AMONG the giddy tales of decadence related with glee last week by anyone who had ever brushed up against one of Oxford’s secret drinking clubs was a less eye-catching but nonetheless interesting piece by Ivo Delingpole, a pupil at Eton College.
Ivo is not just any 16-year-old Etonian; he is the son of James Delingpole, the writer at the centre of one of the less shocking stories told in Lord Ashcroft’s book about the Prime Minister. Delingpole senior claims he and David Cameron smoked cannabis together at Christ Church college. He is also a columnist with the Spectator, which explains how young Ivo got the opportunity to write a piece for the very same publication. Ivo used the platform to tell readers how – unlike your comprehensives – Eton encourages young people to make their own way in the world. It would appear irony is one subject not included on the curriculum.
Earlier, Delingpole senior wrote a column, also in the Spectator, talking about how terribly tame Oxford was back in the day. While he played down his own excesses, yet another Spectator article was playing up those of the new SNP MPs, claiming they were engaging in drink-fuelled rowdiness in the Commons bars. Even if true – and they deny it – it is difficult to see how such behaviour differs from that of many who have gone before them. But Bullingdon-type toffs trashing restaurants, then throwing a hundred quid at the staff to cover the damage, are engaging in youthful hijinks, whereas the lower orders enjoying an exuberant sing-song bring shame on themselves and their party. Double standards aren’t a product of the system; they are the system.
Ivo’s column was free of debauchery. Given his age, there were no half-naked boys or girls and certainly no appendages inserted into animal carcasses. His account of Eton had little in it you wouldn’t have encountered before: blah blah 15th-century quadrangles, blah blah patterned waistcoats, blah blah housemasters and “tardy” books. What marked it out was not its content but Ivo’s overweening sense of entitlement, his lack of understanding of how other people live and his conviction that Etonians’ achievements are down to the way the school moulds them, as opposed to their enormous advantages.
He writes: “To succeed at Eton you do have to use a certain amount of persuasiveness, whether it’s arguing your case to the headmaster when you’ve done something wrong, convincing your ‘beak’ (teacher) not to give you a long ‘EW’ (piece of homework), or talking people into coming to your house play,” as if the reason children from other schools don’t become QCs is because they fail to engage in backchat.
Ivo sincerely believes it is this grounding – not mummy and daddy’s wealth or their status or the old boys’ network – that makes Etonians so “independent”, so capable of schmoozing and so uniquely qualified for all the top jobs.
He’s right, of course, that public schools play a fundamental role in maintaining their pupils’ supremacy, not because, as he contends, they are meritocracies (ha, ha, ha, ha, ad infinitum) but because if you exist in an environment where your future greatness is assumed it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And also because there will always be one generation of old Etonians giving a leg-up to the next.
In a sense, Cameron’s close encounter or otherwise with a dead pig is neither here nor there. All social classes have their boys’ clubs, and acceptance often appears to require exposing that part of the anatomy to some indignity or other. Men from working-class backgrounds have also been known to wreck hotel rooms.
What distinguishes the Camerons of this world from the rest of us is that for them such acts have no consequences; cocooned in privilege, they need not worry about the mistakes they make or how they will be perceived. They can smash up restaurants and lives and then – like Daisy and Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby – “retreat into their money and their vast carelessness”.
Their futures are secured not only by the patronage of other public schools boys but by the deference of those from more ordinary backgrounds. Many non-Etonians are taken in by their self-confidence, while others are simply cowed by the relentless perpetuation of elites.
Lord Ashcroft’s revelations, then, will have zero impact on Cameron’s standing. A YouGov poll last week showed 62 per cent of people didn’t care what he had or hadn’t done, which is hardly surprising. If you can tolerate people-shafting, pig-shafting is unlikely to trouble you.
Etonians seem to take a Millwall-esque pride in their status as hate figures, and they can afford to because they know those who rail against them are whistling in the wind. At the end of his piece, Ivo writes: “Recently I found myself watching the scene in the 1981 television version of Brideshead Revisited where Lord Sebastian Flyte tries to charm his way out of being arrested for drink-driving, and I realised how little has changed. People want to hate us but they can’t resist us.”
He’s deluded if he thinks that’s down to charisma, but it’s true different rules apply to privileged, white men and that their domination is entrenched. Unfortunately, it’s going to take more than one vengeful billionaire with a trove of scandals to put that right.