Boris and the Spirit of Eton
Boris Johnson, the leader charged with fulfilling the British voters’ mandate to exit the European Union, is well prepared for the task. His prodigious talents were nurtured early at Eton College, the famed bastion of the British establishment. After centuries Eton still reigns at the pinnacle of posh excellence. A graduate reports.
If you’d told somebody in the mid 2000s that David Cameron would become Prime Minister, they would have laughed in your face. If you then told them that a few years later Boris Johnson would be one of his successors, they’d consider you bonkers. This was Blairite Britain – gone were the days of Macmillan, Douglas-Home, and the coterie of other prime ministers educated at that same dusty institution – the hegemony of the Old Etonian was firmly over. Yet Cameron became the 19th Prime Minister educated there, and Boris the 20th, making five out of the fourteen prime ministers elected during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign Old Etonians.
When I first started there, the traditions seemed daunting, and while you had a week of grace period to find your feet, it took a lot longer for the novelty truly to wear off. Dressed in a tailsuit that makes you look like a penguin, and that even the production team of Downton Abbey would question, it’s a complete culture shock. Teachers become “beaks”; homework becomes “EW (short for Extra Work)”, and the threat of “tardy book” (a punishment where you have to get up early to report to the School Office) is ever present. Your life is governed by a tutor, housemaster, and dame (a surrogate mother for your time there, and the most influential person in your day-to-day life), and outside of lessons (known as “schools”) you’re left to your own devices. It’s a sink or swim situation, and some can’t hack the overload of independence.
You’re constantly surrounded by things named after great men who have come before you – whether that be John Maynard Keynes (an economics society) or William Gladstone (a library) – and you can’t help but see yourself as heir to some great dynasty. Sitting in Upper School – a large schoolroom now mainly used for talks by visiting speakers – the walls are lined with marble busts of illustrious Old Etonians past, and it’s not hard to daydream about joining them. In our first ever assembly the head master put it best: “If you know that some interesting people have gone on to do some interesting things, whether it’s George Orwell or the Duke of Wellington, that does implicitly ask the question, why not you?” Success never seems far away, and often you’re regaled with tales about the time your beak caught a famous actor smoking, or how awful a pupil a noted academic once was. Neither does service, particularly when you pass the memorial boards for the First World War (as you do daily on the way to chapel): 1157 Old Etonians died, and 37 Old Etonians have won the Victoria Cross – 17 more than any other school.
In your final years, it’s fun to try and work out who's going to be most successful after leaving, and – it never seems too outlandish – who among you could be a future prime minister. The people you consider are never confined to a particular group – it’s not “one of the debaters” or “one of the Rugby XV” – in fact, it’s often those who you can’t seem to categorize, or transverse the groups that are most magnetic. To get into Eton, you have to do well in the infamous “List Test”, composed of a computerized assessment and an interview with one of the beaks. For an eleven year old, it can be brutal (one boy left crying midway through our test), particularly as you don’t know what they want: they’re not looking for candidates that fit a particular box. Potential is valued more than current ability, and the greatest asset is that of being interesting. With only one in five getting an offer (odds stiffer than Oxbridge), and after five years of being expected to perform at the highest level, it’s unsurprising that students end up so successful.
When you arrive, life becomes unashamedly elitist, and meritocracy is king. In Boris’ time, the exact order in which you came in the termly exams was read out by the head master for all to hear (we only ever had it written down on paper), and when you’re so directly compared to your peers, it’s impossible not to be competitive. Even the texts you study focus on individuals who strive for great success in an unforgiving world. In French, we studied de Maupassant’s Bel-Ami; in Latin, Cicero’s De Imperio, and in English, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. All dealt with power, its importance, and how to go about attaining it, no matter the means.
As an ardent Classicist, Boris cultivated many of the things that make him so successful – his rhetorical skill, charm, and quick wit – from the rich well of classical literature. At Eton he then had the opportunity to put them into action. With ceaseless opportunities to argue and debate both with his cohort, and the host of notable speakers who come and give talks (recent speakers include John Kerry and Sir Elton John), he could hone the very skills that make him such an adept and loved politician. He established himself then, becoming Secretary of Debating, Editor of The Chronicle (the school’s magazine), and eventually a member of Pop (Eton’s version of prefects): his first instances of carving his name and character out for posterity. Indeed, he has already attained that great and rare feat of being known universally by his first name alone – joining Plato, Raphael, and Madonna as characters who have left a permanent mark on western civilization. On news channels daily, you hear Boris’ detractors desperately referring to him as “Johnson” (Alastair Campbell tries the hardest), attempting to push him back into the box of detached politician, but they never succeed. Like Pompey in De Imperio, Boris is loved, and seen as shamelessly populist. Like Pompey, with his large majority, Boris has been granted a supremacy that allows him opportunity way beyond the scope of a normal leader. Released from Theresa May’s legacy of parliamentary stalemate, Boris now has the chance to enact true change in British politics, paving his way in conservative legend, and making himself worthy of a marble bust.
Ivo Delingpole is a second-year undergraduate at Durham University, studying English Literature. He attended Eton from 2012 to 2017.