Until the 1970s, if you had asked a public school headmaster what such institutions were for, his reply would have been along the following lines: that their main job – like that of the class system itself – was to produce an honourable and public-spirited ruling class. Stowe, founded in 1923, the first one in 60 years – to which I went in 1935 – was regarded at that time as daringly progressive. But when I asked to be told the difference between it and Eton – where my father had been – my mother said: “Well darling, at Eton you have to wear stiff collars and tailcoats, while at Stowe it’s soft collars and grey flannels.” In other words, there was no difference in principle. Both were concerned to educate the ruling class. But while Eton was rooted in medieval and semi-monastic traditions going back to ancient times, Stowe, being new, promised a ruling class more suited to the 20th century. A ruling class “with the cobwebs brushed off”, as J. F. Roxburgh, Stowe’s stylish and sophisticated founding headmaster, was fond of saying. “No Blackshirts here, dear boy.”
All this has been brought back to me by reading Brian Rees’s – himself a very experienced headmaster of Charterhouse – sparkling history of Stowe (Stamp Publishing). He shows how profoundly the new school’s culture was determined by its purposefully-chosen grand country house location in the rolling parklands and Palladian beauty of the seat of the late Dukes of Buckingham: quite the proudest of the Whig ruling families, to whom parliamentary – as against populist – democracy owes so much. As Rees makes clear, the founding fathers of Stowe had no doubt that even if some of the boys came from nouveau riche families from the North of England, five years in the palatial grounds and buildings of Stowe would give them the necessary polish and patina to take their rightful place among the ranks of Britain’s great and good. It was a hope duly fulfilled by a list of Old Stoics which includes the late Sir Nicholas Henderson, Britain’s least pompous ever ambassador, and other such civilised high flyers as Lords Annan and Quinton. Even the immensely literate Old Stoic jazz singer George Melly fits the bill.
All changed, however, under Mrs Thatcher. My one complaint about Rees’s excellent book is that he does not give enough attention to the moment when all the public schools, including Eton, began to be embarrassed by their traditional connection with a privileged elite – if only because, in spite of its privileges, this elite had badly let the side down by presiding over “the winter of discontent”. Too many upper-class twits; too many old school ties; that was the indictment written and rewritten by Anthony Sampson in his bestselling Anatomies of Britain. Visiting Stowe during this period, I remember being told that whereas once upon a time they boasted to prospective parents about Old Stoics like the Victoria Cross winner, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, now it was Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, whose name they preferred to drop. Henceforth it was to be entrepreneurs and bankers, rather than statesmen and bishops, which the public schools sought to produce, with today’s desperate results.
Time for second thoughts, surely. Hardly anything could be worse than our present governing class. If the public schools can’t do better than that, then their charitable status – historically justified by their role in producing good rulers – should indeed be withdrawn. What about Old Etonian David Cameron and his mainly public school colleagues? Don’t they give us grounds for hope? Unfortunately not, because instead of wearing their old school ties proudly – as badges of honour and symbols of authoritative leadership – they feel it necessary to hide them away as if a public school education was a source of shame rather than of pride. Indeed, the very idea of leadership seems to have become a dirty word. Instead of public schools seeking to instil habits of authority, they prefer to produce only greedier versions of the common man. The frightened sheep look up and what do they see? Not the man on the white horse but nice Mr Cameron on his bicycle.
Entrepreneurs and bankers are to be blessed only in good times. They make good times even better. They add the cherry to the cake. But in bad times, we need the moral basics: authority and trust, which are best encouraged by statesmen and bishops. That is what makes our crisis so serious. By concentrating on bankers and entrepreneurs – luxurious extras – we have denied ourselves the quality quite essential in times of trouble: that of selfless leadership. Societies, like fish, rot from the head downwards. What an opportunity for a public school headmaster to do for today’s rotting governing class what Dr Arnold of Rugby did for its unreformed Victorian equivalent. Not, pray, muscular Christianity, but even that would be better than today’s dreadful vacuum at the top.