also went to Oxford or Cambridge Universities.
In a recent YouGov poll, 38 percent answered that “going to Eton” was a characteristic most unsuitable for a “leading politician.” The rational was that they didn’t understand how real people lived. It was third on the list after “Never had a real job” and “Minimises their tax bill.” Having had an affair was only 15 percent and having been in a nude photo shoot or caught shoplifting, joint last at five percent.
Unsurprisingly, David Cameron is said to be furious with Michael Gove for his anti-Etonian comments, which he gave in an interview to the Financial Times, and has called him in for a “right royal bollocking.” Perhaps not having been trained by the “fag” system how to similarly subordinate a female, he has chosen to view Lady Warsi’s intervention as “light hearted.” To be fair, fagging was supposed to have been eliminated at Eton in the 1970s along with the compulsory wearing of top hats.
Politicians often get caught out spouting a fair education for all children, then sending their own to a fee paying school. David and Samantha Cameron are side-stepping this for the moment, by announcing they will send daughter Nancy, 10, to a state school next year. However it is quite commonplace still in the upper classes for girls to receive a lesser, or at least less costly, education that their brothers. The real test for the Camerons will come when they have to send Elwen Arthur to Eton, or not.
Should young Elwen end up in the hallowed halls he will enjoy traditions such as being called a scholar or an Oppidan (nothing so plebian as a pupil) and get to wear the anachronistic morning dress uniform with pinstripe trousers and white tie. By sixth form he will be a Specialist, having undergone many schools, their word for lessons, taught by beaks (teachers). As a sportsman he will either be a dry bob (cricketer) or a wet bob (rower) or a slack bob (neither). He will learn to appreciate the fact that the school was founded by King Henry VI in 1440. It was intended to be a feeding ground for King’s College, Cambridge. Today, 70 King’s Scholars are still awarded places. The rest have to have their names put down at birth and pass a few examinations to get in. Both Prince William and Prince Harry passed these exams, but there was some fracas over Harry’s final results, with an Arts teacher having to resign over claims she had faked his entries to get him a “B” pass.
Not all OEs end up running countries, banks or large influential companies. Many have been intellectuals and artists like George Orwell, Alduous Huxley, and the poet Shelley. Actors are the latest export from Eton with Damian Lewis (Homeland) Hugh Laurie (House), Dominic West (The Wire) and Christopher Cazenove in the alumni. Benedict Cumberbatch is sometimes accused of being an OE but in fact he went to equally uber-posh Harrow. Orwell was cynical about the place, twisting the well-known aphorism to say “Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton but all subsequent wars have been lost there.” It has also thrown up the odd spy, Guy Burgess, and an occasional murderous Royal. King Dipendra of Nepal was an OE and ruled for a brief few hours before massacring eight family members. Lord Lucan, the peer accused of killing his nanny is still listed in the records as “missing.”
The fact that the UK government is headed by so many from a privileged background and that all of them are millionaires in their own right, has led to many accusations of a proper “Eton Mess.” How can they understand the ordinary working person is the oft asked question. Tax breaks for the rich and devastating benefit cuts for the poor, have been a feature of their strategies.
One MP from a working class background, Eric Pickles, was a surprise opponent to the latest round of anti-Etonian attack, saying it did not matter where people came from, what mattered was where they were going.
Today’s Budget will attempt to alleviate some of this dissent by promising childcare incentives to working families and a higher tax threshold for the lower paid.
The wider debate about the “leg-up” given to those who attend public schools is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. Leading actors like Dame Helen Mirren have spoken out about how difficult it is to get into drama now, without the backing of rich parents. Pop music is also becoming dominated by kids from wealthy homes. Florence of Florence and the Machine, Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling are all new stars from the privileged classes.It’s a far cry from 1979 when The Jam released Eton Rifles. When Paul Weller was told that this was nominated as one of David Cameron’s favorites, he scoffed “Which part of it didn’t he get?”
As Oxfam announced this week that Britain’s five richest families are worth more than the poorest 20 percent combined, it appears that the inequality gap is ever wider in society. The sun may have set on the Empire but it hasn’t done so on the empire of Eton, where those who feast on Eton Mess seem to continue to get their desserts.
By Kate Henderson