Dominic Lawson: I went to Eton - and absolutely hated it

The atmosphere of the place was oppressive. After a year, I asked my parents to take me away

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The Independent is a fearless newspaper, but I'm sure it would not publish an article under the headline: "I have never met a Jew who wasn't an untrustworthy, mendacious, conniving creep". However, this was the headline on top of Nicholas Lezard's column yesterday: "I have never met an Etonian who wasn't an untrustworthy, mendacious, conniving creep".

Both statements are merely expressions of personal experience, but the fact remains that the first one would rightly cause the readers of this newspaper to feel contempt for its author, while I suspect that Mr Lezard's view of Old Etonians probably had many readers sniggering in appreciation.

I sniggered - and I went to Eton. I absolutely hated it. I wasn't bullied by other boys, or beaten by a perverted teacher. I just found the whole atmosphere of the place oppressive. I had come from a school which had only one rule - boys below the age of 13 were not allowed to wear jeans. Eton seemed to consist of nothing but rules and regulations, most of which seemed either incomprehensible or unnecessary, or both.

In many ways, it is not one school at all; it was, and is, run on a house system. Some housemasters were very popular with the boys, some weren't. My housemaster's nickname was "Jack the Ripper" - which gives some idea of his reputation. (To be fair - which I very much don't want to be--this was not a reference to any bizarre sexual proclivities. In Eton, if a master decided your work was unsatisfactory, he would rip the top of the paper on which you had written.)

Even within the stifling air of conformity which characterised the Eton of 1970, "Jack the Ripper" stood out as a man frightened of intellectual dissent. He would enter my study while I wasn't there, ferreting around for literature which he deemed inappropriate. One such work, which he reprimanded me for reading, was Catch-22, Joseph Heller's anti-war satire. Insofar as I understood anything at the age of 13, I knew that this sort of petty censorship was the antithesis of what education should be. After a year I asked my parents to take me away.

I was sent to Westminster School - another public school, but one which was so different from Eton that it might as well have been in a different solar system. There were girls. Boarding was not compulsory. Nothing seemed to be compulsory. Unlike the Etonian code of conduct, intellectualism was not thought to be a bit dodgy. I suspect that had a lot to do with the different nature of the social catchment area: whereas Etonians were to an extraordinary extent the offspring of inherited landed wealth, Westminster pupils were entirely the children of the professional classes. I was, you might say, among my own people.

Mr Lezard's attack on Eton was triggered by the "C" word. Cameron, that is. It is a strange fact that while Eton has produced prime ministers like sausages, Westminster School, which is next to the Houses of Parliament, has not produced a tenant of 10 Downing Street for 150 years. That ex-Etonian ex-jailbird Jonathan Aitken gave a fascinating explanation of the relative political success of Old Etonians to Nick Fraser, the author of The Importance of Being Eton. Aitken pointed out that Etonians compete for office within the school--even the Eton Scientific Society admits by election, rather than mere intellectual ability. According to Aitken, this "breeds a certain speciality of behaviour. You know how to get elected. You know how to please. You have to learn to oil. And at Eton you do learn."

Perhaps the British politician least adept at "oiling" was Tony Benn. Though the son of a Viscount, he is an old boy of Westminster School, not Eton. On Sunday I had a lively tussle with Tony Benn on Radio 4's Broadcasting House. Afterwards I felt that we had both behaved in the manner of typical Westminster School boys (much as he would hate to be so defined): no compromise sought or given, but also no sense that a ferocious political disagreement was anything other than healthy.

That, perhaps was why the anti-consensual Margaret Thatcher did not get on well with the Etonians in her cabinet, and dispensed with them all. Harold Macmillan, who had nine Old Etonians in his cabinet, remarked with a sort of sly anti-Semitism, that Margaret Thatcher had replaced all the Old Etonians "with old Estonians". I suppose he meant people such as my father, Keith Joseph and Leon Brittan - all of them born in this country. Nick Fraser, himself an old Etonian, has a different take on the matter: "Etonians are the ultimate pragmatists, totally free of ideology. Other than the means of getting and gaining power, no conspicuous motives inspire them. It's not clear that Etonian politicians really believe in much except themselves - and this is one reason why Thatcher disposed of them so easily."

Margaret Thatcher was not a break with the past for the Conservative Party in one respect--she was like her predecessor, Edward Heath, educated outside the public-school system. The party had been stung by the way in which Harold Wilson was able to mock "the grouse-moor complacency" of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and it was generally felt that modernity, if nothing else, demanded that any future leader must more closely conform to the idea of a classless society.

With John Major, the cultivation of this attitude became almost an art form. Douglas Hurd, who contested the leadership of the Conservative Party against Mr Major when Mrs Thatcher fell, seemed to be dismissed from consideration on class grounds alone. The Old Etonian Hurd first tried to make out that he really came from a family of impecunious tenant farmers, and then snapped in frustration at his social critics within the party: "This is inverted snobbery. I thought I was running for the leadership of the Conservative Party, not some demented Marxist sect."

A few years ago Oliver Letwin declared that his having been to Eton all but ruled out his ever becoming Prime Minister. Such a despairing thought certainly doesn't seem to have crossed David Cameron's mind. His enemies say that this is because he has the vast sense of entitlement of the Old Etonian. There may be an element of that. But it seems to me that Cameron better understands modern Britain. When Gordon Brown mocked him as just "an old Etonian" and John Prescott referred to him as being part of the "Eton Mafia" their remarks died as they were uttered. Because there is no longer a British ruling class - and the public knows it - Cameron's social background is seen as irrelevant. Nowadays a member of any minority social group can aspire to the highest office - even an Etonian.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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