Last night I had the privilege to attend a dinner in central London hosting the President of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus. It was a hugely well attended event, with a variety of different attendees. The bulk of the guests were members of the UK's large Lithuanian diaspora. Some were those forced to leave Lithuania by the Soviet occupation. Some were more recent arrivals. Others were those, like myself, who have very long standing connections with Lithuania and the fight for freedom and independence. I was proud to have the honour to be presented to the President in a short meeting that proceded the reception and the dinner.
The centrepiece of the evening was the presentation of a national decoration to Baroness Thatcher. As a supporter of her foreign policy- though precious little of her domestic agenda- I was happy enough to applaud the frail elderly lady that she has become. Her health is clearly poor and yet she was able to address a short speech to the audience of several hundred. As I listened I recalled with some anger the fact that her removal from office allowed the utter disgrace of Douglas Hurd's comtemptible behaviour in the Yugoslav wars- the Iron Lady would never have tolerated such double dealing.
Naturally amongst the audience were several British Conservatives. Amidst a certain amount of joshing, we concluded the dinner in the bar where several politically minded individuals enjoyed a spirited debate.
One of my British friends attending the dinner has learned to speak the Lithuanian language with great proficiency and he and I entered into a conversation with a senior British Conservative. Despite the wide ranging discussion, the thing that surprised me was just how impressed this middle aged man was with the fact that my friend was an Old Etonian.
To be honest, although I have occasionally teased him about his patrician family, I would find it bizarre to label my friend entirely through his school- yet this was what this Conservative was doing. To me the qualities that are interesting about my friend are his experience and his- rather non-conformist- attitudes, yet the Conservative could not stop coming back to the issue of the school.
How utterly strange that a man of significant achievements, and a member of our Parliament should give such deference to a school! Even, of course, if it is the same school as his boss, it still strikes me as very strange that someone should find this to be the most critical factor in a person.
I realised that snobbery lies in a kind of infantilism. Personally my heroes are those who overcome trials and adversity and who yet manage to contribute, whether in ideas and intellect or sport or leadership or in some other form of endevour. The idea that one should defer to someone merely because they went to one high school and not another; because of some spurious intrinsic values, rather than because of their wider attainments in life just seems plain wrong.
So, after a while, I began to feel increasingly irritated with the barrage of snobbery. I have never felt particularly strongly about private education in the UK. I went through the state system, my siblings largely through the private system. Personally the quality seems variable and the private sector a lot more mixed than one might believe. However when an influential individual shows such strange attitudes I did begin to feel that the educational apartheid that seems to be reducing British social mobility is actually exceptionally malign. Of course as a Liberal, I would not ban private education, but the absurd snobbery that has been created now concerns me greatly.
The intricacy and idiocy of British snobbery still, it seems, has not died yet.