De Haut en Bas

When Boris Johnson became prime minister in 2019, we all knew – didn’t we? – that he was a bad character; or, as TV interviewer Eddie Mair put to him directly in 2013: ‘a nasty piece of work’. (See Since then the evidence of his serial dishonesty and duplicity has been so overwhelming – even his own followers acknowledge it – as to leave no doubt.

But it raises questions. One is whether his rise was in spite of his bad character, or because of it. In other words – and of more general relevance – do you need to be ‘virtuous’ in politics in order to succeed? And if not, what other qualities will compensate for that? A cuddly image? Bertie Wooster-ism? Tousled hair? Seductive promises? Rich backers? Or will your ‘badness’ find you out in the end? – We may of course be about to have that last question answered in the next few weeks or months.

Another notion that has occurred to me is that perhaps the legacy of the old British Empire has something to do with all this. I’ve always argued – and indeed written books arguing – that the Empire left less of a mark on British politics, culture and society than many modern historians (‘post-colonialists’) have argued. I still hold to that. But there may be an important caveat to be made here, in the case of the class that used to run the Empire, and which did not simply wither away when the Empire did. The link here is my old bugbear Eton College (see, and the other ‘Public’ schools which shared the same culture. (Sunak has just donated £100,000 to his alma mater, Winchester.) For in Victorian times one of these schools’ functions was to prepare boys to rule, often over ‘natives’ in the colonies, but also over the ‘lower classes’ at home. This wasn’t always oppressive, by the way; this was in the noblesse oblige era, before the schools had opened their doors to the sons of capitalists, which may be what eventually corrupted them. And George Orwell and Clement Attlee were two of their products.

But he word ‘lower’ is important here. ‘Ruling’ was conceived of as essentially de haut en bas: by a superior class over a separate and inferior species. The whole ethos of these schools – and their classical education, for example, especially the Roman bits – was predicated on this strict division of peoples between ‘rulers’ (them) and the ruled. Hence some of the most unlovely recent activities of the boys who attended these schools: distinctive dress-codes, burning £50 bills in front of beggars, trashing restaurants and then paying for the damage, snobbery, the whole ‘Bullingdon’ business, and the special vein of ‘humour’ that rested on sneering at the ‘lower’ orders. (Before you jump to conclusions, I never felt myself to be a target of this.) All these helped to emphasise the bifurcation of British society into ‘rulers’ and ‘ruled’. So it’s hardly surprising that in formulating their new regulations to make society safer during Covid, it never occurred to this ruling class that the same laws should apply to them too. Really. Hence ‘Partygate’; whose major significance may be in showing how our Public school-educated rulers perceive of their relationship with the rest of us poor proles; rooted in the history of these schools.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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5 Responses to De Haut en Bas

  1. mickc says:

    I have always liked Tony Benn’s saying that “Britain is the last colony of the British Empire”. It seems to fit the facts rather well. Regrettably, Britain is also very much a subservient colony of the US Empire, the “ruling class” having been suborned to the purposes of the USA, very much on the lines of “Britain’s” ie its capitalist class, control over India.
    Of course, the Public School Ruling Class is now joined by the higher members of the Managerial Class, usually not Public School educated but university educated and certainly no sense of noblesse doing any oblige-ing whatsoever but plenty of De Haut en Bas. I once read that the main “movers” in the Nazi Party were of that class eg Albert Speer and again that seems to ring true.
    We are ruled by entitled idiots and ambitious grasping zealots.
    Possibly the tree of liberty does need the occasional watering of blood to flourish.


  2. Tony says:

    Yes, and as colonial administrators sometimes presiding over egregious acts of lawlessness, corruption and violence without wanting or bothering to know the details, as these were the concern of the ‘lower classes’ who carried the dirty work.. The public schools perpetuated notions of ‘service’ and ‘duty’ which had little connection with colonial realities and some (eg Orwell in Burma) were shocked when faced with them. Just been reading Caroline Elkin’s new book on British imperialism and violence which I recommend Bernard, but of course narrowly focused, and no doubt will elicit the usual British reviews..


  3. John Field says:

    As you might recall, in *Toward A Programme of Imperial Life*, my focus on manipulation of opinion was centered on G. W. Steevens, the Daily Mail’s Chief Special Correspondent in the fin de siecle years until his death under siege at Ladysmith. His personal history, which I won ‘t detail here, leads me to believe a resurrected time-traveling GWS would dismiss his publicly asserted values to profess his true beliefs in order to totally reject Boris Johnson, his minions and public school brainwashed values in general. Steevens would have embraced a eurocentric orientation for Britain, which was certainly indicated in his travel journalism, just as a special relationship with the USA would have been scorned as subservient, Steevens having dissed American culture in general, in his popular *Land of the Dollar*. (Interestingly enough, he greatly admired the Mormons for carving out a separatist identity for themselves in the Mountain West. (I Hope Hull is receiving you as you deserve and Kajsa might join you there.)


  4. John Evans says:

    Hello Bernard, Thanks for latest – this business of how the Empire left its mark, or not, is still intriguing. The narrative is certainly different – but now it is not so much as how we can rule over you, but how much of your wealth can we screw out of you, and secure it in tax havens beyond your grasp…for the all the wasteful stuff like health services and education. Thus, the only bits of the Empire that are left, are the tax havens…..and part of the unspoken Leave objective was “We’re not going to allow the EU to look into our tax affairs, are we?”

    This recent book does a very good job of explaining this narrative, using the notion of outsourcing as the thread, and the ‘boomerang’ as a metaphor for how the Empire does circle round and bang us on the head…. Definitely worth a read……. I am loathe to even pick up the book called “Britannia Unchained” which Raab, Patel, Kwarteng, Truss and one other wrote back in 2012…..this seems to reflect all of underlying policy of this appalling Government at the moment.

    You will enjoy, I am sure.

    Are you back in Hull full-time now?

    Best regards John Evans



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