British Politics and the Old ‘School Tie’

David Cameron moved into 10 Downing Street this week, establishing Britain’s first coalition government since World War II, and returning the Conservatives to (shared) power after 13 years in opposition. The last Tory occupant of No. 10, which is both office and home to the prime minister, was John Major. But it was Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of the 1980s, who faced down the unruly labor unions and introduced tough fiscal policies, thus shaping a decade of economic prosperity in Britain.

Cameron may be a Conservative, but he is no heir to Thatcherism. He does not share Thatcher’s combative style or, for that matter, her brand of hard-nosed, ideological conservatism. In a way, he is a throwback to the patrician-led, dogma-lite conservative politics of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s day (1957-1963), before Thatcher ousted the upper-crust leadership and replaced it with a middle-class meritocracy.

Margaret Thatcher was a state-educated grocer’s daughter. David Cameron, like Macmillan, attended Eton College (basic tuition: $40,300 a year), the prep school at the top of Britain’s public (that is, private) school heap. In Britain, where university tuition is heavily subsidized by the state, Oxford and Cambridge no longer determine class. Rather, it’s high school that marks a politician’s social standing.

Does it matter in modern-day Britain where the prime minister went to school? The Labor government seemed to think so. In an apparent effort to stir class resentment, they referred derisively to Cameron and his shadow cabinet as “toffs.” And though the old “school tie” and class distinctions have lost much of their importance, Eton is still regarded as the breeding ground of the British establishment — or what used to be called “the ruling class.” Cameron, after all, is the 19th prime minister from Eton in the history of the United Kingdom.

Etonians have a reputation for being self-assured, even-tempered, and unflappable — none of which can be said of outgoing Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And Etonian politicians tend to favor other alumni. At one time, seven cabinet ministers in Macmillan’s government had also been at Eton.

Cameron’s cabinet has only one Etonian — Oliver Letwin the minister of state policy – along with an environmental adviser, Zac Goldsmith. But the cabinet also includes some scions of titled families: for example, George Osborne, the new chancellor of the exchequer, who is the heir to a baronetcy. So the Conservative Party leadership has moved back to its socially up-scale haunts since Thatcher’s day.

Like Macmillan, Cameron is a benign conservative with a small “c.” His party’s negotiations with the Liberal Democrats revealed him to be a pragmatist, willing to go further in making concessions than Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had any reason to expect, in order to form a government with any prospect of staying the five-year course. Cameron gave the Liberal Democrats five cabinet seats, with Clegg himself emerging as deputy prime minister.

It is hard to imagine Margaret Thatcher willing to share power with anybody.