Everyone knows that both main party leaders went to expensive public schools – Blair to Fettes (fees £20,169 per year) and Cameron to Eton (fees £23,688). But the paradox here has not been sufficiently explored.
Blair’s success, and Cameron’s supposed appeal to the Tories, lie in their parties’ belief that these men appeal, more than anyone else, to “middle England.” But why is it that the two people with supposedly the widest appeal in both parties have such exclusive backgrounds?
I know we shouldn’t infer much from two data points, but here’s a tentative theory. It’s public schoolboys who are more likely to have the combination of confidence and intellectual shallowness* required to express the vacuities of managerialist politics.
By managerialism, I mean the ideology, shared by Blair and Cameron, which says: that there are no deep trade-offs between values or interests in politics; that “modernity” is both self-evident and self-evidently good; and that government can solve social problems.
Public schoolboys are best at expressing this ideology. The confidence they get from thinking from an early age that they are an elite, and can achieve anything, spills over into a confidence they can achieve anything if they are in government. And only they have the confidence to make statements that so often seem bland and meaningless; it takes an expensive education to appear stupid.
By contrast, snotty-nosed state schoolboys like me can’t do this, for at least three reasons:
1. Our success, from the 11-plus on, has consisted in working out what things mean. We couldn’t use phrases like “compassionate Conservatism”, “full-blooded economic policy”, “decent, reasonable, sensible, commonsense.” We’d stop and ask: what the bleeding hell am I on about here?
2. Success in politics requires repetition. How many times did/does Blair use the same rhetorical devices: “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, “education, education, education”, “passionate”? Such repetition, stasis, comes naturally to a public schoolboy who is brought up to believe that his first instinct must be the preservation of privilege and the existing order, and thus no change, only repetition. But it’s alien to state-educated meritocrats, who are brought up to believe success must lie in changing themselves, and moving on. Our instinct is: “say something once, why say it again?”
3. Public schoolboys find it easy to believe there are no trade-offs, because they themselves really can have it all. Scum like us know we cannot. We know the price we pay for passing the 11-plus is to be surrounded by people we despise. We know that economic success comes at the price of isolation – expressed wonderfully a few years ago by Chris Evans, who once said that he bought a dining table that sat eight people, only to realize that he didn’t have seven friends. From this perspective, we see deep trade-offs.
As a I say, this is tentative. The hypothesis is merely that managerialism – as distinct from technocracy – comes easier to public schoolboys than to others; this is, of course, just a tendency, with many exceptions.
It’s a cliché that social mobility has fallen in recent years, probably mainly because of the collapse of state schooling and expansion of the universities. But could a contributory factor be that a vacuous managerialism has conquered both government and companies?
* The counter-argument that Cameron got a first doesn't wash with me. I suspect he got it the dullard's way, by revising.