Vicki Woods

Can an Etonian be Prime Minister?

Vicki Woods says Eton is probably the best school in the world, and does her best to forgive OEs their grating charm and intimidating good manners

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The craze for internet spread-betting that has swept through City trading floors and the suburban housing market has finally gripped me; for three weeks I’ve been a slave to gambling websites. Up nights, tapping away.... Actually, it’s one website — — which is not exactly a gambling site, more an online tipping service. And I’m not looking to bet, I’m looking for David Cameron.

I know, I know. Call me flighty. Back in May I was all for David Davis as opposition leader for the upcoming and possibly rather grim Brown years. Cameron, 38, was — well, a bit young. (What was I thinking? Etonians are made men at 18.) But on 9 June his rather appealingly 18th-century face was posted on the site alongside: ‘Can the Tories choose a toff? Does being an Old Etonian still disqualify you from being Tory leader?’ The accompanying post noted that this country’s last Etonian prime minister (out of 19 OEs) was Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Forty years ago, at the time when leaders were not voted in but simply ‘emerged’.

So, there’s Cameron, on my screen in his country-shabby navy jumper, looking inescapably toff-y, and I was curious to see how the punters would respond. Two hundred did vigorously, knowledgeably and politically. (Also coarsely.) The main thrust was a) it’s the parliamentary party that’s worried about supposed toffiness more than voters ever are, b) Cameron ‘looks nicer’ than Davis, and c) the dream ticket — for lots — would be Clarke and Cameron, if only Clarke were younger and Cameron older. They noticed his ‘youth’ but what mutterers call ‘David’s Eton thing’ passed them by.

Let’s deal with the Eton thing right now. Cameron’s name is never mentioned in print without the word ‘Old Etonian’ tagging it. (Neither is Humphrey Lyttelton’s, poor man, though it must be 60 years since he left Slough.) The tag implies upper-class privilege, moneyed ease, disdain, superiority, Lord Snootyness, dandyism, toffishness. And other, wilder things that end with baying for broken glass. Twenty years on, I can recall an Etonian dreamily recounting details of a perfect weekend: ‘Some people had swords ...We were drinking champagne out of pint glasses ...Turkeys were let into the room at midnight.’ Etonians are happy to recognise their renegades: Lord Lucan was an OE — oh, yes, Jonathan Aitken — yes, the Crown Prince of Nepal ... (‘But none of them were SHITS. Shits go to Harrow’). The voiceover on Channel 4’s programme about the Foreign Legion last week explained that ‘all kinds’ of people joined its ranks ‘from crooks and murderers to ...Old Etonians!’ Etonian is a global tag and universally understood. There are other tags to imply the same sort of thing (‘Champagne-quaffing’) or the opposite thing (‘lager-swilling’) but not many schools act as this kind of verbal portmanteau. ‘School’ in a crossword clue only ever means Eton.

I once read pages of Hansard from a late-night education debate in 1998: Oliver Letwin (on his feet) wrestles with two contradictory amendments to a Bill and insists the contradiction be resolved. Denis MacShane (seated) shouts: ‘He’s an Old Etonian!’ over and over. I put to Charles Moore (OE) that MacShane could never shout, ‘He’s an Old Carthusian!’, could he? ‘No,’ said Moore, ‘nor, “He’s a Jew.” Although he is.’ I’d meant that the recognition factor must be connected with its phonemic simplicity. Compared with Charterhouse, Wellington, Westminster, King Edward’s, Hamilton Academy, say, Eton is a simple little bisyllable containing the four commonest letters in British English. Trips off the tongue. Easy to understand why it stands in for ur-School, any school, all of non-state school? Moore meant that Eton is the best school in the world; the boys who go there know it is and are told that it is, and detect resentment from people who are jealous that it is. Category error there, I think.

It probably is the best school in the world. My friend who teaches EFL at Oxford sends groups of boys there for international summer schools. ‘It just has the best set of everything you could want in a school. Libraries, playing fields, university-level chemistry labs. Music schools. Even the school theatre seats 400 people and has a revolving stage, for heaven’s sake.’ Still, she says, the Italian boys always come back moaning. ‘No hair-dryers in the changing-rooms. They can’t understand it. And there are so many staff, and they’re such high-calibre.’ (We were speaking before the recent difficulties in the art department.) Eton has serious draw, too: a recent leaver skidded down a list of speakers: ‘Oh, Philip Pullman, Nicholas Hytner, Lord Sainsbury, who’s that bloke who used to be Blair’s flatmate? Falconer. And Will Self.’ Will Self? ‘Yes, but in a joint meeting with a local state school, he insisted on that.’

When I was growing up (in British army camps until I was 12 and then in Lancaster until I was 19), I already knew the Etonian tag but I didn’t know any Etonians. The first I met, working at Harpers & Queen, was probably Craig Brown, or perhaps it was Nicholas Coleridge, both supremely confident about offering bits of freelance work and both giddily well-mannered about its refusal. I began to realise that Eton wasn’t the same as other public schools — or any school — and that Etonians weren’t the same as anybody except other Etonians. How could they be? Craig wrote (in Tatler in 1986, ‘Eton Made Me’): ‘You cannot walk around two towns in tailcoats for five years without coming to some decision as to your importance in relation to the untailcoated pedestrians, and it would be a saint or madman who emerged from these five years with ideas of his own inferiority or even equality still instinctively intact.’

We did a teenage issue at Harpers (both Coleridge and Brown were too old to join in, but were invited to the party afterwards. I made them wear badges saying ‘Too Late At 20’, so they wouldn’t hog the invited diary editors. They hogged them anyway.) I did the preliminary interviews on the teen wannabes, some too shy to speak. Three godlike boys arrived together one morning, irritatingly early. I had to keep leaving my desk (to look at proofs) and each time I stood up they made a huge pantomime of hurling their chairs noisily backwards and half-rising. In unison. Etonians. Again from ‘Eton Made Me’: ‘It is often said that Etonians have better manners than anyone else. If this is true (I also think they have the worst manners, but can always choose which set to employ), then it is an indication of the control which they have grown to assume they can assert over their own lives and their own actions.’ Damn well stop that! I finally snapped. They slid sly eyes at each other, but controlled their smiles.

The 19 OE PMs (most of whose portraits gaze down from the debating hall in Upper School, to inspire) don’t include the last Etonian who tilted at the office. In 1990 the leadership choice was the perceived regicide Heseltine, the deeply curious Major and the stiff, patrician Hurd, who was felled by Jon Snow on Channel 4. What seemed blindingly obvious to Snow, faced with Hurd’s bearing, composure, his drawled vowels and crinkled-silver quiff (Mark Boxer always said the trick when drawing the upper classes was to get their hair down pat: ‘Crinkled. Look at Prince Charles’), was that Hurd was unelectable. ‘You went to Eton, for heaven’s sake! 217; Hurd offered some strangulated demurral against the charge of aristo-privilege (errrrgh — not at all — lowly scholarship boy — simple farmer’s son, etc.), but Snow’s jabbing, egalitarian finger is seared in my memory. I expect in Lord Hurd’s memory, too.

I don’t know if Cameron will get the job that Etonians think is their due. He might. I have a feeling that the historic resentment against Etonians is pretty nuanced, held to firmly by people old enough to have had to pick sides during the Battle of Orgreave Colliery but dwindling. No one I know in the age group 35 to 45 prosecutes class war. Or remembers it. ‘The miners’ strike was before my time, darling. There were candles — it was fun, I was a kid. Anyway, David Cameron’s gorgeous. A bit posh, underneath, but not a toff.’ He has what used to be called ‘grand connections’. His wife’s mother was Lady Sheffield, now Viscountess Astor, which makes him son-in-law to a Viscount. But his wife Samantha is a ‘working mum’ in the retail sector. As was her mother. But at the carriage trade end, not the high street.

I think the absolute golden age of Eton ended under the lash of Blairite league-table targeting. Basically, it used to be a comprehensive, catering to the very dim as easily as to the very bright. Now it’s had to become selective, and much more difficult to get into. Some of the people who would once have put their sons down in utero might choose Radley, Shrewsbury, Stowe. And while ‘the Eton thing’ might still be disadvantageous for Conservative politicians with leadership ambitions, it’s still kinda beyond fabulous and totally hip for the sons of London hairdressers and senior fashion PRs holding luxury-brand portfolios; people for whom the networking possibilities of the Fourth of June are too enticing to pass up. Mary Killen told me some people arrived on Harleys.

A (firmly anonymous) Eton mother told me, ‘The thing is, the masters are so incredibly good. They really do have the best teachers; they can afford them — and so many of them — and they can afford to have some with a more eccentric view of life. It’s not at all parent-centred, and I was really ambivalent about sending him, but I was pathetically grateful for the care they took; you get handwritten reports, pages and pages of careful analysis, not just Could Do Better — far from it, you feel they really know everything about your boy. His housemaster told me, “There’s room for everybody here. You don’t have to be a conformist.” And they do teach them ... grace, really. I know I must sound pathetic, but when I went to take him home for the last time, I said goodbye to his housemaster and was trying to say thank you and how grateful I was, almost in tears. And we’d always had this terribly formal relationship, but he sprang forward and kissed me on b-both cheeks...’ (dissolves into tearful giggles).