Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Dave Renton on Eton and the Tories

Eton and the Tories (short version of paper presented at the LSHG's recent 'Making the Tories History' conference).

Let me start with a dog that didn’t bark. First, the dog: following Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as leader of the Conservative Party in 1990; the race for her successor was between Douglas Hurd, Old Etonian, and John Major, the boy who ran away from the circus to work in a bank. Hurd’s challenge initially seemed strong, but fell apart when Major raised Hurd’s background, “I thought I was running for leader of the Tory party”, Major said, “not some demented Marxist sect”. Now in the run-up to the 2010 general election, there were at least two moments when Gordon Brown attempted to play the same trick on David Cameron. The first was a bye-election at Crewe and Nantwich 2008, where Labour distributed photographs of Tory candidate Edward Timpson in a top hat, and images of what was described as his “big mansion house” outside the constituency. Labour campaign materials also included a fake “Tory candidate application form” asking: "Do you oppose making foreign nationals carry an ID card?" The suggestion was that only plutocrats opposed such a common sense idea. Again in December 2009, Gordon Brown described Cameron as a PR man (this was a reference to the sole brief period of bona fide employment in Cameron’s CV) who had drawn up his tax policies “on the playing fields of Eton”. Cameron retaliated, complaining of Brown’s “pettiness and spite”.
Why did John Major’s attack on Hurd succeed, while Gordon Brown’s attack on Cameron failed? Why, in other words, didn’t the dog bark? One answer might be over the past decade certain types of Conservative behaviour have lost their mark of offensiveness in general popular culture. Andy Beckett has written about a certain ‘Tory chic’, embodied in green, locally-sourced produce and gastropub grub (a way of living that finds a political expression in the career of Zac Goldsmith). Bankers, the target of a sustained New Labour charm offensive, rather than aristocrats, have fulfilled the role of villains in the economic crisis. Brogues, waistcoats, wellington boots (ideal for music festivals) even bowler hats are all presently fashionable. The popularity of Downton Abbey and the return of Upstairs Downstairs (albeit that both postdate the election) would fit into this model. As does the popularity of Harry Potter, playing as it does on two deep Tory motifs: the boarding school and deeper still, the country house. Certain Tory politicians notably Boris Johnson (who in having enjoyed a successful career at Eton is the closest counterpart in the present generation to Hurd) have also been able to thrive in the context of a depoliticised celebrity culture, in which a posh past is just another cultural asset.
Yet we can take the point too far. When Nick Fraser’s 2006 book The Importance of Being Eton was reviewed in the Guardian, the reviewer Dominick Donald suggested that the school’s recent revival (reflected not just in Cameron’s rise but also the fact that Charles and Diana sent their children there) was actually more down to the politics of celebrity culture (i.e. the choice of school was Diana’s not Charles’) than it was to a reconstitution of the Macmillan era establishment:

Cameron … is at once effortlessly and inoffensively posh and demotic, ticking the right social boxes for the Tory shires and wielding the right grounding in popular culture for the urban electorate. He appears to have the skills that Eton so often bestows (charm, huge self-confidence and political ability) without their frequent familiars (oiliness, arrogance and self-defeating scheming). He has used those skills to sidestep the baggage. Of course, other Tory politicians before him (Douglas Hurd, Oliver Letwin) have trodden this route. But no one - not even other Tories - believed them.

The reason, on this account, why Brown’s attempts to target Cameron failed, would be New Labour’s own well-known record of toadying to the powerful, expressed in Peter Mandelson’s remark, "We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich". Indeed there is no better illustration of the narrowness of the British political elite than that the fact both David Cameron and Tony Blair were educated, at Eton and Fettes, by Eric Anderson, Blair’s housemaster and Cameron’s headmaster, life’s attempt to imitate the Peter Sellers character from Being There.
Eton has a history, from its foundation as a community of 25 poor scholars, to the 1861 Commission which established that the Fellows of the school were dipping into the institution’s reserves to line their own pockets. The most important features of the present are the breadth of resource available to the current Eton school pupils, and the tens of millions in public funding which are required to keep the institution afloat. Without neglecting the few Old Etonians who turned against the private school system (Orwell, Hyndman), the school is best seen as an effective mechanism for indoctrinating children into the values of hierarchy and capitalism. Ross McKibbin is undoubtedly right to name the private schools, alongside the monarchy, the aristocracy, the armed forces, and the structure of industrial management, as one of the chief "ideological supports" of Conservatism over the past six decades. Attlee’s 1945 government, McKibbin laments, had a unique opportunity to abolish these obstacles to socialism. Its failure, he explains by reference to Labour’s ideology, " the socialism of a particular generation, one which drew a clear distinction between the economy and social policy on the one hand [which was deemed to be capable of reform], and Britain's status and class system on the other [which was not]." McKibbin’s point, albeit made gently, is a radical one; future generations faced with the same opportunity, he is saying, should not repeat Atlee’s mistake.
Here, I want to focus on the ways in which the history of the Conservative Party have been shaped by the presence in Tory ranks of relatively large numbers of MPs who have been educated by Eton or similar schools. Even today, the proportion still stands at the relatively high figure of 54 percent.
The Conservatives have long recruited individuals, even MPs, on an ostensibly anti-ideological basis. Long before it was possible to join the Conservatives as an individual, the only way that a person could affiliate to the Tories was by joining the Carlton Club and dining with fellow Conservatives. A century later, one part of the Conservative success in the 1950s, at a time when the Young Conservatives alone claimed 200,000 members, and the parent party could rely on a total membership of nearly three million, was the ability of the party to appear almost above politics, as a popular institution with a vibrant social life representing almost the entirety of the UK’s middle classes, irrespective of their gender, age, religion or political belief. Private schools were a recruiting ground for Conservatism, one of several institutions (the City, the Church of England, the Army, the legal professions) within which the party enjoyed nearly unanimous support.
We may note in passing that the Conservatives have largely lost this appeal in the last 60 years; a period where individual membership of the party has fallen by roughly 95 percent, from three million to 150,000. This decline can be associated with what has also been a long-term decline in the importance of the private schools, compared to which any recent revival, if there has been one, is modest.
Almost all private schools have a competitive "house" structure in which pupils live and eat with and are expected to learn habits of sociability with strangers, the selection of whom is done not from them but arbitrarily by the school. This is part of a pattern under which certain shallow competing allegiances (Oxford v Cambridge, Eton v Harrow, Liberal v Conservative) are deemed to be entirely compatible with the deep hegemony of class rule. Pupils internalise this culture of horizontal competition and express it in later life, its influence can be witnessed weekly in the scenes of MPs braying at Prime Minister’s Question Time.
The corollary of horizontal competition is vertical loyalty. At key moments in the Conservatives' history the party has been able to enter or remain in government, or has been forced out of office, not as a result of electoral success, but from the defection of MPs into or out of the party (Peelite Conservatives out of the party from 1846 onwards, Liberal Unionists in after 1886, Coalition and National Liberals in from 1916 and 1931 onwards). This kind of party opportunism has been made much easier by the fact that for much of the last two hundred years many of the leaders of both of the main parties in a usually two-party House of Commons have been educated at the same or similar schools and have been trained to approach politics in a similar way. On this model, the close co-operation that we have seen since the general election between Eton-educated David Cameron's Tories and Westminster-educated Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats is just another episode in a much longer story of class rule employing the memory of privilege to hold power.
The preponderance of private education among Tory MPs is a sign of a sort of division of labour in which the private schools in general and Eton in particular are expected to train future generations of Conservative MPs. The schools maintain relationships with the Tories. MPs frequently speak at school assemblies and meeting of the school’s various political societies. It is relative easy for children to get fast tracked from the private schools, to Oxford or Cambridge, and then immediately into junior roles working for the Tories, from which they can be picked for greater things. But the Conservative Party is not the ruling class, merely its political representative in Parliament. The super-rich, in general, are an increasingly integrated international class, whose members might have a house in London, and business interests throughout Europe, Asia or America. Private education in England is but one option for the children of the rich, and by no means the most advantageous. Precisely because of their baggage of ostentatious privilege, the Bullingdon generation are actually unrepresentative of the class whose interests they articulate. The populist Conservatism of Heath, Thatcher and Major and the bland universalism of “regular guy” Tony Blair represent a more viable long-term strategy to achieve sustained capitalist rule. These models are more akin to the ways that capitalists ordinarily do their ideological business. They work better as strategies to maintain the distinction between economic and political power on which capitalist democracy ordinarily rests. The weakness of having Cameron et al at the top of the political system is that their presence invites ordinary voters – once their popularity wanes, as it must – to look beyond the inevitability of class rule altogether.
It is this incidentally which explains the venom of Major’s attack on Hurd with which this paper opened. The reason why there was no Old Etonian Prime Minister between 1963 and 2010, despite the Conservatives’ success for much of that time, and the presence of many Etonians on the Tory benches, is that it is bad politics.
In conditions of democracy the relationship between the ruling class and its party should not be direct but requires mediation. Conservatism has remained a successful ideology in part because it has been able to speak away from itself, to present its narrow choices as a matter of the national interest. This dynamic, even a sympathetic historian of modern Conservatism John Ramsden, has described as “cynicism and semantic obfuscation”. The metaphor of obfuscation is a good one, it reminds us that much of Tory politics is about keeping things hidden. This is not a side effect of Conservative politics, so much as its central mode of expression. Seen in this perspective, Cameron’s presence is a risk to an entire way of doing politics. It threatens to make the relationship between politics and class too clear.

Dave Renton

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