Safe, Solid and Unquestionable
Saturday’s Times carried on its front page a protracted complaint by the headmaster of Stowe School that Oxbridge was actively discriminating against the beneficiaries of private education, and that any complaint about the staggering overrepresentation of the privately educated in every avenue of British life was born of the same reasoning as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was a particularly inept rendition of a favoured right-wing talking point: that any analysis which talks in terms of groups or classes is already merrily chugging along to the gulag, with precious individuality flattened under its wheels.
It is curious the headmaster felt threatened. Oxford and Cambridge may have made some steps to improve state school access, but the ‘independent’ intake is still around 35 per cent; only 7 per cent of children are privately educated (15 per cent of sixth formers). The rest of the Russell Group is similarly, if less severely, unbalanced. The pattern replicates across British society, with journalism, TV, the arts and the professions bristling with the privately educated, and a near monopoly among the higher ranks of public servants. The picture was complicated in the second half of the 20th century by the socially mobile products of grammar schools and the welfare state, but that brief interlude has long since tapered off; the slow suffocation of arts and humanities in British state schools will aid the return of those fields to homogeneity. If the British national conversation does not often remark on the dominance of the privately educated, it is because so many of the people making that conversation do not find it remarkable.
Politics can at times look like an extension of private school playing fields: a supposed populist outsider went to Dulwich College, and the most left-wing political leader in living memory is a prep school apostate. An arcane tussle broke out on the Tory benches between three scions of England’s most expensive schools during one of the Commons’ recent Brexit square dances. Somerset’s archaiser-in-chief, Jacob Rees-Mogg, accused Nick Boles of making a ‘characteristically Wykehamist point – highly intelligent but fundamentally wrong’, and went on to charge Oliver Letwin with sounding more like a Wykehamist than the fellow Old Etonian he is.
The jibe was obscure but telling. Other than advertising to the rest of us that politics is something conducted between a small caste who have been groomed for it from infancy, Rees-Mogg’s potshot turned on the assumption that there was something fundamentally unsound about Boles’s scepticism and Letwin’s attempts at procedural novelty. Behind it lurks the gentlemanly suspicion of intellectuals, and an implied preference for what Tony Crosland (Highgate School) once identified as ‘the cult of the amateur … a strong basic hostility to professionalism and expertise’ – the bone marrow of a conservatism that views intellectual innovation or excess seriousness as perversion.
Rees-Mogg rarely does anything without an eye to his popular reception. Most of us are uninitiated in the particular qualities of English public schools, so perhaps the invocation of educational background is merely intended to remind us of his establishment pedigree and cultivate his lived caricature. No significant exploration of this world exists in English fiction: Dickens, the novelist most interested in education, is generally uninterested in the most elite institutions. For most of the population, the English public school exists, if at all, only in the undergrowth of juvenile literature, unaffected by the tides and vagaries of real-world politics – the world of Tom Brown or Billy Bunter.
‘The year is 1910 – or 1940, but it is all the same,’ Orwell wrote, describing the mental world of these stories, which are a peculiarity of English national literature. (He went to Eton.) ‘There is a cosy fire in the study, and outside the wind is whistling. The ivy clusters thickly round the old grey stones. The king is on his throne and the pound is worth a pound. Over in Europe the comic foreigners are jabbering and gesticulating … Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same, for ever and ever.’
You can see how congenial this might be to Rees-Mogg’s political project, in which sentimental English nostalgia prettifies the hard-nosed Thatcherism of Somerset Capital. And we shouldn’t underestimate the potential audience of the public school narrative: the stories maintained their audience long past their Edwardian use-by date. Their latest version – denuded of their old casual bigotry, and with a sprinkle of magic on top – is the Harry Potter publishing juggernaut, centred on a fantasy of individual election from the ordinary to the magical elite, and which concludes with the hero graduating to become the head of that world’s equivalent of Special Branch.
The solid sense of social stasis is what gave those boarding-school stories their significant interwar appeal, and it is what the most vocal defenders of private education today fear will be taken away from them. Perhaps the prospect of a Corbyn government avowedly hostile to Britain’s many sources of inequality has made Stowe’s headmaster nervous. As David Kynaston and Francis Green point out, significant numbers of British private school pupils come from the wealthiest 5 per cent of families, and the high price of entry and concomitant concentration of resources ensures Britain’s private schools remain distinctive ‘engines of privilege’. In other words – Alan Bennett’s (Leeds Modern School) – ‘private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it.’ He could have added: and they will say just about anything in order to defend it.