© William Collins
The events of the past month have hardly been a good advertisement for the education system through which the children of Britain’s rich, privileged few have traditionally passed. I’m talking about the training offered by England’s fee-paying public schools – ‘public’ being the English term for them, though in Scotland they’re more accurately known as ‘private’ schools – such as Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse and Rugby, followed by a sojourn at Oxford or Cambridge Universities.
No, the recipients of such elitist training have definitely not distinguished themselves recently.
Firstly, of course, there’s been the less-than-glorious start to the UK premiership of Boris Johnson, former pupil of Eton and graduate of Oxford University, where he played ‘rugger’ for Balliol, served as Union President and was a member of the Bullingdon Club, which Wikipedia pithily describes as an ‘upper-class drinking society known for vandalism’. In his first few weeks as prime minister, the hapless Johnson has lost half-a-dozen votes in the House of Commons; reduced his party’s majority in the House of Commons from +1 to -43; seen his younger brother Jo Johnson resign as a Conservative Party MP, launching a fleet of jokes about how he was the first politician in history to stand down from politics in order to spend less time with his family; and been judged by the Scottish Court of Session to be unlawful in his prorogation of parliament, which, since Johnson briefed the Queen to get her approval of this prorogation, raises the possibility that he lied to Her Majesty – the bounder.
Meanwhile, Johnson hasn’t exactly shown the grit, fibre and fortitude that you’d expect from someone raised amid the cold baths and cold showers and on the wintry, muddy playing fields of Eton. When he turned up at Nicola Sturgeon’s residence in Edinburgh in July, he was so feart at the presence of a crowd of protestors going “Boo!” outside the front entrance that, later, he ignominiously sneaked away through the back entrance – earning himself in the Scottish press the icky-sounding sobriquet ‘Back-door Boris’. And just the other day, the presence of another crowd of protestors going “Boo!”, plus the presence of the PM of that big scary country Luxembourg, caused him to chicken out of doing a press conference. Unfortunately for Johnson, he’d preceded this latter act of cowardice by likening himself to the Incredible Hulk. The Johnson version of the Hulk, apparently, doesn’t so much roar “Hulk smash!” as whimper “Hulk shit pants.”
Johnson’s antics haven’t been the only recent evidence suggesting that a public-school education, plus Oxbridge, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. See too the behaviour of famously monocled, top-hatted retro-toff Jacob Rees-Mogg. During a key Commons debate about a no-deal Brexit, Rees-Mogg displayed his contempt for the oiks (i.e. all of humanity who aren’t him) by reposing across a Commons bench like a languid, foppish refugee from an Evelyn Waugh novel being punted down the River Cam. Having jumped the shark with his Commons slouching, Rees Mogg then proceeded to nuke the fridge by comparing an NHS consultant, Dr David Nicholl, who’d raised concerns about patient mortality in the event of Britain leaving the European Union without a deal (and without access to certain medicines), to the disgraced and discredited anti-vaccine campaigner Andrew Wakefield. Rees-Mogg was later forced to issue a grovelling apology.
So has the reputation of Britain’s elitist, establishment education system been damaged enough? Not yet, apparently. For on top of the punishment inflicted on it by Johnson and Rees-Mogg, it has still to endure the return of David Cameron, freshly risen from the political grave to remind us of how much havoc a posh-boy with a colossal sense of entitlement can wreak if placed in a position of power.
Unlike the bumbling Johnson and the grotesque Rees-Mogg, David Cameron, British PM from 2010 to 2016, exhibited the slickness and charm you’d expect from a product of Britain’s supposedly finest educational institutions. He was smooth and at ease enough to be able to project himself as a regular, matey (if obviously well-heeled) bloke. He was like a bank manager who comes across as your personable and supportive friend, even if the moment you step out of his office you realise he’s just turned down your plea for a loan and doomed your firm to going out of business. Also, he knew how to show some affectations of social and environmental concern – witness his blather about ‘hugging a hoodie’ or his photo op with huskies in the Arctic – although I suspect he was as sincere in this as a chancer who gate-crashes a Friends of the Earth meeting in the hope of getting into some female activists’ knickers.
Anyway, underneath the cuddly veneer, Cameron was not a nice piece of work. He lived up to his nickname of ‘Flashman’ (after the bully in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays) and no doubt all the ruthless, materialistic, Sunday-Times-reading, Jeremy-Clarkson-type wankers in the land recognised him as one of their own. As John Harris pointed out in a recent article in the Guardian, Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, once installed in Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street, set about imposing a brutal regime of cuts on the country. They “commenced the decade of fiscal savagery that has left some of the most fundamental parts of the public realm hanging for dear life” and created a Britain where now “austerity is part of the everyday ambience, all shut-down pools and libraries, broken-down parks, and once-a-day buses.”
Having saved the United Kingdom in 2014 by securing a ‘no’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum, Cameron then breezed into the 2016 vote on Britain remaining in or leaving the European Union assuming it would be a shoo-in for ‘remain’. It would also, handily, sort out the anti-EU faction in his party, which had bedevilled it for years. But of course the Brexiteers narrowly won. And Cameron was immediately toast.
The years of austerity he’d presided over had turned around and bitten him on the arse. Partly led to believe by the likes of Nigel Farage that the EU and EU-related immigration were the source of their woes, and partly just wanting to give the establishment as exemplified by Cameron a kicking, people in worse-off parts of Britain voted ‘leave’. Yes, by voting for an economically ruinous Brexit they were bringing yet more hardship upon themselves. Then again, you could probably bear cutting off your nose to spite David Cameron’s oleaginous face when Cameron had spent the previous half-dozen years grinding your own face into the dirt, to the point where you hardly had a nose left.
Now, three years later after the Brexit vote and his political demise, Cameron has shambled zombie-like into the limelight again. He’s currently trying to flog his autobiography For the Record, which he wrote in a £25,000 designer ‘shepherd’s hut’ with ‘a wood-burning stove, sofa bed and sheep’s wool insulation’ specially purchased for the task and installed in his garden. That’s right, he managed to turn even the basic process of transcribing words onto a sheet of paper into an epic statement about his posh-ness.
Supposedly, For the Record – which recently ranked at a somewhat low 335 in the Amazon pre-order charts – has some uncomplimentary things to say about Boris Johnson, who betrayed Cameron when he threw his weight behind the ‘leave’ campaign in a move calculated to boost his support among the anti-EU brayers and frothers in the Conservative Party. Yip, I can empathise with Cameron’s sense of betrayal. I mean, you’d expect Cameron and Johnson, both veterans of that virtuous, upstanding society the Bullingdon Club, to exhibit more loyalty to one another. You’d expect there to be more honour among posh thugs who smash up restaurants and allegedly stick their dicks into the mouths of dead pigs.
Still, it’s disingenuous to blame all of Britain’s troubles on a privileged, moneyed clique, including the likes of Cameron, Johnson and Rees-Mogg, who finished their education school with a zillion contacts and astronomical levels of self-confidence and self-importance, though not necessarily with corresponding amounts of knowledge and ability. The 93% of the British population who weren’t privately educated, weren’t endowed with fantastic connections and weren’t trained to superbly bullshit their way through life – to talk the talk even if they hadn’t a clue about how to walk the walk – are complicit in this too. Myself included, I should say. I did my share of cringing and wilting in front of cut-glass accents in the past, before I came to know better. Through a culture of deference, cap-doffing, ‘knowing your place’, crippling inferiority complexes and imposter syndrome, through the kneejerk belief that the important jobs should be left to those who sound like they know what they’re doing (though often they don’t), we’ve allowed ourselves, the majority, to become prisoners of a minority.
After all, the British public saw fit to vote Cameron back into power in 2015, believing his smooth, Etonian hands were a safer pair than those of poor old Ed Miliband, a man so gormlessly dorky he couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich without making it look like a Norman Wisdom slapstick routine. And Cameron’s second term as PM ended well, didn’t it?
Such is the glamour that the privately educated exert over the rest of us – that’s ‘glamour’ in its old Scottish definition, meaning ‘spell’ or ‘bewitchment’ — that we’ve allowed them to fill ridiculously disproportionate swathes of our top jobs: 65% of senior judges, 52% of diplomats, 44% of newspaper columnists, 44% of ‘top actors’ and 39% of cabinet ministers. We have, as a nation, surrendered en masse to a class-based version of Stockholm Syndrome. The unwelcome reappearance of the discredited David Cameron is a small reminder of this.