The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

January 16th, 2005

Something rotten in the state of Harry’s education

“A bad day for Eton” was the title of an unforgettable essay that I read many years ago, in a long defunct magazine, about the disappearance of Lord Lucan after he murdered his children’s nanny by mistake instead of his inconvenient wife.

The article described very eloquently the unpleasant world that Lucan inhabited, solemnly eating lamb cutlets daily in the Clermont club, giving upper-class countenance to flash gamblers and surrounded by a clique of rich Etonians and hangers-on, outstanding more than anything else for their philistinism, recklessness, ruthlessness and eye-stretchingly unfeeling sense of entitlement.

Perhaps they were all misrepresented but I rather doubt it. My own life has been punctuated often enough by meetings with such characters for me to believe that there really were quite a lot of them — and still are.
Like the writer of that article, I have often been tempted to think that this strange subculture might have something to do with Eton, rather as Harrow is distinguished by some particularly appalling chancers of a different stamp among its old boys.

Of course there are lots of old Etonians, young and old, who are entirely different and impressively well educated. I can even say that some of my best friends are old Etonians.

All the same, I have my doubts about Eton’s secluded oddities and I was reminded of that essay last week in the midst of the scandal surrounding Prince Harry. I feel as strongly as anybody else that what he did was almost unforgivably stupid and insensitive, particularly for someone in his position.

To most people the swastika that he chose to wear on his arm for fun stands for unspeakable atrocity and he should have known that. He should have felt that. The question is, why didn’t he? Why has nobody succeeded in teaching him what Jane Austen would have called proper feeling or, failing that, at least some political nous? It is obvious why his family has not done so. With the exception of his grandmother, his close relations are notoriously dysfunctional and tactless, if not actually unhinged, and live a life of unusual social exclusion and ineptitude, surrounded by disloyal servants demented by red carpet fever. It is also obvious — although extremely odd, considering how many films and documentaries there are about Nazism, the second world war and the Holocaust — that popular culture succeeds in teaching very little history.

According to a recent poll, about 60% of all women and of people under 35 know absolutely nothing about Auschwitz; the word is meaningless to them.

If ignorance is any excuse, perhaps a very young man could be forgiven for dressing up in Nazi costume. Most bog-standard comprehensives have for years been entirely unable to give their pupils any sense of history whatsoever.

Princes Harry and William, however, did not go to a bog-standard comprehensive. They went to Eton, one of the best schools in the country. It is awash with brilliant and attentive teachers — called by some other name, of course, because exclusive language is part of exclusivity. All those teachers must have been aware that in the princes they were taking on two troubled boys much in need of guidance — both real moral guidance and the more worldly sort to ease them comfortably into the Establishment and give them the acceptable face of privilege. This is the sort of guidance that schools such as Eton pride themselves on providing. I think Eton failed the princes, by any standards.

It may be, as people say, that Harry isn’t very bright (and would not have got into Eton had he not been the Queen’s grandson). But surely any responsible bill or pecker or beak at Eton ought to have been able to convey even to poor Harry just a little bit of history, the embarrassments of his family’s past and the painful ambiguities of his own role, not to mention some manners. It’s not molecular biology.

The privately educated boys to whom I’ve spoken (and they are not academic either) are powerfully aware of what a swastika means. They are contemptuous of Harry and also of William for not stopping his younger brother there and then in Cotswold Costumes in Nailsworth when he chose his Nazi outfit. Perhaps William was equally unenlightened.

It seems that the part of upper-class culture in which they find themselves is generally rather insensitive. It takes a distinct lack of proper feeling to hold a big party with a “native and colonial” theme (where a truly vicious guest took the notorious photograph of Harry). It seems that the princes are surrounded by young things, many of them Etonians, who just do not understand how distasteful their pranks appear to others.

I am not anti-elitist or invertedly snobbish or disapproving of titles or remotely politically correct, yet these sort of people have mildly offended me all my life with their insensitivity and their unconscious sense of entitlement. They bring to mind the rumbling of the tumbrils.

The Queen would have been absolutely incapable of such a disastrous mistake. She was strictly brought up to understand her role and to discipline herself to it. But her grandsons have not been properly prepared.

It may no longer be possible to prepare anyone for royal highness in a supposedly meritocratic world, where self-discipline is increasingly seen as pathological and there is only one elderly royal role model for it. Majesty is crumbling everywhere, from Holland to Japan, battered by neurotic brides and delinquent sons.

But without such preparation the House of Windsor is doomed to play out the next act of its lengthy Götterdämmerung at a rather more rapid rate, no matter how handsome William is.

However, if last Thursday (when the photograph appeared) was a bad day for Eton and a disastrous day for the royal family, it was an even lower moment for the world’s media. The nickname for my trade in Private Eye, the satirical magazine, is the Street of Shame. Last week we truly deserved it.
The hysterical international feeding frenzy, from tabloids to television, upon this poor boy’s gaffe was inexcusable. Millions of words and thousands of hours of air time, driven largely by greed and sanctimoniousness from left and right, were spent cynically teasing up profitable frissons of righteous indignation.

It’s well known, sadly, that swastikas sell stories and a combination of royalty and swastikas is commercial dynamite. It has been shameful and extremely unfeeling.

Poor Harry has been punished excessively. For a boy of 20 this international fury must have been deeply shocking. I believe that he meant no harm and I am sure that he understands now that he ought to be extremely sorry. He may apologise more.

However, a really grovelling apology is owed to the public, and even perhaps to Harry, from the entire population of the Street of Shame.