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Why has Eton produced so many prime ministers?

By Paul Moss
BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight

The historic courtyard at Eton College
Historic Eton College has now produced 19 of Britain's prime ministers

David Cameron has become the 19th prime minister of Great Britain to have attended Eton College near Windsor. Why have so many leaders come from this one school?

It is the thread that unites some of Britain's most disparate prime ministers. What else could Robert Walpole have in common with Anthony Eden? What links William Gladstone to Harold Macmillan?

The answer lies in a single educational establishment, founded on the bank of the River Thames more than 500 years ago.

Eton may not be the most expensive school in Britain, and it certainly does not get the best exam results. But this one boys' secondary has produced 19 prime ministers of Great Britain, one of Northern Ireland, and also educated the prime minister of Thailand.

Eton pupils
A good Etonian is gentlemanly, intelligent - who could want better than that?
Ticky Hedley-Dent, Tatler Magazine

"Kids arrived there with this extraordinary sense that they knew they were going to run the country," said Palash Dave, who went to Eton in the 1980s.

He does not count himself among that number, insisting his own crowd were rather less full of themselves.

"But by hell did we have that sense by the time we left."

Palash Dave attributes this in part to a relentless series of speakers visiting the school, telling pupils they were potential leaders of the future.

But he also says that the school puts a premium on individualism: "You're encouraged to pursue any dream you might have.

"Eton also allows a degree of dissent and, to a certain extent, encourages it. That's very helpful to anyone who wants a leadership role."

This is not how the school is usually seen.

Sir Robert Walpole
William Pitt
John Bute
George Grenville
Frederick North
William Grenville
George Canning
Arthur Wellesley
Charles Grey
William Melbourne
Edward Derby
William Gladstone
Robert Salisbury
Archibald Rosebery
Arthur Balfour
Sir Anthony Eden
Harold Macmillan
Sir Alec Douglas-Home
David Cameron
Terence O'Neill, PM of Northern Ireland
James Chichester-Clark, PM of Northern Ireland
Abhisit Vejjajiva, PM of Thailand

With its Victorian-era uniform, and rules dating back through the centuries, Eton is often perceived as a rigid, conformist institution.

But according to Nick Fraser, author of the book The Importance of Being Eton, the school's success actually lies in the extraordinary range of freedoms it grants to pupils.

They are particularly well-prepared for a life in politics, he believes, because so many school societies, sports clubs and other activities are run by the pupils themselves.

"Boys elect each other to positions of influence. So from a very early age, you become adept at being charming, buying votes, being smarmy."

Of course, smarminess can ruin a potentially-great political career, so too any suggestion of arrogance.

Ticky Hedley-Dent of Tatler Magazine, believes that Etonians' distinctive ability is to exude confidence, without appearing haughty or conceited.

"You can spot an Etonian, because they're going to a certain place, with a certain goal in mind, and they just go for it, no matter what other people think."

Hedley-Dent meets plenty of Etonians at social gatherings, and admits to being charmed.

"A good Etonian is gentlemanly, intelligent - who could want better than that?"

Etonian 'mirage'

David Aaronovitch wants better than that.

In fact, the Times newspaper columnist thinks the fuss about Etonians is completely overblown - more a mirage than an aura.

"Every time somebody does something from Eton, we talk about this person being an "Old-Etonian".

"We don't prefix Nick Clegg with being an 'Old-Westminsterian'.

"There's a degree of class-deference about it."

Dr Joe Spence
We can do what we want to do in life. Etonians are back on the scene
Dr Joe Spence

Aaronovitch's view is shared, paradoxically, by one of Eton's great supporters.

Dr Joe Spence taught at the school from 1987 to 1992. And although he is now head teacher of Dulwich College, he still believes that Eton has special qualities.

But Dr Spence also believes that the way Eton is talked about has bred resentment.

"In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a touch of defensiveness.

"I know Douglas Hurd felt the Eton label stood against his chances of becoming leader of the Tory Party.

"There was a sense that the days of the Etonian being important might have passed."

The success of David Cameron in becoming Conservative leader and now prime minister would suggest such fears were premature.

In fact, when Mr Cameron unveiled his first front-bench team, it included 13 people from his old school.

It is a sign, Dr Spence believes, that the Etonian label is no longer a handicap.

And present-day pupils, he says, are well aware of this.

"There's a renewed confidence that there is no reason that having been here, we should suffer thereby.

"We can do what we want to do in life. Etonians are back on the scene."

The World Tonight is on BBC Radio 4 Monday to Friday at 2200 BST GMT and can be listened to afterwards on the BBC iPlayer.

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