The Power Gene: School And Background Still Vital Definers In British Politics

Photo: PA
Photo: PA

It must be a grave source of sub-conscious dissatisfaction to Shirley Williams that 43 per cent of the incoming cabinet were educated at comprehensive schools. It was she – of course privately educated – who wrecked the once-superb grammar school system and replaced it with the comprehensives. In the most educationally deprived area, many of these educational slums effectively kept the working classes where they belonged, in their horrible, soul-destroying housing estates.

Naturally enough, she didn’t reform or close or modify the private sector, from which she and most her caste had come and continue to come. And – no surprise here – thereafter, the intake from the comprehensive-educated working classes into the political classes dropped precipitately.

So, the doubling of the ‘working class’ intake from 21 per cent in the last cabinet seems like a reforming and equalizing measure – but in fact it is only an attempt to restore the system that the ruinous Williams reforms wrecked. Between 1964 and 1997 all British prime ministers were educated in state schools: Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major.

It was Blair – at that time (in the course of an endless cycle of personal discovery that has taken him both to war in Iraq and to salvation Rome) a Scot (before he became English) – who broke the pattern of grammar school success, (Fettes) followed by Gordon Brown, from the state sector, (Kirkaldy) followed by David Cameron (Eton).

The pattern of class-movement via the grammar school system is even more apparent in the intellectually more challenging task as chancellor, where on any given morning you have to speak Zulu, Persian or Old High Chinese, according to the whims of the mandarins that dwell in financial circles.

You have to go back to Reginald Maudling (a chancer and chancellor) all of  50 years ago before you hit an unbroken vein of privately educated chancellors; before him, Lloyd, Thorneycroft, Macmillan, Butler. Maudling’s four successors – Callaghan, Macleod, Barber, Healey – were all grammar school boys. Howe and Lawson were privately educated. Major, Clark and Brown were state-educated, and Lamont and Darling both privately (and remarkably, in the same relatively obscure school, Loretto).

Perhaps it’s not coincidental that the first generation of grammar school politicians to have come to power as a cohort then destroyed the system which had served them so well, rather as tyrant might throttle the architect of his perfect palace just as the last brick is laid. Did they at some deep sub-conscious level want to prevent others of their class from emulating their success?

However, the actual executioner of the grammar school was Shirley Williams, educated at St Paul’s private school for girls (still open). And while the working class girls of the East End were being bombed to bits in the blitz, her millionaire family were able to send her to safety in Minnesota. Which of course qualified her splendidly to speak for the working classes when she was destroying the ladder of the grammar schools on which her near-peers in the Commons – Harold Wilson, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Ted Heath, Cecil Parkinson et alia – had clawed their way up.

With that ladder now gone, the ancestral nexus of power, blue genes, in time were restored. Only the lazy left or the congenitally stupid (usually the same thing) blather on about the injustices of the Eton connection. Yes, Nick Clegg, the former leader of the Lib-Dems, was educated at Westminster, but that’s not why he was deputy prime minister; for 20 years, his grandfather was one of most powerful men in the British medical hierarchy – in itself one of the most competitive environments outside a shark-infested bathtub.

That other Etonian grandee of the last government, David Cameron, is the scion of an ambitious Scottish imperial banking family that made fortunes in India and the US, then anglicised and gentrified themselves. The power gene was clearly there in that line also. Labour has these genes too. Harriet Harman, once again stand-in leader of Labour, is connected to both the Chamberlain family – of Neville fame, et cetera – to the Pakenhams, as in Lord Longford, and the Duke of Wellington. So, is it a coincidence that the Darwins (evolution) and the Wedgwoods (chinaware) are intimately related? Or that another Wedgwood, Hilary Benn, son of Tony Benn, (he who helped destroy grammar schools and foisted Concorde on the taxpayers of Britain) was the fourth generation of his family to serve in cabinet?

He was raised in Holland Park, one of the most exclusive addresses in London, and attended Holland Park Comprehensive: what a semi-Etonian nexus that is, whose pupils included the children of the redoubtable Antonia Fraser – aka Pakenham.

Look at poor Theresa Villiers, back in charge of the floating lunatic asylum that is Northern Ireland, and – poor dear – the only person in this article I’ve actually met. In addition to being rather sweet, she’s also connected to the house of Norfolk, as in the Duke thereof. An ancestor and royal favourite, George Villiers, the well-named ‘Gentleman of the Bedchamber’, apparently either regularly gnawed James I’s newel or munched the royal mattress, no doubt giving a fresh meaning to the term ‘Jacobite’.

A generation later, a kinswoman, Barbara Villiers became Charles II’s mistress, and mother of an entire squad of royal bastards. Barbara’s and George’s common ancestor, Sir George Villiers, not merely begat the lines leading to 16 British prime ministers, but also that to George Washington, made childless by smallpox. What republic-wrecking dynasty of hereditary American ambition might have resulted had Washington’s loins been fertile! But what you see in these lines is the repeated reassertion of unrecognised but inherited ambition.

It’s one of the curious if unrecognised facts of history that every single US president, with the exception of John F. Kennedy, had ancestors in the US before the American revolution. Thus, on his mother’s side, Barack Obama is pure Yankee, English and Irish, and deep into the 18th century. For in a curious and still-unexplained way, even in the egalitarian USA, genes will out.

The unnerving and slightly spooky Swedish experiment on such matters almost declares as much. Swedish surnames historically tend to fall into two distinct classes, identifiably ‘noble’ or ‘peasant’ in origin. Despite several generations of intense and enforced political egalitarianism within that socialist paradise, a person with a ‘noble’ surname today is six times more likely to be a doctor or an attorney, and four times more likely to be in a high-earning social group, than the owner of a ‘peasant’ name.

Similarly, in that other socialist paradise Cuba, over half of the population is of African origin – yet just how many black Cuban political leaders are there? So clearly, even allowing for the profound racism of Cuban communists, mobility doesn’t come easily in any society, even a communist one, and an upper-caste can only ever be penetrated by outsiders with intelligence, focus and ambition, whether in Stockholm, Havana, Washington or Westminster.

In Britain, these exceptional qualities were personified variously by world-famous individuals such as Thomas Cromwell, Joseph Turner and Margaret Thatcher. However, it is the success of the slightly less remarkable individuals – such as Callaghan or Healey – that serves as a useful social marker as to what level of mobility is possible within society generally.

So, given the catastrophe that the comprehensives wrought on the traditional English working classes, it’s not surprising that 50 per cent of the new state-educated cabinet appointees are from ethnic minorities. Clearly, the comprehensive system hasn’t yet destroyed the ambition of immigrants. But don’t despair! Given time, it surely will, just as it has helped create a dole-addicted underclass of ignorant Anglo-Saxon-Celtic slobs that make walking around British cities at midnight such an unparalleled delight.



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