An extract from Richard Beard’s new memoir, Sad Little Men, published by Harvill Secker on 26 August 2021
Habits for Life
‘The manners and traditions learned by each class in childhood are not only very different but – this is the essential point – generally persist from birth to death.’
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937
Boris Johnson was born in June 1964, and David Cameron in October 1966.
I was born in January 1967 and my first political memory is of Mike Yarwood impersonating Prime Minister Harold Wilson on Saturday-night television. I knew the shadow of the prime minister but none of the substance. He had a pipe and a northern accent. Everyone laughed. Through the seventies I was vaguely conscious of the Labour party’s Wilson battling the Conservative Edward Heath to disown responsibility for the decade, with James Callaghan damping down a couple of less eventful years before the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979. Always ‘Mrs’ Thatcher, like a headmistress too stern for a given name.
These four Prime Ministers – Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher – were educated at grammar schools. The last patrician Prime Minister – Sir Alec Douglas Home, son of Lord Dunglass and old Etonian – had been voted out by the great British public before Johnson was a year old, and before Cameron and I were born. By the 1970s we’d entered a new age, and wouldn’t see another privately-educated prime minister until Tony Blair in 1997, but he was Labour and his school was in Edinburgh so he didn’t necessarily count. By 1997, in any case, I was practically married with a child on the way and school was a distant memory – I’d grown out of caring what school anyone went to, or so I believed at the time.
What I did know was that my first deeply felt political instinct had belatedly come true: in my heart, aged twelve, I was certain that Mrs Thatcher hadn’t a hope of winning the 1979 general election. Not because she was a woman, but because the Conservative Party represented the interests of a class in decline, and I could be sure of this because I was in daily contact with Tory lifeblood at a private boarding school in a soft southern county of England. This was the class of people I was supposed to be joining, though not without reservations
In my considered twelve-year-old’s opinion the Conservatives were about to be swept aside by the tide of history, never again to secure a majority in Parliament. In reality, Mrs Thatcher triumphed and the Tories governed for the next eighteen years, winning four consecutive elections. Behind the walls of his prep school my younger self had mistakenly seen the ancient English certainties coming to an end, soon to be replaced by bolder alternatives. Looking back now I wasn’t completely wrong, even though I hadn’t sat down to read the 1979 Labour Party Manifesto:
Independent schools still represent a major obstacle to equality of opportunity. Labour’s aim is to end, as soon as possible, fee-paying in such schools … Labour will end as soon as possible the remaining public subsidies and public support to independent schools.
In short, after my first four years in a fee-paying school I assumed the British public would vote for a fairer Britain. That seemed the rational choice, and it wasn’t as if these schools were flourishing, as I knew from personal experience. In 1978 our Berkshire prep school was down to seventy-eight boys. In 1982, two years after Cameron left for Eton, his prep school closed down despite impeccable upper-class credentials. A press photograph of Heatherdown from the late sixties shows eight-year-old Prince Andrew on his first day shaking hands with the headmaster. I can’t help but notice the Queen’s hand in the small of Andrew’s back, pushing him on, pushing him away. Fees, swelling with the decade’s inflation, nearly doubled from £300 in 1975 to £550 by 1979 (and on the invoices, always ‘payable in advance’). The only comprehensive school that Pinewood played at football, Carterton Community College, beat us 11-1. The runes were there to be read, and the last rites to be administered. This was a system on its knees.
In 1973, the Labour Party had committed to what Shadow Education Minister Roy Hattersley called ‘a serious intention to reduce and eventually to abolish private education in this country’, a policy intended to capture a more general mood of change. An influential history of twentieth-century Britain published a year earlier was titled The Collapse of British Power, and towards the end of the decade Cameron’s dad had emergency supplies stockpiled in his cellar. ‘It sounds mad now,’ his son writes in For the Record, ‘but there were real fears of a military coup’. Maybe in the Old Rectory near Newbury there were. At about this time my mum sent me a letter with the news that my dad had lost his seat as a Tory councillor: he says he doesn’t mind but I think he does. It felt as if an era was coming to an end.
Even to a child of twelve, by 1979 private education felt a beleaguered form of schooling. A dwindling number of parents saw the attraction of withdrawing small children from regular life for months on end, as if abducted by aliens, and leaving them in dormitories until their brains had been suitably modified. This rarefied experience was shared in 1978 by only 4.5 per cent of the population, and decreasing, because schools that were private and isolated would inevitably lose out to those that were public and comprehensive. England would become a more open, meritocratic nation that could look to the future with confidence.
Apparently not. Thirty years after my political epiphany, an old Etonian former prep school boy was living in Number Ten, his children on the register for private schools of their own. Cameron was followed into Downing Street, after a brief interregnum, by another Old Etonian prep school boarder. Boys like me had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. We must be pretty amazing, even if we thought so ourselves.