Monday, February 22, 2010

Why it matters that David Cameron went to Eton

Does it matter that David Cameron went to Eton?

It does, but not for the reasons people often think. The fact that Labour's "anti-toff" campaign in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election a couple of year fell so very flat suggests that most voters are not terribly worried about their politician's social background.

This is despite that fact that being "posh" was, until a year or two ago, just about the worst sin imaginable in British society. In as far as "posh" was used as a synonym for "educated" this was a pernicious development.

It represented a foolish attempt to keep Labour's working-class roots, despite that fact that many of the people using this style of arguing were pretty posh themselves.

Besides, I am a Liberal. I am not prejudiced. Despite the fact that I went to a comprehensive and received free school dinners, some of my best friends went to public schools. And you may have noticed that I am alert to the comic possibilities of their historic absurdities.

But it does matter that David Cameron went to Eton. And it matters for two reasons.

The first is that it gives us a clue to what he is really like. When I wrote of Cameron in House Points a couple of weeks ago that
there remains something of Flashman about him. For all his studied reasonableness, you sense there is a fag quaking outside a study door somewhere, awaiting an altercation over a burnt piece of toast.
I meant it.

Yes, there was the sketchwriter's exaggeration, but as I pointed out back in 2006, this touchy, feely David Cameron is wholly unrecognisable to those who knew him when he was working as a PR man before he entered parliament. Then he was seen by a journalist who had to deal with him as "a smarmy bully". Saturday's Guardian examined Cameron's PR years too.

So his Eton background may give us a more accurate idea of what David Cameron is like the way he has presented himself in recent years.

The second reason why this background matters is that it serves as a powerful symbol of what has happened in Britain in recent years. As a Sutton Trust report from last year said:
  • The majority of those at the top of the leading professions were educated in independent feepaying schools which remain largely closed to the majority of the population.

  • This includes seven in ten of the leading judges (70%) and barristers (68%), as well as a majority of the partners at top law firms (55%) and leading journalists and medics (both 54%).

  • While the representation of those from independent schools has generally declined over the last twenty or so years, there are some signs from the legal profession that more recent recruitment has resulted in an increased proportion of students from fee-paying schools.
Or as I wrote in July 2005:

At the Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth last year I went to a fringe meeting where one of the speakers was Steve Sinnott, the new general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Introducing him, the chair said that he was the first product of a comprehensive school to hold this post. From around the room there came little gasps of surprise and joy.

Comprehensives have been the major form of secondary education in Britain for 30 years or more. It should by now be utterly unremarkable for someone who attended one to gain an important, but not earth-shattering, job like Sinnott's. But it still seems a striking achievement, and that should tell us that something is going wrong.

So it does not matter that David Cameron went to Eton because that makes him posh or a toff. It matters because it gives us a clue to his true character and it reminds us of how little social mobility there now is in Britain.


Wartime Housewife said...

The educational provenance of our MPs will only cease to matter when the state education system is even vaguely comparable. Private education doesn't make children better people but it often gives them confidence, self reliance and high expectations that are not taken as read in a comprehensive. It's a big mistake to positively discriminate in favour of state educated children if they are not making the grade. If we really want to change things, we have to have to tackle the educational system in a radical way and, I would suggest, re-introduce Grammar Schools or a similar system.

My children are at state schools by the way and because they're both bright they get pushed more. If they were average students, I think they would left to bumble along undisturbed and never achieve their potential. Many of their friends have been removed to the private sector for just this reason. I will be very interested to see what happens.

Lavengro in Spain said...

Is that a photo of David Cameron?

wibbly wobble said...

@wartime housewife - but if you reintroduce grammar schools don't you just promote state elitism as well? It's been proven that academic selection at such a young age is unfair as it doesn't give a true reflection of academic ability. That surely serves to compound the problem.