Forget the Old Etonian chumocracy: The Tories are at their least aristocratic ever

Michael Mosbacher
DAVID Cameron’s government is the least patrician, least wealthy and least public school-educated Conservative-led government Britain has ever seen. Fewer Tory MPs were born into wealth and privilege than ever before. More are reliant solely on parliamentary salaries, and fewer have significant outside earnings compared to Tory MPs from previous parliaments.

This is not the conventional analysis. It is now de rigueur to claim that the country is dominated by a coterie of Old Etonian chums. Some say the Cameron administration represents the old aristocratic ruling class, reclaiming the institutions it lost during the Thatcherite interregnum. But this is tosh. Margaret Thatcher’s governments were vastly better-heeled than Cameron’s. Of the 22 members of her first cabinet, six had gone to Eton and only two had not attended public school. The Tory governments of the 1950s and 60s were even more blue-blooded: up to a third of cabinet members were aristocratic, and the share never fell much below a quarter.

Over time, Tory governments have moved down the social ladder, and the Cameron cabinet marks a dramatic acceleration of this trend. His first, in 2010, was the first Tory-led cabinet in which more than half of its members had not gone to public school. Only one went to Eton (Cameron), and the sole aristo Lord Strathclyde is rather less grand than those seen in earlier Tory governments. The title was created for the current holder’s grandfather, a Glasgow MP and chartered accountant.

But even these figures understate the change. If you include non-cabinet ministers who attend its meetings, the Eton tally rises to three. Sixth baronet Sir George Young fits the Etonian image, but Oliver Letwin is more interesting.

Ed Miliband likes to contrast his background with that of the Tories. He went to Haverstock School, a comprehensive in Camden. Yet his background is, apart from his schooling, remarkably similar to that of Letwin. Both sets of parents were north London Jewish intellectuals, both fathers were academics at the London School of Economics, and both Bill and Shirley Letwins’ and Ralph and Marion Milibands’ homes were meeting places for literary and political figures.

For all of Miliband’s posturing, it seems unlikely he could have ended up as a dustman or a postman. The different schooling of Miliband and Letwin has little to do with class, and everything to do with the aesthetic judgment of their parents. The real difference between the Letwins and the Milibands is that the latter owned their home near Regent’s Park, while the Letwins did not.

Examine the Tories more generally, and the contrast with the past is even starker. A substantial majority of Tory MPs would once have gone to public schools. Research by the Sutton Trust shows that it is now down to 54 per cent, with 27 per cent having attended comprehensives and 19 per cent grammar schools. The Trust makes much of the fact that the number of Old Etonians in parliament rose from 15 in 2005 to 20 in 2010. But this is a real terms fall for the Tories. The 2010 Etonian crop consists of 19 Tories and one Liberal Democrat, Viscount Thurso. The 2005 crop consisted of 13 Tories, Thurso, and a Labour MP who retired in 2010. The Tory Etonian representation has risen from 13 to 19, but the number of Conservative MPs rose from 198 to 306. Thus, the percentage of Old Etonians fell from 6.6 to 6.2 per cent.

Philip Beresford, compiler of the Sunday Times Rich List, looked at the richest 20 politicians in 2013, all of whom had £8m or over. Only seven MPs make it on: four Tory (Richard Benyon at £110m, Zac Goldsmith at £75m, Adam Afriyie at £50m, and Philip Hammond at £8m), and three Labour (Margaret Hodge at £18m, Shaun Woodward at £15m and Geoffrey Robinson at £10m). This contrasts with John Major’s cabinet ministers: Robert Cranbourne is valued at £275m and Lord Heseltine at £264m.

The Register of Members’ Interests provides more information about the assets and outside earnings of MPs. Any shareholding worth over an MP’s salary (£66,396) has to be declared. The number of MPs with registerable shareholdings is small, and few Tory MPs appear to be very wealthy. Some, like George Osborne, have a registerable shareholding in a family business and can expect to inherit more. The vast majority, however, have no individual shareholdings of over £66,396.

MPs’ outside earnings have also dropped. Until the 1990s, many were employed by lobbying firms, but various scandals have all but killed off this source of income. MPs are also no longer routinely appointed to the boards of major companies. It was once common for MPs to continue the career they followed before entering parliament. A few still do. Jacob Rees-Mogg is paid £11,000 a month by the investment firm he helped found. Geoffrey Cox, Edward Garnier and Stephen Phillips still practise as QCs: the latter still derives substantial earnings from this.

They are the exception. A more typical example of a lawyer’s outside earnings are those of David Burrowes, MP for Enfield Southgate. He was paid £400 as a criminal solicitor for being on police station call for 240 hours. But even this is more than most Tory MPs report. The most common declaration for an MP’s outside interest is fast becoming “nil”.

Michael Mosbacher is managing editor of Standpoint. A longer version of this article appears in the June issue of Standpoint magazine.