My sincere thanks to ex-newsreader Anna Ford, who is aware of my longstanding view that the country’s private schools are a curse on our country, for alerting me to a book that confirms how right I have been all along.
Sad Little Men, by Richard Beard, outlines the damage boarding school education did to him. More interesting, however, is the insight he gives into why David Cameron and Boris Johnson have done so much damage to the country, and the extent to which their school is responsible.
One of the most depressing facts in the history of our so-called meritocracy is that Eton, that one bloody school, has produced three times more prime ministers than the Labour Party in its entire period of existence.
For generations the top private schools, and especially Eton, have taught their students that they are superior, destined for greatness. They have instilled the sense of normality that it is OK not to be loved, which is how most feel when sent away as young children.
Perhaps the most chilling line in the entire book is this: “Boarding school was where we went, aged eight, to learn to despise other people.” Bullying or being bullied is part of growing up. Emotional suppression is essential. This breeds stoicism, and if that translates into a brutal lack of empathy, so be it. They must say things are fine, even when they’re not.
Having two Etonian PMs, dominant over a decade, Beard argues, is likely to play out in the weakening of “public services their parents pay to avoid”. Hard to argue.
They are taught, says Beard, “to have our cake and eat it”. If you get into a scrape, what matters is how you get out of it. As Cameron found when caught taking drugs, “for people like us, law was negotiable”.
They learn a peculiarly English version of history, all Drake playing bowls, to Nelson seeing no ships, and victory of Wellington at Waterloo “via the playing fields of Eton … whatever the historical question, British national destiny was the answer.” Beard, who went to Radley, argues this actively bred English exceptionalism, not to mention racist and sexist views.
Etonians, Harrovians, Radleians were great men. There are few great women.
They are bred never to say: “I don’t know,” nor to admit to being wrong. Cameron is “right” four times on the first two pages of his autobiography. The referendum was “the right thing to do.” Quitting after he lost it likewise. “He’s so fixated on being right, I worry for how secretly wrong he must feel,” says Beard.
Cameron said of his Brexit referendum that he did not fully anticipate the strength of feeling it would unleash. “Of course he didn’t,” writes Beard. “Strong feelings were involved, and also the common people. He was floundering in a pair of blind spots… he gorged on a double helping of ignorance, undisturbed since the days when his sense of right and wrong was shaped by which boys got to wear the fancy waistcoat.”
Of the six men who worked on Cameron’s manifesto for the election which secured his pre-referendum majority before his post-referendum ignominy, five went to Eton, one to St Paul’s. They are taught to use connections. Covid corruption and Greensill lobbying have made that clear.
Read this book, and you understand why Johnson speaks as he does. They learn to be good at insults. “As long as we weren’t girls, swots, oiks, wogs or queers, we could be jolly decent chaps… we laughed at anyone not like us, and the repertoire on repeat included gags about slaves and nuns and women hurdlers.” Beard cites “Remoaner” as a classic private school bully word.
Of Johnson, he writes: “He flaunted shamelessly what the rest of us tried to conceal: he was chaotic, unformed, cruel, slapdash, essentially frivolous. When he messed up he was just a boy, with his boyishly ruffled hair, and expected to be excused. An expert dissembler, he discovered the best place to hide was in plain sight.” He is still doing it.
Etonians, I learn, wrote the music to Rule Britannia, Jerusalem, and Land of Hope and Glory, the three great patriotic anthems. Etonian George Orwell insisted public school patriotism isn’t faked. “They had to feel themselves true patriots, even while they plundered their countrymen.”
Read that line again… “They had to feel themselves true patriots, even while they plundered their countrymen.” Brexit. Universal credit cuts. Social care policy, which helps the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Rail betrayal in the North. Playing fast and loose with peace in Northern Ireland. These too are products of the playing fields of Eton.
Given the damage Johnson, Cameron, Rees-Mogg and their mates have done, serious consideration should be put into putting the damned place into special measures, with a view to being shut down.
Despite my loathing of private schools, refusal of a peerage, and Republican views, I am clearly Establishment enough to be asked to take part in the Queen’s Green Canopy, a huge tree-planting initiative as part of her platinum jubilee. So, to Bradford, to help plant 10,000 saplings and create an “urban forest”. Despite awful weather, hundreds of volunteers turned out and by the end of the day, the beginnings of a transformation of Newhall Park were clear.
It was freezing cold, but if you check out my Winter Walks film on BBC iPlayer, you’ll hear me citing one of my mum’s favourite lines when I was growing up: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.”
Her name was Elizabeth. She was born in April 1926. Just like Her Maj. If new urban forests are part of the Queen’s legacy, my five layers of clothing were part of my mum’s!
Eating with friends in Zorsha Curry House, Skipton, and the waiter comes over with shocking news. “One of our customers has just spotted you and he’s going around telling everyone that Dominic Raab is in the restaurant.”
In the past, I’ve been mistaken for Nick Clegg, Nick Faldo, the old DJ Ed Stewart and, of course, Daniel Craig. But Raab!
“Ban him for life,” I urged of the customer with bad eyesight.
Having gone five years without running, after switching to cycling, boxing and cold-water swimming for my fitness regime, I might just have refound the bug. As I mentioned last week, I did two of the 24 fundraising hours rugby coach Kevin Sinfield ran for his former Leeds Rhinos teammate Rob Burrow, who has Motor Neurone Disease, and have found myself getting out for a couple of runs since. So yes indeed, “Sir Kev” is truly inspirational.
Mind you, so are Bob Marley, Elvis, Abba, the Bee Gees and Dire Straits. One of the most important members of his team was Martin Wolstencroft, riding the entire route on a bike alongside, with a ghetto blaster in his backpack. I was allowed to choose the music and all of the above helped us along.
A few days after the run, Kev tells me, he took a call from his friend David Spencer, the only man to have run all 101 miles with him. “I had the weirdest dream last night. We were running down this dark country lane in the middle of the night and you, me and Alastair Campbell were singing Sultans of Swing at the top of our voices,” he confided. “It happened, Dave,” his friend assured him. “It happened.”
You have to take a good laugh anywhere you can find it, so thanks to the Tube train driver who cheered everyone up on the Jubilee Line. As the train pulled into Canary Wharf, the electronic enunciator said: “The next station is Canada Water.”
Then the driver intervened over the tannoy. “I must apologise for the fact that the next-station announcer is lying,” he said. “It clearly thinks it’s Boris Johnson.”