Think of a number under ten and double it. And you’ll still be short of the number of Old Etonians who have sauntered into 10 Downing Street. If Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson picks up the keys to the poshest black door in London he will be the 20th former pupil of that establishment to get the top job in UK politics.When number19, David William Donald Cameron arrived, he constructed a cabinet with no fewer than 13 Old Etonians round the table. These posh boys look after their own.
This is not about Eton College’s academic excellence or rigour. (Clearly!) The gift that it bestows on its 1300 boys – for £40k a year full fees - is self confidence; the unshakeable, lifelong belief that they are a superior species. Born to rule.Rather hilariously it self describes as a “modern, forward looking” seat of learning which doubtless explains why the chaps wear tailcoats, white detachable collars and ties. And why, on July 4th, Etonians take to their boats in 19th century naval uniforms.
It doesn’t of course explain why this launch pad for the UK government, its judiciary and most of the establishment is in receipt of taxpayers money as a charitable institution. Or why 5 of the top public schools dispatch more students to Oxbridge than 2000 state schools in England. But at a time when two separate trusts – Sutton and Runnymede - have published reports on why privilege is still entrenched regardless of how we now talk about class, there remains dispiriting evidence of what a dismal a job we have made of accelerating social mobility.
Please don’t take my word for it. Pray silence for Justine Greening, erstwhile UK education minister, and that very rare breed, a member of the Tory cabinet educated at a local comprehensive. She’s now at large banging the drum for her party to wake up and smell the inequality.
“When I was education secretary, I saw first-hand how privilege bias is hardwired into our education system and then beyond into business and careers. Any party committed to equality of opportunity should be determined to change this. That means decisive action from the incoming prime minister, tackling the privilege hoarding we have built into society.”
Since she campaigned for Remain and later for a second referendum, she may not be the blonde who’s in line for an early date with the new PM. But unless her party listens to voices like hers they will float off into a fringe group for the mad, bad, and dangerously deluded.
Which, oddly, brings me to that mobile anachronism Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man for whom an Eton tailcoat might be thought a tad modernist. At the weekend my car barely stayed on the road as our one time man in Washington, Peter Jay, mused on whether this might be the time for another outsider rather than a professional diplomat to succeed the luckless Kim Darroch. Perhaps Stanley Johnson, Boris’s dad on the grounds he would have the PM’s ear opined Peter. Perhaps Jacob double barreled since the yanks would really dig that wacky accent. Ye gods. As if Britain weren’t enough of a laughing stock without suggesting that this super wealthy toff should be the US voice of a UK administration still pretending to live in the 21st century.
But Rees-Mogg is emblematic of one thing; that privilege and deference still hold sway because we still give credence and airtime to bigots and blowhards for no better reason than their sense of entitlement and wealthy hinterlands. Rees-Mogg’s impermeable self belief is matched only by his serial ignorance. ‘Tis said that now he has moved one of his investment companies to Ireland, Brexit will make him an even richer man. The moral of which sorry tale is that you can spout any amount of nonsense in decent tailoring and a cut glass accent and there will be no shortage of gullible audiences.
Our friends across the pond are wont to deny any evidence of class ridden prejudice on their own patch. Why ain’t this the land of the free, where anyone can come from anywhere and rise to the highest office in the land? Not recently.Contenders to be a presidential candidate for either of the main parties won’t get near the starting gate unless they have or can raise tens of millions of dollars. Unsurprisingly the major campaign donors are those who then expect their sector or their good selves to be treated favourably by the victor. They really won a watch with President Trump, the man who famously promised to drain the swamp of special interests and then restocked it with no fewer than 164 former lobbyists.
There is a long and ignoble tradition of US ambassadorships being handed out to those who have opened their billfolds most generously.
But perhaps the most egregious example of privilege currently resides in a Manhattan penitentiary, indicted on numerous charges relating to procuring young women for sex. Jeffrey Epstein, wealthy friend of the rich and famous, is trying to use his $56million townhouse and private jet as a bail bond. He has some form in parlaying his wealth and influence into a get out of jail free card. A previous Florida court case pertaining to the same unsavoury abuse of power found him evading serious charges in favour of a brief sentence from which he was permitted to leave for 12 hours daily to go to work.
As the New Yorker columnist John Cassidy noted:
“The Epstein case, as well as being a horrendous story about a rich and well-connected man sexually and mentally abusing dozens of vulnerable girls, is also about how, in today’s America, money and social connections can buy such a vile predator special treatment from the legal system.”
So we are not alone. But the one area in which we still lead the world is ensuring that a small number of expensive educational establishments can still promise their students that there is little chance of them piloting a number 57 bus. Conversely those who start life on the wrong side of the tracks are increasingly less likely to reach the other side.
The more things change, the more they remain the same, as the French don’t quite say.
Column for The Herald 16.7.2019