This week, David Cameron has appointed yet another Etonian to his inner circle. He has made Jo Johnson, brother of Boris, the head of the Downing Street policy unit.
Jo Johnson may well be a very able man but his appointment highlights the fact that Cameron relies for advice on people (mostly men) from a strikingly narrow demographic. Almost all Cameron’s inner circle comes from the 7% of the population that is privately educated and many of the key people come from one single school, Eton.
Etonians at the heart of government include Cameron; Jo Johnson; Oliver Letwin, Cabinet Minister with policy oversight; Sir George Young, Chief Whip; Ed Llewellyn, Cameron’s chief of staff; Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s chief adviser and Jesse Norman, an influential MP just appointed to a new policy board.
In November last year, Dame Helen Ghosh, former top civil servant at the Home Office publicly attacked Cameron’s “Old Etonian clique” of advisers. She highlighted the negative impact on women’s ability to influence policy at the highest level. The same negative impact would apply to other groups, including much of the middle class - and the poor, ethnic minorities and many others.
The problem with too many Etonians is that identified in the third category of Donald Rumsfeld’s well known statement in 2002: -
“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”
However clever or well-intentioned they may or may not be, a group of advisers as narrow as the one around Cameron will always lack knowledge of the reality of the lives of most people in the country. They do not know what questions to ask. They do not know what they do not know.
It appears that Cameron thinks that he does not need to bring into his inner circle people with different life experiences. The idea may seem as outlandish to him as inviting a native to advise them would have seemed to the members of the Raj.
A rich and privileged background, combined with some wisdom, is potentially a great advantage for someone who wants to fight for social justice. Franklin Delano Roosevelt came from a far wealthier and more privileged background than Cameron and he was one of the greatest progressive politicians of the last century. Unlike Cameron, he knew that his life experiences meant there were a great many things he did not know and so he gathered around him advisers who either knew these things or knew what questions to ask.
George Orwell was an old Etonian. He immersed himself in life experiences far removed from his upbringing. His writing and campaigning for democracy and socialism will be remembered long after Cameron is forgotten.
If Cameron was wise he would surround himself with advisers that more closely represented the country he is governing. Sadly, all his expensive education has failed to furnish him with much wisdom.