Eton? It’s inheritance tax, stupid

As a student many years ago, I wrote a Finals paper in what I hoped was the style of the political correspondent of the Spectator Alan Watkins, whose lightly worn authority I greatly admired. Much good it did me; I came nowhere near a First unlike David Cameron, whom Alan has been writing about today in one of his occasional pieces for the Independent. With his usual world-weary wisdom he points out that attempts to wage class war against Cameron are beside the point and a poor answer to the Conservative leader’s success. Cameron and his sidekick George Osborne began to score over Gordon Brown when they promised to more than double the threshold for inheritance tax “ to one million pounds” – and have never looked back since, despite Brown’s attempts to revive class war and the odd ripple in the polls. And yet – are echoes of the old Etonian Harold Macmillan to be found in cool Dave? It was Watkins who coined the term “ the old actor manager” for that grandest of Old Etonians Harold Macmillan. The “never had it so good” prime minister liked to portray himself as the great- great grandson of a “crofter” (actually a conventional farmer) on the isle of Arran in the shipping lanes of the Firth of Clyde. Mac’s great grand father became a bookseller in the town of Irvine in Ayrshire and eventually ( it’s a longish story) went on to found Macmillan’s the book publishers. Maurice Harold, already grand enough socially as a member of a big publishing family you might think, was nonetheless nudged by his pushy American mother to the top of the social scale by marrying into the super-aristocratic family the Cavendishes, the family name of the Dukes of Devonshire. It landed him with a life of misery as a public cuckold but that’s another story. With his aristo’s mein, first assumed to conceal his unhappiness, Macmillan as PM posed as the father of the nation until the sixties caught up with him and he was savagely debunked in the satire boom. (See beyond the Fringe book review)”

No one had ever heard an impersonation of the Prime Minister before of the kind that Peter Cook did in TV PM. When Harold Macmillan actually turned up to see Beyond the Fringe in the West End, Peter Cook did the impression while Macmillan sat through it with a (presumably forced) fixed smile, so Peter Cook threw in the line “When I’m at a bit of a loose end, there’s nothing I like better than to sit watching four vibrant young performers with a big grin plastered all over my silly old face”.

Although he left Eton under mysterious circumstances, ( a homosexual fumble is inevitably suspected) so infatuated was he with its ethos that nine of of his cabinet were old boys. He even rigged the succession for one of them, the totally unsuitable good egg Alec Douglas Home ( third class honours degree). Macmillan quit front line politics suddenly in 1963 after a prostate operstion he thought wrongly would kill him, but he leaves a vivid memory since his death in December 1986 at 92. In extreme old age, he had the satisfaction of becoming as good an act as his former tormentors. As PM, for traditionalists he softened the blows of Britain’s decline by sporting his super- toff’s mask to suggest that nothing was changing very much really. Cameron’s Conservatives on the contrary, try to cover up the fact that 14 out of 15 shadow ministers went to public (i.e. private) schools. Might Cameron’s good chap PR man’s image conceal an old fashioned Tory who when it comes down to it, believes that in hard times especially, you inherit your luck?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London