A Clique of
Boris Johnson is the 20th prime minister to come out of Eton
College. The school represents a system in which the elite stay among
themselves and fail to see the problems of others. And it is becoming a serious
problem for the country.
Photo Gallery: 'Posh, Arrogant Boys'
At the very front of the Eton Museum, there is a wall of
fame set up on a mint-green background. Princes William and Harry are there, as
is James Bond author Ian Fleming, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the actor
Damian Lewis and Hugh "Dr. House" Laurie. There are also decorated
soldiers, Olympics athletes, journalists and adventurers. And, of course,
politicians. David Cameron is there, as is Jacob Rees-Mogg and, on the
top-right, a young, blonde man grinning broadly into the camera: Boris Johnson,
who is described there as the former mayor of London and ex-foreign minister.
Eton College, it seems, hasn't completely caught up with the
The school is extremely proud of its "Old
Etonians." The exhibit proudly notes that graduates of the school
"can be found involved in almost every national movement, in every event
and on every side."
That, some would say, is the problem.
In the United Kingdom, a lot of people are once again
talking and writing about Eton. They aren't, of course, talking about the
Berkshire village by that name, which is essentially just a long street
decorated with Union Jacks located just west of London, around the corner from
They mean the complex that lies at the end of this road: a
huge, castle-like clutch of red brick buildings largely closed off to the
public. It is almost two square kilometers in size and sits between the Thames
and the Jubilee Rivers. Eton College, the empire's almost mythical elite
academy, the place where the wealthy classes send their children, one of the
most famous and oldest boarding schools in the world. It is also the place that
has "produced," as Eton itself says, 20 prime ministers.
The most recent Old Etonian to take the helm is Boris
Johnson. He inherited his most important -- perhaps only -- task from another
Old Etonian, David Cameron, who unnecessarily paved the way for the Brexit
referendum in 2016. If you include former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was
educated in an elite Scottish school called Fettes College, the UK's fate for
over the past 20 years has largely been determined by the graduates of elite
Is that merely a
Once one begins reporting on private schools and starts
speaking to their former students, one quickly comes into contact with an
exclusive world of archaic rules and unconscionable wealth. This world only
exists in Britain. There, only success counts, no matter how it is attained.
The system has brought forth an astounding number of statesmen, military
heroes, Nobel laureates, gold-medal winners and Oscar recipients. But it has
also helped promote, deepen and cement inequality. It is a system that "underpins
almost all that is wrong with British society," as Boris Johnson's own
sister, Rachel, has said. She is among the many who believe that the private
school system should be broken up.
There is nothing to indicate that her brother agrees. Boris
Johnson has appointed numerous private school-educated politicians to his
cabinet, with almost two-thirds of his ministers belonging to the 7 percent of
the population whose worldview was formed in a private institution.
As such, his government doesn't represent "modern Great
Britain," as Johnson has claimed, but an archaic system that teaches those
who belong to it that they are destined for the kind of greatness that others
cannot reach. It is a system that teaches the preservation and exercise of
power, but it also one in which the shrewd and cunning, but not necessarily the
best, rise to the top. In its eagerness to produce a ruling elite, the system
has also done lasting damage to the psyches of many of the children who have
passed through it. And many view the boys' school of Eton College as perhaps
the most representative example of this system.
It is a Friday in late July and around 25 tourists from
around the world have gathered in the "Upper School." It is a
classroom -- or, rather, an 18th century refectory, the walls of which are
covered in names carved into the dark wood by former pupils. It has room for up
to 70 students, and when they gather here, they aren't far from power.
Looking down at them from above are busts of numerous men
who once transformed England into a global power. Lord North is there, the
British prime minister who fought in vain to hold onto Britain's North American
colonies, as is the former Lord High Chancellor and judge Earl Camden and the
first Duke of Ellington, who defeated Napoleon. All of them were educated here,
molded for a life in power.
A dark brown door leads from the Upper School to the
headmaster's chambers. For much of the school's existence, there were
essentially only two reasons for a student to enter these chambers. Either he
had violated one of Eton's rules and had to be punished with a birch rod. Or he
belonged to the elite of the elite and received the honor of extra lessons. The
names of these particularly brilliant pupils are carved into the wooden walls
for eternity. For the year of 1981, there is an entry for A. B. Johnson,
roughly at the same height as the busts of the heroes of British history.
"He was undoubtedly a very bright boy," says the tour leader, as
Chinese tourists takes pictures of the name.
There is almost nobody on whom the teenager Boris Johnson
didn't leave a lasting impression. He was known in Eton as "Yeti," as
his former schoolmate James Wood recently wrote in the London Review of Books.
"The bigfoot stoop, 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 a protective institution: All was
already in place."
Johnson was a "King's Scholar" and from the very
beginning he was among the most academically gifted at Eton. The bulky blonde
quickly made a name for himself in rugby and Eton's own "Wall Game,"
a sport largely incomprehensible to outsiders that centers around doing all you
can to hold onto a ball once you have possession of it. Johnson's path to
leadership position was charted when entered the boarding school at the age of
13. In the five years that followed, the Eton system took care of the rest.
"There was always a real sense that we were kind of the
elite in every way: socially, intellectually, educationally and
financially," says Adam Nicolson at his country home in Sussex. The
61-year-old is co-author of "About Eton," a book about the
institution, and the grandson of poet Vita Sackville-West. He attended the
boarding school in the 1970s, just before Johnson made his appearance, and is
ambivalent about his time at the school. He says Eton was akin to a small
city-state, made up of students from different houses that compete with each
other. Nicolson describes it as a
strictly hierarchical "mimic-republic" that sees itself as a "a
school for government."
"You have to
understand how to build your constituency, how to network, how to charm people
so you can build your world and become significant within your world."
he emphasizes, was always the most effective means to that end, helping to free
oneself from every dicey situation.
One time, when he was 15, Nicolson relates, he was found
drunk by his house master. He was taken aside and told: "Listen, Adam. It
doesn't matter if you get drunk, just don't get caught. This is Eton. The
spotlight is on you."
Fear and humiliation, Nicolson says, were important elements
of the Eton system at the time, and remain so today. Poorly written papers are
still torn up by teachers in front of the entire class, and at the end of each
school year, everyone can see who was best in class and who was worst. The
school is home to "horrible bullying," Nicolson says. When he was a
student, the less-brilliant ones were referred to as "dockers."
The notorious practice of "fagging," which saw
older students taking younger ones as a kind of slave, no longer exists in
quite the same way. But there is still a caste system that is manifested in a
number of different ways, including in the uniforms that have remained largely
unchanged since the end of the 19th century -- a black three-piece suit that
makes the streets of Eton sometimes look like the town is hosting an
The best athletes, the best poets, the best thinkers are
allowed to augment their outfits with ties or bowties, for example. And the crème
de la crème have silver buttons in their vests. Boris Johnson was allowed to
wear one of the latter early on in his Eton career. While other boarding
schools have abandoned their uniforms, Eton has held on to the tradition.
The boarding school, says Adam Nicolson, "taught me how
to learn," but also "to be frightened of failure." He paid a high price for those lessons, he
"I've spent years trying to re-cultivate those parts of
myself which the Etonian system would ignore or suppress." Nevertheless,
the author, who has written two dozen books and won numerous awards, says he
would still go to Eton if he had it to do over again. He also sent his own
offspring to the school.
In doing so, Nicolson finds himself in good company. For
centuries, the British upper classes have seen it as self-evident that they
would send their children and grandchildren to Eton or another elite private
school, usually at the age of 13. A spot in such a school doesn't just
guarantee a top-quality education in luxurious surroundings -- with a golf
course, horse stables, a recording studio, a theater and a facility for
shooting clay pigeons.
Part 2: A
Leadership Clique of 'Pseudo-Adults'
August 09, 2019 06:06
It also offers its students an influential network of
friends and acquaintances they can rely on for the rest of their lives -- a
network that dominates every relevant area of British society. Indeed, just
like in feudal times, the alumni of the most important elite boarding schools
-- in addition to Eton, the list includes Charterhouse, Harrow, Merchant
Taylors', Rugby, St. Paul's, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester -- inherit
money, status and influence.
But it comes at a
Since 1980, private school tuition has tripled on average, with
some schools passing the 40,000-pound barrier in 2017. In places like Eton, the
cost of the school uniform, trips and many other extras are not included.
As such, these schools have turned their original purpose on
its head. Winchester College, the first school of this kind, was founded in
1382 by William of Wykeham, the deeply pious son of a farmer. It was intended
to educate 70 children from poor families, enabling them to climb out of
poverty. King Henry VI had the same idea when he founded Eton College in the
shadow of Windsor Castle in 1440. Because these boarding schools were the only
ones open to any child in the empire, they were called "public
Their excellent reputations, though, attracted more and more
rich families, who sent their children to the schools and, in return, paid fees
that were initially voluntary. It didn't take long for the schools, originally
set up to emulate Wykeham's brainchild, to succumb to the temptations of money.
In response to the repeated criticism of the system, headmasters came up with
the creative argument that the students were poor, and that "just their
parents are rich." While they continued to be called "public schools,"
nothing could be further from the truth.
In response to growing public pressure, many of the around
2,500 "public" schools in Britain have, in recent years, increased
the number of students able to attend thanks to bursaries, discounts or even full
scholarships. Some institutions have even sought to mitigate their elite
reputations by having their young charges perform some sort of community
service outside of the school walls. But the majority of those who go to such
boarding schools still come from wealthy families. In Eton, there are 73
children from "poor" families compared to 1,200 wealthy or extremely
wealthy students. The latter often don't hide their disdain for those without
Education Budget Shortfalls
In the 2017-2018 school year, the school took in 51 million
pounds in tuition, with an additional couple million coming in for extras such
as school trips and music lessons. Eton College also owns 400 buildings, most
of them listed due to their historical importance, a significant endowment and
securities in addition to 175,000 artworks and valuable antiques.
This list of assets makes it even more astonishing that Eton
College, like most similar boarding schools, enjoys significant tax breaks and
that the state doesn't impose any tax at all on the tuition fees it takes in.
This is partly because they are classified as charities due to their
"cooperation" with other nearby schools, allowing them tax benefits
in the billions. That cooperation, though, frequently only exists on paper. As
a result, private schools continue to flourish while state-run schools often
can't even afford the basics due to recent cuts to the education budget. A
march on Westminster is scheduled for September to call attention to the
Even Michael Gove, a former education minister who is
currently charged with making preparations for a no-deal Brexit as a member of
Johnson's government, once expressed astonishment over the unfairness. In a
2017 op-ed for the Times, he wrote that state-supported private schools had
facilities reminiscent of five-star hotels. Tuition at all of the schools, he
wrote, was over 30,000 pounds, which is more than the annual salaries earned by
most Britons. "To my continuing surprise, we still consider the education
of the children of plutocrats and oligarchs to be a charitable activity."
Gove isn't the first to make that observation. Several
efforts were made to reform the system in recent years, but all failed -- more
sooner than later -- in part because those who profit from the status quo are
grotesquely overrepresented in key government positions. Whereas just one in 15
people in Britain was educated in a private school, the educational charity
Sutton Trust has found that 65 percent of all judges, 59 percent of state secretaries
and 29 percent of lawmakers were educated at an elite school. And because
almost half of all newspaper columnists likewise got their start in the system,
criticism in the media tends to be limited. In all areas, women are severely
The most recent attempt to eliminate the education system's
shocking inequality was undertaken by former Prime Minister Theresa May, who
attended a state-run school. Only 30 percent of her cabinet was made up of
private school graduates, the lowest share in seen decades. In 2017, the
Conservative Party manifesto read: "The greatest injustice in Britain
today is that your life is still largely determined not by your efforts and
talents, but by where you come from, who your parents are and what schools you
attend. This is wrong."
The election that followed, however, ended in disaster for
May, and from that point on, she was completely consumed by an intra-party
battle over Brexit. Hardly a word more was said about education reform.
As a result, 21st century Britain has seen the perpetuation
of a system that has almost nothing to do with educational equity and equal
opportunity. In search of higher profits, many of the elite schools have opened
up branches in China, Singapore, Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, offering
the children of the elite the best education possible. Meanwhile, the mantra of
social mobility in Britain has remained as hollow as ever. Indeed, independent
studies have found that the boundaries between the very top and the very bottom
are becoming increasingly impermeable.
"A child today has less chance of breaking through the
class and career barrier than their grandparents born in the 1950s,"
writes Robert Verkaik in his book "Posh Boys." "The subtle
networks of the privately schooled help to create a system of self-perpetuating
advantage and social immobility." Verkaik has dubbed the situation
It is thus hardly surprising that anger against "the
elite" has intensified. This rage contributed to the result of the Brexit
referendum three years ago -- a decision to leave the European Union that
caught David Cameron, the political classes, British business leaders, much of
the media and even Brexit frontman Boris Johnson unprepared.
Nick Duffell isn't surprised. "Elite boarding schools
consistently turn out people who appear much more competent than they actually
are," says the 70-year-old psychotherapist. It is an overcast Wednesday in
London and Duffell is on the way to the House of Commons to take part in a
forum on the abolishment of private schools. But he takes a bit of time to talk
about his favorite issue over a cappuccino, an issue that has been working on
for the last 25 years: "boarding school survivors." He is one
Duffell points out that the system, which takes children
away from their parents for several months at a time, is largely unique to
Britain. He explains that it has also left lasting damage on many of his
clients. At its core, Duffell says, the system is about "getting rid of
the parents, putting children in houses together, keeping them away from sexual
contacts, putting them through a program of learning, sports and other things
so that they have no leisure time whatsoever. And you get a recognizable product,
which is very poor at emotions and has a built-in sense of entitlement."
Products of the system, he says, tend to be self-confident, eloquent and
charismatic, but often lack the ability to deal with their own feelings and
those of others.
A Simpsons Character
British boarding school students, Duffell says, have to
leave their homes and families prematurely to struggle for survival in an
environment of competition and harassment. Frequently, he says, their inner
child is locked away and they quickly become "pseudo adults." That is
why many of them seem so "boyish." Essentially, he says, Britain is
being run by children in adult bodies for whom politics is little more than a
fascinating game. The title of one of Duffell's books is "Wounded Leaders."
It is a tempting hypothesis, and looking at the country's
political alpha males, one does in fact find a certain predilection for
infantilism: Boris Johnson and his mussed hair; Jacob Rees-Mogg, who remains
fond of taking pictures with his nanny; David Cameron, who turned tail and
disappeared after his brutal Brexit defeat in 2016; and Nigel Farage, another
elite school product, who seems like a Simpsons character come-to-life.
Nick Duffell was harshly criticized in parts of the British
establishment for his thesis when he first presented it several years ago.
These days, though, many others speak of the "boarding school
syndrome." There have been shocking reports of psychological abuse,
draconian punishments and sexual misconduct. A couple of years ago, a group of
psychologists, doctors and academics joined forces to call on private elite
schools to at least stop accepting really young children, saying that it was
damaging to their psyche and the expression of an antiquated class system. The
call was heard -- and then immediately disregarded.
Yet there is one thing that should be completely
uncontroversial: The British boarding school system is not in a position to
provide its charges with a realistic image of the conditions in which the vast
majority of the population live their lives. The years in educational luxury
are instead much more likely to further deepen the chasm between the
self-proclaimed elite and the rest. There are, of course, counterexamples, such
as the postwar British prime minister Clement Atlee, who is considered the
father of the social welfare system, or the current Tory lawmaker Rory Stewart,
whose modest, even-keeled manner is essentially the opposite of Boris Johnson.
For many other leading politicians, Robert Verkaik is on the
money when he writes: "Pupils leave school with inflated egos, unshakeable
faith in their own abilities and a craving for success. But this system for the
self-selection of our leaders ... may be damaging to a nation that is trying to
come to terms with a more modest place in world affairs."
Self-Confidence Above Expertise
Even some Conservatives are becoming increasingly uneasy
with the fact that their party is losing its connection to reality. In 2012,
following years of brutal austerity, Conservative lawmaker Nadine Dorries
described Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who was also
educated in a private school, as "two posh, arrogant boys ... who don't
know the price of milk, ... who show no remorse, no contrition and no passion
to want to understand the lives of others -- and that is their real
Dorries could have been referring to Johnson, who was mayor
of London at the time and who was recently unable to identify the minimum wage
in Britain. He instead presented a plan to lower taxes on the richest 10
percent. Even the center-right magazine Economist wrote that "Britain is
governed by a self-involved clique that rewards group membership above
competition and self-confidence above expertise."
It is precisely this wealthy and extremely well-networked
clique that will have to bring Brexit to fruition in the coming months. Because
of the advantages they enjoy, they will likely be unafraid of a "no
deal" departure from the EU, because they almost certainly will not have
to pay the price for it. The members of this clique know that they will get
away scot-free. They always have.
They haven't learned any different.