Johnson, Cameron and others who hold power were not born this way. No one is.
On Monday, BBC’s Panorama claimed David Cameron made around £7m from Greensill Capital before it went into administration in March.
Cameron disputes that figure, but has previously admitted he was very well paid by the financial services company. He lobbied for his paymasters ebulliently, sent dozens of texts and messages to civil servants and ministers, including Rishi Sunak. For these informal approaches he was mildly rebuked by a select committee.
We also hear Boris Johnson has splurged £100,000 on pictures for the walls of 10 Downing St, partly paid for by taxpayers. No rules have been broken. Obviously. Morality and principles, and standards in personal and public life are for the little people.
This wealthy and insatiably greedy ruling cabal has snatched £20 per week from the least well off. And the stench of sleaze is starting to get up people’s noses.
We can and must rage against such injustices and hypocrisies. And also ask why these people behave so callously. How were their characters formed?
Johnson, Cameron and others who hold power were not born this way. No one is. They are the products of their upbringing and education. Some family expectations – unsentimentality, intolerance of weakness or emotions, fiery ambitiousness – mess up the childhoods of too many posh boys and girls.
Parental behaviours are also not always exemplary. In his biography Boris Johnson: The Gambler, Tom Bower depicts Stanley Johnson as a faithless and allegedly violent husband. The mother of his four children, Charlotte, an artist, suffered serious bouts of mental illness. There is a photo of her with the kids which I find unspeakably sad.
Schools offer no respite. In his own memoir, Cameron describes his phlegmatic father and more demonstrative mother seeing him off. At Heatherdown Preparatory School he recalls beatings, constant fear, maggots in the food and naked baths.
At the age of 11, Johnson was sent off to board at Ashdown House in Sussex.
In a new book, Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England, its author Richard Beard writes: “They spent the formative years of their childhood in boarding schools being looked after by adults who didn’t love them.”
Beard was one of them. He remembers “emotional austerity”, severed relationships: “We adapted to survive. We postured and lied, whatever it took… We were not needy, no sir.” By the time they were at secondary school, they were fully formed machines.
The author also attended Radley College, a private school in Oxfordshire. I was there too, a master’s wife, pregnant and somewhat discombobulated. In 1977, my ex-husband got a job there. The location was beautiful, but the institution lacked emotional literacy or empathy. Pupils were toughened up, were set up to become super-capitalists, driven politicians, other kinds of single-minded professionals.
I tried to be what was expected of me. But seeing so many of the 11- to 13-year-olds missing home, witnessing many cold parents who drove up in big cars on visiting days and shook hands with their boys – no hugs – I decided to make ours an open house, with pop music and great home-made snacks. Little, sensitive Sam used to put his head on my tummy to feel the baby moving; Robbie followed me round like a duckling. Word got around.
The head’s wife, Mrs Silk, softly advised me to stick to Radley ways and not to spoil the boys. As they grew older, some of my favourites became macho, some pretty ruthless. My food memoir, The Settler’s Cookbook, has a recipe for spicy roast chicken sandwiches I used to make for the boys.
In 2002 I received a letter from one of them, then a financial adviser, saying: “My parents were separating and you helped me cry when I needed to. I remember your Bob Marley records. You also made delectable spicy chicken sandwiches.” He’s never married or had kids: attachment issues, he explained.
The esteemed intellectual Peter York tells me: “Public schools are there to legitimise people who think they were born to rule, rather than just trained to know the ropes.” To get to their rightful place “they have to be desensitised first”. Groomed too so they operate without penitence or shame and show no pity for those they harm.
Beard hopes one day we will be a fairer and more enlightened nation that will look back on the likes of Cameron and Johnson as “a self-erasing supernova, a final bright flare and a burning out, the dying of the public school light in a burst of corruption and incompetence”. Not yet though. Not for a very long time.
These are the personal views of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown