Douglas Hurd: Politeness pays dividends for Prime Minister educated in Eton tradition

HAROLD Macmillan went out on an ebb tide in 1963. He had succeeded one old Etonian (Eden) and was followed by another Douglas Home. What else? He won convincingly the General Election of 1959.

More than that, he rebuilt the alliance with the United States and began to shape a new and more positive policy on Europe. He warned the South Africans about the wind of change to come. But within months of his election victory the popular tide turned against him. It seemed as if the British people had somehow changed character.

This was partly a matter of shifting generations. The incoming generation had no taste for tweeds and the grouse moor; it preferred satire and the Beatles. It seemed unreal to most of us that there would ever again be an old Etonian Prime Minister – Macmillan died 25 years ago this week – and I held to that opinion myself until it was proved to be nonsense.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

I am still amazed when I look back at the last General Election and the negotiation which followed.

I still marvel to hear the calm highly-educated tones of David Cameron and to realise that in 2011 this is Britain’s Prime Minister.

Of course the tone and the vocabulary are different from Macmillan’s day. But there is no attempt at estuary English, no disguising that in our democracy we now have an upper class Englishman chosen to lead us, and to cap the story we also have an old Etonian Mayor to rule London.

How did this come about? When in 1990 I had a stab at the premiership, the reaction was immediate and fatal. I was at once identified as an old Etonian toff who by this fact alone was unsuited to lead a modern party. For a few days I wrestled in vain with this argument. I produced facts about my background and upbringing; all of these were true but they turned out to be incredible. I was a toff, and that was that.

Later during the days after David Cameron had been selected for my constituency in West Oxfordshire, we talked about this episode. I was sure that the accusation would come up again against him. I told him how I had mishandled it and fallen into a painful thicket.

I advised him against entering that thicket. In fact, he has handled the whole question with enviable success. He has built a formidable reputation in West Oxfordshire for attention to his constituents’ needs and for hard work. He asked them to judge him by what he is and does and they have responded accordingly. I still live in West Oxfordshire and would be the first to hear of any complaints; but I have received none.

There are hazards for an old Etonian in politics because Eton is regarded everywhere as the outstanding type of a public school. There are Etonians who live up to the bad part of that reputation, being oafish and self-satisfied. The Prime Minister avoids this trap. He enjoys the job and this shows, but not in an arrogant way.

He measures out his appearances on television so that he speaks when he has something to say.

He deals effectively with Ed Miliband in the Commons but knows that it would be unwise to exploit his superiority too far. He is normally courteous to his opponents.

What can we deduce from all this? Nothing in politics is stable and we are passing through a period of notable instability.

There will be nothing easy or automatic for any of us about the year 2012. But maybe, only maybe, the atmosphere of British politics is taking a turn for the better. We have two men in charge of our affairs working together in as much harmony as could be expected in a coalition. Neither of them bears any responsibility for the origin of our troubles. They will be judged not by what school they went to but on how they handle the nation’s problems.

Politeness, as the Prime Minister knows, can be a valuable asset in politics.

The three politest men I have known in my political career were Nelson Mandela, King Hussain of Jordan and Sir Alec Douglas Home.

All three were exceptionally courteous and painstaking in their relationships with others. All three were well-born, a common factor which meant that they knew who they were and did not need to worry about it.

They could instead turn with confidence to the needs of their country and their people.

There is a lesson here which I think the Prime Minister has already learnt.