At one of the first dinner parties I attended as a young man in London, just as coffee and port were being served, a cry went up: 'Hands up if you were at school'?
Old school ties may strangle UK's new coalition
At one of the first dinner parties I attended as a young man in London, just as coffee and port were being served, a cry went up: "Hands up if you were at school?" As most of us looked at each other bemused - of course we'd been to school - four or five shiny-faced lads put up their hands. "We were at school," they chorused. As they embarked on a lengthy conversation about Pop, Provosts and the wall game, we realised that they had all been inmates of Eton College, that bastion of pomp and privilege on the banks of the River Thames.
Nineteen British prime ministers went to Eton, including the latest chap with the face that looks like it is polished every morning by a butler. Other alumni include King Leopold III of Belgium, George Orwell, Hugh Laurie, this paper's business editor and even the Empty Quarter's Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who was the school boxing champion. It is quite likely that David Cameron looked around the table at his first cabinet meeting yesterday and demanded: "Hands up if you were at school?"
George Osborne, the new chancellor of the exchequer, heir to a wallpaper fortune, will have raised his hand like a shot and, no doubt, bellowed out a verse from the Eton Boating Song: Others will fill our places, Dressed in the old light blue, We'll recollect our races, We'll to the flag be true, And youth will be still in our faces, When we cheer for an Eton crew, And youth will be still in our faces, When we cheer for an Eton crew. And, across town, his old school pal Boris Johnson, now Mayor of London, would have been waving both arms in the air enthusiastically and humming along, although secretly a part of him would have been bitterly regretting that it's David Cameron and not him in 10 Downing Street. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader who has been appointed deputy prime minister, would have kept his hands on his lap and perhaps pursed his lips in a vague expression of distaste. Not that he isn't a thoroughly well educated chap. He spent his teenage years at the Royal College of St Peter in Westminster, better known as Westminster School. In contrast, Eton is a relative arriviste to the education game. Westminster was founded in the 1200s, a couple of hundred years before Eton, and is renowned as the brainiest school in the land, with the highest level of acceptance into the grand universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Playwright Ben Jonson, architect Sir Christopher Wren, and the author of Winnie-the-Pooh, AA Milne, were all Old Westminsters.
Twenty years ago it was unthinkable that an Etonian would ever again make it to prime minister (or even somebody from a decent public school). Douglas Hurd's shot at leading the Tory party after the fall of Margaret Thatcher was toppled when it became clear how much of a toff he was. It wasn't helped by the fact that he spoke in a patrician drawl, the sort of voice one hears when somebody is addressing his Labrador gundog and a handful of grouse beaters. But now after 13 years of classless Labour rule, notwithstanding the fact that their former leader Tony Blair was a Fettesian, an alumnus of Scotland's snootiest fee-paying school Fettes College, the Etonians are back.
Mr Cameron has vowed not to send his children to Eton College. Nancy can't go because she's a girl but little Arthur could and we have seen Tory prime ministers make U-turns before, particularly when it's a matter of privilege. Mr Clegg has already suggested that he might send his children, Antonio and Alberto, to fee-paying schools. "I am not holding my children's future and education hostage to a game of political football," he told the Sunday Times in 2006. "I am a father before a politician." That's hardly very reassuring for those who have no option but to accept state schooling.
As for the rest of the cabinet, no doubt some will regret that even though Theresa May has a fancy line in footwear, the new home secretary is not an Etonian. She is not even married to one. Nor indeed are any of the rest of the cabinet. There are even a couple of grammar schoolboys and, heaven forbid, the odd character from a comprehensive. Aside from their privileged backgrounds, what common ground is there between the two party leaders? At the moment, it's all smiles and soundbites. "This is a government that will last," Mr Clegg said on Wednesday.
The first serious run on the pound, the next banking crisis or any EU regulations demanding closer political unity and I can see the smiles replaced by gritted teeth, even if Mr Clegg learns the words to the Eton Boating Song. I give it six months before the rowlocks start squeaking.