How often over the past week have we heard or read these words, in connexion with Boris Johnson’s elevation to the leadership of the Conservative Party, and consequently of the nation; and his new Cabinet appointments? As if he wasn’t bad enough himself – a proven liar, lazy, egotistic, a philanderer, disloyal, an acknowledged disaster as Foreign Secretary, obviously poorly educated and even worse socialised (at Eton), with little going for him apart from his elderly admirers’ (his Tory Party voters’) willingness to overlook these flaws in the light of his cuddly upper-class image, his extreme Europhobia, his heady appeals to an outmoded version of British ‘pluck’ and optimism, and the chaotic political situation of the day – he has appointed the most Right-wing Cabinet since Lord Liverpool: a team of near-crooks and Brexit extremists. It includes a Home Secretary – Priti Patel – who is against LGTB equality and wants to bring back the death penalty, for pity’s sake; and the risibly eccentric Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is apparently issuing instructions to his staff never to use metric measurements, or certain words he dislikes – ‘equal’ is one – and to address all male Commoners as ‘Esq’. (Can this be true? Its source is his local North Somerset Conservative association. See https://metro.co.uk/2019/07/27/jacob-rees-mogg-bans-staff-using-word-equal-bizarre-new-rules-10470603/.)
The general consensus is that this can’t last. Johnson and his Government have Parliament to negotiate through first. Their majority there is tiny, depending on a small band of Protestant fundamentalists from Northern Ireland, whom May bribed onto her side a couple of years ago and may need to be offered more money to carry on with their support; and with many Conservative MPs wishing him no good. (I had an email yesterday from one of them whom I happen to know: ‘Boris is a horror and will always let you down’.) One assumes that a defeat of some kind – probably over a ‘No Deal’ Brexit – must be followed by a General Election which will turf him out. But there’s no guarantee of this. Tory malcontents might easily be dragooned into line by the fear of a Corbyn (‘communist, appeasing, terrorist-loving, anti-semitic’) government; or, alternatively, Labour’s electoral chances might be fatally undermined by its own divisions, fed on by clever lying propagandists from the Right. That’s how unpredictable the situation is.
So is the ‘will of the people’ just now. On Brexit it seems clear from opinion polls that a majority is against leaving with ‘No Deal’. The adverse ramifications of that are now obvious. Another thing that ought to be obvious to those who originally voted to leave as a more general protest against the upper-class ‘Establishment’, is how upper-class Establishment Boris’s new government itself is. Nigel Farage could perhaps market himself as a maverick – a champion of ‘ordinary people’ against the toffs, although looking into his background as a banker that never really rang true – but a government that includes Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and Jacob William Rees-Mogg (it’s the hyphen that does it; ‘Rees’ and ‘Mogg’ would sound rather common on their own) is going to find it harder to maintain a plebeian image. Surely some Leave voters will come to realise how they’ve been conned? Which of course is one of the arguments for a ‘Second Referendum’ on Brexit.
Boris hasn’t outlined his government’s policies apart from Brexit in any great detail yet – he’s hardly had time to – but the signs are that he’s going to promise to roll back ‘austerity’. That suggests a possible new direction for an otherwise Right-wing, neo-liberal government, and a return to the approach of one of his more illustrious predecessors. No, not his favourite, Churchill, whom he’s clearly trying to ape, albeit superficially; but Benjamin Disraeli, whose slogan of ‘imperialism and social reform’ is supposed to have revived his Tory party after a period in the doldrums and won them the General Election of 1874. Among historians there are doubts about the sincerity of both these Disraelian policies – even his ‘imperialism’ didn’t amount to much. But isn’t that another thing that Boris shares with him? And also suggests a sharper but lower cunning than the shaggy old twit is currently credited with.
When you write of Johnson that he was “poorly educated and even worse socialised (at Eton)”, I feel that the most obvious and significant point about private education is missed. Reading James Woods’ entry in a recent LRB about his time at Eton, it is evident that it was a very good school, notwithstanding the obnoxious snobbery. A few years ago, I read what I thought was an excellent introduction to Plato by Luke Purshouse. When I googled him, I was surprised to see that he is now head of politics – at Eton.
The greatest scandal of these exclusive schools is that they offer a superior education only to those who can afford it – or to those like Woods, whose parents made a great financial sacrifices to get their son an Eton place. An Eton education bestows a huge advantage in life for its pupils, some of whom are quite potent members of the left. Unfortunately, I do not think we can blame Eton for Boris Johnson.
I’m thinking of ‘education’ in a broader sense. Does Eton teach them to think critically? Plato might do it for them, but I doubt whether that’s enough. That’s why I’ve written to the Head of History there to find out about the Eton History syllabus.
I noticed on the Eton website that they employ an archivist. She might have greater access to the details of the history Boris would have studied last century.
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I think that you might have an anachronistic vision of Eton and private schooling, Bernard. Gradgrind is no longer pulling the strings at schools of this type. Eton would want to be providing a top of the shelf educational service because that is what their customers demand; these day this does not entail rote learning and indoctrination. If success in competitive exams requires a critical attitude – which it does – then Eton will teach critical thinking. If genuine success in business, government and academia requires a broader form of education, then that is what Eton will provide. You would probably also find that the school has an old Tory social conscience, judging by its website.
You may be right, Philip, and for the period when Johnson et al were at school too. But it doesn’t accord with my (limited) personal experience, giving lectures in public schools and teaching public schoolboys at various universities. I’m sure they aren’t taught Gradgrindly, but they seem to have a very limited and often over-patriotic view of British imperial history. A recent LRB piece claimed they got all their imperial history from the James (Jan) Morris trilogy; which is good in its way – I gave it good reviews – but not very analytical. I’m still waiting for the Eton Head of History’s response to my email asking him about the British history syllabus there.
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Lord Snooty also apparently insists his new servants (civil) double-space after a full-stop in all memos and reports to him. I assume as Leader of the House there will be no conflict over the billions in tax havens his Somerset Capital manages on behalf of the uber wealthy and from which he still receives (presumably now into a trust) fees of over £15,000 a month. (see James Meek’s article in the LRB)
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