Why the old schools still rule

Image of Simon Kuper

In 2005, I went to interview a young Conservative who was running for party leader. I walked into the room, and even before I could say hello, I had clocked: “You’re upper class!” Meanwhile, David Cameron had obviously looked at me and clocked: “You’re middle class!” That’s how we Britons think. I later wrote an article predicting the Old Etonian wouldn’t be elected prime minister “because he is too blatantly posh”.

Similarly, many people have been predicting lately that Cameron’s poshness will be his downfall. He has been caught displaying all sorts of upper-class signifiers: riding horses, playing badminton, taxing proletarian Cornish pasties, cutting taxes for rich people, etcetera. Even some Conservative MPs think Cameron’s cabinet of public schoolboys is “out of touch”. The notion is that Britons don’t want to be ruled by toffs.

But that’s what I thought in 2005. Having learnt from my mistake, I now see that most Britons do want to be ruled by toffs. And voters elsewhere seem keen on elites too. Cambridge hasn’t produced a British prime minister since the 1930s, but it has produced umpteen foreign leaders, including India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh. The French seem about to elect François Hollande, graduate of the Ecole nationale d’administration (ENA), as president. Then two “Harvards” (in Damon Runyon’s undying phrase), Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, will start competing for the White House. Anti-elitism doesn’t exactly seem very potent.

Until the 1960s, most people just assumed that Old Etonians and Harvards were born to rule. But then meritocracy became fashionable. Suddenly Eton and Harvard no longer seemed appropriate. They had always been more gentlemen’s finishing schools than academic institutions. If they produced the odd brainy chap, that was never the point. George W. Bush went to Harvard Business School because his grades were too poor for the University of Texas.

When Anthony Sampson published his Anatomy of Britain in 1962, he thought British public schools would eventually lose their grip as meritocracy took root. Yet when Sampson looked again 20 years later, he found that the old schools still ruled. They had simply adapted. Their mission had never been to produce posh gentlemen. It was to produce the ruling class. If the ruling class needed to be meritocratic, well, Eton would produce meritocrats.

Sampson wrote that whereas Etonians had previously been considered “confident, stupid and out of touch”, by the 1980s they were considered “confident, clever, but still out of touch”. Similarly, Harvard had gone from signifying “wealthy Protestant male” to signifying “brainy and successful”. Oxford and Cambridge, too, had turned into complicated mixes of meritocracy and comfortable birth.

Of course the power of these schools sometimes irritates voters. But a conflicting voice in many voters’ heads says, “These chaps were born to rule.” Etonians, Harvards and Enarques are not simply thrust by their parties on a grumpy public. Rather, politicians emerge from these schools branded – in their minds and those of others – as “leaders”. In a recent profile of Cameron, my FT colleague George Parker called him “a man whose most visceral political belief is that he is the best person to run the country”.

Eton and Oxford are assets to Cameron, not weaknesses. He looks happy being prime minister. The public likes that. His fellow Oxonians Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair shared that quality. It’s noticeable that the only three postwar British prime ministers without an elite institution to their name – James Callaghan, John Major and Gordon Brown – seldom exuded ease in office. Perhaps “leadership ability” is simply the ability to appear like a leader.

Etonians, Harvards et al need to strike a fine balance. They cannot mention their schools, because it might annoy voters. Rather, they must reassure the public by signalling their affiliations. Cameron signals Eton with his accent, height and pink rude health. French leaders signal ENA through bookishness – hence Hollande’s recent musings about Albert Camus and Sisyphus. Even the non-Enarque Nicolas Sarkozy, who initially thought his populism would woo a nation of non-Enarques, now gets himself photographed carrying books around.

Obama and Romney signal Harvard through their general air of success, wealth and skinnyness. (Al Gore, another Harvard, allowed himself to grow fat only after leaving politics.) Both Obama and Romney try to avoid sounding irritatingly clever, and struggle to display down-home traits: basketball for Obama, nothing as yet for Romney. However, being down-home by itself isn’t enough for voters. They want Harvard too. A Harvard or a Yalie (or in Bush Junior’s case, both) has sat in the White House since 1988.

Yet the bizarre notion persists that voters dislike elites. Britain’s Labour party – itself fronted by three people who attended both Oxford and Harvard – is forever taunting Cameron as “out of touch”. Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, recently got himself photographed scarfing proletarian sausage rolls. He didn’t merely look silly. He looked misguided, too. If voters wanted to be led by proletarians, they would elect proletarians. Cameron isn’t in Downing Street by accident.

Simon Kuper also attended both Oxford and Harvard.


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