Nadhim Zahawi’s slippery handling of his tax affairs represents another droplet in an ocean of dishonour. It emerged last week that the former Conservative Party chairman had failed to disclose HMRC’s punishment of his capital gains tax avoidance on shares worth £27 million in Balshore Investments, an offshore holding company. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s promise to govern with “integrity and professionalism” left him with no choice but to wield the axe. Yet the particulars of the scandals which have embroiled the Conservative party as far back as memory stretches no longer feel especially important. The public has become so desensitised to scandal in recent years that the exact sum of money, the preferred colour of wallpaper, and the number of ‘booze suitcases’ have morphed into objects of satire. In this latest iteration of ‘Tory sleaze’, it is Zahawi’s resignation letter rather than the details of his misdeed that best exemplifies the darkness which currently engulfs the heart of British politics. The word “sorry” features only once in the letter, as part of an apology to his family for “the toll this has taken on them”. The remainder of the six-paragraph-piece is an inventory of imagined achievements. The death of Queen Elizabeth II is reduced to a bullet point providing colour to Zahawi’s CV. It is hard to see the relevance of an unprecedented moment of national mourning to the sordid circumstances of his dismissal.
Zahawi was educated at three London private schools, one of which he returned to in 2019 as the keynote speaker at the prize-giving ceremony. I attended that school and that ceremony. The tone of Zahawi’s resignation letter is a product of a particular system of education which I and many contemporary Oxford students know all too well. This system of education perpetuates certain personality traits in its alumni. These traits have played a material role in the failings of modern Britain, and they are laid bare in the Zahawi affair. His abdication of responsibility is based on the idea that a grudging apology can distract from serious intellectual failings. He shows disdain for the concept of punishment and consequences. The notion of law and order is an irritant in a game where strategies of cheating reign supreme.
Over the Christmas holiday, I read two books that embedded this in my mind. These were Simon Kuper’s Chums and Richard Beard’s Sad Little Men. The former addresses the role of Oxford university – and its debating chamber – in shaping decades of public life. The latter details how the psychological effects of spending one’s childhood at all-male boarding schools determines the course of one’s adult life. In both books, a certain Boris Johnson plays a starring role. Commentators and biographers often paint our former Prime Minister as a maverick, a uniquely eccentric oddity, even within the class-driven world of British politics. He is not. Beneath the uniqueness of his shambling appearance lies a simple truth, which insidiously connects various institutions of British public life.
Explanations of Johnson’s failings couched in terms of his “silly style” do not so much miss as profoundly understate the point. It is often claimed that ‘Boris’ would have been a generationally talented journalist, if only he had stayed clear of things that really mattered. As Amber Rudd once said, “Boris is the life of the party, but you wouldn’t want him to drive you home at the end of the night”. This fails to capture the essence of the man and his contemporaries. In the British case, these character failings are institutional rather than individual. They are also class-coded. Our former prime minister is an undeniably talented writer, who possesses wit and a sharp turn of phrase. However, his knowledge of classical languages speaks to the form and exclusivity of his 1980s Eton education rather than a galactic intelligence. Richard Beard’s “sad little men” dutifully memorised fragments of the Odyssey and the Aeneid by rote. If they didn’t know already, then they quickly learned that an ability to allude to canonical Western texts would later provide the veneer of erudition needed to lubricate the path to the top. However, true erudition was never Johnson’s aim. I’m sure his Balliol tutors would corroborate this. Making those who had not received Classical literacy as their birthright feel the phantom weight of crushing inadequacy was all that mattered.
Indeed, the true ‘benefit’ of the manner in which Johnson and his peers were educated was more intangible. School for them was not a reservoir of knowledge, but a place to learn to play the status game, and thence to navigate the impossibly complex conventions of the British ruling class. In this context, ambiguity was weakness. A perceived ‘lack of confidence’ in the deportment of the tentative scholar would be seized upon mercilessly. Conviction was the name of the game, and truth or a search for subtler tacts were pushed aside. Relics of this have dominated British politics for the last 30 years. When Boris Johnson wrote two versions of a 2016 Telegraph article, each one pitched from the opposite side of the Brexit debate, he was playing an intellectual game. For him, the arguments about sovereignty and economic performance were insignificant matters of detail. The route to power lay in the rhetorical manipulation of those arguments. Johnson was drawing from the philosophy of Carroll’s Humpty-Dumpty, who pompously claims, “when I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”.
Johnson’s presentation of an easy, natural confidence was more than enough from the very beginning. His election to Eton’s ‘Pop’ – a society of the most impressive senior pupils – by a constituency of his peers serves as an early example of the man’s one principle: popularity. Within a world as defined by status as 1980s Eton, this early election victory provided a potent instruction in navigating a world governed by the in-jokes and pathologies of a glittering elite. Men like Cameron or Johnson used their intimate knowledge of how the British class system functions to forge strategies for handling their poshness. One cannot imagine either of them asking a homeless man if he “worked in business” as Sunak recently did as part of a toe-curling publicity manoeuvre. Recent polling confirms that Rishi Sunak’s most potent challenge is the impression that he is “out of touch”. Yet Sunak had an ordinary upbringing by any objective measure. The public sees his syrupy statements about the NHS as insincere on account of the enormous inherited wealth of his wife, Akshata Murty. He is rich rather than posh, and in a world where the language of political power is so closely bound to poshness, he suffers accordingly. He is an outsider to the system of whispered convention in which Cameron and Johnson are steeped.
Moreover, he could conjure this confidence and inspire trust from the very depths of disgrace. It sustained his political career and explained his extraordinary resilience in the face of ever-present scandal. The remarkable thing about his downfall was that it took such a long time to arrive. The key to Johnson’s character, and to the broader crisis of Britain’s ruling class, is encapsulated in his final parliamentary speech in September 2022. He referred to himself as “Cincinnatus, returning to his plough”. Putting to one side the historical fact that Cincinnatus returned to power as a dictator some years after his retirement, this idea strikes a dissonant chord with the acrimonious circumstances of Johnson’s departure and the turbulence of his premiership. The style of his reference, lightened with a slight smirk and undergirded with smug flippancy, was taught to him at Eton. The graduates of these institutions have also profoundly shaped the culture of Oxford university. Despite its yearly aspirations to ‘reform’ and its endless spamming of the ‘access’ button, the Oxford Union has one real function. It is a playground for future politicians. Its rituals and arcane formulae ape parliamentary practice. It even offered its despatch boxes to the House of Commons as substitutes during the Second World War. The ability to speak well is, of course, important as a component of successful political communication. But the Union – and its wider milieu – has created a fantasy world for itself in which speaking convincingly is all that matters.
This colossal self-confidence can be traced back to the imperial entanglements of Britain’s elite educational institutions. In the 19th century, their function was to educate an elite to administer an empire This challenge was enormous, yet they answered Rudyard Kipling’s white supremacist call to “take up the white man’s burden // send forth the best ye breed”. The empire may have dissolved in the 20th century, but Britain’s boarding schools maintained a keen sense of their original mission. In some cases, the old imperial associations were strikingly direct. There is an echo of the traditions of imperial civil service in the career of Rory Stewart. For instance, at the height of imperial rule in India, the covenanted civil service – an exclusively white British group of 1,200 – was given responsibility for well over 300 million subject people. Stewart attended Eton and Oxford and tutored the Prince of Wales and Duke of Sussex in his summer holidays. His education propelled him to deputy governorship of the Iraqi provinces of Maysan and Dhi Qar after the 2003 invasion.
Moreover, the attitudes which had underpinned the British Empire were resilient. Imperialism was a mode of thinking and a style of authority rather than a tangible feature of empire. For instance, exceptionalist ideologies reached a shrill pitch in the paranoia and insecurity of Britain’s post-imperial moment. Boris Johnson had just taken his A-Levels when the Falklands War broke out. David Cameron was entering lower-sixth. Perhaps they both glimpsed the Newsweek front page on the morning of April 1982 as they breakfasted at Eton on food cooked in the ‘second oldest kitchen in England’. Responding to Thatcher’s belligerent response to the Argentinian occupation, the headline that day read, “The Empire Strikes Back”.
History lessons were always opportunities to buttress a ‘high Tory’ worldview: that the annals of time contained only one story that mattered. Every Eton schoolboy in the 1980s was given a copy of Our Island Story, a narrative of British hegemony, underpinned by the concentration of political power in the hands of a few people. One sees echoes of this in strange places. In his recently released autobiography Prince Harry engages in a lengthy discussion of Eton College’s foundation by Henry VI, his “ancestor”. This reflects a pathological obsession with the British class system: a rigid hierarchy with the monarch at the top. For all the criticism he has ranged in the direction of the monarchy, Harry remains obsessed with deriving status and personhood from its symbolism. As Hilary Mantel noted in an infamous 2013 article in the London Review of Books, Harry “does not know if he is a person or a prince”. This crevasse in his identity cannot be entirely explained without reference to the institutions in which the exiled ginger prince was schooled. Taught from his earliest moments by his family that he was an unimportant cog in a machine, he simultaneously learned that he was a future member of the world’s finest governing elite from his teachers and peers.
It seems to me that Britain’s problems flow from our unique relationship with privilege. If the influential people in contemporary Britain are goldfish, then the cultural inheritance of an elitist education system is the water that they swim in. If generations of privileged young people continue to be taught that power is a game rather than a responsibility, then ‘sleaze’ is here to stay.