Posh Boys

by Robert Verkaik, Oneworld, 400pp, £16.99

In the first few pages of Posh Boys, Robert Verkaik manages, among other things, to give public schools a heavy dusting of Nazism-by-association (on the grounds that some of the German high command prematurely fantasised about sending their offspring to Eton); to populate them with people called Tarquin and Humphrey; and to blame them for producing the politicians who sent Britain “crashing out of Europe”.

Crikey, as Tarquin himself might exclaim – if, that is, you can find him. I have lived in England for 28 years and I’ve met countless former public schoolboys, but I have yet to come across the ubiquitous Tarquin. I’ve met lots of Toms, Matts and Nicks, though; and among the ranks of privately educated Tory MPs (including two Old Etonians) one can find Kwasi, Nadhim, Rishi and Bim. But no Tarquin. Mysterious.

Anyway, having been raised in Ireland to be suspicious of the English ruling classes, and in full knowledge of the disasters that befell our country under British rule, I should perhaps have been sympathetic to Verkaik’s horrible history. But the problem with Posh Boys is that, while it is in several respects a very useful primer on the manifest imbalances the public school system has caused in British society, too often fiery polemic overturns rational analysis.

So, for instance, the dissection of David Cameron’s chumocracy, his “meteoric rise and padded fall”, is cleverly done: informative, amusing and dispiriting. Verkaik allows the various actors to take the stage with simply the name of their old school announced sotto voce in brackets – “Osborne (St Paul’s)”; “Clegg (Westminster)” etc – creating a procession that tells its own story. Equally, he convincingly dissects the ways in which public schools wriggle uncomfortably on the hooks created by the stated purposes of their founders, while playing the education market at home and abroad, and exploiting their status as charities within the tax system. It is blistering stuff that should make the posh boys squirm.

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