ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
In Britain, the toffs have returned to power. Toffs refers to a certain type of upper class Brits, who, among other trappings of privilege, spent their teenage years at a private school such as Eton College. Going to Eton was, for centuries, a passport to wealth and success. But in the past couple of decades Britain has become more meritocratic and people have tended to sneer at toffs.
Now as NPR's Rob Gifford reports, the Etonians are back with a vengeance.
ROB GIFFORD: In 1990, former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd tried to succeed Margaret Thatcher by desperately playing down his Etonian background. He lost the leadership battle to the son of a circus trapeze artist called John Major. Now though, you can hardly move in Westminster for politicians from privileged backgrounds, just like the party's leader, David Cameron, whose privileged vowels can be heard every week in the House of Commons.
Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Conservative Party Leader, House of Commons, Britain): Today everyone can see what an utter mess this Labour government and this Labour prime minister...
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. CAMERON: ...has made of the British economy.
GIFFORD: Cameron has also played down his posh roots. He wears open-neck shirts, bikes to work and listens to indie rock music. But a visit to Cameron's alma mater, Eton College, shows just how privileged his upbringing was.
(Soundbite of ringing bell)
Mr. TONY LITTLE (Headmaster, Eton College): Some say at least this is the oldest surviving schoolroom in Northern Europe that's been in consistent use since 1441.
GIFFORD: Headmaster of Eton, Tony Little, gives a tour of the famous Eton Cloister. It's a beautiful and spectacularly historic place in the shadow of Windsor castle just west of London. But Little says the school, like the country, has been completely transformed in recent years.
Mr. LITTLE: If I look back over the last 30 years, it seems to me that we have managed as a society to purge ourselves of certain prejudices and assumptions. Gone is the notion that there is one class born to lead, or born to rule, in the same sense that, perhaps, here at Eton College we no longer take people who register their children at birth and accept them just because of their birth.
GIFFORD: Like all the teachers and boys here, there are still no girls. Little is dressed in full white bow tie and tailcoat. He doesn't deny there is privilege here but he says it is academic excellence and self-confidence that are the most important emphasis of an Eton education. But Little also says that Britain itself has simply become less obsessed with class.
Mr. LITTLE: We have other issues to deal with particularly to do with certain types of ethnicity and more specifically to do with religious tensions. That is the story that's come to take the place, I believe, of the rather tired social class consciousness saga.
GIFFORD: Opening the medieval admissions process has brought in a flood of applications, not just from wealthy foreigners but also from a broader spectrum of British parents. Michael White of The Guardian newspaper, who has covered British politics for three decades, says like many British institutions, Eton realized it simply had to adapt.
Mr. MICHAEL WHITE (Journalist, The Guardian): You suddenly have to be not merely well-connected to get in, you have to be clever as well. Eton is still up there, and, of course, this is manifest in the return of the Etonians. David Cameron is an Etonian - I can't believe it. I sometimes say to people, well, Britain is such a meritocratic society, we've got rid of many of our old class hang-ups, we don't even mind electing an Etonian anymore.
GIFFORD: Certainly on the streets of the East End of London, working-class Englishmen like Christopher Firth(ph) and Mark Allen(ph) and Ken West(ph) don't seem to care at all that David Cameron, widely expected to be the next British prime minister, is what some people would still call a toff.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER FIRTH: I don't think that makes a lot of difference. I'd never personally considered it. I didn't know he did go to a privileged school.
Mr. MARK ALLEN: And I think that, you know, the class or anything like that makes a difference to people nowadays.
Mr. KEN WEST: Now class is not an issue to me. I would vote for anybody if I thought they could do the job properly.
GIFFORD: So perhaps Ms. Thatcher did succeed after all, and the emergence and acceptance of more relevant, though still undoubtedly privileged, Etonians is confirmation that a more meritocratic Britain really is here to stay.
Rob Gifford, NPR News.
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