I find that, in spite of myself sometimes, I like people that perhaps I might not be expected to, usually for odd reasons. One such person is Andrew Neil. IT was one of the things I ruminated on as I watched his recent BBC2 programme Posh and Posher: Why Public Schoolboys Run Britain. I missed it on broadcast but managed to catch a fair bit of it on the iPlayer.
As I was watching a couple of things struck me. First was that, despite the running jokes in Private Eye about the Brillo Pad on his head, Neil seems a generally decent and thoughtful bloke, and one who clearly has given a great deal of consideration to his background and how lucky he feels to have had some of the opportunities that were offered to him. Actually, this is pretty much the cornerstone of the whole programme, wondering how those opportunities he took with both hands are now less likely to come to those with similar beginnings. It resonated with me too, coming from where I do. Perhaps that’s another reason why I like Neil: some tenuous sense of kinship.
But there was something missing from Neil’s analysis, I think. As he went through the list of public schoolboys who either went to Eton or Westminster, and talked to those at Nick Clegg‘s old school about the advantages they enjoyed, two things struck me: the first was that there was a tacit assumption that a political career was still something aspired to by many of what used to be called the “grammar school” students, the second was the fact that many of the skills taught in the independent system are still very classical in tone. The latter of these things was thrown into relief when Neil enjoyed a short conversation with Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was desperately trying to deflect observations about his class, ended up claiming himself, “a man of the people: vox populi, vox dei“, which only served to point out the exact opposite.
In the past, the education of a gentlemen mostly focused on three areas: logic, literature and rhetoric. In essence this gave the ability to analyse argument, speak and debate, and then throw in a few well chosen bon mots from others to garnish. Oddly, these skills are exactly he skills for parliamentary debate. Another thing skirted over came when the presence of Tony Blair as Prime Minister was seen as weakening some of those arguments because he was a “great communicator”, even though he too was a public schoolboy (at Fettes). The school is not the issue. What is the issue is that, since World War II, of the 11 men and women who have assumed the role of Prime Minister, nine of them were educated at Oxford. Only John Major, with no degree and Gordon Brown (Edinburgh) spoil the Oxonian hegemony. Oxford provides the Oxford Union, which reinforces the values learned in school, attracts influential speakers and provides a network and launchpad for those with a political interest. An example of this is the path of the Milliband brothers, educated at their father’s insistence in the state sector, but also going up Oxford
The elephant in the room for me is, however, related to the first of the issue I had with Neil’s analysis: perhaps it’s only really those going through the public school system who have any interest in a career in the now rather quaint and arcane Westminster system that appears, to many, to be increasingly distanced form any kind of reality. Perhaps it’s not that the talented from outside the public schools can’t get into those positions, but that they don’t want to. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility. In recent years the political system, and the politicians within it have become stained with a continuous stream of dirt and scandal. Mistrust of ‘careerist’ politicians has not been higher in living memory, and probably has not been as profound since the 19th Century. But the Westminster environment is an incestuous one and it seems, from outside, that there is a distinct lack of understanding at the growing levels of anger in wider society about what is seen as the pulling up of the ladder of opportunity by those for whom that opportunity is firmly entrenched.
Perhaps the question shouldn’t be “Why Are Public Schoolboys Running Britain”, but “Why does no one else seem to want to?”