Whatever happened to Scotland’s timid posh folk?

25 February 2014

1:57 PM

25 February 2014

1:57 PM

Whatever happened to Scotland’s upper-middle class? That’s one of the questions asked by Hugo Rifkind in his characteristically interesting column this week. Why, more to the point, are they so reluctant to play a part in the independence stushie? When did they become so bashful?

It is time, Hugo says, for the timid posh folk to speak out. Perhaps. But the alumni of Scotland’s private schools are hugely unrepresentative of Scottish life and, in many cases, far removed from the Scottish mainstream. Privately-educated Scotland is a tiny place. Everyone knows everyone (though the saddest people in Scotland are those who know only privately-schooled people).

Even in Edinburgh. True, 25% or so of Edinburgh children are educated privately (many of them on bursaries and scholarships at the old Merchant Company schools) but we often forget, I think, how small Edinburgh is. It is not very much bigger than Leicester and no-one considers Leicester a hyperpolis, do they?

You can find certainly Yes voters who were educated at Heriot’s or Watson’s or Hutchinson’s Hutchesons’ or the academies of Glasgow and Edinburgh but they are, as Hugo suggests, a minority of a minority. More to the point and by and large, the timid posh folk opted out of politics long ago.

Not all of them, of course. Alistair Darling was educated at Loretto. But, tellingly I think, he omits (or at least used to omit) that detail from his Who’s Who entry. An education that dare not speak its name, if you like.

Then again Loretto, like Glenalmond and Gordonstoun and Fettes is a school in Scotland but not, or not quite, a Scottish school (Strathallan, obviously, is barely a school at all*). Pupils are subjected to little Scottish history; few Scottish books are read. Many, perhaps most, of the teaching staff are from England. The Scottish public schools are Tartanised outposts of the English system and, these days, increasingly look to the international market for their pupils. (One in ten pupils at Glenalmond, for instance, comes from Germany.)

It would require some exaggeration to say their engagement with Scotland is limited to rugby matches at Murrayfield but the accusation contains enough truth to wound. If the sense of Scotland as a provincial, second-rate place is considerably less powerful than it was in, say, my father’s time enough of it still lingers and is still in some sense debilitating. It’s not a crisis of identity but it’s complicated.

In any case, these people are not necessarily quite who you think they are. They are not, of course, from “ordinary” backgrounds and some of their alumni may own some of Scotland but the biggest landowners – even those actually resident in Scotland – are more likely to send their offspring to the great English public schools than to those schools’ poorer (financially-speaking as well as in status) Scottish cousins.

There is some ambivalence, then. In Scotland but not fully of Scotland. At least not quite. Anyone who attended these schools knows there are plenty of other Scots willing – often in forthright terms – to question their Scottishness. Proper Scots don’t go to boarding school; they certainly don’t talk like that. Nor do they sport red trousers. Toffs are suspect and you’re a toff.  Suspect.


I don’t say this to make it seem as though privately-educated Scots have a tough time. That would be ridiculous. This is not an exercise in self-pity. It’s just the way it is. In any case, the number of folk affected thus is tiny.

Even so, the Scottish boarding schools were crucibles of Britishness. How could it be otherwise, being educated in Scotland in the English system? They measured their academic prowess by Oxford and Cambridge admissions. Their boys joined the British army (10% of my year signed up, for example) and their chapels are littered with war memorials honouring the glorious dead.

The city schools are in a different category and not only because they are cheaper and less “exclusive”. In Edinburgh and Glasgow they were schools of aspiration for the merchant classes. Their extensive bursaries offered one path to social mobility too. But they were not training grounds for governance in the way, say, Eton is. At least not in politics.

True, a good number of Scots politicians – David Steel, Malcolm Rifkind, Donald Dewar – attended the likes of George Watson’s or Glasgow Academy but these, in the modern era, are exceptions. The truth is that, by and large, upper-middle class Scots abandoned politics long ago.

And why not? There weren’t many places on offer. Scotland sent only 72 MPs to Westminster and Scotland, before devolution, existed in a kind of political demi-monde. Power lay with a handful of ministers in the Scottish Office and, just as significantly, with civil servants tasked with administering the country. This had been the case for centuries.

Business and, especially, the law offered better paths to advancement. Even now 80% of the Senators in the upper house of the College of Justice were educated privately. True, this is a small sample size and “only” 50% of the larger lower house were schooled privately but, still, it gives an indication of the extent to which the privately-educated have, and still do, dominate the law.

The truth is that there is no single Scottish establishment. There are many such establishments and the law is only one. The Dukes of Argyll and Buccleuch and Hamilton form part of another establishment that is, naturally, even smaller.

And there are still others. Public sector Scotland, so resistant to reform of any kind, is part of the political establishment. The EIS and COSLA are bastions of power, albeit power frequently expressed in negative terms. Few of the people Hugo Rifkind writes about make their voices heard in those halls.

Nor do they in the Scottish parliament. The striking aspect of the modern SNP is how very ordinary it is.  That is not meant pejoratively, far from it. The SNP leadership is utterly representative of mainstream Scotland. Few of its members were educated privately and few attended university outside Scotland either.

Instead they went to Linlithgow Academy, Greenwood Academy (Irvine), Forrster High (Edinburgh), Ayr Academy, Marr College (Troon), Broughton High (Edinburgh), Bell Baxter High (Cupar), King’s Park Secondary (Glasgow) and so on. Only a handful of prominent Nationalists were educated privately (Fergus Ewing, Humza Yousuf). Disproportionately, they come from small town Scotland and from backgrounds that, if not exactly modest, were rarely exceptional.

Scotland’s new political establishment is, in fact, entirely normal and, in many respects, entirely representative of the country it leads. If anything, the modern SNP is disproportionately petit-bourgeois and provincial. (Again, I stress, these are not pejorative terms).

Then again, even the Scottish Tories are not what once they were. Ruth Davidson is a product of Buckhaven High School and her predecessor, Annabel Goldie, attended Greenock Academy. If the Scots Tories were once a party of the grouse moor, they no longer are.  It is one of their many tiny, plangent tragedies that they have not persuaded the electorate of this change.

If Scotland’s timid posh folk are, as Hugo puts it, pre-emptive cringers, cowed and awkward and embarrassed it may be because, as a tribe, they know they’re a minority. But it’s also, perhaps, because they’ve lived lives in which politics is an optional extra not a matter of necessity. There’s a lot to be said for such a state, not least because politics ruins so many things it touches. Nevertheless it is also, as Hugo suggests, a state of mild denial.

The scions of Stewarts Melville and Kelvinside Academy face no looming apocalypse, of course. They are not the Anglo-Irish after all. They will continue to lead lives of prosperous contentment after independence. They have no crisis of allegiance or conscience either. They will be fine. If they are reluctant to involve themselves in politics it may be because, to the extent they can be considered a class at all, they have no need for politics.

At least not yet.

 *A joke. Obviously. Though perhaps you had to attend Glenalmond – or, indeed, Strathallan – to appreciate it.  

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Show comments
  • Cymrugel

    Hugo Rifkind is in a cleft stick.
    He owes his career to parental connections, but, living as he does in changing time’s, while these are an advantage, his Scottishness is a bit of a bother south of the border.
    On the one hand he is unable to capitalise on his connections in Scotland as the Tories are , at least for the time being, a dead duck up here, so no political sinecure is available; similarly, despite suddenly popping up as a Scotsman columnist with very little background as a journalist – he just appeared with his own by-line one day – this was small potatoes and London beckoned.
    But now of course his Scottish connections are a liability.
    Essentially the goal post have moved and the well trod path isn’t quite as comfortable as it was.
    Poor chap!

  • justejudexultionis

    Edinburgh barely counts as Scotland – Stockbridge has a cricket club FFS.


    • Cymrugel

      Don’t talk daft!
      I have lived in Edinburgh most of my life and Stockbridge is as Scottish as anywhere else in the city. It’s full of elderly ladies in tweed skirts going out for tea, rubbing shoulders with students and tourists.
      Being Scottish is not some sort of set of defined behaviours set in stone that people have to adhere to qualify; say ten or twenty rules that you have to live up to, to get the coveted badge.
      The Scots are as diverse as any other nations; tall, short, old young, straight. gay, football fanatics, football haters, cricket enthusiast’s (well that MIGHT be a bit of a stretch admittedly), why we even have a few black brown and yellow people – imagine!
      Please stop putting us into a pigeonhole – it’s not OK just because you looked up a bit of Gaelic.

    • Jambo25

      Fauldhouse has a cricket club as well.

  • rjbh

    My youngest son was educated at Glenrothes High, Abertay uni, Dundee uni, Carlton uni, Ottowa, and Harvard, He’s too old to get a job, so lives in splendid retirment, as a professional gambler.

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    Humphrae Heriot’s

  • Malcolm McCandless

    For the Hugos and Alexanders of this world to speak out in Scotland means they have to face a populace that will chuckle to it self, “What are Shug and Eck talking about?”

    You can see why posh fowk in Scotland are a bit feart to say anything of worth.

  • chump23

    Are there any in Scotland? You can’t move in Corney & Barrows for Morningside accents.

    • Jambo25

      A Morningside accent is only medium-posh. Those who hold power and privilege, in Scotland, tend to be the medium posh. Lawyers, accountants, medicos, academics etc though there is a growing number of entrepeneurs joining them. They are overwhelmingly middle class and Scottish educated; both at school and university. Messrs Massie and Rifkind are in this category though they did both go to ‘foreign’ universities.

      • balance_and_reason

        who do you think is running and ruling the rest of the UK…its just the same. Don’t listen to the BBC.

        • Jambo25

          But this was about Scotland.

  • john

    Scotland (like England for that matter) is a working class country with a small but dominant upper middle class elite. The Scots want to quit the Union so that the ordinary citizen runs his own country rather than these elites. England is just as class dominated and the average citizen is still waiting to take over. One day, the monarchy, House of Lords etc will be booted out. Can’t come too soon.

    • Jambo25

      Actually, Scotland is a rather wealthy country with a large middle class. Morningside, Cramond, Barnton, the Grange, Trinity, the New Town etc in Edinburgh. Virtually the whole West End, Giffnock, Bearsden, Milngavie, Newton Mearns, Kilmacolm etc in Glasgow. Cults, Peterculter, Broomhill, Rubieslaw etc in Aberdeen. These are all wealthy middle class areas.

      • john

        Jambo: I’m not making a critical point in noting the economic structure of Scotland’s population. Of course, Scotland is a wealthy country. But the fact that you can name these specific areas does suggest they are atypical.
        My point is that in the UK, power and influence are hugely distorted in favour of a London-based elite. All areas of the country suffer from this distortion and Scotland is now in aposition to take action.

        • Jambo25

          No. It suggests that Scotland is a rather small country where many of us know the social and geographical structures of our towns and cities.

          • john

            OK. No issue here. I’m sure you will agree that the overwhelming percentage of the Scottish population are moderate to low income earners versus the London elite?

            • Jambo25

              I agree John. I don’t think our posts are incompatible.

            • balance_and_reason

              cost of living is sky high in South east…you better look at net disposable spending money and costs.

    • balance_and_reason

      Bring on the National socialists….you cannot have enlightened government without education….education makes you different…deal with it. Or get your shiny black boots out with matching peaked hat….I could smell the stink of that coming off New Labour.

  • Stephen Brown

    I was educated at Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen, as were my brother and my sister. We have never doubted that Scotland should be a self-governing nation. I would say the vast majority of privately educated people will be voting no because they are the people less likely to want change. I respect Alex Massie’s writing even though I disagree with the way Scotland should manage it’s future.

    • La Fold

      I went to Ellon Academy and it was a bloody Gladiator school.

  • CornishExile

    Any interesting article and worthy of development. Scotland has indeed inherited a well-developed nursery for the professional classes, distinct in character from England.

    As has been explained to me many times during my 32 year residence in Scotland, these private schools became specialized in the production of leaders destined to go forth and run the empire.Don’t forget the role of the formally private schools now state run, such as Aberdeen Grammar (alumni includes M. Gove). I heard endless disparaging remarks about the Scottish-dominated Labour cabinets of recent years, but no-one ever seem to question why this occurred.

    The Empire gone, England proves not quite big enough to provide a home for this cadre. Since in 1707, Scotland only entered Union with England to get access to the Empire, and since an English-dominated UK seeks withdrawal rather than domination of a potential replacement empire, the EU, it is natural that dissolution of the Union becomes relevant.

    I haven’t heard a compelling argument why the Union should be maintained, just a list of reasons why it might be hard or expensive for Scotland to be independent. Well, yes, and so what? It can’t be any harder than the UK’s putative withdrawal form the EU in 2017? Or the 4 recessions, 2 oil shocks, several housing bubbles and one

    • La Fold

      walk past the grammar school everyday on the way to work.

  • asalord

    Scotland’s “posh folk” are wee pretendy patriots. They’d sell their granny to be part of the London establishment.

    • Noa

      But who amonst the socialist and tightwads of Edinburgh’s gentility, would buy these redundant and doubtless whiffy pensioners?

  • Kitty MLB

    Oh Heavens ! we appear to have a spot of malcontent and the odd sourpuss
    amongst those already posting, ‘toffee nosed’ whatever by some.
    What has happened to the timid posh folk of Scotland ?
    Why are they timid ? may be some have gone under ground like badgers
    because of the bombardment of leftie vituperation, and maybe the really
    posh Scots have rented their castles out and fled.
    As for the others that remain in Scotland ( assuming most have left for pastures new)
    well I assume they go about their business, trying to avoid a bloody nose.
    Also after an excellent education, these Tory minorities who had an excellent
    education pay very high taxes to keep everyone else in haggis and whisky.

    • Jambo25

      Apart from the rather ultra posh products of a few boarding schools, who tend not to actually be Scottish or not identify with Scotland (See T Blair esq) the medium posh middle and upper middle classes have difficulty in really identifying with the right in Scotland as they dislike the Tories as much as most other people.

  • Wessex Man

    What a lot of driviel yet again! whilst I quite enjoy a frank exchange with some of the biggest Cybernat Nutjobs anywhere on any blog site outside of Scotland, Mr Massie’s twaddle on the Old Country is so Boring an zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    • Noa

      Thank God, it’s one of those dark, celtic soul things we unimaginative English will never be privy to. Except when the occasional Sconat living in England starts droning on…

    • Michael Rossi

      I disagree, it’s an interesting take on the social changes that have taken place in Scotland. Perhaps it’s boring to you as it doesn’t have particular relevance to your life, which is fair enough

  • Edward Harkins

    I heard Alex Massie at the rather good Cultures of Independence conference at the Glasgow School of Art last Friday. He suggested that a ‘Yes’ vote in the independence referendum and then an independent Scotland, could lead to a revival of right–wing politics (conservatism) there. That met with some fulsome laughter from the audience. Nevertheless, Alex’s suggestion reminded me of what is curious factor in post devolution Scotland. When devolution approached I anticipated there would be a revival in Scottish Conservatism. That was partly because the act of devolution might lay the ghosts of Thatcher’s betrayal of Ted Heath’s ‘solemn and binding’ public promise made at a Scottish Conservative’s annual conference to deliver devolution. It was also partly because a likely Labour dominated Holyrood would mean that ‘natural’ Scottish conservatives could no longer depend so much on Conservative UK Administrations protecting conservative interests in Scotland. In that scenario one could have anticipated a Scottish conservatism re-invigorated by the more immediate need to defend the home patch interests (and stop the earlier dilly dallying on voting with SNP and/or Lib Dems). In the event, that did not happen and it’s maybe still unclear why. So I’m interested in Alex Massie’s suggestion – whilst remaining a sceptic

    • ChuckieStane

      The shape and colour of an indy Scotttish political landscape is indeed a fascinating topic for speculation.

      The referendum campaign has brought a lot of new people into politics from a wide variety of backgrounds. The numbers signed up by the two campaigns outnumber the “old” party memberships by a factor of perhaps 20. Will these people retreat from politics or push on with their agendas? Will they allow the old “professional” politicians to pick up where they left off at Westminster or will they push them aside?

      We know parties cannot operate simultaneously in different countries so the electorate need to know what the Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems would do. Will they simply split into Scottish clones of the former UK parties or will they disband and re-emerge in new realigned and reinvigorated groupings? The conservatives in particular are bound to reorganise and rebrand (if not disband and start afresh). Nationalism/patriotism is traditionally the home turf of the right but in Scotland the right chose the British Nation over Scotland to catastrophic electoral effect.
      Will the individual Westminster MPs and Peers commit to putting themselves to the electorate to serve Scotland post 2016?
      Although the SNP have stated they will continue, in the longer term they are likely to divide as they will have achieved their unifying goal.
      Interesting times. Alex Massie can be one of the few to touch on these topics and it raises the standard of debate in between the inane Salmond bogeyman stuff.

      • Jambo25

        Michael Fry and now David Torrance (I think Mr. Massie’s in there as well.) have made the point that the Scottish Tories are the only right wing party in Europe who cannot play the patriotism card. See where it has got them. They are seen, very largely as un-Scottish or even anti-Scottish.

        • Crying out loud

          And it is to their own detriment. I do think Scotland is centre-right and not left wing socialist. It just appears the latter as there is no right or centre-right party in Scotland.

          • Jambo25

            And I think you are entirely correct. I’d categorise myself as centre-right on the European Christian Democrat model and so are the vast bulk of my family and friends. Mind you that, paradoxically, probably makes me more left wing than the present Labour Party. Mind you, I’m not sure what the present Labour Party is; or the Tories for that matter.

      • Edward Harkins

        Interesting times indeed ChuckieStane and I agree that the SNP must split after a ‘Yes’ result. Indeed, on present polling trends I suspect that they need beware taking their eye off the ball of needing to get a Yes before they get pre-occupied with their post-referendum journey.

        And yes I do so agree with the ‘inane’ Salmond bogeyman stuff’. If you depended on the London-centric UK media you would indeed think that Scottish independence is something recently all got up by this one man on the basis of having no guile and no answers to anything. That London-centric myopia may be one reason that the Unionist cause is making such heavy going of what ought to be an easy task for them.

    • GUBU

      I would suggest that the poll tax still casts a long shadow over Conservative electoral fortunes in Scotland – much more than anything to do with Ted Heath, whose promises – solemn, binding or otherwise – were never of much value.

      • Crying out loud

        Bugger all to do with the Poll Tax, which was phased out 20 years ago or so. It is the fact the the Tories use the name ‘Conservative and Unionist’ – unionist conjures up images of those odd people in Ulster screaming at the top of their voices and of English domination.

        • GUBU

          I must defer to your superior knowledge.

          When I lived in Scotland I never heard anyone mention how discomfited they were by the stridency of the Reverend Ian Paisley’s voice, so I never considered it might be a motivating factor in how people voted.

          The poll tax, however, did appear to make a lot of people angry, and did seem to crystallize that anger into something more than anti English animus – even amongst people who I would have characterised as having broadly right of centre political views.

          However, I take your point that the Conservative Party has become, to all intents and purposes, become an English party in Scots eyes – much as it was in the 19th Century.

      • Edward Harkins

        GUBU I didn’t say the poll tax still casts a long shadow. On the contrary I suggested that that ghost had been laid to rest by devolution – that the Scottish and UK conservative parties both committed themselves to once enacted.

        The loathing in which many Conservatives hold Ted Heath – like the Euro sceptic fundies – imply a Party that seems unable to look outside its factions, move on , adapt and tackle with the real contemporary issues in a UK bedevilled with class (se Cabinet membership) gross, widening and economically dysfunctional inequalities and enduring economic under-performance.

    • Cymrugel

      There will not be a revival in tory fortunes north of the border until they relaunch themselves as a Scottish party distinct from and not accountable to London.
      The last but one leader tried to do this and was promptly booted out for his pains.
      If the Yes vote prevails there will be a major realignment in all Scottish parties and a lot of powerful people will be put out to grass.
      Massie is correct that the SNP is far more representative of ordinary people in Scotland. That is why it is winning.
      The other parties are far too closely aligned with London and the leaders careers are tied to Westminster

  • Nationwide

    Jesus Christ. It’s HUTCHESONS’ not Hutchinson’s (two schoolboy errors in one).

    Good question, although I see you’ve missed out Dollar Academy. No discourse about toffee nosed wankers could possibly make such an omission. Doesn’t anyone round here know any alumni from Dollar?

    • Nationwide

      Dear Subs,
      Thank you (re Hutchie).
      Now, about that ‘toffee nose’ Dollar joke.
      Try the editor’s office.

    • Crying out loud

      Do you feel left out? Dollar is just not that great a school. Middle of the road middle of exam result, middle class, middle of no where.

  • MC73

    Jesus. 1,300 words from Massie on a topic selected by Rifkind junior.

    I give in. How much money will it take for you to shut Massie up? If i can’t pay myself I will raise the money somehow… Happy to cover his severance payment and the cost of a new blogger.

    • allymax bruce

      Correct; Rifkind-rehash pays big money for journos today.
      The comments ‘thread’ that introduces the Conservative rebranding is more interesting and novel; even though many have already said it years ago; and Isabel Hardman runs with that story today too!

  • CraigStrachan

    “The scions of Stewarts Melville and Kelvinside Academy face no looming apocalypse, of course”.

    Well, of course. If you’re already a scion of Kelvinside Academy, things can hardly get any worse.

    • Crying out loud

      KA is not that bad…they could have went to Hutches’.

      • Richard Ferguson

        Having attended neither and therefore nae dug in the fight I would suggest they are night and day.