In Depth

Cameron should be proud of his Eton education, not try to hide it

Anyway, it’s not the PM’s Etonian-ness that puts us off – it’s his professional politician-ness

Crispin Black

‘KNOCK, KNOCK.’ 

‘Who’s there?’

‘Eamonn.’

‘Eamonn who?’

‘Eamonn Old Etonian.’

David Cameron’s problem is not that there are too many ‘Eamonns’ in Downing Street, but that he himself is embarrassed he went there. This creates an avenue of attack for his opponents.

In any case, Cameron is naive if he believes that people dislike him for his Etonian-ness. What puts me off my breakfast is his professional politician-ness - no experience, no judgment, an epic sense of entitlement, no respect for the armed forces, an exaggerated respect for ‘diversity’, elastic with the truth, endlessly posturing on the international stage, no discernable principles of any kind - except to climb the greasy pole.  

Curiously, these have not been characteristic Etonian traits over the centuries, where privilege has always co-existed with a stern sense of political, military or religious duty. It is ironic that Cameron is frightened of the label ‘Old Etonian’ which, frankly, flatters him.

For sure, there isn’t a place at Eton for every teenage boy, but there is definitely a place in every school for some of Eton’s methods and those of the best independent schools – rigorous teaching by well-qualified and dedicated staff. Respect for culture and learning. Excellence. Inculcation of manners in their broadest sense. Discipline. Competitive sport. Christianity communicated with passion.

What’s not to like?

I think actually that was what Michael Gove was trying to say in his interview with the Financial Times. Eton is an extraordinarily successful school and it would be nice if we could replicate that in parts of the state sector – organise it so that more people are educated, civilised, confident and successful. At least I hope that was the Education Secretary’s underlying message when he said it was “preposterous” how many of Cameron’s inner cabinet were Etonians.  All the more ridiculous then that the Prime Minister has apparently given Gove a rocket for raising the subject.

Cameron should thank his lucky stars for his education at certainly the most famous school in the world and probably one of the best.  He should be proud of it instead of pretending it never happened.

Bertie Wooster so loved his time there he frequently wore spats in Eton colours, much to Jeeves’s disapproval.  The easiest way Mr Cameron could do this would be to wear his Old Etonian tie occasionally. It would look great at Prime Minister’s Questions and cock a snook at Ed Balls whose relentlessly blokeish behaviour disguises a private education and the fact that his father once taught at Eton.

There seems to be a kind of Kulturkampf against private education taking off, with resentful attacks against Eton in the van.  It’s disguised as a concern for ‘social mobility’ or ‘fairness’ but a lot of it is the usual British vice of chippiness.  Made worse by a dismal decline in the standards of state education.

With 1,300 plus boys there at any one time, Eton is very big - nearly twice the size of, say, Winchester.  As a result, there are lots of Etonians around.  Those obsessed with totting up their numbers in the Prime Minister’s inner circle would do better to count the numbers who were killed in action, died of wounds or missing presumed dead in the Great War – 1,157 or about a fifth of those who served. In those days, for each soldier killed two more would be wounded. Do the math.

That’s not to say it’s the perfect school.  Thirty years ago I used to walk down the high street occasionally while on guard duty at Windsor Castle.  It was a very pretty place and felt very English.  I was invited to the Fourth of June (Eton's Speech Day) a few years ago by a godson. It is still very pretty but didn’t feel English at all.  Many of the parents and pupils were clearly foreign and there were swathes of blingy wealth on display.  

The days of the countess and the canon’s wife both having boys at Eton are, I suspect, long gone.  That the school produces an elite many of whom still prefer to enter government service or the armed forces rather than joining a hedge fund seems to me a good thing.  That it should become the preserve of the international super rich would be a loss to us all.

One of the most depressing words in the modern politically correct dictionary is ‘celebrate’.  It usually means we are being told to rejoice in something we would prefer to hate.  But we should ‘celebrate’ the success of Eton and other similar schools.  I hope they flourish.  Or as Boris would doubtless put it – Floreat Etona.

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