Why public schoolboys like me and Boris Johnson aren’t fit to run our country | Private schools
I had a feeling I couldn’t immediately place. I wanted to go out but wasn’t allowed. Shelves were emptying at the nearest supermarket and instead of fresh fruit and vegetables I was eating British comfort food – sausages and mash, pie and beans. My freedom to make decisions like an adult was limited. I wondered when I’d see my mum again.
March 2020, first week of the first lockdown: I was 53 years old and felt like I was back at boarding school. Which wouldn’t have mattered, but for the fact that at a time of national crisis my generation of boarding-school boys found themselves in charge.
My first night at Pinewood school was two days after my eighth birthday in January 1975. A term earlier David Cameron had left his family home for Heatherdown preparatory school in Berkshire, while also in 1975, at the age of 11, Alexander Johnson was sent to board at Ashdown House in East Sussex. This means I know how two of the past three British prime ministers were treated as children and the kind of men their schools wanted to make of them. I know neither of these men personally but I do know that they spent the formative years of their childhood in boarding schools being looked after by adults who didn’t love them, because I did too. And if the character of our leaders matters then I’m in possession of important information.
At the age of 13, after prep school, Cameron and Johnson progressed to Eton. I went on to Radley College near Oxford. The exact school picked out by the parents didn’t really matter, because the experience was designed to produce a shared mindset. They were paying for a similar upbringing with a similar intended result: to establish our credentials for the top jobs in the country. We were being trained for leadership, or if not to lead then to earn. The most convincing reason to go to a private school remains to have gone to a private school, with the prizes that are statistically likely to follow.
It is noticeable, and often noticed, that something immature and boyish survives in men like Cameron and Johnson as adults. They can never quite carry off the role of grownup, or shake a suspicion that they remain fans of escapades without consequences. They look confident of not being caught, or not being punished if they are. Cameron has his boyishly unlined face and Johnson his urchin’s unbrushed hair, and his arch schoolboy’s vocabulary.
But what kind of boyhood was it, in our paid-for rooms in those repurposed mansions that housed our schools? What of the distant past still works in us as adults and can we pass on the harm to others? Are we the right people to steer the country, either clear of trouble or in the direction of sunlit uplands? The answer to these questions depends on lessons learned at an impressionable age. Unless, of course, we learned nothing. And no one pays hundreds of pounds a term, even in the late 70s, to learn nothing.
One of the first things we learned – or felt – at prep school was a deep, emotional austerity, starting from the moment the parents drove away. That first night, and on other nights to come, the little men in ties and jackets reverted to the little children they really were – in name-taped pyjamas with a single soft toy (also name-taped), blubbing themselves to sleep and wetting their beds.
I remember the feeling of desolate homesickness: abruptly, several times a year, our attachments to home and family were broken. We lost everything – parents, pets, toys, younger siblings – and we could cry if we liked but no one would help us. So that later in life, when we saw other people cry, we felt no great need to go to their aid. The sad and the weak were wrong to show their distress, and we learned to despise the children who blubbed for their mummies. The cure was to stop crying and forget that life beyond the dormitories and classrooms existed. Concentrate instead on the games pitches and the dining hall and the headmaster’s study. By force of will we made ourselves complicit in a collective narrowing of vision.
In Richard Denton’s BBC documentary Public School, filmed at Radley College in 1979, the Radley headmaster Dennis Silk tells a daunted audience of new boys that they’re about to pick up “the right habits for life”. Among these habits was cultivation of the stiff upper lip. We could be ourselves – homesick, vulnerable, lovelorn and frightened – or, with practice at putting up a front, we could pretend to embody the idealised national character. We could perform being loyal and robust and self-reliant. Wearing a commendably brave face we could distance our feelings, growing the “hardness of heart of the educated”, as identified by Mahatma Gandhi from his dealings with the English ruling class.
This wasn’t healthy. In her 2015 book, Boarding School Syndrome, psychoanalyst Joy Schaverien describes a condition now sufficiently recognised to merit therapy groups and an emergent academic literature. The symptoms are wide-ranging but include, ingrained from an early age, emotional detachment and dissociation, cynicism, exceptionalism, defensive arrogance, offensive arrogance, cliquism, compartmentalisation, guilt, grief, denial, strategic emotional misdirection and stiff-lipped stoicism. Fine fine fine. We’re all doing fine.
We adapted to survive. We postured and lied, whatever it took. Abandoned, alone, England’s future leaders needed to fit in whatever the cost, and we were not needy, no sir. We could live without, and we convinced ourselves early that we had no great need of love, in either direction. Acting like a grownup meant needing no one.
Discouraged from crying out for help, frightened of complaining or sneaking, we developed a gangster loyalty to self-contained cliques, scared to death of being cast out as we had been from home. Of being cast out again. In the absence of family we kept in with our chums, but also ingratiated ourselves with the teachers: God knows what might come next after abandonment if we kicked up a fuss.
From the teachers we learned about mockery and sarcasm as techniques for social control, with our boy hierarchies regulated by banter, ranging from a sharp remark to a knuckle in the crown of the head. Attack was the best form of defence, and ridicule was honed as a deeply conservative force, controlling by means of fear, either of being the joke or of not getting the joke. There was plenty of fear to go round. The author Paul Watkins, in his memoir Stand Before Your God, remembers at Eton the huge amount of energy, in the time of Cameron and Johnson, that went into “teasing and ignoring people”. “I felt a harshness that I’d never felt before.”
George Orwell, during his time at prep school, remembers being ridiculed out of an interest in butterflies. The banter that day must have been immense. Nothing was sacred, and once we found out what another boy took most seriously we were ready to strike, when necessary, at its core. Our most effective defence was therefore to act as if we took nothing very seriously at all.
We learned to stay detached, some would say cold – “You had to have a coldness in yourself,” writes Watkins. “Of all the rules I learned and later threw away, this one I kept. If you did not know it, you could get hurt very badly at a place like Eton.”
Later in life, these unwritten school rules could infect every type of relationship. Prematurely detached from our parents, we had a preference for abandoning others before getting abandoned ourselves. Jump ship. Also, to be on the safe side, keep an emotional reserve.
Prof Diana Leonard, who established the Centre for Research on Education and Gender at the University of London, published research in 2009 showing that boys from single-sex schools were more likely to be divorced or separated from their partner by their early 40s. And mental health professionals, like Schaverien, are convincing in their explanation that those years of disconnection mean we expect too much, our fantasies rarely surviving contact with reality. Making up for lost time, for example, we want sex but come to resent women for our weakness for sex – as adults, erotic dependence becomes a new form of vulnerability to be doubted and denied. Why couldn’t women be more like our boyhood Athena posters?
At school we tried not to feel foolish, angry, loving, stupid, sad, dependent, excited or demanding. We were made wary of feeling, full stop. By comparison, children not blessed with a private education must be fizzing with uncontrolled emotions and therefore insufferably weak. How did the schools teach us this sense of superiority? The language was always chipping away – in the documentary Public School the boys casually refer to “the lower orders”, as if to a species difference, reptiles considering insects. In our isolation we learned that we were special. Everyone else was less special and often stupid – school was where we went, aged eight, to learn to despise other people.
Cameron, Johnson and I absorbed attitudes once familiar to Orwell, who was confronted with some realities about his Eton education when documenting the living conditions of working-class households in Lancashire and Yorkshire. “Common people seemed almost sub-human,” Orwell writes in The Road to Wigan Pier. “They had coarse faces, hideous accents, and gross manners… and if they got half the chance they would insult you in brutal ways.” Alien and dangerous, the working class evoked “an attitude of sniggering superiority punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred”.
Anyone underestimating the durability of this divide should consider the evidence of the Radley College swimming pool, circa 1980. A story used to circulate that the pool was a yard shorter than a standard pool, so that no local swimming club would want to use it for practice or competitive events. Christopher Hibbert’s history of Radley, No Ordinary Place, corrects this myth: the pool was deliberately designed a yard longer. The same reasoning applied. The locals shouldn’t be encouraged. Typically, in a summer term ending in early July, we didn’t swim in it much anyway.
In the early 80s, Radley’s non-teaching staff were known as College Servants. We had cleaners, chefs, groundsmen, bit-part players and comic mechanicals. They represented the proles, the plebs, the oiks, the yokels, the townies and the crusties (a term Johnson continued to use 40 years later). Our special language had its range of words to set these unfamiliar animals apart, meaning people not like us, and if you didn’t know the language you were probably one of them. As Orwell doubles-down in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The proles are not human beings.”
In his autobiography, For the Record, David Cameron admits that about Brexit he “did not fully anticipate the strength of feeling that would be unleashed both during the referendum and afterwards”. Of course he didn’t. Strong feelings were involved, and also the common people. He was floundering in a pair of blind spots, to emotion and the British public. He gorged on a double helping of ignorance undisturbed since his schooldays.
Looking now at old school photos, I find I can count the darker faces on the fingers of one hand. At Pinewood we had two brothers recently arrived from Nigeria, and the son of an Indian doctor who lived not far from my parents in Swindon. The only other dark faces we saw were in our Saturday-night films, in Zulu and Young Winston, where savage natives were subdued by the civilising force of white British warriors. Did that turn us into racists? Yes, I think it did.
In the holidays I’d go to the post office on Victoria Road, to collect Mum’s child benefit, and when the British Asian post office worker stamped the book I was immensely pleased with myself for acting as if he were just like anyone else. At Radley one boy in our year was possibly mixed race – we didn’t really know but mocked him for it anyway – and the two of us played in the same rugby team. In my end-of-year sports reports I make feeble gags about Brownian motion and his “blacking” of other players. I don’t even know what that means, beyond the racial slur. The supervising editor of the school magazine, a teacher, saw nothing in need of editorial attention. And why would he? The racism was institutional – with the evidence currently available online in the school’s digitised archive.
I find the son of the Indian doctor on LinkedIn – Ravi is successful in business, though he asks me not to use his real name. Whatever I think about private schools and racism, what does he think? Initially he’s cautious. He writes back that “frankly there are some very bad memories of that time that are very painful”.
As first-generation immigrants, he tells me later by phone, his Indian parents wanted to give him a good education. Overall, Pinewood was “pretty decent”; his public school less so. He asks me not to name it.
“I was called a wog and a Paki. There was the National Front.”
In his school as at mine, public speaking was encouraged – good for the confidence – and one boy was “passionate about the National Front”. Ravi regrets sitting in the audience and at the end of a hate speech clapping politely, demonstrating the good manners he’d been educated to value. There was also racism from the teachers, in remarks that casually encompassed Ravi’s father and family.
Our schoolboy vocabulary, with its stock of disparaging words, expanded to include everyone who deserved our scorn, like poofs and homos. As long as we weren’t girls, swots, oiks, wogs or queers, we could be jolly decent chaps. All those other categories were synonymous with weakness, to be joshed without mercy by the strong. And if a boy struggled with the spontaneity of banter, he could memorise jokes about the Irish, who were unbelievably thick. We laughed at anyone not like us, and the repertoire on repeat included gags about slaves and nuns and women hurdlers. One September, after a boy came back from a holiday in Australia, we had jokes about Aborigines. We internalised this poison like a vaccine, later making us insensitive as witnesses to all but the most vicious instances of discrimination. Everyone who was not us, a boy at a private boarding school from the late 70s to the early 80s, was beneath us. Obviously, we too were a minority, but of all the minorities we were the most important. Of course we were. We’d end up running the country.
Single-minded ambition became acceptable as a way of deadening the self. Get elected president of the debating society. Edit the school magazine. Lobby to become head of house, head prefect. Join a milkround company, get a column on a national newspaper, write a book. For the worst afflicted, at the high end of the greasy pole, become prime minister. The drive for success was an ongoing plea for attention and affection, a condition described by Lucille Iremonger in her book Fiery Chariot as the Phaeton complex. In Greek mythology Phaeton was a frustrated child of the sun god Helios, who insists on driving his father’s chariot just for one day. He crashes the chariot, turning much of Africa into desert.
According to Iremonger, a hunger for power is the tragic fate of children abandoned by their parents, and she developed her theory from a study of British prime ministers between 1809 and 1940. No prizes for guessing where most of them were educated, and many former boarders can be recognised as Phaetons.
In his book The Old Boys, David Turner has the statistics for the “highly disproportionate share” of public school alumni in the top jobs of the UK. These figures come from 2014, to include boys at school at the same time as me in their middle-aged professional prime: “seven in 10 senior judges, six in 10 senior officers in the armed forces, and more than half the permanent secretaries, senior diplomats and leading media figures”. Seventeen out of 27 members of Johnson’s full cabinet in 2020 went to private school. Of the more visible recent political buccaneers, leading English private schools have sent out Rees-Mogg, Hunt, Mitchell, Cash, Redwood and Cummings: English boys with English minds.
A follow-up report by the Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission, Elitist Britain 2019, paints a mostly unchanged picture. Private schools account for nearly 70% of the judges and barristers in the country. To this list can be added more than 50% of bishops and ministers of state and lord lieutenants and the England cricket team, these doors not even half open to anyone else.
When deciding on a private school education for his children, my dad must have envisaged useful connections for life that seem psychologically plausible as well as professionally desirable: a segregated elite united by a common uncommon experience. Cameron surrounded himself with like-minded people – of the six men who worked on the Conservative Party Manifesto in 2014, five had been to Eton. The other was an old boy of St Paul’s. Sonia Purnell, Johnson’s biographer, says Johnson doesn’t have friends – his younger brother was best man at his first wedding – but he knows what kind of person makes him feel comfortable. He remains loyal to boys’ school boys like his friend Darius Guppy (who famously asked Johnson for the address of a fellow journalist so he could have him beaten up) and Cummings, rebels but public school rebels. Or loyal at least for a while. Once Johnson and Cummings fell out, each was right to be frightened of the other. Their schooling was more powerful in them than any self-projection as icon or iconoclast: they knew how to hurt their own.
In her biography, Purnell calls Johnson “an original – the opposite of a stereotype, the exception to the rule”. Not quite. He was any boy who started at a private boarding school in 1975, only more so because not growing up was openly a feature of his performance. He flaunted shamelessly what the rest of us tried to conceal: he was chaotic, unformed, cruel, slapdash, essentially frivolous. When he messed up he was just a boy, with his boyishly ruffled hair, and expected to be excused.
Cameron likewise turned his back on the mess he’d made with the serenity of a public school boy whose ancestors had been public school boys too. Between the lectern and the door of yet another temporary home Cameron hummed a happy tune, pretending to be fine. All is well, thank you and goodnight. Possibly he’d been a bit naughty, but luckily England was arranged in such a way as to protect his own best interests. Of course it was. Boys like us had arranged it.
In the end we can’t take anything seriously.
In earlier generations, Orwell and others like him were exposed by war and other calamities to a seriousness that grew their stunted selves and tempered the isolated and ironic cult of an English private education. They were goaded by events into compassion, so that sooner or later, Orwell believed, even in “a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly”, England would brush aside the obvious injustice of the public schools.
The wait goes on. Maybe in 40 years’ time, assuming the country survives Brexit and Covid, a more enlightened nation might look back on Cameron and Johnson as a self-erasing supernova, a final bright flare and a burning out, the dying of the public school light in a burst of corruption and incompetence so spectacular the glimmer will be visible from space.
Anyone betting on that outcome, at any point in the past 600 years, would have lost.
This is an edited extract from Sad Little Men by Richard Beard (Harvill Secker, £16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
Richard Beard Q&A: ‘This is a very private-school idea – you just have to live with social injustice’
How has your schooling affected you?
My relationship with my own emotions was distorted from the moment it was taken as gospel truth that it was good for me to be separated from my family aged eight. You’re doing something that feels terrible, but everyone tells you it’s good. That leads to further dislocations, which allow individuals to become fractured, divided, and very good at leading a double life.
Boris Johnson and David Cameron attended similar schools at a similar time. How do you think it shaped them?
In so many ways. Almost every day I read the paper and think, yes, I recognise that. Recently, it’s the idea that you just have to live with stuff – with Covid, for example. Just as at school you just had to live with your parents leaving you behind, with the daily authoritarianism, with not going home for weeks at a time. This is a very private-school idea – you just have to live with social injustice.
There’s also the extensive training in dissembling and putting up a front. I don’t get any sense of authenticity from them, or genuine empathy. At some point, you start feeling sorry for them.
Do you feel sorry for them?
Well I hope it’s there in the title of the book – it’s not just the pejorative name-calling of sad little men. I know that they had to create their own coping mechanisms. And those coping mechanisms are what you see in these behaviours, which do seem to me to start out from the sadness of little boys out of their depth, but who learned early in their lives how to hide that.
Johnson has been described as confusing and contradictory, but you say that’s precisely what boarding school produces… shapeshifters with fluid identities.
That connection is made quite clearly by John le Carré – he often links this type of education to the vocation of being a spy. I do think it’s different now, because we’ve grown up through a period of peace and prosperity, and we haven’t had that tempering that previous generations have had, when confronted by major world events – being goaded into seriousness, but also into empathy for other people in the country.
You’re pretty unambiguous about the hellishness of boarding school. Why do parents send their children to these places?
It’s not hellish on a daily basis. On the surface, it seems quite the opposite, especially to the parents. When you see the tennis courts and the swimming pools it looks fantastic. The problems are underneath the surface.
But a lot of these parents have gone through it themselves, so they are well aware of the damage it creates…
If you’re now in a position to send your children to private school, it means you either managed your inheritance wisely or you’re a QC or an investment banker or the prime minister and you can say: “What a great success!” It’s very hard to fight back against that surface, against that lie.
Did you ever consider sending your kids to private schools?
No. I wanted the kids to be coming home at night, and I wanted them to be in co-education.
Did that extend to sending them to state schools?
I lived abroad a lot, where they were in lycées, French-speaking schools. In this country, to keep the language going, that meant finding what’s now a free school, so a state school but not a classic comprehensive.
Do you feel that by writing this book, and facing up to your schooling, you’ve exorcised it in some way?
I think facing and unpacking a past life is the antidote to some of its effects. But I was deeply formed by these experiences. The lies create habits for life which are, in many cases, detrimental to living well, and that takes a long time to undo.
Interview by Killian Fox