Two years ago, I put together a proposal for a book about the coming sea change in British politics. It was going to document the resurgence of a political clique that, until recently, had been written off as a busted flush. How had David Cameron, the grandson of a baronet and a member of the Bullingdon Club, managed to overcome the anti-toff prejudice that had put paid to Douglas Hurd’s leadership bid 18 years earlier? The idea was for publication to coincide with the Conservatives thunderous election victory of 2010. I was going to call it The Return of the Eton Mob.
I never got around to writing it, which is probably just as well. This analysis now seems completely wrong-headed — and not only because the Tories failed to win a majority. The resemblance between David Cameron and the 18 other Old Etonians who occupied No. 10 Downing Street is purely superficial. He may have a genetic link to the handful of aristocratic families from which England’s political elite used to be drawn, but there’s nothing of the gentleman amateur about him. On the contrary, Cameron is a professional — the only class with a claim on his loyalties is the political class.
Cameron’s first job out of university was for the Conservative Research Department and from there he went on to become a special adviser to Norman Lamont and Michael Howard. It’s a career path mirrored by the leader of the opposition, and the Prime Minister has more in common with Labour’s ‘new generation’ than he does with the grouse moor Tories of the 1950s and 1960s. Cameron is the heir to Blair, not Macmillan.
The lack of high Tory DNA in the present government has little to do with the fact that the Conservatives have been forced to share power with the Lib Dems. On the contrary, the presence of Nick Clegg as the Prime Minister’s aide-de-camp has enhanced the impression that we’ve returned to a more civilised era in British politics. As several people noted at the time, their rose garden press conference was like a scene in a Richard Curtis movie. Everything about them — their body language, their haircuts, their easygoing manner — was conspicuously upper-middle-class. It was as if Rab C. Nesbitt had been turfed out of Downing Street by Hugh Grant, with Colin Firth as his butler.
But the aura of privilege that surrounds the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister shouldn’t be mistaken for aristocratic hauteur. Their sense of entitlement doesn’t stem from good breeding, but from their conviction that they’re meritocrats. And in a sense they are. After all, admission to Britain’s top public schools, as well as Oxford and Cambridge, is at least partly based on merit. Indeed, the superior status of these elite educational institutions largely rests on their meritocratic admissions policies. Not only that, but in order to advance in both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems it’s not enough to be posh. In fact, it’s something of a handicap — a perception problem that has to be overcome.
Consider the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had to take common entrance to win a place at St Paul’s School, sit another exam to get into Oxford, do well enough in his finals to land a job at Conservative Central Office, persuade the Tatton Conservative Association to adopt him as their parliamentary candidate… and so on. Not exactly a cakewalk.
Of course, a left-wing critic of the coalition would tell a different story. They would point out that the pool of 13-year-old boys Osborne had to compete with to get into St Paul’s was restricted to those whose parents could afford the fees (or who were eligible for a bursary). Again, when he applied to Oxford he wasn’t competing on a level playing field: 46.5 per cent of Oxford students were educated privately, compared with 7 per cent of the UK population. And the fact that he’s the heir to a baronetcy and married to the daughter of a former Tory Cabinet minister can’t have hurt his prospects in the party.
The important thing to bear in mind, though, is that the leaders of the New Establishment nearly all possess impeccable meritocratic credentials, even if their path to the top was eased by their parents’ privileged status. Psychologically, this makes them very different to their Old Establishment predecessors. They’re not plagued by the need to prove themselves — that crippling sense of duty — that was summed up in Goethe’s famous rhyming couplet: ‘Really to own what you inherit / You must earn it by your merit.’ Whatever feelings Cameron is tortured by in his spare moments, guilt probably isn’t among them. If at times he seems like an old-fashioned One Nation Tory, that’s not because he belongs to a feudal tradition in which the lord of the manor was responsible for the welfare of his agricultural labourers. As one of his close friends put it to me, paternalism was something he ‘downloaded’ as part of his strategy to decontaminate the Conservative brand. It’s a marketing exercise, not a reversion to type.
That word — ‘downloaded’ — is key to understanding our new masters. As Peter Oborne points out in The Triumph of the Political Class, members of the Old Establishment enjoyed a rich and varied hinterland compared with the New Establishment. Their values and interests were dictated by their position as landowners or trade unionists; they weren’t simply matters of political expediency. Today, ideology is a by-product of the will to power. To ask what David Cameron and Nick Clegg believe in is the wrong question. They believe in whatever it is in their political interest to believe. Make no mistake, if they decide that the merging of their two parties is their best hope of clinging on to power, they will quickly discover hitherto undreamt-of common ground.
It’s easy to scoff at the New Establishment for this philosophical versatility, but in a sense it makes the coalition a more genuinely conservative government than that of Margaret Thatcher or any of her tweedy, postwar predecessors. Maurice Cowling, the late right-wing historian, used to ask first-year students of his at Peterhouse whether they were conservative because they believed in conservative values or because they believed in nothing. The correct answer was that they believed in nothing.