UK prime minister David Cameron with his new cabinet in the garden of 10 Downing Street in London May 13, 2010.
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.