Author Richard Beard, who was sent to an English private school in the same year as Boris Johnson, explores why the politician’s time there explains his destructive approach to leading the country

Before the English private education system turned him into ‘Boris’, Alexander Johnson attended the European School in Brussels. My own children were at a European School, so I know something of its approach and values. The kids never wore a uniform, were in co-educational classes containing a happy blend of nationalities, and were allowed to come home to their parents in the evenings. Liberal, humane and outward-looking, a European School was clearly no way to educate a 21st century male leader of the Conservative Party.

From this freedom, Johnson escaped, aged 11, to Ashdown House, a traditional English boarding school set in 40 acres of its own grounds in East Sussex. He was met by imperative blazers and ties, by dormitories of small boy strangers and arcane rules about where he was allowed to whistle or when to wear his boiler suit. I know something about that, too, because I started in a similar school in the very same year, 1975. 

So it doesn’t surprise me to discover that at school Johnson remembers being “whacked”. His biographer Sonia Purnell translates this characteristically schoolboy word into language closer to the truth: “He was confronted by the misery of beatings (and possibly worse)”. She may be referring to the teacher from Ashdown House in Johnson’s time who was jailed for sexual offences or the allegations of abuse made against six others. Even if this didn’t visit the future Prime Minister directly, paedophilia was in the air, both before and after evening chapel. 

Separated from his parents for months at a time, and finding his way as a late-arriving outsider, Johnson would have had to adapt to survive. The European School in Brussels had failed to prepare him for this relentless, disconnected ordeal of becoming English, and he responded like so many others – he went into hiding, into the camouflage of the tribe. 

He certainly couldn’t complain. “Nobody ever complained,” the poet Andrew Motion writes in his memoir In the Blood, “because nobody ever listened. Not even our mums and dads.” Johnson wasn’t a blubber, a cry-baby, a moaner, or worse, a remoaner – someone who moaned again and again, who at the start of every new term failed to understand the brutal rules of English belonging. Better to cultivate a boosterish optimism. 

Johnson has extensive childhood experience of pretending, in abnormal situations like being taken into care for money, that everything is actually fine.

He did what he could to fit in. He worked for a scholarship, and then at Eton edited the school magazine, ran the debating society, and got himself elected to the club with the fancy waistcoats. He became a domineering yet evasive version of himself – English ‘Boris’ – and, along with his schoolboy nickname, a sense of immaturity persisted. When the adult Johnson messes up, he’s just a boy, with his boyishly ruffled hair, and expects to be excused. He’s chaotic, needy, opportunistic, slapdash, essentially frivolous. An expert dissembler, he discovered the best place to hide his inner child was in plain sight. 

His inner child is unmistakeably a boarding school boy from the late 1970s and early 80s. From his arch ‘O’ Level Latin to his ill-fitting clothes to his over-worked banter, anyone would think he was stuck at school because he liked it. As the failures of his leadership accumulate, however, and his Government wallows in corruption and incompetence, that visibly disarming man-child may not have as straightforward a relationship to his schooldays as at first it might seem.

In 1975, Johnson travelled across the Channel, and back in time. Alone, aged 11, he was left to navigate the under-heated hallways and arbitrary traditions of an uptight English prep school. It would only be natural justice (to use an in-favour Conservative notion) later to seek redress. He might decide, for example, that once free of school rules, he’d never again use his stipulated hairbrush and comb. But back then, in order to cope, he buried and hid whatever character was his when he arrived. That was the transaction: early emotional repression for later material success. 

His reward was fast-track admission to the established ruling class. 

On leaving Eton, however, he can’t help but have noticed that modern Britain wasn’t the country as described from the paid-for private distance of his schooling. As a child, he was steeped in old Empire certainties – short trousers, rugby, the Scramble for Africa – which left him and every other public schoolboy of his generation ill-prepared for the Britain they eventually encountered. 

Away from the historic quads and the gang-mown playing fields, the country was frankly appalling. Where was the spirit of Francis Drake? Where were the redcoats or the trusty serfs? We preferred our theme park England of tuck-shops and cricket flannels, and old Mr Chips ticking the dead off his register before supper in Hall. That was where we’d grown up, in our outdated fantasy Britain. 

According to Sonia Purnell in Just Boris, Ashdown House played a “large part” in forming the person Johnson would later become, and the school was “one of the few subjects on which he became serious”. This rare exhibition of seriousness seems like an important clue to his character, especially in its current phase where he likes to hide behind jokes. Purnell lifts a passage from Johnson’s journalism and, given the man’s reputation, she states explicitly that these reflections of his may even be true: “My memory of an otherwise idyllic 1970s English prep school is that masters used virtually any weapon of discipline they could lay their hands on.” Purnell adds that Johnson goes on to reveal an uncharacteristically heartfelt conviction: “I remember being so enraged at being whacked for talking at the wrong moment that it has probably given me a life-long distrust of authority.”

Note the joshing deflection of “otherwise idyllic” – meaning otherwise apart from the physical abuse of children. Many recollections of boarding school life follow this pattern: idyllic apart from the emotional constipation and the tyrannical 24-hour teachers and the homesickness on the first night back in uniform, learning a muddled set of standards from the moment adults called it ‘right’ to wave goodbye to your parents with a stiff upper lip. As David Cameron liked to insist, repeatedly, it was surely the right thing to do.

No wonder Johnson the boy had a distrust of authority. So what drives him now, as Prime Minister, when he is – supposedly – the nation’s ultimate authority figure?

That small boy left behind at a converted country house in 1975 can finally even the score. It’s not a direct assault – his education delivered the posts and prizes, as promised – more like sabotage, a little lord of the flies poking at fragile national structures, destabilising the suspect traditions of England. 

As an adult, Johnson’s apparent missteps can be read as acts of childish resistance. I will not brush my hair. I will not wait in line for lunch with my pumice-abraded fingers outstretched. I will whistle wherever I like. I will fabricate quotes when working as a journalist, and as an MP lie to party leaders and frankly do whatever I please. And, until now, however hard he shoves and rattles, everything has turned out well. The undisturbed rhythms of English privilege continue to work in his favour. On the other hand, if the poor old UK starts to fray and break, with former certainties swept away, then finally vengeance will be his. 

In the novel A Perfect Spy, John le Carré’s East German spymaster is surprised at how easy it is to run an English public schoolboy as a double agent against his own country. He plays on the obviously unfair privileges and the blatant hypocrisy of the class system, neither of which can be justified in the England that Le Carré – privately educated, a former teacher at Eton – recognises as home. Le Carré is possibly also thinking of the Cambridge Spies, boarding school boys in positions of influence who passed British secrets to the Soviet Union between the 1930s and the 1950s. One of these, Anthony Blunt, worked for the Queen and had the code name ‘Johnson’. 

‘Johnson’ benefitted from a private education, but was a bright boy not content to follow in the complacent footsteps of those who’d preceded him.

If England’s vaunted, segregated private schools can be said to have any educational value, both Johnsons must somehow have learned that a society dependent for leadership on a system that favoured the wealthy was sick. They were sick with it themselves. You’d have to be an idiot not to see the gross injustice of the old boys network, which is both outrageously helpful and exactly as described: a social and professional safety net for boys who never grow up. 

The harder Johnson wobbles the country, the deeper his secret satisfaction. Naturally, the Prime Minister’s fellow-travellers in the Conservative Party, those who Orwell called “the half-witted schoolboys”, would only allow a boy apparently from the caste – under-scrutinised, over- indulged – to endanger the structures and traditions that had lifted them out of mediocrity. They could only be betrayed by one of their own, but what other kind of betrayal is there? 

Traditional England isn’t worth preserving, not the private school England that made Johnson the man he is today. Johnson knows this as well as anyone. He’s known it since he was 11, and now he’s taking revenge.  

This article was first published in the November 2021 print edition of Byline Times. Richard Beard’s ‘Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England’ is published by Harvill Secker

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