Why I don’t buy Ed Miliband’s ‘tough’ upbringing – by a former public schoolboy

Ed Miliband is about to tell us what we should have all realised, but somehow haven’t. Namely, that behind that geeky, north London policy wonk exterior, there is a savvy, streetwise bloke, who learned all he knew from his time at a tough local comprehensive.

That, anyway, is the message we are supposed to take from tonight’s party broadcast, dubbed “Ed – the movie”, which shows his early days at Haverstock school in north London, complete with testimony from former classmates. Anyone expecting entertaining recollections of how the owlish Ed was beaten up a lot, or got caned on big fat spliffs during playtime, will be disappointed.

Instead, according to previews of the broadcast, we will get memories such as this, from classmate Socratis Socratous. He says that Ed had was so bright “he could look after himself in terms of getting out of tricky situations by using his brain”.

Mr Socratous adds, without an apparent nudge from the interviewer, that: “Anybody with Ed’s experience and background in that kind of school environment must be good for this country.”

Inspirational stuff, isn’t it?  The tale of the clever boy, who – using his wits rather than his fists – is able to overcome all odds, including school bullies. Someone should make him Prime Minister.

No, I’m not saying it’s all too good to be true. But it does rather sound like something from one of those Enid Blyton girls’ boarding school books about the swotty pupil who somehow ends up as head girl. Or, in other words, a tale more associated with the public school system than the comprehensive one that Ed is using this broadcast to champion.

But then again, what would I know? I’m just a public schoolboy. After attending state primary, I went to George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, which, while a far cry from Tony Blair’s Scottish alma mater, Fettes, would still count in most people’s eyes as a posh private school.

True, my parents sent  me there mainly because they were worried that the local secondary wasn’t up to scratch, rather than because they particularly liked me wearing a ludicrous maroon blazer. And after being spat at occasionally by kids from the nearby secondary, for whom the blazer marked me out as a “snobby bastard”, I am painfully aware of  the social division that private education causes. But in Ed’s eyes, those privileged years still presumably leave me “out of touch” – just like Eton-educated David Cameron, who is the real target of Wednesday night’s broadcast.

I have, though, been in touch enough to have heard this kind of rant before, mainly while at Manchester University back in the 1980s, which, like many colleges of its time, was full of students trying to outdo each other over who was prolier-than-thou. Students from the south would affect cockney-geeza accents, while students from the north would act as if they had been raised by whippets and sent down t’pit aged three, and so on.

Given that most were actually middle-class like me, the one thing they could latch onto as proof of their humble roots was a state education, something they’d drop into conversation with the same pride as someone might once have mentioned Harrow or Charterhouse. And despite their avowed disdain for social discrimination of all sorts, they were equally fond of observing that most public schoolboys were morons.

As it happens, their class war bile was seldom directed at me personally. For one thing, I’d finally ditched my maroon blazer. And for another, as a Scot, I didn’t quite fit the classic public school stereotype:  I wasn’t southern, didn’t say “yah” all the time in a braying voice, nor did I have rugby-jersey wearing pals with names like “J.J.” and “Shagger”.

Nonetheless, it was still irksome to hear students from the wealthier parts of north London or the Home Counties, where grammar schools and comprehensives are often of a high standard, claim that they’d had a rawer deal in life than someone from up north who’d been privately educated. The Scottish state school system in the early 1980s, like the Scottish economy, was not brilliant, and I was among many children from fairly normal middle-class families whose parents decided they wanted something better.

Besides, a child’s chances in life are not just about how the school they went to was funded, but what kind of company they keep, both in school and at home. And at home, it is fair to say that young Ed was very much born into an elite. His father, Ralph Miliband, was one of Britain most prominent sociologists (I studied him at Manchester) and his family were also friends of the late Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, who died on Monday.

No, they might not have been captains of industry or landed gentry, but they were still part of an establishment of a Left-wing variety – highly-educated, well-connected, and capable of giving their children very good starts in life. For proof of that, look no further than Ed himself, who was a teenage intern to the MP Tony Benn, a family friend. Will that make it into “Ed – the Movie”? I wait to see.


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Education, Politics, Society

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