For a centre-right political party, the Conservatives are oddly obsessed with where people went to school. Michael Gove and Lady Warsi both lamented the number of Old Etonians in influential positions earlier this year. It may not have been coincidence that, within five months, both had moved posts: there remains a potent undercurrent of class tension in today’s Conservative party.
The charge sheet is simple. David Cameron has stacked the corridors of power with those who share his black-and-turquoise old school tie. How can it be that British politics has regressed into the chumocracy days of Harold Macmillan? Yet the prominence of Old Etonians today is not a throwback to an era that we thought we’d left behind — it’s a last hurrah.
Here are some facts to mollify those who despair at David Cameron and his ruling clique. When Winston Churchill returned to power in 1951, he led a party with 76 Old Etonian MPs. There are only 19 in David Cameron’s Conservative party today, and the number will be further depleted when Sir George Young and James Arbuthnot both step down as MPs at the next election. Rather than being stronger than ever, as the conventional wisdom assumes, the role of Old Etonians in British politics may be in inexorable decline.
The fall in the number of Old Etonian MPs reflects a wider trend. Despite all the calls to bring back the blue-collar conservatism of John Major, in fact 60 per cent of Tories in 1992 were independently educated, compared with 54 per cent today. The number is even lower for the 2010 Conservative intake and parliamentary candidates for 2015. In 1951, 78 per cent of Tories had attended private schools; 72 per cent of the 1979 intake also did so. This is one of the forgotten stories of the modern Conservative party: the dramatic reduction in the power of the old school tie.
That may seem incongruous given the lack of diversity in today’s cabinet. It is highly awkward for the Conservatives that their front bench can be caricatured as an all-white, privately educated men-only zone. And yet there have never been so few Old Etonian MPs.
Tony Little, the soon-to-retire headmaster of Eton, is aware of the trend. He suggests that the most fundamental explanation is that ‘party politics is less attractive than once it was as a career option’: professional politics now wants for prestige and glamour. Students who are interested in politics ‘don’t necessarily focus on traditional party politics’ any more, and look to Old Etonians like Justin Welby and Jonathon Porritt, the former director of Friends of the Earth, for examples of how to make a difference in public life in other ways.
Little also says that ‘the pummelling public figures receive in party political life’ has put the school’s old boys off the idea of trying to become MPs. He reckons that it could well be the case that a prestigious private education is now an impediment for would-be parliamentary candidates. And indeed Conservative constituency associations in marginal seats might be sensible to discriminate in this way.
In Somerton and Frome, one of the Conservatives’ main target seats at the last election, the Tories recorded a swing well below national trends. That the candidate’s name was Annunziata Rees-Mogg (defying Mr Cameron’s orders to adopt the plainer ‘Nancy Mogg’) may not have helped. CCHQ will also have anxiously noted Ukip’s success at pitching itself as the antidote to the out-of-touch Tories.
Labour has followed a similar line of attack, something made easier by the fact that it no longer has any Old Etonians in its parliamentary ranks. There is a rich tradition of Old Etonian socialism — George Orwell; Huge Dalton (chancellor in Clement Attlee’s government); and Tom Dalyell, the former Father of the House. Ever since Frederick Pethick-Lawrence was elected as Labour’s first Old Etonian MP in 1923, they have been popping up. No longer. In 2010, for the first time since 1923, not a single Old Etonian was returned as a Labour MP. None have so far been chosen as candidates for the 2015 general election either.
The start of the financial crisis in 2008 brought class back to the centre of British politics. In the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in 2008, Labour attacked the privately educated Conservative candidate Edward Timpson as ‘the Tarporley Toff’ and ‘Lord Snooty’. Although he was voted in nevertheless, it was a taste of things to come. Only 12 per cent of Labour’s MPs today are privately educated, and the party believes that it’s on strong ground when it attacks the privileged backgrounds of leading Conservatives. It may be right. Polling evidence suggests that two thirds of voters think the Conservatives ‘care more about the rich and affluent than ordinary people’.
George Osborne knows how effective such attacks can be. With delicious irony, it was the Chancellor who devised Michael Howard’s jibe to Tony Blair: ‘This grammar school boy will take no lessons from that public school boy.’ When Conservatives use similar language today, it is reserved for blue-on-blue attacks. David Davis last year pleaded for ‘no more Old Etonian advisers’ at No. 10, while Sarah Wollaston has also railed against an excess of Old Etonian school ties.
David Cameron is the only OE in the cabinet today, and no Conservative (or Conservative-dominated) administration has ever had a lower proportion of privately educated people in ministerial posts. But the critics do seem to have a point: Cameron seems disposed to favour those who come from a similar background when it comes to advisers. So it is that four of those involved in drafting the manifesto alongside the PM also went to his old school: Jo Johnson, brother of Boris and chair of the No. 10 policy board; Oliver Letwin, the minister for government policy; Ed Llewellyn, Cameron’s chief of staff; and Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s chief of staff. Old Etonians may be a dying breed at Westminster, but under Mr Cameron’s rule they are stubbornly retaining their influence. So the paradox is that while the Conservative party is very definitely moving away from the old school tie, Mr Cameron is much less willing to do so. It will make the Old Etonians particularly easy to blame if the Tories lose the next election.
Ultimately, the real story is not that the Conservative party is in thrall to Etonians, but the strange phasing out of Old Etonians from power. Defying this trend may be a task beyond even Boris Johnson.