Even at a place like Eton, it didn’t seem likely that anyone in my year would actually become prime minister. At school, everyone is ‘ambitious’, everyone loudly stretching upwards, but perhaps true ambition has a pair of silent claws. None of us identified David Cameron as the boy marching inexorably towards Downing Street. When he became Tory leader in 2005, I had difficulty recalling him: wasn’t he that affable, sweet-faced, minor fellow at the edge of things? I remembered him as quite handsome, with the Etonian’s uncanny ability to soften entitlement with charm. Mostly, he was defined by negatives: he wasn’t an intellectual or scholar, a rebel, a musician, a school journalist or writer, even a sportsman. He wasn’t obviously political. He belonged to a social crowd that didn’t intersect much with mine: Home Counties, landed gentry, a stockbroker father somehow involved – the customary expensive vagueness – ‘in finance’, a grand house I could only imagine and probably in those days envied. These boys all knew one another from somewhere else, fraternised masonically in the holidays, took one another’s sisters to parties in Sussex and to hunt balls in Gloucestershire, and dressed like their fathers, in clothes that looked inherited even when purchased just the other day at New & Lingwood.
My own background was different. In my last year at the school, I wrote an anti-Thatcher screed in the school magazine, and a journalist from the Sun ambushed me in the street. Where did I live, what did my parents do? I saw his frustration when I told him that my father was a lecturer at Durham University, my mother a schoolteacher. ‘That doesn’t sound very establishment … You don’t have a relative in Maggie Thatcher’s cabinet?’ It was 1984. He was after political disgrace, looking for a turncoat Hurd, a Pym, a Raison, a Jopling. What was a Wood? We had no family connections, to Eton or anywhere else much. The only reason I was at the school was my mother’s madly aspirant zeal, her Scottish petit-bourgeois tirelessness. My older brother and I were both effectively scholarship boys. He was the real thing, a King’s Scholar (three years ahead of Boris Johnson); in my case, when my parents demonstrated financial need, the school eventually helped out with a bursary.
I was lucky – my religious parents would have insisted on ‘blessed’ – and savoured that luck, grateful to be at such a school, though often keen to set fire to it. Of course I wasn’t lucky – in the sense of being fortunate – like the born Etonian, and in time, once I had worked out the codes of this strange world, that difference would become not excruciating but a source of strength. The born Etonian was at one with his heritage. The quickest way to ascertain a boy’s natural Etonianness was to find out if his father had gone there. Plenty had. Then I would start my plebeian social arithmetic. If his father went there, then thirty or so years earlier his grandparents had had the money to send his father there. So his grandfather was probably an old Etonian. Which meant that sixty or so years earlier his great-grandparents had had enough money … It was dizzying, climbing backwards along the branches of these golden family trees.
It was unimaginable to me, the quickly privileged descendant of schoolteachers and shopkeepers, that these Etonians had been privileged for so long that the precise origins of their fortune could no longer be located. What amazing security: to have always been well-off probably suggested that one would always be well-off. The future would look comfortingly like the past. Amusingly, David Cameron is often described as being ‘upper-middle-class’, but the originary arithmetic doesn’t lie. His father went to Eton, as did his grandfather. And on his mother’s perhaps fancier side, his grandfather went to Eton, and his great-grandfather also went there, and his great-great-grandfather, and actually his great-great-great-grandfather did, too … I think we can bump him out of the middle classes.
Getting the hang of this place entailed subterfuge, vigilance, mimicry – a stealthy adventure I often enjoyed. The accent obviously had to be improved, and any lingering Durham commonness rubbed out. My father would have to be promoted from senior lecturer to professor, and my mother’s job mystified out of existence. My parents’ shameful first names, Dennis and Sheila (furry dice hanging in a Ford Cortina), could obviously never be uttered. Thank God my brother was called Angus – a bit Scottish maybe, but weren’t there plenty of posh Scots? That my parents were teetotal Christians was also unutterable. I would need better clothes; how could I get cheap shoes that looked expensive?
This labour of inclusion, like some journey of immigration, was a matter of working out hints and barely visible laws, fitting in quietly without drawing attention to oneself. The task mainly involved studying networks. How did everything connect? Surely it did in some way? Certain areas of London, certain prep schools, London shops (Harrods, for some reason, was considered a bit ‘common’, while Harvey Nichols was not), certain sports, clothes, even brands of aftershave: they all signified. There were ‘distinguished’ surnames everywhere, and one had to catch up with a celebrity that everyone else had already divined: Fiennes, Bingham (Lord Lucan’s son), Vestey, Wellesley, Sainsbury. There were copious numbers of double-barrelled names: Fearnley-Whittingstall, Austen-Leigh, Scrase-Dickins, the delicious Money-Coutts. (Money Counts?) There was even a triple-barrelled name: Edward Packe-Drury-Lowe – inherently absurd because of the prospect of infinite fission: if triple, why not quadruple or quintuple? One of the boys in my house had the surname Christie. His father owned Glyndebourne. ‘Christie’ meant something to me, so I assumed he was related to the auctioneers. Glyndebourne meant nothing to me, but my parents explained what it was. So: these were ‘the Christies who owned Glyndebourne’, and perhaps only mildly related to the more famous Christies who auctioned things? Families had major and minor branches – and even the minor branches were major.
Of course there were subgroups and cliques. The largest faultline, really, was intelligence. The boys whose fathers and grandfathers had been to Eton, who inherited the school like an old watch or a family farm, didn’t have to use their brains, even if they had them. Those who had arrived more precipitously at this grand place – via academic or music scholarships, pushy middle-class parents, raw social experiments of one kind or another – had to live on their wits. King’s Scholars, who had won their scholarships by competitive exam, were set apart, herded into their own house and sartorially marked off with short black gowns, giving their closed world the aspect of a curious social laboratory. I always felt a bit sorry for my brother when I caught sight of him running towards lessons, clutching his ‘K.S.’ gown to his sides like a bird holding in its wings, a clever animal in an alien habitat.
By and large, these scholars were middle-class or upper-middle-class, the children of academics, doctors, self-made businessmen. If they were posh, they were interestingly so, like the brilliant mathematician and future Fields medallist Timothy Gowers, whose father was a composer and whose great-great-grandfather had been a famous neurologist. Or they came from bohemian and eccentric families, like Boris Johnson, perhaps with a hint of social arrivisme. Johnson, by the way, looked pretty much the same at 15 as he does at 55, and was a familiar sight as he charged and flapped his way around the college lanes. The bigfoot stoop (he was known as ‘the Yeti’), the bumbling confidence, the skimmed-milk pallor, the berserk hair, the alarming air of imminent self-harm, which gave the impression that he had been freshly released from some protective institution: all was already in place.
Over the years, I’ve resisted writing about Eton, for the usual reasons but mainly because I dislike a retrospect that might sound like some nasty combination of complaint, boast and self-pity. All three modes are unwarranted, as far as I’m concerned. I have largely happy memories of the school and eventually flourished there much as my socially avaricious mum hoped I would. But complaint doesn’t have to be merely self-interested. In 1984 I couldn’t have predicted that politics in the early 21st century would be so contaminated by my schoolfellows. Cameron became prime minister in 2010, and British life began to resemble a set-up from a Johnny English comedy – soon the prime minister, the mayor of London and the archbishop of Canterbury were all old Etonians. (Simon can’t possibly be the double agent, Rowan Atkinson says in Johnny English Reborn, because ‘Simon went to Eton’ – a nice joke since Dominic West, the actor playing Simon, also went to Eton.) Suddenly we were back in the 1960s, when the Conservative Party, looking around for a successor to the old Etonian Harold Macmillan, chose between two other Etonians, Lord Hailsham and Alec Douglas-Home. How had this happened?
Much worse was to come. Cameron tossed the rotten bouquet of a referendum to the nation. Seemingly, it was done lightly – politics as one of his careless posh parties. On the eve of Brexit, here was Boris Johnson, flamboyantly convictionless, writing pro and anti pieces for the Daily Telegraph, essentially back at school again – a place he never left – as if winging an end of year exam or Classics prize. And lo, with his arched clown eyebrows, and clad in that ever so slightly vulgar double-breasted suit – surely an Ealing comedy idea of an English gent? – came Jacob Rees-Mogg. Him! Like Johnson, Rees-Mogg appeared unchanged from schooldays. He was four years below me, notorious as soon as he arrived, because he never seemed young. He wandered around the school gazing blandly at people through his windscreen spectacles and clutching a gigantic briefcase, in which, it was rumoured, resided his ‘stocks and shares’. He was one of those boys – already playing the markets at 13.
But I’m the one who feels 13 again. After years of living in the United States, I’ve become unused to seeing lots of Etonians gathered in one place. And there are so many of them, all involved in varying degrees of Brexit: Cameron, Johnson and Rees-Mogg; Zac Goldsmith and Jesse Norman; Alexander Nix, the co-founder of Cambridge Analytica; Nigel Oakes, the founder of its sinister parent company, SCL; Kwasi Kwarteng, the son of Ghanaian immigrants and a King’s Scholar at Eton, who went on to Cambridge and Harvard and eventually became under-secretary of state at the Department for Exiting the European Union. Even the ranks of decency are stocked by old Etonians: Oliver Letwin, Rory Stewart and Hugo Dixon, editor in chief of the useful anti-Brexit website InFacts. (I remember Dixon, a King’s Scholar: skinny, super-bright, otherworldly.)
I feel 13 again because the old questions reassert themselves. How did these people get here? What connects them? I thought I had learned something about networks, and now I realise I know rather little. What do these people have in common? Is it enough to reply, ‘Well, Eton of course,’ and be done with it? In Heroic Failure, Fintan O’Toole diagnoses in the Brexit worldview a combination of Thatcherite lust for economic deregulation and postwar nostalgia for lost imperial might. To summarise this worldview: we were ‘great’ when we had an empire. We won the Second World War and yet the loser, Germany, got all the benefits: moral authority, economic power and eventually effective sovereignty. Only by tearing ourselves away from the overweening and expansionist EU and ‘going it alone’ can we rediscover the fighting spirit that won the war in the first place. Brexit will be our second Reformation. Make Britain Great Again. All set to the Dad’s Army tune: ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Juncker?’
Binding together these two impulses, conservative economic purism and imperial nostalgia, is the conviction that for decades – the Thatcher period aside – Britain has merely been managing its decline, and is increasingly content to do so. The phrase appears in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s galumphing book The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain, which reads like a collection of recycled Eton essays originally done in detention as punishment. Unlike contemporary politicians, none of these titans, Rees-Mogg tells us, was ‘managing the decline of Britain’. They were imbued with a ferocious work ethic, and ‘a practical patriotism’. They had the good sense to believe that it was ‘reasonable to export’ British civilisation ‘to other countries to remove such hardships as exist there’. Thatcher, he thinks, was a titanic Victorian of that sort. Since her departure, ‘the forces of stagnation, trepidation and hesitation have returned.’
Back in 2012, a bunch of proto-Brexiteers – Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss – slapdashed a manifesto together called Britannia Unchained, the gist of which is that the British have become squalid, lazy gits, getting fat and studying useless subjects like psychology and desiring only to be footballers or pop stars. If we emulated serious, dynamic countries like India, China and Israel, where the best young people go into technology or the sciences, we might kickstart the dodgy old British Leyland engine that is our current economic motor. These MPs share Rees-Mogg’s interpretation of recent history. Under Thatcher there was dynamism, but since the financial crisis ‘a spirit of decline has returned.’ In 1950 we were richer than France or West Germany. No more. And note the post-imperial retrospect: ‘Britain once ruled the empire on which the sun never set. Now it can barely keep England and Scotland together.’
The ‘decline’ theme is continued in Boris Johnson’s jaunty, florid book about Churchill, who, as Johnson sees it, became increasingly irrelevant during the Second World War, after America entered it, and especially afterwards – when Britain started decommissioning its imperial holdings. This chapter is entitled ‘The Giant of the Shrunken Island’. Churchill here performs as an early, greater version of Thatcher, a politician who by raw willpower could buoy Britain’s waning self-confidence: ‘By sheer force of personality he asserted his right to equality in the conference chamber … As long as Churchill had to be given honour and respect, the same could be said for Britain and the empire; or so he imagined.’
What did Cameron, Johnson and Rees-Mogg learn at Eton? Many things, as befits a complex institution that has produced Keynes and Huxley and Orwell. But two powerful memories seem pertinent at present. Near the end of our time at school, we were addressed by the headmaster (this is my memory, but it may have been some other senior member of staff). It was, I guess, an informal version of a commencement address, a send-off with valedictory ethics. The headmaster, a thoughtful Scot, instructed us in how we should comport ourselves in the world. The Etonian, he said, is one who can go into any room, mingle with any social group, be at ease and put others at their ease. (Not a bad model for the aspirant politicians in the room.) The Etonian is marked by his air of ‘effortless superiority’. The phrase was already commonplace at the school, appealed to and sometimes mocked. The headmaster, as I recall, invoked it in a cautionary spirit. He meant: you have been told that this is your strength, but don’t let it become your weakness. ‘Effortless superiority’ was the ethos, the ideal you aspired to – charmed confidence balanced by strategic noblesse oblige. If you aren’t forever performing your superiority but are elegantly obscuring it, you don’t alienate those many people who are suspicious of your privilege. We were told to be wary of misusing our superiority, but we were not told we didn’t have it. The instruction, even when well intentioned, depended on this modification – and so its perpetuation was guaranteed.
The second memory is better grounded. First-year boys were taught by generalist teachers, usually classicists, who instructed us in English, Latin and history. For history, we were given Heaven’s Command, the first volume of Jan Morris’s trilogy about the rise and fall of the British Empire, along with extracts from the other two volumes. The trilogy is a lush, romantic account of the enormous, bloody, dust-filled adventure of empire. Morris – who as James Morris had fought in the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers during the Second World War – describes military expeditions, noble defeats and brutal victories with the same rousing relish. It was a good book to give to dreaming 13-year-old boys.
But now I wonder at the school’s reflexive turn towards Britain’s imperial past, and its choice of this glitteringly nostalgic text. Morris doesn’t exactly hide the racism and genocidal violence of the imperial enterprise, but they’re somehow swept up in the sheer mad gusto of the narrative. Take the battle of Omdurman, the infamous rout of 1898, enacted as revenge for the death of General Gordon, when Kitchener’s troops killed at least ten thousand Sudanese soldiers, with the loss of only 48 Britons. Morris tells us that the Mahdist army was efficiently annihilated (‘It all went like very slow clockwork’), but says nothing about the grotesque disparities of dead, swiftly moving to a set-piece description of the battle’s aftermath: the British on the banks of the Nile, triumphantly raising the Union Jack, two of Kitchener’s gunboats moored at the bank; the many ‘celebrities of Empire’ present in the crowd (a young Douglas Haig, a young Winston Churchill) and, at the head of his men, ‘ramrod stiff’, Kitchener himself: ‘As the solemn men’s voices sang the old words of “Abide with Me” … to the uncertain harmonies of a Sudanese band, a tear was seen to roll down [his] brown and flinchless cheek.’
Sven Lindqvist, in his 1992 book about the genocidal roots of European colonialism, Exterminate All the Brutes, describes the battle of Omdurman from the other side: ‘At the battle of Omdurman, the entire Sudanese army was annihilated without once having got their enemy within gunshot.’ He goes on to describe the rapid advance of 19th-century European armaments, in particular the machine gun, and the advantage in extermination that these new weapons afforded. He quotes Churchill’s account of the battle: ‘Of course we should win. Of course we should mow them down.’
Morris ends her trilogy with another set-piece requiem, which serves as an echo of that early scene on the banks of the Nile. It is January 1965, and Churchill, the great lion of empire, is being laid to rest. It is also the funeral of the imperial project: ‘For the last time the world watched a British imperial spectacle.’ The impossible pageant has come to an end: Morris’s final volume is entitled Farewell the Trumpets. Each moment is finely embossed on the page: Big Ben silenced, the guns going off in Hyde Park, the river launch carrying the statesman’s coffin up the Thames as the cranes on the riverside wharfs dip in salute; dignitaries and politicians from all over the world gathering to pay their last respects to the defender of liberty. But the words that are designed to sear the damp British postwar heart are these: ‘A hundred nations were represented there, and twenty of them had once been ruled from this very capital.’
I read those words when I was 13 and have never forgotten them: propaganda has such supple power. What a sentence. And what an idea! History ended in 1965. I read those words, and so did David Cameron, and so – I’m sure – did Jacob Rees-Mogg, who triples down on this sickly imperial nostalgia in his recent book, telling us in his acknowledgments, amid nods towards patient wife and beneficent nanny, that ‘it was Heaven’s Command by Jan Morris that sparked my interest in history, and learning about Gordon and Sleeman aged 14 has influenced two chapters in this book.’ I’m not sure if Boris Johnson read Morris’s words, but I note that his book about Churchill effectively ends (there is an unimportant coda) where Morris ends her history: we are at the great man’s funeral once again, with the description of the cranes bowing ‘in salute’ as the barge passed. Meaningful British history – a time when Britain still counted for something – is shutting down. Glamour has given way to gloom:
An estimated 300,000 people filed past his coffin as it lay in state in Westminster Hall – the first such lying-in-state to be accorded a commoner since the Duke of Wellington. You can see them in the footage – the Britain of my parents’ generation: old men with sunken chaps and trilby hats, women with heavy coats and headscarves; but also young men in drainpipe trousers, and women with short skirts and mascara and peroxide hair and red lipstick; people crying, staring, holding up their primitive cameras.
These are the school memories I’ve been revisiting while the Brexit madness has been escalating – a madness casually instituted, secretly engineered and noisily bolstered by a cabal of old Etonians born between 1962 and 1975, the year we joined the Common Market. ‘Effortless superiority’, and the generations of entitlement that bred this relaxed mantra, may go some way towards explaining the peculiar lightness of being that characterised Cameron’s conduct throughout: the decision to hold the referendum, the unpressed rhythm of the referendum campaign, and then his apparently easy abandonment of political responsibility as he hummed his way off the podium after issuing his resignation. It may go more of the way towards explaining Boris Johnson’s astonishing ethical irresponsibility around language. At the end of March, in the week we were supposed to leave the EU, Johnson was in public conversation with Charles Moore, the old Etonian former editor of the Daily Telegraph, and … well, you know how one old Etonian gets in the presence of another. ‘This was the Friday,’ Johnson lamented, ‘when Charles Moore’s retainers were meant to be weaving through the moonlit lanes of Sussex, half blind with scrumpy, singing Brexit shanties at the tops of their voices and beating the hedgerows with staves.’
‘They were GIANTS in those days,’ Michael Kidson, one of Cameron’s teachers at Eton, used to intone about the Victorians. And we are just dwarves on a shrunken island? I was born in the year Churchill died; Johnson a year before, Cameron a year later, and Rees-Mogg in 1969. We all grew up with the idea that ‘everything had changed’ after the war, though where the authors of Britannia Unchained see fatalism, I am inclined to see realism. As a generation, we understood that, if we weren’t exactly managing decline, we would certainly not be pioneers of expansion. We inhabited a different world from that of our parents and grandparents.
One understands how a certain version of history – romantic, nostalgic, privileged, fretful about lost power and sovereignty – might shape a political worldview. It is a politics of chronic belatedness, in which the only way to move forward is by harking back. But what does talk of ‘decline’ really mean for these conspirators of Brexit? It is invoked and inveighed against, but it is, in the end, weightless political rhetoric. There are no fundamental political differences between Cameron, Johnson and Rees-Mogg, because they belong to the same world. A world of extreme wealth where there has never been any decline for them. They are secure as their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were before them. Once that security may have come from land; now it comes from hedge funds and shipping fortunes and extracurricular salaries (‘chicken-feed’, Johnson said of the £250,000 a year he was paid to write a column). Whatever happens in the next thirty or forty years, post-Brexit, isn’t going to affect them. Privilege is like an unwritten constitution: you can never lose what you never have to find.
But what about everyone else? In his acknowledgments for The Churchill Factor, Johnson thanks his old school chum Hugo Dixon, even though the two are, presumably, political opponents: ‘I wrote one chapter in the Greek home of Churchill’s great-grandson Hugo Dixon.’ Well, lucky Boris. And even luckier Hugo. A connection is being signalled, a lifelong link that transcends piffling political difference. The words of ‘The Eton Boating Song’ waft over the Thames towards me. It is a fine June afternoon, and the fours and eights plash by, as the lucky, lucky boys sing their words of golden captivity: ‘But we’ll row for ever/… And nothing in life shall sever/The chain that is round us now.’