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Public School Politics

How does a government entrusted to care for the entire citizenry instead channel every penny they can muster into upper class pockets? Tory Cabinet ministers don’t sweat over getting caught because they and their toney cronies suffer no penalties beyond the spasms of bad press. Tory schemes to reform domestic welfare only resulted in a misnamed Universal scheme that shortchanged all its hard-pressed recipients, who are not the sort to vote Tory anyway. Meanwhile, the insider dispensing of ‘contracts for the boys’ is rampant, naked and unchecked

KURT JACOBSEN/SAYEED HASAN KHAN | New Delhi |

All the calculated dithering, blithering naughty boy antics of British PrimeMinister Boris Johnson, which weirdly endeared him to a sizable slice of largely affluent voters, have finally worn thin.

Johnson, like any UK prime minister, still enjoys the advantage of being free to alienate most voters because in the British electoral system a tally of around 40 per cent assures parliamentary dominance. But even some of that enraptured percentage are snapping out of it in the wake of a grotesque government performance in coping with Covid, Brexit fall-out (to the extent distinguishable from Covid), a tax rise, and the cumulative pain of hardcore reactionary policies.

Boris’ comical blithering camouflages heartless privilege in action. How does a government entrusted to care for the entire citizenry instead channel every penny they can muster into upper class pockets? Tory Cabinet ministers don’t sweat over getting caught because they and their toney cronies suffer no penalties beyond the spasms of bad press. Tory schemes to reform domestic welfare only resulted in a misnamed Universal scheme that shortchanged all its hard-pressed recipients, who are not the sort to vote Tory anyway.

Meanwhile, the insider dispensing of ‘contracts for the boys’ is rampant, naked and unchecked. We behold a divine indifference to what the unlettered public thinks because these elites have been taught all their lives that the riff-raff outside their circles are incapable of thinking. Strangely, it was leaks of unmonitored Christmas office parties in Downing Street that really incensed voters, who slowly realize that their rulers do think of themselves as a separate and superior species.

The ancient Athenians, as posh public schoolboys dutifully learn, believed that anyone desirous of power is not fit to have it. Yet Boris Johnson’s Eton, Harrow, Winchester and other public (really, private) schools are deputed to transform hapless children into zealous members of the ruling class. The schools’ purpose is to churn out arrogant emotional cripples who, deprived of a loving home life (not always guaranteed, granted), take out their own angst on the “lower orders” the rest of their lives. One of us recalls an evening with a band of twenty-something graduates of such schools who boasted, if in a melancholic way, of the deceit, hypocrisy, class conceit and cruelty that those sites inflicted upon and cultivated among students.

Racism of course is endemic. Just 7 per cent of Brits attend fee-paying schools, as they more accurately are described, but are five times more likely than others to occupy top spots in politics, media, business and even sports, such as cricket and rugby. Two-thirds of Boris’ cabinet attended private schools, and the rightwing press delights in reeling off names of the (far fewer) Labour MPs who went to similar spots. The Daily Express, during Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership, decried the Party’s plan to integrate the public schools into the overall educational system as “class warfare”, as if the existence of these schools were not an earmark of class warfare too.

The Daily Express had a point but, scanning the post-Corbyn Labour Party today, one sees a degree of clueless privilege at work that cannot be explained by, or blamed on, schooling alone. After Corbyn’s 2019 loss, new leader Keir Starmer made great play of unifying the Party factions but in practice lurched toward the Blairite Right where they merely aspire to manage, not reverse, all the damage the Tories have done to their constituents. It gives “loyal opposition” a whole new and disheartening meaning.

In the last 15 years UK household income inched up 9 per cent versus a 50 per cent rise over the previous 15 years, and much of that growth was captured by top earners. The poorest fifth of Brits are losing ground. The majority of households have incomes that actually are below the mean income (£34,200 as of 2018). In 2016 the richest 10 per cent held 44 per cent of all wealth.

The poorest half made do with just 9 per cent. The wealth of the top 0.1 per cent doubled between 1984 and 2013, reaching 9 per cent, which is the same as the poorer half of the nation. An OXFAM study found the five richest families alone are wealthier than the bottom 20 per cent. Five families possess more money than 12.6 million people, the same number as live below the poverty line.(And half those poor families have a member in full-time jobs.)

Since 2003, 95 per cent of Brits have seen a 12 per cent real-terms drop in disposable income (after eye-watering housing costs are figured in), whilst the richest 5 per cent of the population have seen their disposable income and share of wealth increase. Does any of this signal a problem that politicians might want to address? Too obviously not. Boris simply raised flat-rate National Insurance costs rather than hike graduated income and wealth taxes.

The prime minister’s empty blather about “leveling up” predictably got no financial backing from the Treasury. Keir Starmer, meanwhile, is counting on ‘Tory sleaze’ to waft him into office without so much as making a single corporate or financial titan tremble. His November shadow cabinet reshuffle invited arch-Blairites who treat Corbyn supporters, not Tories, as the real foe. The same Labour members who revile Corbyn’s progressive programme ironically played a role in his 2019 loss when hounding him into a compromise over a Brexit revote that was sure to antagonise Northern working-class communities.

Starmer’s shadow cabinet clings to talking points about national security, law and order, drink spiking, and getting slightly less tough on immigration but offer nothing to excite voters whose lives could use an upgrade. Nothing here for Colonel Blimp to harrumph about. It’s public schoolboy politics everywhere.

(The writers are well-known political commentators and the author of No Clean Hands, Parables of Permanent War and other books)