British politics has an entitlement problem. Can we discuss Eton’s special status?

A notorious question in one of the school’s entrance exams resurfaced this week. It asked students to put themselves in the position of a prime minister and write a speech justifying the army killing protesters

James Moore
Saturday 07 September 2019 13:04
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Jacob Rees-Mogg likens doctor to disgraced anti-vaxxer for warning of deaths after no-deal Brexit

The pinned tweet on Eton College’s Twitter feed announces the launch of the “Orwell Award”, a financial aid programme “to support talented sixth formers”.

It’s been the subject of a little light trolling.

“Here’s an idea – why not abandon your charitable status and pay taxes which will contribute to our society, after about a thousand years it may start to compensate for the damage done by some of your more recent alumni at least,” was one response.

“Given that Cameron, Rees-Mogg and Johnson are all products of your school I think it’s time the Prevent programme took a closer look,” another opined.

My son, who goes to a state grammar, is being taught “British values” this week. They were defined through that Prevent programme, aimed at stopping people from becoming terrorists.

If the aforementioned trio of (David) Cameron, (Jacob) Rees-Mogg and (Alexander Boris de Pfeffel) Johnson represent British values I’d be inclined to demand his withdrawal from the classes.

But is it fair to link the appalling behaviour of those three famous alumni, with two of them plumbing new depths this week, to the £40,000-a-year boarding school for princes and prime ministers that they attended?

I went to what is commonly known as a bog standard comp, which I was only too happy to leave in favour of the local FE college when it came to my A-Levels.

Reluctantly returning to the town in which it is located as a local newspaper reporter, I was horrified to find myself at the local magistrates’ court watching a boy from a few years below me being charged with murder.

I don’t have happy memories from my time at the school and I didn’t think much of its ethos but I can’t imagine anything in it that would drive someone to be charged with killing someone else.

But Eton is no ordinary school. Its pupils board and in so doing are shaped by a very distinctive culture that does much to shield them from the rest of society and plays an important role in their development.

After graduating, its former pupils can expect to slide seamlessly into the upper echelons of whatever field they so choose after the obligatory three years at Oxbridge, assisted by a formidable network of old boys.

“Kids arrived there with this extraordinary sense that they knew they were going to run the country,” Palash Dave, who went to Eton in the 1980s, was quoted by the BBC as saying.

He told the broadcaster his crowd were a little less full of themselves, “but by hell did we have that sense by the time we left”.

Etonians have instilled in them an easy charm and an inexhaustible reservoir of self-confidence that borders on, and frequently crosses into, arrogance.

Just look at Rees-Mogg contemptuously lounging across the green benches of the House of Commons like a basking lizard at midday during the debate over the bill to temporarily outlaw a no-deal Brexit.

Then there was his disgusting and libellous attack on a distinguished neurosurgeon who contributed to an official government assessment of the consequences of a no-deal Brexit in which he warned of potential fatalities. Rees-Mogg likened him to a notorious disgraced anti-vaxxer under the cloak of parliamentary privilege, thus displaying a very British cowardice amidst Johnson’s very British coup. Not to mention petulance and vindictiveness (the two of them had earlier been at it on LBC radio).

If Etonians mess up, they get second chances, third chances, fourth chances.

Any one of Johnson’s misdeeds would have killed the careers of most people.

They include lying, making up quotes for a newspaper he was employed by, peppering columns with racist comments, about which he was memorably challenged by Sikh MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi in the House of Commons.

A notorious question on one of the school’s entrance exams resurfaced this week. It asked students to put themselves in the position of a prime minister and write a speech justifying the army killing protesters.

Johnson is wealthy enough not to have to worry about any post-Brexit privations, as are Rees-Mogg and Cameron, the man who ultimately kicked the whole thing off. Johnson is often accused of treating the current crisis as “a game”, with the British public as pieces on his board.

Did the place responsible for conceiving that question play a role in inculcating that attitude into Johnson? It sure looks that way.

You could question why I have any need to be fair about the place given the weight of evidence against it. I recommend Robert Verkaik’s Posh Boys, which details the brutally unfair system propped up by schools like it, to those who want more.

We are all suffering from that system now, with a recession made in Downing Street looming. And that may just be the start of it.

The recession, and Brexit, were made on the playing fields of Eton.

Nonetheless, I have a friend from the school who offers the following: “Remember with Etonians, it’s often those that seek power/influence that are the issue. No one has ever heard of me or my close mates from school, and long may that continue. I like to think we’re the good guys, and the silent majority.”

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Trouble is, the vocal minority are now in the process of tearing the nation apart. While the school cannot be held responsible for their alumni’s actions, it played an important role in shaping their characters. It really is time to debate the future of a school that takes in privileged young men who already think of themselves as born to rule. We need to discuss what might be done to address issues raised by Verkaik.

Eton likes to highlight its work in the community and with state schools on the aforementioned Twitter feed. In part this is because that’s what the government wants wealthy independent schools to do. It’s also good PR.

I think it’s time to ask whether that’s enough to overcome the school’s drawbacks. Withdrawal of that special status is occasionally discussed. Nationalisation less so. Perhaps it’s time to change that.

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