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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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