The Government of Chaps: schools, spies and sex scandals in post-war Britain.


One of the hallmarks of traditional Conservatism was a belief in rule by the landed classes. By the 20th century, it might be thought that idea’s time had gone, that the new age of democracy would see the end of deference. A simple run through of Britain’s post-war political leaders might Illustrate the limits to any such process: Attlee (Haileybury), Churchill (Harrow), Gaitskell (Winchester); Eden, Macmillan and Home were all Old Etonians. Indeed, of the eighteen members of Eden’s cabinet, ten went to Eton; in 1955, one in five Conservative backbenchers were Old Etonians, like Eden here in 1910.

Nor was the domination of national life by the great public schools confined to the Conservative Party. A 1939 survey showed that three out of four leading figures in the church, judiciary, senior civil service and leading companies were educated in the public schools. Two-thirds of all those earning over £1,000 per annum in 1954 were educated in one of the public schools.

It might be seen as even more narrow than that. Peter Clarke calculated that nine members of Macmillan’s cabinet (including Macmillan and Home) were descendants of just four Victorian political dynasties, as were the editors of The Times, The Observer and The Daily Mail; Macmillan had family connections to two of his own cabinet. The Establishment moved with easy grace through the leading positions of public life such as the Director General of the BBC or, like Lord Radcliffe (Haileybury), overseeing a mutitude of public inquiries (no fewer than six in his case).

Thus, the Conservative Party was hardly unique, though it was an extreme case: all bar one (Lord Woolton, Manchester Grammar School) of Eden’s cabinet had been to public school. In the age of Baldwin (Harrow) this hadn’t mattered, nor did it seem to in the early ‘fifties. Indeed, there was still an unmistakeable note of continuing deference to Conservative politics, one self-consciously played up to by  Eden and Macmillan. Macmillan was a far more complex figure than the public image of reassuring, gentlemanly insouciance he created for himself. However, the ‘great actor-manager’ was so effective in creating that image that he found himself unable to shake it off.

Even as he led the Conservatives to their spectacular victory in 1959, the shine was beginning to come off ‘the chaps’. It was the historian AJP Taylor who had first coined the term the Establishment, as early as 1953; in 1955 it was taken up by the conservative commentator Henry Fairlie. It was the years after Suez that saw the term become ubiquitous, and pejorative. It also became inexorably associated with the issue of Britain’s perceived relative and actual decline, the blame for which was easily pinned on the chaps.

The Establishment became the target of analysis, of varying quality. One analyst, more subtle and careful than most, produced what amounted to a root and branch dissection. Anthony Sampson’s The Anatomy of Britain laid bare the tentacles of family and social connections that made Britain’s ruling elite. It also became the object of literary attention, notably in the works of the Angry Young Men such as John Osborne. Perhaps most famously, it became the object of satire in Beyond the Fringe, That Was the Week That Was and in the newly created Private Eye.

For once, this had real political import. In part, this was a function of novelty. When Peter Cook did his famous impression of Macmillan, it seemed to represent something very new. In large part, this was the product of some very specific events occurring as the Conservatives entered their second decade in government. Rather like John Major, they had become accident prone.

If one hallmark of the Establishment was public school, the other was Oxbridge. Indeed, in politics that meant predominantly Oxford. Indeed, the next generation of political leaders had emerged from the grammar schools via Oxford: Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Denis Healey and Margaret Thatcher were all Oxford graduates.

It was the other university that did much to undermine deference, in the form of the so called Cambridge spies. In 1951, two British intelligence agents, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, had defected to Moscow. MI6 believed they had been tipped off by the ‘third man’. Already since 1961, two more Soviet double agents had been arrested.  Then, in January 1963 the third man defected. The fact that his name was Kim Philby was especially damaging: in 1955, as Minister of Defence, Macmillan had cleared Philby of any guilt in the House of Commons.

As their nickname of the Cambridge Spies suggests, Burgess, Maclean and Philby had all been recruited at Cambridge in the ‘thirties (as had their fellow traitor, Sir Anthony Blunt), from, where they had acquired their fashionable Marxism and flamboyant youthful homosexuality.

The government managed to keep the lid on Philby’s defection until the summer, but by the time that story had come out Macmillan was emroiled in the Profumo Affair. In the public mind, the conflation of sex, spies, treason and toffs seemed logical. That Burgess (Eton), Maclean (Greasham’s), Philby (Westminster) and Blunt (Marlborough) were toffs and traitors (and homosexuals) was bad enough. Now the Secretary of State for War (Eton and Oxford) was caught up in scandal involving a dodgy osteopath (Canford School), a young Christine Keelers first glimpsed naked beside a swimming pool at the country seat of the Astor family (mostly Eton, if you want to know) and also involving a Soviet trade attaché. You can read more here.

When Mandy Rice Davies remarked in court, ‘well he would, wouldn’t he?’, people read much more into it.

When Anthony Sampson wrote The Anatomy of Britain, he had a target, what he saw as the gentlemanly amateurism of the British elite was his real target . When the Young  Turks of Beyond the Fringe were asked what their real target was, they replied, ‘Complacency’.

Not that the critics were all the products of thrusting provincial grammar schools. Anthony Sampson’s critique may have been powerful, but his critical skills were honed at Westminster School and then at Oxford. Alan Bennett my have been a northern grammar school boy, but he also went to Oxford. Peter Cook (Radley College) and Jonathan Miller (St Paul’s) went top Cambridge. The creators of Private Eye cut their satirical teeth at Shrewsbury School.

Nonetheless, what had once seemed like the reassuring gentlemanly insouciance of those born to rule now appeared more like old school tie incompetence and even venality. The government of chaps was almost over: now it was the turn of the grammar school boys, and the White Heat of modernity . The stranglehold of the Old Etonians et al was loosened, for the time being at least.

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