Leading Article: Flogging the establishment

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He that spareth the rod hateth his son, the Book of Proverbs tells us in chapter 13, verse 24. John Patten, the former education secretary, might well agree. He was flogged with a ferula - a 2ft long whalebone strap - by the Jesuits at Wimbledon College. Corporal punishment, said Mr Patten some 30 years later, "under certain circumstances can be really useful". We are perhaps intended to infer that it clearly did him no harm.

Why then, with this endorsement at both cabinet and biblical level, has Douglas Hurd gone on to the defensive over a reference to his exploits while at Eton? Sebastian Faulks, in his new book The Fatal Englishman writes of Jeremy Wolfenden being beaten by the Captain of School, "a grave boy called Douglas Hurd". Reviewing the book, the former foreign secretary criticises the chapter on Wolfenden and its "inaccurate account of a beating I am supposed to have given him at Eton". The inaccuracy, however, seems to be solely in the date given for the event. Indeed, Douglas Hurd's reputation as a flogger crops up surprisingly often in reminiscences of old Etonians. Does his disavowal indicate a schism with the flogging tendency of the party, or is Mr Hurd simply trying not to thrash against the tide of history?

Caning pupils in state schools has been illegal since 1982, following a ruling of the European Court. Most private schools have followed that trend - only a handful still employ corporal punishment - although the European Court in 1993 upheld the right of a British private boarding school to cane a seven-year-old boy.

The barbaric practice of caning is mercifully on its way out, yet it has clearly left its scars, paradoxically more markedly on the floggers than the floggees. As exemplified by the memories of the proud-to-be-beaten Patten and the "inaccurate account" Hurd, it is those who administer barbarity who wish to forget, to hide it under the carpet rather shamefully. Those who suffered under it have little alternative but to believe it was good for them. When a recent biography of Anthony Chevenix-Trench accused the late Eton headmaster of being sadistically fond of caning, howls of protest were heard from boys he had thrashed, united in defending his reputation.

Yet what of our other cabinet ministers and captains of industry and the civil service who were educated at public school? What bonds have been tied through thrashings? Who thrashed whom, how often, and when? Surely this is something to be included in the register of members' interests. The British establishment is riven by many factions, but it may be that the divide between the floggers and the flogged is one of the least articulated but most important.