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Old school tie: David Cameron and Nick Clegg

Author: Gabriel Hershman Date: Thu, May 13 2010 8 Comments, 10701 Views
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Much has been made about the similarities between British prime minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders are both 43, educated at top independent schools – Eton and Westminster respectively – and both went to Oxbridge. Both are well-spoken – an old-fashioned term meaning they speak "the Queen's English" – and come from wealthy backgrounds. Both are also presentable and attractive figures. One national newspaper even noticed the similarity of the cut of their suits.

I mention this because I suspect Cameron's and Clegg's "privilege" will be targeted by inverted snobs of all description, and not necessarily just traditional enemies on the Labour Left – although that was a clear tactic used by Labour during the campaign to try to discredit Cameron – and I suspect it could have cost the Conservative leader some support. You can imagine the way it's going – "the toff out of touch with reality" – as they bang on about Eton and the supposed air of aloofness this brings.

Yes, it is true that old Etonians do have a certain poise and an inbred air of self-confidence. To that extent I disagree with those who say that Cameron's background is immaterial. On the contrary, an Eton education goes some way to explaining why Cameron is as he is: debonair, unflappable, polite, gentlemanly, restrained and dutiful – a person of equable temperament. It is not, however, that Eton gives its pupils an air of superiority. Rather, it gives them the confidence to lead – along with the duties, demands and responsibilities implied.

Brits will be familiar with the expression that "the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton". That doesn't mean old Etonians have special belligerent qualities but rather that Eton – and other schools of its ilk – teach resilience, independence, honour and leadership. You learn to bear your sufferings with good grace. After all, you have to learn to do without your parents from a young age. Roger Cooper, a British businessman who spent five years in an Iranian jail on spying charges, made just this point. "Anyone, like myself, who has been to an English public (independent) school is quite at home in a third-world prison," he said.

Much has also been made of Cameron's and Clegg's wealth, as if this is necessarily detrimental for those in command. It's the general rule of British politics since the days of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath that British politicians brag about their humble background. Heath was the grocer's son, Thatcher the shopkeeper's daughter, John Major the boy who never went to university etc.

The Conservatives liked figures like Norman Tebbit because it proved that people like him – from a humble, working class background could succeed and even become...well, a right-wing Conservative MP. It was famously said of another Conservative MP, the late David Evans, that his car salesman's accent sent a shiver down the spine of most Guardian-reading Hampstead leftwingers. He was the kind of person Labour didn't want to believe existed.

So we have become accustomed to pretending that our leaders come from modest backgrounds and then "worked themselves up". Somehow it makes for a better story. That's why the Cameron/Clegg hegemony may seem, for some observers, like a regression to the "bad old days". But let's be frank – wealthy and privileged backgrounds are not necessarily bad prerequisites for our rulers. On the contrary, imagine the freedom that the cushion of wealth gives you. The likes of Cameron and Clegg and their respective families never had to worry about how to pay the electricity bill. Young Dave and Nick will never have had to worry about how to support themselves at university, even less where the next meal comes from. Poverty and money worries are crippling to freedom of manoeuvre, but also to freedom of thought and peace of mind. Most reasonable people would agree; Labour politician Aneurin Bevan, when asked whether the true socialist has to suffer for his beliefs, replied that "asceticism warps people's minds".

When you're poor, your choice is a straight line between food and paying the bills – not much room for pondering the wider problems of the human condition. Ironically, you can't think much about the welfare of others when money problems dominate your life. Self-interest became your way of life, your modus vivendi, if for no other reason than it has to. Altruism and consciousness of society's problems are not in your remit.

Poverty forces the sufferer into social withdrawal, self-imposed exile, austerity and even a certain meanness of action and thought, by which I mean a distrust of others and, inevitably, a certain mercenary guiding spirit in one's own actions. Who can afford to be generous when you're counting pennies in your pocket? Social occasions can be the subject of terror. The girl you find attractive is often a source of frustration and sadness for the dispossessed. Unless they have exceptional charm and charisma, the object of their dreams is unattainable. Money changes a lot – not everything but a lot, allowing the recipient the luxury of travel, extravagance and generosity but also time...a wonderful commodity.

Not for Cameron and Clegg jobs of backbreaking labour. They could afford to cultivate an enjoyment for the finer things in life but also afford a certain refinement of conscience that comes with a life of advantage. In the old days this was known as "noblesse oblige", the sense in which the privileged class felt compelled to ponder the wider problems of society and help the underprivileged.

That's why I don't think it's so bad that the UK is now ruled by the likes of Clegg and Cameron. This is not a plea for the old days when we were ruled by aristocrats. On the contrary, a genuine meritocracy is best. But let's not cry "foul" about Cameron and Clegg before they have even started purely because they are "toffs". They might just know a few things the rest of us don't.

  • Anonymous
    Graeme B Rating:
    #8 04, 54, Mon, May 17 2010

    Ha! You say Cameron is "debonair, unflappable, polite, gentlemanly, restrained and dutiful – a person of equable temperament..."?

    Perhaps you should Google ,"david cameron" +carlton> ans see what the the UK press REALLY thought of him!

    It seems that Gabriel Hershman is incredibly naive, or more likely part of the establishment sticking up for his own kind!

  • Anonymous
    Marc Vesper Rating:
    #7 11, 49, Fri, May 14 2010

    You're on to something, being rich doesn't necessarily mean you are raised with either poor social responsibility, although this seems to be the trend, just as being poor doesn't imply the same for personal responsibility. There may be a correlation, but I find your conclusion somewhat heavy-handed.

    Certainly, I would advocate that our culture begins to teach, through family as well as state means, the absolute value of both a social conscience and a personal character to all. Perhaps in that spirit, our new coalition may have some fruit to bear.

  • Anonymous
    AKL Rating:
    #6 22, 02, Thu, May 13 2010

    Apparently david sed that hes gunnahave pupils to go school on saturday if that happens KIDS WERE OFF XD

  • Anonymous
    Epaminondas Rating:
    #5 19, 02, Thu, May 13 2010

    Clegg is from Westminster School, Cameron from Eton. Both are "public schools" (caution to US readers - this means something very different in USA) - but Westminster was always far more left-leaning than Eton (as was Winchester) and many of its pupils became briefly urban drop-outs (I have known more than a few back in the 1960s/70s ). In contrast, nobody ever heard of an Old Etonian urban drop-out, or not even a rural one......

    In short, Westminster is much more socially aware and less upper-class tribal.

    But a good article, Gabriel, [...]

    Read the full comment nonetheless.

  • Anonymous
    John Bohnet Rating:
    #4 18, 57, Thu, May 13 2010

    Last comment - 'Oxbridge' refers to Oxford and Cambridge so NOT a mistake.

    A well written article which makes a lot of sense. I have high hopes that at last we have well educated people in charge instead of the last lot of - well I am sure you know where I am coming from. Good luck. Lets hope it works and is the start of a new and more dynamic British government system.

  • Anonymous
    SE Rating:
    #3 18, 06, Thu, May 13 2010

    Re mistake: Thanks, meant to say Oxbridge, now corrected

  • Anonymous
    Unflappable? Rating:
    #2 17, 28, Thu, May 13 2010

    I've no time for inverted snobbery but I do challenge this statment:

    "....explaining why Cameron is as he is: [unflappable]..."

  • Anonymous
    mistake Rating:
    #1 17, 12, Thu, May 13 2010

    clegg is from cambridge, not oxford

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