E Jane Dickson: The Left has lost the plot on private schools

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The Independent Online

As the world now knows, Boris Johnson is an old Etonian who was a bit of a prat at Oxford. It isn't the worst thing about him. Yet, as party lines are drawn for a general election, our obsession with where politicians received their education is second only to the shattering importance of their wives' wardrobes.

There is much to fear from a Tory cabinet comprising David Cameron, George Osborne and, as seems increasingly likely, Barking BoJo. The much-picked-over events of their Bullingdon Club days are scarcely cheering. But to continually characterise the Conservative Party – as the left has sought to do – as a sinister cabal of public schoolboys bent on smashing the system with a well-aimed flowerpot, is immature, embarrassing and serves only to draw fire from more genuinely sinister policies.

Cyril Connolly (Eton and Balliol) summed up this peculiarly British brand of class prejudice in his Theory Of Permanent Adolescence. From the emotional intensity of the public school experience, he argued, "it results that the greater part of the ruling class remains adolescent, school-minded, self-conscious, cowardly, sentimental and, in the last analysis, homosexual".

Like most of Connolly's pronouncements, it's funny because it's partly true. In my first term of university, I mumbled it almost constantly under my breath. St Andrews in 1979 was riding high on Tory triumphalism. I had tipped up eager for a sit-in and instead was sucked into a maelstrom of student sherry parties (sherry, for God's sake!) where the first question was, invariably, "Where were you at school?".

The fact that my grammar school rang no bells didn't bother me; I hadn't heard of Benenden or Charterhouse, either.

I was bemused by 18-year-olds whose self-worth, or so it seemed to them, was measured in school fees, but apart from a private resolution "never to kiss a Tory" it didn't get in the way of my social life. And who'd have thought it? The close and lasting friendships forged there had almost nothing to do with our respective educational backgrounds. If I learned anything in my time with the "toffocracy" it was that you can't judge a person by their old school tie.

Insecure 18-year-olds are one thing, insecurity enshrined as political principle quite another. Beating someone round the head with their education is like berating them for their eye colour. Because – and this is the howling pity of it – education in Britain amounts to an accident of birth. It was the case in Connolly's day and I fear it is increasingly the case now.

Private education, in any society that gives two hoots for egalitarianism, is a fundamental abomination. It doesn't take a First in free market dialectics to work out that people will always be prepared to pay for privilege. It was bad enough when privilege amounted to a nice blazer and impeccable vowels, but that's not what growing numbers of parents are opting to pay for. They believe – and, shamefully, their belief appears to be validated in GSCE and A-level results – that they are paying for a better education for their children.

The results are not to be wondered at – there is no comparison between resources in the private and state sectors – but the response of any sane, leftish-leaning administration would be to raise standards in state schools, knocking out the chief selling point of private education and rendering it a frankly eccentric choice. Incredibly, the response of our leftish-leaning administration has been to bolster the private sector. Mortar boards were hurled in the air this week as Dame Suzi Leather, of the Government-funded Charities Commmission, said independent schools had been granted a six-year reprieve on the obligation to prove their charitable status.

Apparently, heads of independent schools had feared they would be driven out of business by tight deadlines on the requirement to prove their public worth. Some, unconvinced in the first instance by the "charitable status" loophole, might have called this a result.

As the battle for middle England gathers momentum, such a significant step down seems more than pragmatic. The left is bargaining with privilege even as it rails against it. Any school child, blazered or not, can tell you it doesn't add up.

So that explains the men we like, does it?

It's all about the chemistry. New research suggests that 40 years of being on the Pill has altered women's sexual preferences. Research at the University of Sheffield finds that when fertility is at its height in the monthly cycle, evolutionary biology dictates a preference for more assertive, macho men. Since the Pill suppresses fertility, atavistic desire for a he-man has waned. The proof, according to the Sheffield team, is a shift in popular female pin-ups through the decades.

Back in the 1950s we lusted after strong-jawed, silent types such as Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. In the 1970s, as the Pill kicked in, we were less concerned with finding our "genetic complement" and were drawn to men like John Travolta and Ryan O'Neal with their big soulful eyes and big soulful bouffants. Now, it seems, we're so hyped on artificial hormones that we sigh after beardless boys such as Johnny Depp and Zac Efron.

Well, it's a theory. I'd say that feminism has played its part, too. That once we realised we could build caves all on our own, we no longer felt the need – no matter what Tina Turner says – for a hero. And that once we realised that men could talk and promulgate, things just got better and better.

I'd also humbly suggest that pin-ups are scarcely representative of real men in any era. For most women, the first rule of evolutionary biology remains: You gotta work with the material.

Pictures for the Camerons' walls

Good to see the Obamas have been brightening up the White House with art works chosen to reflect the mood of the new administration. Mark Rothko's "Red Band" is modern and vibrant. Glenn Ligon's "Black Like Me" waves the flag for multiculturalism. Perhaps Gordon and Sarah could follow suit with a timely re-hanging at No 10? Goya's "Dog Buried Up To The Neck In Sand" might meet the case. And if the Camerons are already mentally dusting down the masterpieces for a post-election makeover, there's a canvas by Holman Hunt that's just the job. It's British, a crowd-pleaser with immaculate surface detail. And in the new era of Compassionate Conservatism "The Awakening Conscience" is bang on message.

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