Have boarding schools damaged politicians?

Everyone knows David Cameron and his Cabinet are posh. Yet few in Westminster will accept a psychotherapist's claim that their boarding school backgrounds have fundamentally crippled their ability to lead.

There's a reason Cameron's behaviour in prime minister's questions is so often compared to the bullying tactics of the playground, Nick Duffell believes. The PM went to Eton, famously, but a full two-thirds of his Cabinet actually went through the boarding school education system. This has, in short, seriously messed them up.

What makes boarding schools so vicious, Duffell argues in his new book Wounded Leaders, is the removal from the family environment. Cameron went off at seven years old; others leave at six. They have ten or 11 years of living outside the family and all it offers. "However good or rubbish your family is, you at least have your own room, you have people who say they love you, you get touched occasionally, you have people of all generations and genders, you have animals." And if you get bullied, you at least have your own bed to sleep in at night. "None of that is true for the boarding child. He has to do without love, care, touch, comfort, home life. He's stuck among others who are similarly deprived, abandoned and afraid. Under those circumstances, bullying is always really rife."

Bullying takes place everywhere. What Duffell is arguing is that it's not just the bullied who are affected by it. In boarding schools, there really is nowhere to hide. So boarders have to respond with what Duffell calls a 'strategic survival personality'. "This is the origin of the stiff upper lip," he explains. "You grin and bear it. You have to suppress, repress and dissociate". By separating yourself from your emotions, you develop a strong shell which helps reduce the chances your weaknesses will be spotted.

Typically, dissociation results in 'projection'. Take the famous 'calm down, dear' incident in which Cameron, in the heat of PMQs, got in trouble for his remark to the shadow leader of the House. "He was suggesting that Angela Eagle was disturbed and frustrated, bothered, upset and anxious – when it wasn't, it was he who was," Duffell claims. "He's projecting his anxiety on another. He sees it, and then he pounces on it."

Duffell does a lot of pouncing in his book. He sees the privileged elites educating their children in a certain way and then the results of that schooling emerging in their adult careers. "Every boarding school child has to invent itself," he says. "This is why they make the best spies." Even John Le Carre has endorsed Duffell's first book.

"The issue is the personality is under stress because it's always trying to stay out of trouble, trying not to be wrong, trying not to show any feelings. We all know stress is very bad in the long run. These people have very brittle characters. If you want to be a successful all-round personality in life, you need to come from a secure base. If you're well-attached, you can go on and be autonomous. Boarding school children are not well-attached. They have learned to put on a confident self, and that is psychologically built on sand."

Nick Duffell

And yet it may well be that these are precisely the sorts of traits which suit being a minister very well. Cameron is adept at PMQs precisely because he is able to (mostly) keep his emotions in check. Representing the government is all about putting on a face and conforming. Ninety-nine per cent of the time it's about nothing more than staying out of trouble, which you'd think having a strategic survival personality would be just the thing for. Is it really necessary to have a good character if you're a leading politician?

"I've reviewed the last 20 years of neuroscience," Duffell says. "We now have conclusive proof you cannot make good decisions without the use of your emotions. If you've lost access to your emotions, because of dissociation, it has been conclusively shown that you can live a life, but you are liable to make very bad decisions."

You don't have to look very far to see evidence of this. Even the prime minister's allies in Europe have been complaining about his inability to make strong relationships on the continent. His approach to the renegotiation is one of confrontation and aggression, not the quiet collaboration which marked out Sir John Major's work in Europe. "You don't learn to relate at a boarding school. You learn to survive as a group. Boarding school survivors haven't had enough belonging, so they're very suspicious of it." Cameron's approach worked well for the gunboat diplomacy of the Empire era; not so much in the modern world.

I can't shake the idea that, while the boarding school system might have resulted in some unfortunate pressures, they also suit our political system down to the ground. There's a reason our elites are raised in this way, Duffell responds; it's because the way we do our politics is set up for this style of leadership. The Palace of Westminster just about sums it up. Just look at the confrontational layout of the Commons chamber, encased in a building that architecturally looks very much like the grand buildings of Britain's greatest public schools. "It's built on a boarding school debating society where you bully and bash the others. It's not like that elsewhere. The British public know that, we've all been watching Borgen. We see that things can be done differently."

The library at Eton College, where both Cameron and Johnson went to school

In Duffell's eyes Boris Johnson's privilege and entitlement shines through his jolly persona, making him the "absolute epitome A1 bully type". He also went to Eton, of course. Jeremy Hunt, head boy at Charterhouse, has the "survival personality of a fixed grin". And then there's Andrew Mitchell, who earned the nickname 'Thrasher' while at Rugby, and got into huge trouble for losing his temper with police officers manning the Downing Street gate. The resulting scandal cost him his job.

Duffell warns me to take a deep breath before hearing his theory about plebgate, and I advise you do the same too. "Here's the question nobody asked," he says. "Why was Mitchell so angry? Nobody has asked that yet." His answer is that the event happened in mid-September, "when people go back to school". Er… what?

"One of the symptoms I had presented me is they say 'around September or October, I start getting unaccountably depressed'. I've heard this time and time again. And if you are a stressed type, the best thing to deal with it is to have someone to blame." Yes – Mitchell lost his rag because he was unconsciously uncomfortable that this was the time of the year when he had to face up to boarding school again. It's stretching the credulity of Duffell's argument to the limit and, perhaps by including it, weakens his overall approach.

Near the end of our interview – we're talking over Skype as Duffell spends much of his time in southern France – another warning arrives: that it will become hard for me to stop seeing the actions of these leaders through the prism of his boarding school theory. He, at least, has explanations for anything you throw at him. Last week, for example, I wrote that one of the lessons of the Andy Coulson saga was that it confirmed an interesting trait in the PM's personality. Cameron, it seems, is very reluctant to give up on those close to him. His loyalty is so extreme it can even be damaging; it certainly was with Coulson, and his decision to stick with Maria Miller until she absolutely had to go did him no favours either.

"The thing with the boarding school which makes it different from other forms of abandonment is it's also a privilege – everyone knows that," Duffell says. "So one of the things you develop is a kind of esprit de corps with your group. This is a different kind of attachment. What you don't do, because you're not being loved, is have access to your feelings. You can't develop emotional intelligence or empathy. I think Cameron finds it very difficult to empathise with his colleagues in Europe, with his electorate, with his coalition colleagues. But he has a very strong esprit de corps."

Wounded Leaders offers a new kind of discipline – 'psychohistory'

The Cabinet is not exclusively peopled by former boarding school victims. Michael Gove went to a comprehensive, where he behaved so badly that he later apologised to his teachers. "Gove is a baddy – he strikes me as a public schoolboy, although he isn't," says Duffell. His claim is that Gove tries very hard to fit in with those above him socially. "Britain's a top-down society, so you always model yourself on the top. We're not a social democracy. We would never be while we still have the public schools." Only the complete dismantling of the boarding school system, he believes, would be enough to start really changing this habit. "It's not like this in any other European country. Germany and Switzerland have no elite education, yet they have top Nobel prize winners."

Yet this kind of change seems pretty improbable, and Duffell's ideas will be greeted with incredulity and even derision in Westminster. We would need strong leadership to make such a radical shift in our education system. And it's not going to come from our present leaders, that's for sure.

Duffell's ideas require some serious mental adjustments, especially when you spend your days floating around in the Westminster bubble. Yet it's important to remember those ruling this country weren't brought up like the rest of us. It's hard to deny it will have had an influence on the kind of person they have turned out to be. That is the heart of Duffell's case, and it is a worrying one. "People who don't have access to their emotions because of institutionalised abandonment can't make good judgments because they're not in touch with their feelings," he says. "I don't want them as leaders."

Wounded Leaders: British Elitism And The Entitlement Illusion, by Nick Duffell, is out now in paperback