To rid the UK of the anti-democratic Old Etonian network, we must first abolish the British Establishment, not the famous old school, writes George Kerevan.
The new (and 105th) Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, went to Eton College. Proving that God, or at least the Crown Nominations Commission which recommended him, feels that a public school education is a passport to leading the world’s 77 million Anglicans.
Of course, the Nominations Commission always puts two names to the Prime Minister. But then, David Cameron also went to Eton – as have some 18 other British prime ministers. Not that I’m accusing Mr Cameron of favouritism.
Welby’s appointment comes in the same week that a former senior civil servant, Dame Helen Ghosh, publicly denounced what she calls the “Old Etonian clique” around Mr Cameron.
Dame Helen said: “The fact that politics is so driven by networks does impact on women…It is actually quite difficult for a woman to get in as part of an Old Etonian clique. They are far too busy doing other things, like bringing up their children, looking after their constituency.”
To network, David Cameron does not need to leave the office. Old Etonians (OEs) in his inner circle include Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff; Sir George Young, the new chief whip; Rupert Harrison, chief advisor to the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and Oliver Letwin, Minister of State in the Cabinet Office.
The influence of the Eton network – the school teaches only circa 1,300 male pupils at a time – reaches far beyond the Monarchy (Wills and Harry), Downing Street or the Archbishop’s Palace at Lambeth.
Along the Thames you’ll find the Mayor of London, OE Boris Johnson. In media land, OEs include Geordie Grieg, editor of the Mail on Sunday. You may not have heard of Mr Grieg but the Observer newspaper christened him “Britain’s most connected man”. I hasten to add that I have friends and acquaintances from Eton. They are fun, deeply creative, and – though this may be my personal choice – firmly left. But this does not stop me worrying about the narrowness of the establishment that continues to run supposedly democratic and meritocratic Britain.
History books say that Eton was founded in 1440 by Henry VI, as a charity school for poor boys. That is a trifle disingenuous. In a time of English civil war, Henry was bent on creating an education system to co-opt the best talent from outside the old aristocratic families, to help him rule. Eton has been an Establishment leadership training school ever since.
Certainly, Eton should be credited with the diversity of its progeny. For every David Cameron and Boris Johnson there is a George Orwell, Lewis Clive (killed fighting with the International Brigade in Spain), or Guy Burgess (Soviet spy). OEs are not limited to the English upper class: witness Tam Dalyell, former Scotsman journalist Neal Ascherson, Liberal leader Jo Grimond, or writer Ludovic Kennedy. What other school could produce the likes of Humphrey Lyttelton, Bamber Gascoigne, Michael Bentine, Ian Fleming and Jonathon Porritt? And we can only admire Eton’s passionate commitment to student drama which has produced a theatrical line-up that includes Patrick McNee, Daniel Massey, Hugh Laurie, Dominic West, Damian Lewis, and now Tom Hiddleston.
What makes Eton so special? Answer: the way it instils in its pupils confidence and a will to lead. Nicholas Fraser, author of “The Importance of Being Eton”, argues: “Boys elect each other to positions of influence. So from a very early age, you become adept at being charming, buying votes, being smarmy.”
Eton invites outside speakers to address the pupils, thus initiating them into the inner circle of politics and society. They include not just the cream of politicians, but the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bobby Robson and JK Rowling.
Eton has also learned how to co-opt dissent and eccentricity – a valuable tool for any ruling class. Among the official school clubs are the Shelly (to discuss alternative, radical, anti-establishment views) and the Orwell (a debating society to discuss political dissidence). The subliminal point being made is that Shelley and Orwell were OEs and thus a loyal opposition.
The real question regarding Eton, and other establishment finishing schools such as Harrow and Winchester, is not whether they represent some secret political network. Rather, it is why do we let them rule over us? Eton has deep faults that betray the historic limitations of the British Establishment. For a start, it excludes as pupils the majority of the human race that is female. And while Eton may teach self-reliance and leadership, it does so through a code that venerates tradition above entrepreneurship and peer group approval above genuine merit.
Above all Eton lets mediocre men feel more superior than they should. Unfortunately for the rest of us, these men then use the charm and smarminess inculcated at Eton – allied with its old boys’ network – to rise higher in politics than than their meagre talents should allow. Or the country can afford.
Take Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Tory PM at the start of the 1960s (who replaced OE Harold Macmillan, who replaced OE Anthony Eden). The writer Cyril Connolly remembered Sir Alec at Eton as a “sleepy boy… he appeared honourably ineligible for the struggle of life.”
In the 1930s, Douglas-Home was Neville Chamberlain’s personal assistant, supplying the charm that prime minister notoriously lacked. This charm also helped him to escape being tainted for Chamberlain’s sell-out to Hitler at Munich, as did Douglas-Home’s ties to the Eton network – he married the daughter of Eton’s headmaster. (For the record, I put David Cameron in the Alec Douglas-Home category: charming but ineffectual.)
Beware: Eton is not primarily a finishing school for rich toffs, though it has a lot of them. Eton is about power. Abolishing Eton may sound tempting, but it would do nothing as the school reflects an underlying social reality that would soon invent a replacement.
The trick is to dismantle the British Establishment at source.