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School of thought for the next PM
When David Cameron speaks to the Tory faithful at their conference today, many viewers will be less interested in what he says than the way he says it.
It’s extraordinary in this egalitarian age that the Prime Minister should be condemned by so many people for being posh.
There was a time when politicians of all parties were proud of their public schools. Winston Churchill returned to Harrow regularly and sang the school song.
Harold Macmillan, an old Etonian, had several schoolmates in the Cabinet and saw nothing wrong with that. Clement Attlee was fond of his public school, Haileybury.
Most leading politicians were grandees. At the very least they had substantial private incomes which they needed as MPs were then paid only small sums.
Macmillan was typical in having a sizeable estate at Birch Grove near Horsted Keynes in Sussex and marrying the daughter of a duke.
He did not mind being pictured on his summer holidays shooting grouse in Scotland or saying there was nothing he liked better than curling up in bed at night with a Trollope.
His son-in-law was Julian Amery, Tory MP for Brighton Pavilion long before his seat went Green.
Amery never lived in Brighton, making occasional forays into the resort from either Birch Grove or London.
Rather surprisingly, he was made Housing Minister by Ted Heath and his patrician manner irritated a working class Labour MP when they were on a committee together.
The MP launched into a long rant, saying that Amery could not understand the plight of poor people living in terraced housing, Amery replied: “On the contrary, I have lived all my life in a terraced house.” This shut up the MP.
What he unaccountably neglected to add was that the house was in Eaton Square, Belgravia, and that his father had been a cabinet minister.
Macmillan was an able politician with a genuine desire to relieve poverty. He was shocked at conditions in his Stockton constituency and in old age took his title from the town.
His successor, Lord Home, did appear so out of touch that voters narrowly decided in 1964 to back the Labour alternative of humbly born Harold Wilson.
There followed a succession of premiers from modest backgrounds including Heath, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, who has just written a book about his extraordinary father, a music hall act.
It wasn’t until Major was chosen by Tory MPs to be their leader that I realised class was still such a big issue in British politics.
Douglas Hurd, one of the other contenders, was so desperate to play down the fact that he was an old Etonian that he made MPs overlook his otherwise considerable merits.
Major won the general election of 1992 against Neil Kinnock, a product of the state school system, but lost five years later to Tony Blair, who attended Fettes, the Eton of Scotland.
Members of that same Labour Party are now attacking David Cameron for being too posh. Last week Ed Miliband was at pains to tell his conference that he had been to a comprehensive school.
But he was not telling the whole truth any more than Julian Amery. The school he attended is one of the best of its kind in Britain.
Miliband and his brother David are the sons of leading Left-wing intellectuals and had a privileged upbringing. He is a millionaire because of his property and inherited wealth.
All this posing as an ordinary bloke when he most certainly is not spoiled what was otherwise an impressive speech.
I am no great supporter of public schools. I’d like the state system to be so good that there is no need for them.
But I don’t want David Cameron, Douglas Hurd or anyone else to feel they have to apologise to the nation for having attended one.
Nor do I care whether Cameron was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, or in the case of Boris Johnson, a whole drawer full.
And, Ed Miliband please note, I’d like contenders for the top job in politics to be someone special – not too ordinary.
David Cameron should be aware Boris is so popular because he speaks his mind and does not seem to worry what people think of him.
When the next general election comes along in 2015, I won’t vote for Cameron, Miliband or Nick Clegg – ex-Westminster – because of their background or school days.
I’ll be listening to Cameron today to assess whether he has a future rather than a past.