The disarming power of restraint

He showed how the essential prerequisite for greatness is humility

Sir Eric Anderson KT 1936-2020

Sir Eric Anderson was Head Master of Eton 1980-1994, then Provost, and teacher of three prime ministers. Guy Walters recalls a stern and awe-inspiring figure while Graham Stewart asked colleagues, friends and former pupils, including Tony Blair, for their memories of a hugely influential educator


I once attended a parents’ seminar at my children’s school where we discussed the challenges of educating teenagers. The subject turned to drugs and the master leading our syndicate gravely stated the policy, which was zero tolerance: one puff and you are out. “That is very interesting,” said I. “I remember a boy a couple of years below me in my house who was caught smoking a joint. The Head Master took the view that it was a first offence and that the boy was fundamentally good and didn’t expel him. And now he’s the Prime Minister – the boy not the Head Master.” 

Probably seven out of ten headmasters would have taken the path of least risk and expelled the boy (one Cameron Minor), of the other three, two would have been wet as water and heading for expulsion themselves for lack of grip. The last was Eric Anderson, who died last month. We probably have him more than anyone else to thank – or blame, depending on your point of view – for the Cameron premiership. Certainly without Eric’s humanity and confidence in his own sound judgement, Cameron would not have progressed to Oxford and the leadership of the Tory Party at the age of 39. 

The obituaries predictably focussed on the famous people Eric taught at Fettes, Gordonstoun and Eton: Prince Charles’s tutor, Tony Blair’s housemaster, David Cameron and Boris Johnson’s headmaster. When those tedious Guardianista journalists publish articles showing networks of influence implying masonic handshakes and corrupt establishment conspiracy theories, one of the great and good with a better claim than most to be at the centre of the web was Sir William Eric Kinloch Anderson KT, one of only sixteen Knights of the Thistle, Scotland’s highest honour. I wish they could have met him, a humbler man with less ‘side’ to him would be hard to find. The shy kilt-maker’s son with the mild rectitude of a Moderator of the Church of Scotland was the embodiment of the idea that the most essential prerequisite for greatness is humility.

My first memory of his arrival was that the snap judgement of the boys that he was ‘cool’ and the fact that he was referred to by all as Eric, a sub-conscious acknowledgement that he was human like the rest of us. That certainly was not the case with the man he replaced, the terrifying McCrum, who was certainly never referred to as Michael, probably, one suspected, not even by his wife. McCrum was to me what Dr Arnold was to Flashman and had already beaten me twice – eight of the best for a fifteen year old, something that would probably earn him a stretch in Wandsworth now. This involved a humiliating ritual on the beating block in Upper School. To my great relief, Eric’s first act was to consign the block to the museum.

Eric would give one of his beguiling, self-deprecating speeches that effortlessly extracted donations

I can’t say that our paths crossed much at school. I would like to be able to say that I was in his essay group along with Boris and the other swots but alas, when they did, it was invariably ‘on the Bill’ when I was before him for some misdemeanour. I remember coming away each time thinking that he had dealt with a delicate situation, which he clearly found as trying as I did, with commendable good humour and an attempt to make it as short and painless for us both as he could. It was an early lesson in lightness of touch and the disarming power of not exerting power and using charm and persuasion instead. 

After I left I saw him briefly at the quinquennial gatherings of the class of 82 (front runner Johnson Major) where Eric would give one of his beguiling, self-deprecating speeches that effortlessly extracted donations from wealthier classmates for a scholarship fund that ballooned under his stewardship and stands as a powerful tool for the advancement of social mobility for the nation’s gifted boys, much to the chagrin of the Leftists.

I only came to appreciate Eric’s greatness fully when I came to write the biography of my old tutor, Michael Kidson. Eric had given the address at his funeral.

His words from the pulpit summed up Michael Kidson but also nailed what it is to be a great teacher, “He may have been appointed as a teacher of History, but actually he was a teacher of boys. And that is much more important…..for him Eton was not a place, not buildings and rackets courts and fields and colleagues and community. Eton was you: ‘his’ boys. His relationships with you was what Eton meant to him. Your loyalty and continuing friendship were his reward, and he died – I am certain – happy in the knowledge that he had mattered and had made a difference to so many of you.” They could have been written about Eric.

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