“Eton is a four letter word.”
I can’t remember which massively successful Old Etonian actor said that – there are so many: Eddie Redmayne, Harry Lloyd, Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Damian Lewis – but whichever of the gazillions it was you know what he was getting at. An Eton education is as much as stigma for some as it is a badge of honour for others.
Two perfect examples of this are Prime Minister David Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
Both went to “School”, as Etonians will insist on calling it (the capital in the S is silent). But where David Cameron finds it an albatross round his neck, Boris Johnson exults in it. This tells us something about Eton; but much more about the characters of the two men.
What it tells you about Eton is that it can bring out the best and the worst in you. It is, by some margin, the world’s finest school – with the coolest uniform (white shirt and tailcoat), the most arcane traditions and terminology, the richest history, the largest number of famous old boys – and everyone who goes there is excruciatingly aware of this from the moment on day one where their Dame (like a cross between their honorary Mum and the house matron) shows them how to put on their starched, Edwardian-style collar and they head off towards a chapel built by the school’s founder Henry VI in 1440.
Surrounded by such magnificence, you have two basic options: to spend the rest of your life being quietly grateful at having had the very best education the world can offer; or to become a smug, arrogant wanker with the most massive sense of entitlement and a sly contempt for all those oiks beneath you who didn’t make the grade.
And guess which categories journalist’s son and scholarship boy Boris Johnson and rich stockbroker’s son David Cameron fit into…..
But it would be unfair to blame either Cameron or Johnson for the choices their parents made for them. Far more telling is the way they have chosen to respond to the experience.
Cameron, while surrounding himself in government with a cabal of fellow Old Etonians, has yet sought to distance himself from his educational background at every opportunity. He clearly sees it as a badge of shame that doesn’t play well with the public and doesn’t advance his mission to “modernise” the Conservative party.
Johnson, on the other hand, appears utterly unfazed by his Eton experience. He flaunts his rich vocabulary, his Latin and Greek, and his booming upper-crust accent (which, unlike Cameron, he has never sought to modify). The fact that he is lucky enough to have been educated at the world’s best school is clearly a source of great joy to him.
Since Johnson announced his return to Westminster politics this week by declaring his plans to stand as an MP, there has been much speculation as to whether he might be suited to the job of Prime Minister. Everyone has become instant expert on the subject – those who declare him a buffoon and a clown; those who think he’s as bad a faux-Tory as David Cameron and that his regime as London Mayor has been little more than Continuation Ken Livingstone; those who think he’s the great white hope of libertarian-ish right-wing politics who has come to save us all.
I’ve known him since Oxford but I can’t pronounce nearly so confidently. Even to his friends, Boris is deeply opaque and a perpetual mystery; and besides, anyone who spends any time in politics becomes compromised. But I think if we want a clue as to whether or not he’d be a better bet than his longstanding rival David Cameron, we could do a lot worse than compare and contrast the two men’s very different approaches to their alma mater.
The mark of a true conservative, surely, is a belief in meritocracy: that it doesn’t matter where you came from but what you make of yourself afterwards.
Boris has very successfully overcome the considerable handicap of having been to the world’s most stigmatised school and made a virtue of his background, warts and all.
Cameron on the other hand has slunk shamefaced into the corner, betrayed his class and backed down from the fight.
I know which one I’d rather have running the country.