Why is British politics in an ‘Eton mess’?

The re-emergence of an Eton set speaks to the hollowing out of the democratic sphere.

Is there a conveyor belt from Eton - the posh, sprawling school in Berkshire where it costs £32k a year to send your kid - and 10 Downing Street? That’s a question many a left-leaning observer of British politics has been asking since the Old Etonian David Cameron came to power in 2010. And now some Tories are asking it, too. Michael Gove, partially state-school educated, has described it as ‘preposterous’ that there are so many Old Etonians – five – in the current cabinet. Baroness Warsi, the Tories’ faith and communities minister, and also state-school educated, has echoed Gove, saying: ‘It can’t be right that the seven per cent of kids who go to independent schools end up at the top table [of politics].’ On top of those five Etonians, a full half of the current cabinet is privately educated.

The emergence of this new Eton-bred clique has led to much ‘class war’ talk in recent years. They are toffs, we’re told, privileged men who assume an age-old right to rule. They might as well be wearing ‘silk top hats, white tie and tails, [and] sporting a monocle’, columnists claim. Polly Toynbee – who, as the privately educated great-granddaughter of the Earl of Carlisle, is herself hardly a stranger to the velvet cushions of privilege – says Britain is now ruled by tiny groups of poshos who care only for their ‘leafy shire constituents’ and don’t give a fig about ‘the plebs… the bottom half’. The political pre-eminence of Old Etonians and Bullingdon boys – those well-bred lager louts who were members of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford – has led some to declare that Britain is experiencing ‘Class War II’, with the posh pitched against the plebeian.

You could be forgiven for thinking that we’re witnessing the rise once again of that old, pre-mass politics, pre-meritocracy establishment whose rule of Britain was, in their eyes at least, perfectly natural .The toffs are fighting back, we’re encouraged to think, reasserting their presumed natural-born authority after decades of Britain striving to be a fairer, more socially mobile society where your intelligence counted for more than the colours of your school tie. But is this true?

It’s certainly the case that Old Etonians now control the major areas of political and moral life in Britain: not only the PM but also the London mayor, Boris Johnson, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, came from Eton. And it’s true that this represents a shift following a fair few years in which being an Old Etonian was more of a hindrance than a leg-up, even in Tory circles. In the Thatcher (grammar school) and Major (comprehensive school) years, being an Old Etonian was out. So when Douglas Hurd ran against Major for the Tory leadership in 1990, he constantly had his Eton education used against him as a Bad Thing. So much so that in one interview he flipped, and said: ‘I thought I was running for the leadership of the Conservative Party, not some demented Marxist sect.’

But it isn’t true that this emergence of a new Old Etonian group speaks to some conscious, far less conspiratorial reassertion of posh authority over the masses. Rather, the Tory leadership’s reliance on graduates of Eton and former boozers of Bullingdon speaks to a problem that exists in all the mainstream political parties in Britain today – their frayed relationship with any meaningful grassroots, their loss of vast numbers of members, their profound disconnect from a serious public constituency, all of which forces them to rely on their mates rather than mass groups for political sustenance, and on known, already-existing networks in lieu of having any way of connecting with potential new politicos. The ‘Eton mess’, as Warsi called it, is a product of a bigger political mess people would rather not face up to.

If one looks back at the pretty long list of Eton-educated prime ministers, a few things are quite striking. The first is that there have been 19 of them, out of 52, which means that more than one in three of British PMs came from Eton. The second is that there are notable blips in which Eton doesn’t dominate the top table of politics. The first is from 1905 to 1955, and the second is from 1964 to 2010 – in those big bulks of time, our PMs weren’t Eton-educated (of course, they weren’t quite men – or woman – of the people, either). What is interesting about these two blocks of time is that they coincide with the emergence of a more mass form of politics and with a new desire to create a more egalitarian society, with working-class voices becoming a factor in politics in the early to mid-twentieth century and the drive to meritocracy taking off in the early 1960s. It is at least noteworthy that it is in these two periods when, for the first time in modern British politics, No.10 isn’t occupied by the Eton-educated. This will in part have been a product of the fact that new political constituencies, networks and outlooks were forming.

Today, if the return of the old Eton crowd tells us anything, it is that those twentieth-century networks have fallen apart, with the old system of large political parties connected to sections of the public fast becoming more a matter of history than current reality. All the parties are experiencing severe crises of membership and connection. Which means all of them – not just the Tories – are having to develop new, post-twentieth-century, not-always-democratic methods of elevating new leaders and coming up with new policies.

So yes, the top of the Tories is falling back on Eton and Bullingdon networks in order to fast-track people it knows into positions of influence. But Labour, too, is patching together new aloof networks to compensate for its declining purchase with a political public. Its leader, Ed Miliband, took a route into politics that is every bit as insulated from the demos as were those youthful members of Bullingdon. He worked his way through the media, using his father Ralph’s many connections, before being employed as a behind-the-scenes Labour Party guy and eventually being offered in 2005, effectively as a prize, the super-safe Labour seat of Doncaster North. He was the first person for decades to win that seat without being either a miner or the son of a miner. Meanwhile, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg cut his political teeth in those epitomes of oligarchical politics, the backrooms and think-tanks of the European Commission and the European Parliament, fattening his contact book for his later ascendancy up the party ladder back in Britain.

Where once political leaders emerged through grassroots organisations, or at least via some kind of shoulder-rubbing with the public – whether it was in churches, Conservative associations, women’s institutes, trade unions, Labour clubs, community networks, or whatever – today they are more likely to come from the starched worlds of demos-free think-tankery or media and PR firms, being able to get to the very top of politics without once having hung out with normal people.

Just consider Baroness Warsi. It is hilarious that she should criticise the means by which her party leaders got to the top, considering she gets her authority, not from the public, but from the new oligarchical networks of modern politics. Having failed, in 2005, to win the parliamentary seat in Dewsbury, Warsi was simply made a life peer instead so that the Tories could promote her to the position of chairman of the Conservative Party, minister without portfolio, and other top spots. The return of these archaic ways of doing politics speaks to a new problem: uncertainty within the parties about how to build and grow themselves among or at least with reference to the population at large.

But how much easier it is to fantasise that we are living through a new class war, featuring evil toffs riding roughshod over the nation, than it is to answer this question: how did our supposedly democratic politics become so separate from the people it is meant to represent?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Picture: Yui Mok/PA Archive/Press Association Images

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