The Tories, Eton and private schools

Issue: 130

David Renton

One of the most striking features of the new government is the dominance within its ranks of individuals showing every sign of class privilege. The Sunday Times reports that 18 of the 23 full-time members of the cabinet are millionaires, having between them a capital wealth of about £50 million.1 David Cameron is an Old Etonian descended from three generations of stockbrokers.2 George Osborne was educated at St Paul’s and endowed by his parents with a £15 million stake in his family wallpaper business,3 while Boris Johnson, Cameron’s contemporary at Eton, is a son of a Tory MEP. An image much reproduced in the general election showed Cameron, Osborne and Johnson together in evening dress as members of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club. Appearing in the same image are the less familiar faces of the future Baron Altrincham, Earl Wemyss and Lord Northbourne.

The willingness of the Conservatives to be led by a cohort of millionaires and the privately educated is a dramatic change from the past four decades of Tory practice. Part of Edward Heath’s appeal to Conservative electors was that he was the son of a mere builder, while Margaret Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter and John Major had famously run away from the circus to join the Conservative Party.

Now, the purpose of electing leaders from “ordinary” backgrounds was always to mask the deeper reliance of the Tories on a narrow layer of society. In 1979, 73 percent of Tory MPs had been to private schools.4 Even today the equivalent figure is still 54 percent. By comparison, just 7 percent of the school population is privately educated, a proportion which has remained steady for four decades. And the increasing number of Conservatives in parliament following the 2010 election has meant that the number of privately educated MPs has also risen. There are now 20 Old Etonian MPs in parliament. Two more private schools, Highgate and Millfield, come second with five MPs each.5 But the best sign of changing times is to compare the relative ease of David Cameron in getting elected leader of the Conservative Party and now prime minister with the difficulties of Douglas Hurd, whose bid to follow Margaret Thatcher to the same position was defeated when John Major complained precisely of Hurd’s past as an Etonian: “I thought I was running for leader of the Tory party,” Major complained, “not some demented Marxist sect”.6

Gordon Brown attempted to play the same trick on David Cameron at a by-election in Crewe and Nantwich in 2008.7 In the run-up to the 2010 general election, Brown described Cameron as a PR man (this was the reference to the sole brief period of employment in Cameron’s CV between leaving school and becoming a full-time worker for the Tories) who had drawn up his tax policies “on the playing fields of Eton”. Cameron then complained of Brown’s “pettiness and spite”.8 If Brown’s attempts failed, this was because of the exhaustion of New Labour after 13 years of government, plus Labour’s own well-known record of toadying to the rich.9

Private schools exist to hoard power among those who already have it. In 1954, 65 percent of those earning £1,000 or more had been to private school, and of those earning £1,000 or more with sons of school age, 95 percent were sending them to private schools.10 In 1991 John Scott estimated that around 35 of the 200 richest families in England were headed by Old Etonians.11 In March 2009 the Sutton Trust estimated that 70 percent of the top judges in Britain had been educated at private schools, along with 62 percent of the House of Lords, 55 percent of the senior solicitors, 54 percent of company chief executives and 54 percent of the best-paid journalists.12

Eton: citadel of privilege

In any account of the private schools, special attention has to be given to Eton College, not merely because it is the school at which the present prime minister was educated, but more importantly because it is the best known of the private schools, the one most associated with the process of passing on privilege.

Eton College was founded in 1440 by Henry VI as a community of ten fellows, four clerks, six choristers, one schoolmaster, twenty-five poor scholars, and 25 poor and infirm men. The scholars were to learn grammar and be prepared for entry to King’s College in Cambridge. Within 12 years of its foundation Eton’s Statutes had been amended twice, the third version extending the number of scholars to 70 and reducing the number of almsmen to 13. By the later years of the 15th century rich non-scholars were allowed to attend Eton, but not bastards, villeins, the diseased or those showing any physical imperfection.13

In 1861 a Royal Commission was established to “enquire into the Revenues and Management of certain Colleges and Schools, and the studies pursued and instruction given therein”. Eton was one of the nine schools chosen by the commissioners. On the first day of their enquiries, the college had to admit that over the preceding years its provost and fellows had pocketed an extraordinary £127,700 which should have gone to the school.14 Published in 1864, the Commission’s report bemoaned the narrowness of the curriculum, the over-emphasis on Latin and Greek, and the poor knowledge of many departing pupils:

For the ordinary boy Latin and Greek could scarcely have been less stimulating subjects to learn. The books had been in use for centuries and were hopelessly out of date… A boy might well have to do the same books over and over again during a period of three years—not only the same authors, but also the same amount of these authors and in the same compositions… Subjects other than the classics were practically ignored.15

In recent years the picture has been utterly reversed, and Etonians presently benefit from every conceivable resource. Facilities include a student to teacher ratio of ten to one; a library of equal size to many university libraries; 24 science laboratories; three language laboratories; a natural history museum; several theatres; music lessons in any instrument of a pupil’s choice; two dozen rugby and football pitches; 20 tennis hard courts, ten clay courts and five acrylic courts; an Olympic standard rowing lake; a golf course; and indoor and outdoor swimming pools. These are shared by a school population of just 1,300 pupils.

One of the reasons why the school is able to afford lavish expenditure on its pupils is that the school benefits from a public subsidy of £39 million per year. Parents who send their children to Eton as to any private school with “charitable status” may claim back the fees from their personal taxes.16 This was an abuse repeatedly acknowledged but uncorrected by Labour.17 Oddly enough, for all the talk of austerity and common sacrifice, the coalition government has no plans to remove the subsidy of private education in the present round of cuts.

The whole purpose of Eton College is expressed by the statistic that 19 of its former pupils have gone on to become prime ministers. It is a school which encourages the young into an acquisitive attitude towards wealth and power; its pupils are taught to believe that they are entitled to good things and that the only way to get good things is to struggle hard to grab them. A few well-known examples of Old Etonians’ venality range from the former Tory MP William Waldegrave, named in the 1996 Scott Report as a key figure in the conspiracy to supply arms to Saddam Hussein,18 to Simon Mann, the British mercenary sentenced to a 34-year prison term for his role in a failed coup d’état in Equatorial Guinea in 2004 (but subsequently pardoned), and David Hart who financed the efforts to try to bribe miners back to work in 1984-5.19

One principal lesson taught at Eton is the unshakeable inequality of people. People who work for a living are perceived by Etonians as “primitive, people holding up their trousers with bits of twine and that sort of thing”.20 This message is reinforced constantly. The school is separated from the world. Only the children of those able to afford fees higher than the average annual wage are able to be admitted.21 There are no female pupils.

The school is characterised by continuous internal selection. Older pupils are physically marked off from their juniors. All of the youngest pupils are forced to wear plain school uniforms; while most of the older pupils are entitled to wear different clothes for lessons (either stick-up instead of plain collars, or silver buttons on waistcoats, or coloured waistcoats and grey trousers in place of plain waistcoats and black trousers).22 Pupils are assessed academically each term, and placed in a strict hierarchy by their performance. Every boy knows where they came in their year in each subject, whether first out of 242 in their year, or 242nd.

Alongside the sanctioned formal hierarchies are innumerable hierarchies which are discreetly encouraged by the school. One of the most vivid witnesses to this process is Dillibye Onyeama who left Eton in December 1968, having being tormented by boys calling him “wog” or “nig-nog”. Onyeama ended up hallucinating that there were pupils teasing him, even when he was in his room alone:

My mind became a mass of confusion. Heavy anger filled me; and at the apex of my anger, my tormentors stood there, jeering and laughing uncontrollably. Suddenly I could stand it no longer. “Wog” and all their other names scraped along my nerves until I longed to scream hysterically and break the tension coiled like a spring within me. My eyes screaming murder, my blood at boiling point, I suddenly leapt to my feet like a madman. With black rage I started mercilessly slogging thin air, imagining I had charged at my tormentors and was beating the hell out of a particular one. The whole thing seemed as it if it was really happening, though I knew of course that it was not.23

In his narrative Onyeama describes being teased repeatedly for being black and intermittently for being gay: he seems to have responded to the latter taunt, with some success, by groping his accusers whenever the accusation was made. Racism, by contrast, was unshakeable throughout his five years at the school.

Corporal punishment was in use at Eton long after its decline in state schools:

Flogging by the Head Master, or in the case of Lower Boys by the Lower Master, is, apart from expulsion, the severest form of punishment inflicted… The right to inflict corporal punishment is retained by certain boys, principally by the Captain of the School, the Captain of the Oppidans, and the Captains of Houses. The offences with which they deal are usually minor breaches of school rules or house rules, and matters of internal discipline.24

The right to beat, on this account, was restricted to around 40 or so persons. Yet this is to underestimate both the freedom allowed to many other senior boys to beat, and the frequent arbitrariness of the beatings.

Another of the distinctive ways in which junior boys have been kept in their place is through the “fagging” system, as described by one outsider in 1948:

The right to fag belongs to the Library and to a few other boys at the top of the house. Only the Library have the privilege of shouting for a boy; others have to search the highways and byways of the house for a peculiarly elusive prey. The call for a fag is a long, rolling, cacophonous shout of “Boy”, emitted usually from the doorway of the Library. It is followed by a thunder of footsteps as every fag within earshot rushes to answer the summons… Fagging varies from casual calls, which involve errands up town or to other houses, to the regular task of preparing tea for the fagmaster to whom one is allotted.25

Since this was written, some of the most authoritarian practices have been abolished. The school has repeatedly banned fagging, although it was still pervasive in the 1980s. But one essential part of the school’s DNA has been retained. The most senior pupils have powers to fine junior pupils for a breach of any one of the myriad school rules. Older boys start off as the bullied; they end their days as the bullies. They are taught on the miniature scale of a school community the experience of controlling other people’s lives, in preparation for doing the same for real outside.

Two big processes of socialisation are at work. The first lesson taught is that it is natural for some people to have more rights than others; the second is that those at the top are there by merit and must be allowed to stay there. Both of these lessons are made to appear so obvious that any person who has been institutionalised in this way should have no reason to question them again through all their adult life.

Eton and politics

When fascism was a creed that had the ear of the English upper classes, there were Etonian fascists, such as James Strachey Barnes, whose account of fascism was published with a foreword by Mussolini and approved in the Eton College Chronicle in February 1928.26 More typical though was the story appearing in the same newspaper following the Conservative triumph in the 1931 election: that the Etonian presence in parliament had increased to 104. All were Tories.27

The politics of Eton in particular can be compared to a rowing race which used to be run at the school in the 1940s between the light and dark blues. Any shade of politics is allowed as long as they are Tory.28 David Cameron left Eton in 1984, and some idea of the range of opinion among his immediate contemporaries is provided by stories appearing in the school newspaper during his final year. In February 1984 a front page article in the Eton College Chronicle attacked Thatcherism as politics gone too far to the right: “The once-lauded idea that there should be as little government intervention as possible is now a public danger: Mrs Thatcher has surrounded herself with men who think it a cardinal sin to subsidise anything”.29 Articles printed in the following month reported speeches to Eton’s Political Society by Francis Pym and William Waldegrave. Pym, it was complained, had been “reptilian”, failing to acknowledge criticisms of the government that he as a former minister could easily have accepted. As for Waldegrave, it was suggested that he was one to watch in the future.30

The organising concept at Eton, as it was in much of the press commentary at the time, was Tory “wets” versus Tory “dries”, the former being represented in the upper reaches of the Tory party by Old Etonians including Pym and Lords Hailsham, Carrington and Soames. Anyone who thought that Eton was only a preserve of Tory wets would however have been reassured by an article in the Eton College Chronicle in October 1984 comparing the striking miners of the NUM to the Brighton bombers: “Those who condone violence at the collieries admit the legitimacy of any attempt to reduce a government by violent means: effectively, then, they condone the IRA”.31

Education at Eton (or indeed any private school) is intended to develop habits of Conservative voting. The Labour Party policy document Towards Equality, published in 1956, observed that: “Children who attend these schools develop a sense of being different, and, unmistakeably, a separate class outlook and behaviour. The broad effect is to heighten social barriers, to stimulate class consciousness, and to foster social snobbery”.32 A similar view is taken by the historian Ross McKibbin who names the private schools, along with the monarchy, the aristocracy, the armed forces and the structure of industrial management, as one of the chief “ideological supports” of Conservatism over the past six decades.33

Given the long preponderance of the privately educated among Tory MPs, it is worth asking whether there are any characteristics of British Conservatism that have been shaped by this common educational history. Various matters come to mind.

The Conservatives have long recruited individuals, even MPs, on an ostensibly anti-ideological basis. Long before it was possible to join the Conservatives as an individual, the only way that a person could affiliate to the Tories was by joining the Carlton Club and dining with fellow Conservatives. A century later the Carlton still manifested the same combination of social and political headquarters. Again one part of the Conservative success in the 1950s, at a time when the Young Conservatives alone claimed 200,000 members and the parent party could rely on a total membership of nearly three million,34 was the ability of the party to appear almost above politics, as a popular institution with a vibrant social life representing almost the entirety of the UK’s middle classes, irrespective of their gender, age, religion or political belief.35 Private schools were a recruiting ground for Conservatism, one of several institutions (the City, the Church of England, the army, the legal professions) within which the party enjoyed a near unanimity of support.

Although the model of Tory recruiting through social ties persists, the links of class and patronage which underlay this structure have over time atrophied. Individual membership of the Conservative Party has fallen by roughly 95 percent in 60 years. Party membership is no longer defined by their “social life” (a phrase looking back to the model of the 1950s and before),36 but in negative terms by an ideological hostility to unions and “socialism”. Paul Whiteley’s, Patrick Seyd’s and Jeremy Richardson’s research into Conservative Party membership in the early 1990s suggested that only 23 percent of the party’s membership had been educated at a private school.37

This is admittedly a disproportionate presence, yet a far more typical figure in the Conservative grassroots is a retired businessman or woman, having an above average household income, and owning shares, born into a lower middle class or working class home, proud of their perceived advancement, and opposed to left wing politics out of a fear of being pulled back into a lower social class.38 Private education represents to this group not something that they experienced themselves, and possibly not that they could afford for their own children, but a principle that somebody, somewhere should be safe from absorption into the unloved masses.39

Almost all private schools have a competitive “house” structure in which pupils live and eat with and are expected to learn habits of sociability among strangers, the selection of whom is done not by them but arbitrarily by the school. This is part of a pattern under which certain shallow competing allegiances (Oxford v Cambridge, Eton v Harrow, Liberal v Conservative) are deemed to be entirely compatible with the deep hegemony of class rule. Pupils internalise this culture of horizontal competition and express it in later life. Its influence can be witnessed weekly in the scenes of MPs braying at Prime Minister’s Question Time.

For many years it was part of the self-image of the Tories that they were the loyal party. The corollary of horizontal competition, in other words, is vertical loyalty. Devotion to their leaders was said to be the genius that had sustained such unpopular figures as Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill or Anthony Eden in the twilight periods of their premierships, enabling a transition—at the most effective time—from one leader to another, with minimum public controversy and therefore minimum damage to the party. Thus between 1951 and 1957, for example, the Tories were able to win three successive general elections under three different leaders (contrast the evident difficulties of Labour in 2008-2010, wanting to but unable to ditch as leader the now tired and unpopular figure of Gordon Brown). There is a very strong correlation between the Tories’ self-image as the loyal party and the private school ethos of playing the game, determined as it is not merely by constant ideological repetition, but also by the lengthy prison-like intimidation of junior pupils. The effect is to teach the younger members of the middle classes that in order to survive they simply have to keep their heads down and do always only what they are told.

At key moments in the Conservatives’ history the party has been able to enter or remain in government, or has been forced out of office, not as a result of electoral success, but from the defection of MPs into or out of the party (Peelite Conservatives out from 1846 onwards, Liberal Unionists in after 1886, Coalition and National Liberals in from 1916 and 1931 onwards). This kind of party opportunism has been made much easier by the fact that for much of the last 200 years many of the leaders of both of the main parties in a usually two-party House of Commons have been educated at the same or similar schools and have been trained to approach politics in a similar way. On this model, the close cooperation that we have seen since the general election between Eton-educated David Cameron’s Tories and Westminster-educated Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats is just an episode in a much longer story of class employing privilege to hold power.

In an account published in 1972 Nigel Harris suggested that there were only two figures of stature in the Conservative intellectual pantheon, Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli. Burke established the Tories as a party of aristocratic reaction against industrial society. Disraeli retained the notion of aristocracy, while denuding it of some of its specific content. Conservatism after Disraeli was a doctrine to conserve a ruling class, that class being defined nebulously (often as an aristocracy “of spirit”). The ideological gap between the Conservatives and the Liberals (the latter being the historic party of British business) was dramatically narrowed, a process that later enabled the wholesale absorption of the Liberals into the Tory party during the period of Labour’s advance. “In the inter-war period”, Harris wrote, “some [Conservatives] wanted to strengthen the monarchy, some the state, some businessmen. But all prescriptions tended to circle the basic concern: the survival of a ruling class”.40

Under post-Disraelian Conservatism, Eton and the private schools played a key part as a seeding ground of the ruling class. Since that time Thatcherism has redefined Conservatism as a politics not so much for the defence of any one class of people, but as an ideology of general deference to property. “Cameronism”, writes Richard Seymour, is a “pragmatic adaptation to the needs of neoliberal statecraft”—ostensibly centrist, heavily dependent on techniques of media management borrowed from New Labour, it distances itself from Thatcherism while maintaining fidelity to Thatcherism’s policy orientations.41 The visible return of the Etonians under Cameron actually conceals a longer shift in Conservatism, and in neoliberal politics generally, in which the private schools, like other historical institutions of privilege (for example, the monarchy), are becoming less important.

The preponderance of private education among Tory MPs is a sign of a sort of division of labour in which the private schools in general and Eton in particular are expected to train future generations of Conservative MPs. The schools maintain relationships with the Tories. MPs frequently speak at school assemblies and meetings of the school’s various political societies. It is relative easy for children to get fast tracked from the private schools to Oxford or Cambridge, and then immediately into junior roles working for the Tories, from which they can be picked for greater things. But the Conservative Party is not the ruling class, merely its political representative in parliament. The super-rich, in general, are an increasingly integrated international class, whose members might have a house in London and business interests throughout Europe, Asia or America. Private education in England is but one option for the children of the rich, and by no means the most advantageous.

Precisely because of their baggage of ostentatious privilege, the Bullingdon generation are actually unrepresentative of the class whose interests they articulate. The populist Conservatism of Heath, Thatcher and Major and the bland universalism of “regular guy” Tony Blair represent a more viable long-term strategy to achieve sustained capitalist rule. These models are more akin to the ways that capitalists ordinarily do their ideological business. They work better as strategies to maintain the distinction between economic and political power on which bourgeois democracy ordinarily rests. The weakness of having Cameron et al at the top of the political system is that their presence invites ordinary voters—once their popularity wanes, as it must—to look beyond the inevitability of class rule altogether.


1: Milland and Warren, 2010. Thanks to Anne Alexander and Lawrence Black for comments on earlier drafts of this piece.

2: Levy and Gysin, 2009.

3: Reade, 2010.

4: I refer to private schools rather than the more common term “public schools”, for the simple reason that whatever else they may be, these institutions are in no sense “public”.

5: Sutton Trust, 2010, pp2-5; Baker and Fountain, 1996, pp86-97.

6: Taylor, 2008.

7: Labour distributed photographs of Tory candidate Edward Timpson in a top hat and images of what was described as his “big mansion house” outside the constituency. Labour campaign materials also included a fake “Tory candidate application form” asking: “Do you oppose making foreign nationals carry an ID card?”

8: Prince, 2009.

9: There is no better illustration of the narrowness of the British political elite than the fact that both Cameron and Tony Blair were educated at Eton and Fettes by Eric Anderson, Blair’s housemaster and Cameron’s headmaster.

10: McKibbin, 2010, p238.

11: Scott, 1991, pp 112-117.

12: Sutton Trust, 2009, p5.

13: Card, 2001, p12.

14: Royal Commission, 1864, pp57-64.

15: Hill, 1948, p74.

16: Canovan, 2002. Eton is also subsidised by the Gift Aid scheme, under which any private donation of £75,000 to the school is matched by a further tax subsidy to the school of £28,205 and a tax rebate to the donor of £25,000.

17: Belatedly, the Charities Commission has since modified its rules so that private schools are no longer entitled to this grant as of right but must prove they provide a genuine public benefit. The private schools lobbyists of the Independent Schools Council responded to this modest tightening of the rules by threatening to sue the Commission-BBC, 2010.

18: Scott, 1996.

19: Simons, 2011.

20: Rory Stewart MP, quoted in Martin, 2010. Compare the account of the bellicose, illiterate and ignorant ordinary inhabitants of Afghanistan that appears in Stewart, 2004.

21: In 2009-10 school fees were £29,862 per In addition, parents were expected to pay registration and entrance fees, as well as the costs of maintaining the pupil in the school (uniforms, furniture, books, etc). For a typical pupil, the total bill is very roughly twice the school fee. By comparison, in April 2009 the median gross wage in the UK was £25,428-Office for National Statistics, 2009.

22: In Lindsay Anderson’s film If… there are the same multi-coloured waistcoats. Anderson himself, however, based his film on his experiences at Cheltenham College, where the film was also shot. The writer David Sherwin provided a fake script to obtain the school’s permission to film. Afterwards Anderson was forbidden to set foot on the school’s premises again-Cottrell, 2010, p20.

23: Onyeama, 1976, p200. Also Maudgil, 1989, in which the author complains-without rancour-of being on the receiving end of repeated racist remarks.

24: Hill, 1948, p138.

25: Hill, 1948, p104. “The Library” is archaic Eton slang for the boys in their final year in any house at the school.

26: Barnes, 1928.

27: Ollard, 1982, p182.

28: Just occasionally more interesting voices have been found just outside the school. For example, “Eton had never seen anything like it. Right to Work marchers met Rock Against Racism punks weaving through the streets of Eton behind Crisis, a band pounding out driving rock music from the back of a lorry. Two movements coming together outside Eton public school, heart of privilege and pomp. The chants, ‘Annihilate the National Front’, fake upper class accents, ‘What does one want-the right to work’, ‘Eton boys rather naughty, Liverpool boys rather good’.”-Socialist Worker, 17 June 1978. The episode presumably was the inspiration for The Jam’s “Eton Rifles”, released the following year.

29: Wood, 1984.

30: Howard-Sneyd, 1984. Waldegrave is now Eton’s provost, although this may not be quite the promotion that the author had in mind.

31: Anonymous, 1984.

32: Labour Party, 1956; Montague, 1958, pp333-335.

33: McKibbin, 2010, p164. Attlee’s Labour, McKibbin laments, had a once in a generation opportunity to reform or abolish these obstacles to democratic socialism. Its failure, he explains by references to Labour’s ideas, and in particular, “a peculiar form of socialism; the socialism of a particular generation, one which drew a clear distinction between the economy and social policy on the one hand [which was deemed to be capable of reform], and Britain’s status and class system on the other [which was not]”.

34: The peak membership of the Conservative Party was 2,900,000 in 1951-Marshall, 2009. By way of contrast, the last public figure for the total membership of the Conservative Party is 200,000 (2007), and informed observers put the true figure at around 150,000 to 170,000-Lee, 2010.

35: Lawrence Black gives the example of a 1965 recruit to the Young Conservatives, who on joining described his interests as jazz, drama and banning arms sales to South Africa, and was told: “Don’t worry, we talk about everything here except politics”-Black, 2010, p94.

36: Black cites a 1956 survey of South Kensington Tories which found that 83 percent had joined for social reasons-Black, 2010, p82.

37: This was based on a sample of 2,429 Conservatives surveyed in 1992 for Whiteley, Seyd and Richardson, 1994, p7.

38: Seyd and Richardson, pp42-71.

39: A comparison could be drawn with Swinton College, the stately home located in rural Yorkshire, which provided Conservative political training between 1948 and 1975. After its demise a series of Swinton’s former pupils mourned the “deep Englishness” that the building provided. “Englishness” in this sense is best understood as meaning a large house in a rural setting with a teeming entourage of servants-Black, 2011.

40: Harris, 1972, p276.

41: Seymour, 2010, p83.


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