The ‘Public’ schools – Britain’s ‘peculiar institution’ – were not always the blights on her society they are today. Early on, of course, they were meant for ordinary people (boys, that is), which is why they’re still called ‘public’ now. By the early 19th century they had become finishing schools for the privileged, but effectively run by the boys, which explains Tom Brown’s Schooldays; and also the school riots that broke out occasionally, some of them having to be put down by the military. At least these could be taken as evidence of independent thought on the part of the boys. Then, ‘reformed’ in the middle of the 19th century, the schools entered into their golden age of service to the nation, supplying it with prime ministers and bishops to keep it running in a ‘civilised’ way. For the Empire, expanding and needing people to rule it, they were its major source of ‘prefects’, as one historian of Indian administration has called them.
This wasn’t all bad, because the values inculcated in these young stripling rulers were generally moral ones, as ‘morality’ for the upper classes was understood then: in terms, that is, of helping those less fortunate – or ‘civilised’ – than themselves. Sometimes this involved protecting the colonial indigènes from voracious capitalist exploiters, or at least trying to; thereby rubbing down some of the sharper edges of imperialism. For the Public schools’ dominating ethos then was, basically, not a capitalist but a ‘feudal’ one, best expressed in the term ‘noblesse oblige’; which was of course why Margaret Thatcher despised these men so much: the ‘wets’, as she called them, mostly with Public school backgrounds, who were such a barrier – temporarily, at least – to her dream of a totally ‘dry’ – materialist – economy and society.
But this particular Public school ethos in any case seems not to have outlived the decline and fall of the British Empire, which took away much of this particular raison d’être of the schools, and hence of the values that had underpinned them. At the time it was widely assumed that it would also make the schools themselves less prominent in at least the higher reaches of British politics and society; with much being made of the much lowlier origins and schooling of a succession of prime ministers from Harold Wilson – replacing the Old Etonian Harold Macmillan – onwards; and including of course Thatcher herself. (But not Blair.) This was supposed to indicate Britain’s final emergence into the light of the modern day; when – reflecting what British society had by now become – her leaders would be chosen from the sorts of schools the majority of her people had attended.
Until, that is, 2010; when another Old Etonian entered No.10 Downing Street, so reasserting Eton’s grip on British politics; to the surprise of many of us, who had assumed that such establishments had gone the way of the rest of English feudalism, together with jousting and burning witches, never to return. David Cameron’s and then (especially) Boris Johnson’s whole demeanour and attitudes reflected their Etonian upbringing, almost embarrassingly for some of us – Boris’s ‘jokes’ in particular; but not the old sense of morality, or obligation (‘oblige’), and the better values that had been associated with the Public schools in their Imperial days. Those had gone. All that remained were the sense of entitlement that was probably the least valuable legacy of the old Public school system, and the immature school-boyish behaviour that went along with that. In place of the duties and ‘obligations’ that the schools had once engendered there were just self-aggrandisement, corruption and foolishness; which one assumes had been drafted in to replace the older values under and after Thatcher, to enable Eton – and the other Public schools – to survive in a more mercenary age. You needed a lot of – probably ill-gotten – money to be able to send your sons there. It wouldn’t do for the schools then to teach those sons to despise the system that had enabled that. And so we have Boris, and Jacob, and Nigel, and the rest of them, lording it over us.
If any of my Old Etonian acquaintances are reading this, by the way, I don’t mean you. Or George Orwell, of course. (Although he would probably have agreed with me.)