‘No one wants to send their son to Eton any more,’ I learned from last week’s Spectator Schools supplement. It explained how parents who’d been privately educated themselves were increasingly reluctant to extend the privilege to their offspring; some because they can’t bear for their darling babies to board, others because the fees are way out of their reach, or because class prejudice is so entrenched these days it means their kids probably won’t get into Oxbridge.
Then again, if you don’t send your kids to public school, you’ll be denying them never-to-be-repeated opportunities like the ones that boys at Radley have had this week: the chance to see not one, but two of your favourite Spectator writers — me and Brendan O’Neill, both invited as part of the school’s admirable Provocateur in Residence programme — slugging it out in class after class on vexed political issues from Donald Trump to safe spaces, #MeToo to student snowflakes, Antifa to Islamism.
We’ve just emerged, knackered, from a gruelling session on Brexit. Brendan and I are both fervent Leavers. But to a boy, the class was ardently Remain and — I gathered from a mole — had been briefed by their teacher to give us as hard a time as possible. No one was exactly rude but they did glower at us throughout like we’d just throttled their favourite guinea pig, and they didn’t appear swayed by any of our arguments.
I couldn’t resist goading them. ‘You know what happened in the French Revolution? I’m not saying it will be tumbril time again, necessarily. Just that it might be in your interests to find out more about why the lower orders voted the way they did, rather than just assuming they were an ignorant mob gulled by a slogan on the side of a bus.’
One thing I’ve noticed about public schoolboys, even at ‘Rah Rah’ Radley, is that they’re generally much less right-wing than you’d hope. Partly it’s the rebel cool thing. Partly it’s that even at the smartest schools a lot of the staff swing left. But mainly I think it’s that teenage state of wanting to be different but not too different. It requires huge balls, massive intellectual security and bravura precocity for a teenager to articulate genuinely right-wing positions, because the current of the culture is so against them.
That’s where Brendan and I came in. Even though Brendan calls himself a Marxist and I think of myself as classical liberal/conservatarian, one of our major problems was finding stuff to disagree about. He even approves of fox-hunting (Engels, I suppose). Our only major differences were over Trump and the monarchy. And our disagreement about the latter is only going to last so long as Queenie is still with us. After that, I’m joining him as a republican.
But to sing for our supper we had to pretend we were chalk and cheese. That was the premise on which Stephen Rathbone, the school’s inspirational Academic Director, had invited us. (He’s desperate to get more lefty speakers like Brendan, but most won’t do private schools out of inverse snobbery.) So even though our schtick is raw, outspoken honesty, we had to work up some ersatz tension beforehand. In my case, this involved publicly reminding Brendan that au fond, he is a bearded, uncouth, ignorant, bogtrotting peasant who never even went to university. But really this was just jealousy speaking. One of the things I’ve always envied Brendan — and Rod Liddle, who uses much the same trick — is the way he frequently gets away with saying far more right-wing things than I’d ever dare merely by dint of pretending to be of the left.
If I could have my time again, one of the few things I’d change — apart from the bit where I make my first ten million in my mid-thirties and retire to become a master of foxhounds, only this time with one of those coats that inflates when you fall off so you don’t nearly die and get banned by your family — is that I’d ditch the posher accent I confected for university, and instead exaggerate the Brummie one I had when I went to the village school in Alvechurch.
‘Awroit,’ I’d say to Andrew Neil as he greeted me on Daily Politics. Then I’d say exactly the same things I do now. But people would listen more because I would have marked myself as an authentic Midlands horny-handed son of toil.
Or maybe not. When I think of the reasons why I sent my own offspring to public school, one was definitely contra mundum. I wanted to raise a middle finger to this grisly new world where mediocrity is the new posh, where upwardly mobile parents actually boast about what a so-so education they’re inflicting on their kids because the main thing is that they’re being exposed to such an amazingly broad social mix.
If my children are hated because they went to schools where they learned manners, how to engage with high-achieving adults, how to be charming, how to handle being with kids much richer than them, how to manage their time and crazy workload while packing in all the compulsory sport in between, how to network, how to deal with being away from home, how to get on with people you both like and loathe from whom there’s no escape for weeks on end, how to deal with privilege (perhaps, I’ve been telling the Radleians this week, by recognising that you have a duty to give something back and punch above your weight when it comes to defending western civilisation), then I won’t consider that a failure. It’s a badge of honour.