This article forms part of a series, Class Wars, in which we asked contributors to address what is often a vexed question: what does class mean to you?
Not so long ago I was chatting to an urbane young businessman at a London party: after a few minutes he raised his eyebrows and asked: “And… you went to school?” It took a second before I realised he wasn’t questioning whether I had had any formal education, but using the old code Etonians employ when referring to their College.
It is a masonic handshake, but so very much more exclusive. It is a nod to understood values along with a wry acknowledgement of the self-regarding uniqueness of the place. These codes, the jokes and their understanding are a small but not insignificant part of the package for which my parents, and my grandparents, and several generations before them, paid all that money.
Too posh to fail
For a long time I told myself that a few years at Eton hadn’t meant very much to my life. After all, it was not a long stint – as I made clear to that smooth OE (old Etonian) and do to anyone else who brings it up – I was ejected after less than three years, at 16 (for smoking, drinking and suspected homosexual tendencies beyond the norm).
I was quite proud then that Eton’s quality control system had found me wanting; I was pretty sure I didn’t want any more of what the school offered and I was not unaware of the hallowed line of Eton rejects and rebels for whom life turned out interestingly. In the time of The Jam’s ‘Eton Rifles’ being expelled from Eton was pretty cool.
But I realise now that I am indelibly marked by the place, as I am by the values and rules of the class that used it. It’s like a tattoo you got on a drunken night long ago and which peeks out from your sleeve to embarrass. It’s not that it helped fast-track me to university, or into a top job. I spent my 20s and 30s working in Left-wing theatre and then centre-Leftish journalism, and while hardly meritocratic, being an old or ex-Etonian wasn’t an obvious advantage in those fields. Not as much as was being white, male and privileged.
Why 'separate but equal' is a fraud
Privilege is a difficult concept – a word thrown around to the extent of losing much usefulness. But it is of enormous importance when you weigh up class and Britain today. It means more than entitlement: it is the ownership of a range of tools that, as any self-help book will tell you, are useful for a traditionally successful life. Self-confidence, self-belief, persuasiveness, and what used to be called ‘clubbability’.
I know an old Etonian who makes part of his living touring private schools giving lectures to the pupils on “charm” and how it gets you everything – headmasters’ wives love him.
Privilege gets many unquantifiable things that can turn out to be of enormous value: an understanding of how clubs and networks function, connections, a stamp of acceptability based on unspoken shared beliefs.
It is a freemasonry, and membership translates into jobs, wealth and power: it’s no wonder that the proportions of judges and senior lawyers, of armed forces top brass, of politicians and senior business leaders who were privately educated today is pretty much what it was 50 years ago. It works – a place at Eton for your son is not a bad bet, if you can afford it. The prizes are huge, and the odds on getting them still pretty favourable.
Politicians, both Left and Right, have attempted to address the gross inequality the system clearly perpetuates ever since Churchill encouraged Rab Butler to democratise the public schools during the war (see David Kynaston and Francis Green’s recent Engines of Privilege: the British Private School Problem for a fascinating history of this political failure).
Elitist Britain is a closed shop
Yet while the products of public schools have always been among the institutions’ worst enemies, the institutions themselves have proved remarkably resilient. It is born of an inherent flexibility, the quality that has kept my class in power in Britain for so many centuries. You can come in, if you’ve got the money, or the brains, or the looks. It worked and still does: if it did not, the British would surely have risen and torn down those spires long ago.
There are two things around today that might challenge this long-fossilised situation. The first is financial. Eton – and everywhere like it – is very, very expensive today. It always was: 70 years ago the annual fee was “about the same as a Rolls-Royce, or keeping a mistress in Maida Vale,” as an old joke has it. But when my parents sent me there in 1974 the basic charge was £861, the equivalent of £9000 today. In 2019, a year at the school costs nearer £42,000, before extras.
Even at a private day school, the average is £15,000. Across the boarding sector fees are up 50% in 10 years. Sums like these can only hurt the traditional public-school customer base, the squirearchy and the professions. Can Etons populated solely by the children of the super-rich and a few scholarship-holders survive the political clamour to remove the tax-breaks and the schools’ (indefensible) status as charities?
My other thought is more speculative. I wonder if the Eton brand is now gravely tarnished. Many charges are commonly laid against Etonians and their class – arrogance, greed, callousness, and that’s just to start – but I think their fatal flaw might be an inherent lack of seriousness. “We are often told that they taught us nothing at Eton. That may be so, but I think they taught it very well.” said General Herbert Plumer – one of the “donkey” leaders of the first world war – when addressing an Old Etonians’ dinner in 1916.
Brexit has exposed our education apartheid
I think of Plumer when I read Boris Johnson at his bombastic heights. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t really mean it. Etonian humour is a lovely thing – there’s a strong tendency to self-deprecation that seems very healthy – but it may also cover up many failings. Particularly when coupled with the abiding sense that the destiny, by right, of a young man leaving the school is to go out and make the world a better place.
The system seems – dangerously – to produce people who look like leaders, talk like leaders, but don’t lead very well at all. It is an old charge, but the list of failed Etonians is long today. At its top is David Cameron, the amiable schoolboy who liked a game of poker, and went on to take unforgivable gambles with Britain’s future, the price of which we are all now paying.
Your reaction to all this may well depend on where you went to school, or indeed if you went to “school”. But let me leave you this, from Alec Waugh. His account of Sherborne, The Loom of Youth, was published in 1919, to outrage at what now seem the tamest scenes of homosexual yearning. But it is the teenage Waugh’s savage assault on the public-school class and its hypocrisies that is more interesting. And yet, like most ex-public school boys, Waugh is, ultimately, ironic and ambivalent:
“He is selfish, easy-going, pleasure-loving, absolutely without a conscience. But he is a jolly good companion and the Freemasonry of a Public School is amazing. No man who has been through a good Public School is an outsider. He may hang around the Empire bar, he may cheat at business; but you may be certain of one thing, he will never let you down. Very few Public School men ever do a mean thing to their friends. And for a system which produces such a spirit as this there is much to be said after all.”
Click here to read the rest of our series, Class Wars, in which we asked contributors to address what is often a vexed question: what does class mean to you?