Sunday 22 September 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'English lessons in pride, prejudice and politics from the playing fields of Eton'

Quintessential old boy Boris Johnson is hostage to his mendacity, while Ireland faces into a hostile decade, writes Jody Corcoran

Eton, one of the most famous schools in the world. Photo: Getty Images
Eton, one of the most famous schools in the world. Photo: Getty Images
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

In 2016, 11 schoolboys from Eton College in the UK caused something of a sensation when they travelled to Moscow and managed to secure a meeting with Vladimir Putin. Subsequently, it transpired that the Russian president took the meeting because he was fascinated by the college which, to date, has produced 20 prime ministers of Britain, among them the Duke of Wellington and William Gladstone.

In latter times, the gloss has surely faded a little from Eton's reputation where the fees will set you back €45,000 a year. Of the last three UK prime ministers, two are Eton old boys, David Cameron and the current PM, Boris Johnson.

A most interesting interview in a week of political drama at the House of Commons was given to BBC Newsnight by William Waldegrave, the current Provost of Eton, himself a former British politician who served in the Cabinet from 1990 until 1997, and who, among other things, had a central role in the controversial poll tax back in the mists of time.

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Waldegrave was regarded as a "wet" in his Cabinet days, or among those on the moderate wing of the Conservative Party, such as are the great number, indeed all, of those purged from that party by Boris Johnson last week.

In his BBC interview, Waldegrave, with impeccable grace, as you would expect, drew attention to the great mistakes of David Cameron, his calling the ill-fated Brexit referendum in the first place, and his introduction of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, two decisions which have placed the UK in such a calamitous state today; compounded by the two-ill-fated more recent decisions of Boris Johnson: to prorogue parliament this week and to purge the Conservatives of people, or "wets" such as Ken Clarke, Philip Hammond and Rory Stewart among others.

Waldegrave is more illuminating on the subject in his forthcoming book, Three Circles into One: Brexit Britain: How Did We Get Here and What Happens Next?

In this book, he questions Britain's place or role in the world and asks, among other matters, whether it should still be regarded the "super power" it was as a founding member of the United Nations in 1945, when it took a permanent seat on the Security Council.

The conclusions drawn by Waldegrave will make for difficult reading for Brexiteers, who - as we heard again last weekend - believe the European Union will or should "come to heel" in this great debate.

Herein lies an attitude, or the difficulty for Brexiteers, led by Boris Johnson, but perhaps best portrayed by a combination of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois, which blinds them to Britain's position in the modern world order, which is still considerable but lesser than in 1945.

As it happens, I believe that Boris Johnson is at heart more "wet" than any of the European Research Group which last week took over the Conservative Party, but has become hostage to his own ambition and mendacity.

Whether "wet" or not, Johnson is now also a hostage to the Labour Party, with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationals, which will hold his feet to the flames on Brexit, so ill-advised has he been by the man hired to do his strategic thinking, Dominic Cummings, himself an old boy of Durham School (€36,000 a year), who seems to have overlooked the finer detail of Cameron's Fixed Term Parliaments Act when war gaming in his "genius" mind towards a general election. Oh dear.

As a result, the most influential politician in the UK right now is Nigel Farage (Dulwich College - minimum €15,800 a year), who will have a most difficult decision to make when finally Johnson's size-10s are removed from the flames, and that is whether or not his Brexit Party should contest the looming general election.

The answer will depend on events: Johnson has said he would rather "die in a ditch" than ask the EU to again extend the Brexit deadline. To seek an extension would be a personal humiliation, and would surely guarantee that the Brexit Party contest the election. Should Farage's party contest, then the Conservatives would almost certainly lose that election.

What Farage must consider, however, are the obvious consequences: a government comprising some combination of Labour, the Liberals and SNP and, more than likely, a second referendum. To have come so close only to have let slip the dream of Brexit…

For Leo Varadkar (the King's Hospital - day: €7,330; seven-day boarding - €17,130 a year), and Simon Coveney (Clongowes Wood College - €19,500 a year), the best outcome would be a second referendum in which the result is reversed, of course.

Varadkar may not be prepared to wait that long, but rather may use the opportunity of apparent victory over the old Empire to go to the country here before scheduled by-elections in November.

Should Farage's Brexit Party stand aside or agree a pact with the Tories, though, then all bets are off. The full implications of Brexit, which are said to have so "shocked" the Cabinet last week, will be upon us.

Either way, Micheal Martin (Colaiste Chriost Ri - no fees) will also have decisions to make: whether to go short, or long, as Labour in the UK pondered last week. Martin will go long to allow these most unpredictable of events unfold, but will be aware, too, that Leo, by accident or design, may be about to pull off a most troublesome victory.

As to the long-term implications: the existential future of the UK as we know it is surely more in play than ever, with the SNP in the ascendancy; and a border down the Irish Sea back on the cards should Farage do a deal that allows Johnson win a majority without recourse to the DUP.

And as to Ireland; well, it is in a hostile place at the moment, between angry English nationalists on one hand and Trump's America on the other. This country must hold fast to Europe until the dust settles in a decade or so.

It would be interesting, indeed, to know what that other old boy, George Orwell, a scholarship student at Eton, where he was "happy and interested", would have made of today's events.

This of his many truths certainly applies, that ''each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it''; and this, ''the insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time''.

But also this, I would suggest, at a time when triumphalism at anticipated victory over the old Empire simmers to the boil, that this insularity plays its part in the English mystique, and that those who have tried to break it down in the past have generally done more harm than good.

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