Tuesday 28 June 2016

Was the Referendum an Eton Mess?




Carlyle had no doubt that great men changed history. His house is open to the public, who can wander round the great man’s abode at 24 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, imbibing the Victorian atmosphere in the well preserved building. Jane Carlyle would ask local workmen to abate their noise so that he could pen his great works in his cork lined quiet attic, quietness still cherished in Chelsea to this day. Friends who noted their stormy relationship opined that they had married each other only to avoid making four people unhappy. Thomas Carlyle’s admiration for heroes led to what was called Great Man Theory, summarised in his quip that “History is nothing but the biography of the Great Man".

The Sage of Chelsea certainly had a case in his biography of Bismark, and the thesis seems self-evident to any historian. Joachim Fest, who wrote the first substantive German biography of Hitler paid at least passing homage to the Marxist theory that biographies of great man are no more than the late remnants of courtly flattery, and that history is merely the playing out of historical inevitabilities, but went on to refute that reductio ad absurdum by remarking that of Hitler it can certainly be said: here was a man who changed history. Greatness of effect does not always imply goodness.

Therefore, in discussing the referendum between the Remain and Leave camps it is apposite to asks Lenin’s question: Who? Whom?

Well, this turns out to be a bit awkward. Yes, the poor  and downtrodden White working class and older voters were mostly in the Leave camp and the Metropolitan professional classes, young people and urban immigrants were mostly in the Remain camp, so one can attempt an analysis on the basis of class, age and race. Remain saw themselves as Refined people, Leavers were cast as louts, and worse, bigots. However, the main antagonists, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, were both at Eton, and maintained a friendship despite being rivals. This is more psychoanalytic territory, in the sense of convoluted imaginings bereft of any possible confirmation or discomfirmation. Did one bully the other, fancy the other, did they lust after each other’s mothers or, more likely, were they just two likeable, bright boys who wanted to be Prime Minister, as any bright boy should want to be? So, are we talking about major forces of history, or a tussle between two bright and rich kids: the march of inevitability or an Eton Mess?

David Cameron was born to wealthy upper-middle class parents, and after Eton (circled in the picture above) went on to Brasenose College, Oxford. He worked in the Conservative Research Department, then in a TV company before becoming an MP in 2001. Boris Johnson was born to upper-middle class parents, and after Eton went on to Balliol College, Oxford. He worked in journalism and became an MP in 2001.

From a hereditarian point of view this all makes sense. Your parents may account for 60% of your ability, and parental ability is best judged by intelligence tests (not available), scholastic attainment (probably available somewhere and very informative), occupation (available and informative) and wealth (available though not as predictive as parental education). Eton, excellent school though it may be, serves mainly as an achievement hurdle for wealthy families, because they have to pay the fees and proffer up boys who will maintain the academic achievements of the school. So, it is an achievement test and an intelligence test.  It is no surprise that the leading lights of the campaign are eighth cousins and share a school and a university. On that point, perhaps Oxford should have a say: David Cameron read Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and got a First Class degree; Boris Johnson read Classics and got an Upper-second class degree. Advantage Cameron.

Having discussed the Conservative leadership in the form of the outgoing Prime Minister and the leading candidate to be the incoming Prime Minister, what of the loyal opposition? Jeremy Corbyn, at the time of writing still the Leader of the Opposition and Labour party leader (his Shadow Cabinet have resigned in large numbers) was born to a Maths teacher mother and expert electrical engineer father, and went to Adams' Grammar School (achieved two A-Levels with "E" grades before leaving, which is extremely poor)and later went to North London Polytechnic, and did not complete his degree. He represented various trade unions, then entered local politics and became an MP in 1983. His parents have bright occupations, but he has shown little aptitude.

Of course, being interested in great men, it would hardly be seemly to discuss the minor characters, those lowly creatures who labour below stairs, preparing the food their betters will eat.  I stoop to these depths only because the underdogs won, against the torrent of expert and international opinion. How did the Leave campaign manage to win, when they were out-gunned in every way? Reportedly, their lead backroom boy said that everything they did must be guided by science. He decreed that the campaign should avoid the very popular movement lead by Nigel Farage despite him being a natural ally and having a wealthy backer. With minimal resources and a small staff this researcher ran an asymmetrical campaign against the entire political and financial establishment. The Daily Telegraph summarised the main features. Rigorous research, quizzes on commercial websites to test voters’ views and focus groups which tested the key campaign messages resulted in him settling on three key points: 1) Taking back control of taxpayers’ money being sent to Brussels 2) Taking back control over immigration 3) Warning that Turkey and Serbia could be joining the EU in the future. All were rigorously tested, and when Turkey was mentioned voters exploded in dismay. The Leave campaign built a new 46 million voter database with postcodes to map the streets where their supporters lived. 20,000 volunteers were available to turn out voters on election day. £1 million was spent on Facebook and YouTube.

Dominic Cummings was born to an oil rig project manager and a special needs teacher. Educated at Durham School and then Exeter College, Oxford,  he read Ancient and Modern History and got a First. He was a Special Advisor to the Minister for Education Michael Gove. He is a very bright cookie and here is my review of his work on education:


Of course we should cast the net wider, looking at the backgrounds of the 20 or 30 most influential Remain and Leave campaigners, but I hope I have done enough to show you that while a school might give you some help it is university which has highest predictive value because it provides a double test: can you get into a university which is ranked in the top 20 in the world, and can you get a First there, or at least an Upper Second? Class and money are trailing indicators, intelligence leading indicators.

An Eton Mess is a dessert which uses up broken meringues by serving them up with whipped cream and strawberries. It was while finishing one of those last night that these reflections came to me.








  1. how much does conscientiousness factor into your analysis? e.g. lazy during youth/teenage years

  2. Problem is that the measure has low reliability. Would be higher if other people assessed it, then might enter the regression equation with more power.

  3. "just two likeable, bright boys who wanted to be Prime Minister, as any bright boy should want to be?" is an utterly vile thing to say. Most likeable bright boys go to university, meet the student politicians, and run a mile; quite right, too.

    I knew Gordon Brown when he was a bright young man: it was obvious that he'd be PM one day, or get pretty close. But it was also obvious that his obsession with politics might damage him. He wasn't half-mad when I knew him, but years of resentment about Tony Blair frustrating his ambitions seemed to tip him over the edge. If only he could have been satisfied with a lectureship in history in a good university, if only he could have played bridge, watched football, found a good wife ........ But no; he elected to damage himself with politics. Such a pity; he might have become a respectable citizen instead.

  4. This essay is so brilliant, my eyes are tearing up.