Sartor resartus: new clothes for the “magic circle”

That’s a tricky title, unless your Latin is up to scratch. It’s “the tailor re-tailored”, and it’s a novel from 1836 by Thomas Carlyle — little read except as an academic study. A topic for another day, perhaps.

For the moment, the point here is that Carlyle puts his story in the form of a book-review of a fictional book by a fictional writer.

17.01-331x413Similarly, The Spectator has Vernon Bogdanor re-viewing and revisiting what, ostensibly, was a book-review itself. In the 17th January 1964 edition of The Spectator, the magazine’s then-editor, Iain Macleod, was running his blue pencil over Randoph Churchill’s account of how Lord Hume emerged as Tory Leader (and Prime Minister) in succession to Harold Macmillan:

In those days, the Conservatives did not choose their leader by ballot, but by ‘customary processes of consultation’, soundings conducted both inside and outside Parliament. These soundings were carried out primarily by five grandees, four of whom had been to Eton. So had Macmillan and Home. They constituted what Macleod, in a deadly phrase, christened a ‘magic circle’ that ruled the Tory party. The Spectator had exposed an establishment stitch-up — or so it seemed.

The article succeeded in casting serious doubt on the legitimacy of Home’s succession — and, ergo, his leadership. With a general election due within nine months, and some way behind in the polls, the Conservatives desperately needed to unite around Home. Instead, Macleod used his Spectator article in a way designed to reopen wounds which had been beginning to heal.

Macleod was that most unlikely of Tories: someone genuinely “bright” (though not academically) — indeed, so much so that he was deemed “too smart for his own good”.

The question has always been whether Macleod’s killer piece, denouncing the “magic circle” of Old Etonians who “fixed” the succession for Home, was what did for the Tory election campaign of 1964. Certainly, Harold Wilson — possessed of as sharp a tongue as Macleod — exploited the conceit ruthlessly.

And now?

That is all historical curiosity, except it may have been a factor in excluding Old Etonian toffs from the top job for the next four decades, all the way to David Cameron’s enstoolment:

The effects of Macleod’s Spectator article resonated down the years. The idea of a ‘magic circle’ was so potent that until the advent of David Cameron, an Etonian education was seen as a handicap rather than an advantage (as Douglas Hurd discovered when he stood for the leadership in 1990). Home was the last public school leader of a major party until the arrival of the Fettes-educated Tony Blair in 1994.

That’s a bit dodgy as a generalisation. It wasn’t a “public school education” which denied Tony Benn (Westminster School) the leadership “of a major party”. It also assumes that Leighton Park, the independent Quaker school in Reading — and the Alma mater of Michael Foot, does not provide that “public school education”. Jeremy Thorpe and Jo Grimond were Old Etonians, David Owen went to Bradfield, Shirley Williams to St Paul’s, but presumably their Liberal and Social Democrat Parties were not “major”.

Which brings us to David Cameron’s own “magic circle”

That includes the repetitive put-down that Ed Miliband always has to hand — and Mark Ferguson sees as his “safety blanket“, as at today’s PMQs:

… when Miliband moved onto the economy, he found it far more difficult to keep his tone civil. Tories cheered him saying unemployment had fallen while a confident Cameron took every chance to remind Miliband of just how positive the figures were. This prompted the rather Punch and Judy line from Miliband that Cameron was doing ‘his Bullingdon Club routine.’

Similarly, George Eaton in the New Statesman notes:

Having maintained his new restrained style up to this point, Miliband lapsed into traditional PMQs rhetoric when he accused Cameron of doing “his Bullingdon Club routine”, a sign of his frustration at failing to land any blows.

That leaves us with the lurking qualm that “Bullers” bully-boy stuff may actually work. If so, Iain Macleod — a stiletto, not a bludgeon man — would have been severely disappointed.

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2 Comments

Filed under Britain, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, education, History, LabourList, politics, politicshome, social class, The Spectator, Tories.

2 responses to “Sartor resartus: new clothes for the “magic circle”

  1. Richard Thomas

    On a minor note of pedantic trivia, I think the comment about Iain MacLeod was that he was too clever by half. I’m sorry to read of the travails in your move north and the consequence of your needing to find refuge in licenced premises for sustenance.

  2. Malcolm Redfellow

    Not pedantic at all. My misquotation — I should have referred to DNB:

    “Lord Salisbury had famously declared Macleod to be ‘too clever by half’ in a speech in the House of Lords in 1961 (Hansard 5L, 229.307, 7 March 1961).”

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