The Myth of Cameron’s Etonian ‘Chumocracy’

Seen as more patrician than ever, the Tories in the Coalition Cabinet are less wealthy and privileged than under any previous government

Features UK Politics
Anthony Eden at Eton, 1910: All 18 members of his Cabinet went to public school; ten went to the same school as the Prime Minister

David Cameron’s government is the least patrician, least wealthy and least public-school-educated — indeed the least Etonian — Conservative-led government this country has ever seen. Fewer of the current crop of Tory MPs were born into wealth and privilege than ever before. More are reliant solely on their parliamentary salaries and many fewer have significant outside earnings than would have been the case for Conservatives MPs in any previous parliament.

This is not, of course, the conventional analysis. It is now almost de rigueur to claim that this government, indeed the country, has come to be dominated by a small coterie of Old Etonian chums only occasionally admitting the odd oik from another leading public (i.e. private) school just to make up the numbers. Labour leader Ed Miliband inveighs against an out-of-touch upper-crust government of millionaires who are doling out tax cuts to themselves and their wealthy friends. It is intoned with apparent seriousness that the Cameron administration represents the old aristocratic, or at least plutocratic, Macmillan-era ruling class reclaiming the institutions which it lost control of during the Thatcherite interregnum. 

It has been argued — most explicitly in Martin Durkin’s film Margaret, Death of a Revolutionary, broadcast on Channel 4 in April — that Mrs Thatcher should be seen as a working-class revolutionary who overthrew an ossified, consensus-seeking, landowning upper-class clique to push through the radical reforms that Britain needed, and that she was supported in this endeavour by tough-minded intellectuals of working-class origin. According to this narrative, Margaret Thatcher’s fall should be seen as the revenge of the toffs against the working-class radicals — and Cameron as the final triumph of the old aristocratic order. 

The only trouble with this superficially rather appealing analysis is that it is, quite simply, tosh. Mrs Thatcher’s defeat of Edward Heath for the Tory leadership in 1975, as Charles Moore shows in his authoritative biography, was not a peasants’ revolt with the garagistes taking over from the landed interests. There was no class element to the 1975 leadership battle — toffs and arrivistes were found on both sides. The perception of class conflict only emerged later, predominantly through the semi-comic musings of the writer and ultra-wet Tory MP Julian Critchley.

In 1975 the Conservative back-benches were still packed with knights of the shires, many of whom were drawn from the lower tiers of the aristocracy and the gentry. Sara Morrison, a close friend of Heath, is quoted by Moore as saying, “The men with double-barrelled names never took to Ted.” Heath’s background — he was the son of a carpenter and builder — was if anything more modest than Mrs Thatcher’s. Her own campaign was organised by an Old Etonian, Airey Neave, and other early supporters included fellow OE Nicholas Ridley, son of a Viscount. 

Mrs Thatcher’s governments were dramatically more toffish and well-heeled than Cameron’s. Of the 22 members of her first cabinet, six had been to Eton and only two — one being Thatcher herself — had not attended public schools. Three cabinet minsters were clearly aristocratic — defined as having at least one grandparent with a hereditary title. The composition of the 1970 Heath government was similar in class terms. If one goes back to the Tory governments of the 1950s and ’60s, they were even more blue-blooded: they obviously varied over time, but up to a third of cabinet members were aristocratic and the share never fell much below a quarter. As to schooling, all 18 members of Eden’s cabinet (1955-57) had attended public schools and ten were OEs. Under Macmillan the number of Etonians went down to eight — or just under half the cabinet — and unaccountably they also allowed in one person who had not even gone to a public school.

Two-thirds of John Major’s first cabinet in 1990 had attended public schools — again the Prime Minister was a prominent exception. Three members were aristocratic — and the Eton quota had now gone down to two. Over time then, Tory governments have gradually moved down the social ladder — and the Cameron cabinet marks a dramatic acceleration of this trend. His first cabinet in 2010 was the first-ever Tory-led cabinet in which more than half its members — 12 out of 22 — had not gone to a public school. Only one member had been to Eton — the Prime Minister himself — and only one was aristocratic. Even the sole aristo, Lord Strathclyde, was a rather less grand representative of that station than was seen in earlier Tory governments. The title was created in 1955 for the current holder’s grandfather, a Glasgow Unionist MP and chartered accountant. Hereditary titles, with a few exceptions, ceased to be created just a few years later after the passing of the Life Peerages Act in 1958 and all but finally went out with the election of Harold Wilson’s government in 1964. 

Even these figures understate the change — the other public schools which were attended by cabinet ministers in both the Thatcher era and even more so in the 1950s and 1960s were very much at the grander end of the spectrum. These were still well represented in 2010, but schools such as Brentwood in Essex (Andrew Lansley) and Robert Gordons College in Aberdeen (Michael Gove) — schools which have about as much in common with one of Alastair Campbell’s “bog standard comps” as they have with Eton — had also crept into the list. The change in cabinet makeup was not accounted for by the fact that this was a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats: two of their five cabinet ministers (Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne until his legal travails) went to Westminster School.

If one includes for the Cameron administration not just cabinet ministers but also those ministers who are not full members of the cabinet but who attend cabinet meetings, the Eton tally rises to three, with the addition of the former Leader of the Commons and now Chief Whip Sir George Young and the Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin. Sixth baronet Sir George Young fits nicely with the public image of an OE — but Oliver Letwin is the more interesting case. 

Ed Miliband likes to contrast his own background — he went to Haverstock School, a comprehensive in Camden — with that of the Tories, implying that someone like him had to battle hard to get where he is now. Yet his background and that of his brother David is, apart from their schooling, remarkably similar to that of Oliver Letwin. Both sets of parents were north London Jewish intellectuals, both fathers were academics at the London School of Economics, and both Bill and Shirley Letwins’ and Ralph and Marion Milibands’ homes were meeting places for literary and political figures — in one case for those of a broadly conservative inclination and in the other for those of a Marxist and Marxisant bent. In the May issue of Standpoint Charles Moore described the Letwins’ home at 3 Kent Terrace, Regent’s Park, where he first met Kingsley Amis, Friedrich von Hayek and Michael Oakeshott among others while dining on Julia Child-inspired dishes. 

In their biography of Ed Miliband, Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre describe life at 29 Edis Street, Primrose Hill. Ed first met Joe Slovo, general secretary of the South African Communist Party, and his wife Ruth First, later murdered by BOSS, the apartheid-era South African intelligence service, over dinner when he was 12. Frequent visitors included literary theorist Raymond Williams, historian E.P. Thompson, agit-propagandist Tariq Ali and leader of the Labour Left Tony Benn, who is quoted as saying, “Marion is a very good cook. We’d have a lovely meal and then we’d all sit and talk.” Benn would even help the young Milibands with their homework. When Edward Miliband, as he was then called, was at a loose end for what to do after finishing his O-levels, Benn records in his diaries that he came to work in his office for the summer. When it came for Miliband to leave, the diaries record that Edward was a very bright young man who would go far. 

For all of Ed Miliband’s posturing, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that he could have ended up as a dustman or a postman like many of his school contemporaries. The very different schooling of Miliband and Letwin seems to have nothing to do with class and everything to do with the aesthetic judgment of their parents. The only difference in the status of the older Letwins and the older Milibands is that the Milibands were rather better known public figures; the difference in their finances is that the Milibands owned their home near Regent’s Park while the Letwins did not. The most recent house to sell in Edis Street sold in July 2011 for £2,285,000.

Once one examines the Conservative benches more generally, the contrast with the past is yet more stark. In the past a very substantial majority of Tory MPs would have gone to public schools. Research by the Sutton Trust shows that it is now down to 54 per cent, with 27 per cent having attended comprehensives and 19 per cent grammar schools. The Sutton Trust makes much of the fact that the number of Old Etonians in parliament has increased from 15 in the 2005 parliament to 20 in the 2010 parliament — but this is a real-terms fall in their numbers on the Tory benches.

The 2010 crop consists of 19 Tories and one Liberal Democrat — the Lib Dem is Viscount Thurso, elected in 2005 as the first hereditary peer ever to be elected to the Commons without renouncing his title, made possible when the majority of hereditaries were excluded from the Lords in 1999. Thurso lists his recreations in Who’s Who as “shooting, fishing, food and wine”.

The 2005 crop consisted of 13 Tories, Thurso and Mark Fisher, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent, who retired in 2010 and was replaced by Tristram Hunt, educated at the fee-paying University College School, Hampstead. The Tory Etonian representation has gone up from 13 to 19, but the number of Tory MPs as a whole has increased from 198 to 306, so the percentage of OEs has fallen from 6.6 per cent to 6.2 per cent

Philip Beresford, the compiler of the Sunday Times Rich List, put together a subsidiary list of the richest 20 politicians in 2013, all of whom had identifiable wealth of £8 million or over. Only seven MPs make it on the list: four Tory (Richard Benyon at £110m, Zac Goldsmith at £75m, Adam Afriyie at £50m and Philip Hammond, as the only cabinet minister, at £8m) and three Labour (Margaret Hodge at £18m, Tory defector Shaun Woodward at £15m and Geoffrey Robinson at £10m). This contrasts with Tory cabinet ministers of the Major era: Robert Cranbourne, now the Marquess of Salisbury, is valued at £275m and Lord Heseltine at £264m.

The Register of Members’ Interests provides much more information about the assets held and outside earning of MPs. Any shareholding worth more than an MP’s annual salary (£66,396 since April) has to be declared, as does property worth more than that amount which is not used for residential purposes by the MP or his or her immediate family. 

Across all parties, the number of MPs who own properties which they rent out is substantial. It has increased sharply since a change in the rules after the expenses scandal. Under the new system MPs can claim up to £20,100 for their second-home allowance but can no longer claim for mortgage payments — hence lots of MPs have rented out their constituency or (much more often) London home on which they were claiming for their mortgage and are instead renting another property on which they can still claim their second-home allowance. 

The number of MPs, however, who have registerable shareholdings is small. A few Conservative MPs not appearing on Beresford’s list appear to be very wealthy — Jonathan Djanogly, MP for Huntington, springs to mind. There are others, such as George Osborne, who have a registerable shareholding in a family business and can expect to inherit more. The vast majority of Tories, however, have no individual shareholdings of over £66,396. This is certainly a change from earlier eras.

MPs’ outside earnings have also fallen dramatically. Until the 1990s many MPs were employed by lobbying firms. Various scandals have all but killed off this source of income. MPs are also no longer routinely appointed to the boards of major companies. Some former top-flight ministers do pick up directorships and do well out of these, but they are not the norm.

It also used to be common for MPs to continue to pursue their careers from before entering parliament. A few still do. Jacob Rees-Mogg is paid £11,000 per month by the investment company he helped to found. Geoffrey Cox, Edward Garnier and Stephen Phillips still practise as QCs: the latter still derives substantial earnings from this.

They are, however, very much the exception, not the rule. A much more typical example of a lawyer’s outside earnings are those of David Burrowes, MP for Enfield Southgate and the leading opponent of same-sex marriage, who was paid £400 as a criminal solicitor for being on police station call for 240 hours.

Even this is more than most Tory MPs report. The most common declaration for an MP’s outside interest is fast becoming “nil”.