Britain (the English element anyway) is mildly obsessed with Eton College and its alumni, some of whom could hardly be better-known. These include the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, David Cameron and now the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Slightly less well-known as Old Etonians (OEs) are the actors Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis and Dominic West. There are also numerous fictional OEs like James Bond, Lord Grantham of ITV’s Downton Abbey, and Peter Pan’s Captain Hook.
Surprisingly, when nearly half the current coalition Cabinet were privately educated, there are only two other OEs with Cameron: Oliver Letwin and Sir George Young, all three being Conservatives. It isn’t just a matter of the fees, about £30,000 a year. The Labour party has had senior members who went to top private schools: Attlee to Haileybury, Gaitskell and Crossman to Winchester and recently Blair to Fettes. The only prominent recent Labour Etonians appear to have been Tam Dalyell and Mark Fisher, neither of whom were Cabinet ministers. Nowadays if people associate Eton with the left at all, it is probably through the works of one Eric Blair (George Orwell).
But when the Tories are in office, Old Etonians are, it seems, always in the Cabinet, and their school’s tenancy around the famous table must, one would have thought, be longer than that of any other institution. When government alternated between the Tories and Liberals, before the rise of the Labour party, I can well believe that OEs were never absent from the Cabinet, but it would seem surprising if this had been the case for the last 100 years. So what has the modern political record been?
The original version of this post naively assumed that there were no OEs in Attlee’s Cabinets between 1945 and 1951. However, as the Comments below indicate, it was subsequently pointed out that Hugh Dalton and Lords Pakenham (later Lord Longford) and Pethick-Lawrence and the Earl of Listowel were members of the post-war Labour Cabinets, so their service has now been incorporated into the revised Table showing the alternating administrations since the end of the World War 1 coalition.
Looking at the Table, clearly the longest period of Conservative government unpunctuated by a Labour government was that of the Thatcher/Major period, 6573 days (D). Of course, if the Etonians in Attlee’s ministry had given unbroken (or overlapping) service, the Thatcher/Major period would have been dwarfed by an continuous Etonian presence from 1931 to 1964. Adding their service (B) up to that point to the duration of the pre-war and wartime cabinets, which contained various Etonians (A), gives a total unbroken tenure of 5904 days from August 1931 to January 1948. Again, if Dalton’s service after returning to the Cabinet (accompanied by Pakenham) is added to the subsequent “13 years of Tory misrule” (C) the result is 5982 days.
Last Man Standing I came across a curiosity. He attended Brentwood School in Essex when it was a direct-grant grammar school. But a few years later so did the current Leader of the House of Commons, Andrew Lansley, formerly Cameron’s Health Secretary. The Table reveals an interesting possibility, but one that depends on two conditions. The first is that Lansley remains in the Cabinet for the duration of the coalition, and the second is that the date of the next election is 7 May 2015. Should these both be the case, then Brentwood School (left), rather than Eton College, will have had its alumni around the Cabinet table for the longest continuous period in modern political history – by all of six days!
Of course, there is a snag - after all, Etonians usually come out on top. 7 May 2015 is a Bank Holiday and the start of a holiday week, a factor which might be expected to have an impact on voter turnout, probably not to the coalition parties’ advantage. Holding the election even a week earlier would more than negate the six days and would leave the record with Eton. However, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 appears to allow the Prime Minister to delay the election by up to two months, but not to bring it forward.
Alternatively, if Labour were to win the next election, which could turn out to be before May 2015 if the Act were repealed, would Jack Straw MP (or possibly Baron Straw of Somewhere-in-Essex) be a member of Miliband’s Cabinet? In this case Brentwood School could keep its position ahead of Eton College for years - which would be a fitting memorial to the post-war educational experiment of the direct-grant grammar schools. Their entry was, of course, based on intellectual ability (in the admittedly flawed 11+ exams) rather than on parental ability to pay. So not so startling that one of them, in the decades after their abolition, should have educated top politicians in both main parties. And splendidly ironic if the record stands because of an indiscretion by a Labour OE who happened to be Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time the direct-grant system came into being!
Two final points. Firstly, it’s just as well that not many people read this blog, or I might have consigned Andrew Lansley to the backbenches at the next reshuffle! Secondly, examination of the educational backgrounds of Labour Cabinet members up to 1945 revealed that more than might be expected had been to Winchester and Rugby. The absence of alumni of the former in particular from the top of current politics is intriguing.
18 JULY 2014
Oh, dear! On 14 July Andrew Lansley left the coalition Cabinet as part of Cameron's removal of the "male, stale and pale" from the front rank of Tory ministers in the months remaining before the election. Floreat Etona, of course.