Another Eton mess: Politicians with privileged backgrounds under fire in wake of ‘BYOB’ garden party scandal

Can a privileged upbringing and education actually be a handicap to effective leadership rather than an advantage?

Rees Mogg, Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid

“I wasn’t Eton educated but growing up in Stockport I was taught honesty and decency. Doesn’t matter how you say it. Boris Johnson is unfit to lead,” tweeted Angela Rayner in response to her accent and grammar being criticised after she appeared on several national TV shows for commentary on the rule breaking allegations.

The tweet sparked support for the deputy Labour leader, but it also roused conversation and critique over the integrity of those in power with an Eton education, who were brought up with a distinctively different background to Angela Rayner.

As Guardian columnist Frances Ryan responded:

“Say something principled in a working class accent and they’ll laugh at you. Say something deceitful in an Eton accent and they’ll make you prime minister.” 

Eton-educated Rees-Mogg branded ‘shameless’

As the PM fights to save his job, fellow former Eton student Jacob Rees-Mogg also had a bad week.

The leader of the House of Commons came under fire for defending Johnson after the prime minister was forced to issue a humiliating apology over the ‘bring your own booze’ party in the garden at No 10 during lockdown in May 2020.

The Tory politician was branded “shameless” by suggesting lockdown rules were not “proportionate” anyway.

Research from July 2019 showed that nearly two-thirds of Boris Johnson’s cabinet were privately educated.

Such is the controversy currently engulfing Eton-educated politicians, that former Eton headteacher Tony Little has chimed in saying ex-pupils, Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Jacob Rees-Mogg are giving the respected school a “bad name.”

The effectiveness of politicians from such privileged backgrounds, predominantly from the south of England, in representing working-class people across the whole of the country, has been called into question.

Analysis of class voting in Britain between 1964 and 2010 shows that the social cues that parties send voters matter and that working class voters are relatively more likely to vote Labour when the party contains many working class MPs.

“To a working class voter, it may therefore be more credible when a politician from a strong working class background says that they will stand up for the underprivileged, than when a multi-millionaire member of the aristocracy says the same thing. Thus, if a party contains many working class MPs, working class voters may be more likely to think that the party in question represents and stands up for their interests,” writes Oliver Heath, who penned the study.

While the outcome of the 2019 general election, which saw Labour lose some of its traditional “red wall” seats, including many in the north, to the Conservatives, seemingly suggesting what has been described as ‘decent working class folk’ like the ‘big silly toff’, the current scandal swamping Johnson and his government questions the consistency and effectiveness of those from such privilege representing ‘every day’ people.

Eton has produced 20 British prime ministers. Only ten prime ministers to date have been educated in non-fee-paying schools.

With the spotlight on the integrity of politicians who were raised in the most privileged of backgrounds, including attending the distinguished public school for boys in Eton – one of the most expensive schools in the world that charges up to £48,000 a year in school fees – LFF looks back on UK prime ministers who attended Eton College and some of the mistakes they made.  

David Cameron led Britain out of Europe

Cameron led the country from 2010 to 2016. During his premiership he initiated three referendums – the alternative vote referendum in 2011, the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, and the EU referendum in 2016.

Appearing to have a charmed life, on June 23, 2016, his luck ran out when Britain voted in favour of leaving the EU, a vote that changed the country’s political landscape. Being on the losing Remain side, the Eton-educated graduate of Oxford immediately stepped down as prime minister.

Alec Douglas-Home’s tough stance on trade unions

Sir Alec Douglas-Home was born into an aristocratic family and, like Cameron, had attended Eton College followed by Oxford University.

The Conservative only served as PM for 363 days in 1963 and 1964. During this time, he took a tough stance in dealing with trade unions. He is also remembered for admitting to having slight knowledge of economics and was unable to improve the deteriorating British balance-of-payments situation.

Throughout his premiership, Douglas-Home was faced with the prospect of a general election and on Oct 15, 1964, one took place, bringing a Conservative defeat.

Anthony Eden’s controversial handling of the Suez crisis

Tory politician Anthony Eden served three periods as foreign secretary and then as prime minister from 1955 to 1957. Eden, who was educated at Eton, Christchurch and Oxford University, is best known for his controversial handling of the Suez crisis, the invasion of Egypt in late 1956 by Israel, followed by the United Kingdom and France. Following what is described as an ill-judged invasion, Britain was forced to retreat. His handling of the Suez crisis in 1965 ultimately led to Eden’s downfall.

William Lamb was involved in an adulterous affair

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, served as home secretary and prime minister between 1834 and 1841. Lamb was educated at Eton, Trinity College and Cambridge. He was involved in an adulterous scandal when his wife, Lady Caroline Ponsoby, had an affair with poet, Lord Byron. His first premiership ended when he was dismissed by King William IV in 1834. Lamb remains the last British prime minister to be dismissed by a monarch.

Boris Johnson’s scandal after scandal

Our current PM also sports a privileged background, in which he was educated at Eton College and then studied Classic at Balliol College, Oxford. Since being elected in late 2019, Johnson has been involved in a multitude of scandals and has a habit of insisting there isn’t a problem.

The latest controversy in a series of allegations involving the government’s alleged lockdown breaches, is seriously threatening the PM’s reign at No 10.

If these examples of the fate of Eton-educated PMs are anything to go by, it could be argued that a privileged background and education is actually a handicap to effective leadership rather than an advantage.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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