Students at Eton College. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on The Eton Scholarship Question: this is how the British elite are trained to think

As one of the school’s scholarship exam questions shows, young boys are encouraged to think that humanity, compassion, even sense are secondary to winning. This is how we’ve ended up with politicians who will enact any policy, no matter the human cost, ju

How will you defend the murder of civilians when you’re Prime Minister? Pupils competing for a scholarship to Eton have been asked just that, in the following question from a 2011 exam which seemed to draw its inspiration from recent events in London:

The headmaster of Eton, responding to the furore on Twitter, claimed that this was an intellectual exercise, based on Machiavelli’s The Prince, and was taken out of context. It was nothing of the kind. In fact, questions like this - topics for debate designed to reward pupils for defending the morally indefensible in the name of maintaining "order" - crop up throughout the British elite education system, from prep schools to public schools like Eton to public speaking competitions right up to debating societies like the Oxford and Cambridge Unions, which are modelled on parliament for a reason. 

This is how you’re meant to argue when you’re eventually in charge. You’re trained for it, and part of that training is regularly being presented with morally indefensible positions to defend anyway or risk losing whatever competition you’re engaged with. I have seen perfectly decent young men get carried away defending genocide and torture because that’s the only way to win. Those who are unable to do so are taught that they have no business having political opinions. The people assumed to be the future elite are not rewarded for getting the answer which is most correct, most compassionate or humane or even sensible - they’re rewarded for smashing the opposition. And that’s how you get politicians who will argue anything they’re told to, enact any policy they're told to no matter how many how many people will get hurt, just so that their team can win.

Moreover, this isn’t just a standard homework question. It appears on a scholarship entrance exam, a test designed to be sat by young men seeking to join the ranks of the rich and powerful by virtue of merit and smarts rather than family money. Most fee-paying schools have such a system in place, especially the really elite ones which need to maintain a veneer of public conscience to bolster their tax-exempt charity status (yes, Eton is technically a charity) and boost exam results by scattering some middle-class nerds amongst the rich twits. I sat an entrance exam just like this thirteen years ago, because my parents wanted me to have a private education and they couldn’t afford the fees. Of the hundreds of exams I’ve sat since, none has had quite such a material effect on my future. 

Had a question like this appeared on that test, I know I’d have been torn. I wouldn’t be torn now, of course, I’d write ‘go fuck yourself’ across the paper in my sparkliest pens, but right now I’m an adult with a job, not a scared thirteen-year-old who wants to make her mum proud. The obvious answer- that any Prime Minister who attempts to justify the murder of protesters after the rule of law has disintegrated is not fit to rule and should step down immediately - is not one that appears on the test. And that’s the point of tests like these.

It’s not enough to be clever. What this test says is: if you want to be part of the ruling elite, you have to share our values, and one of those values is maintaining power at any cost, even if it involves defending the indefensible. Having a moral compass that doesn't spin wildly at the promise of power is an active impediment. The significant line in that extended question is ‘You are the Prime Minister.’ As if you’d be anything else. 

Eton trains rich young men for power. The all-boys school has produced nineteen Prime Ministers, including the current one. The Mayor of London and a significant chunk of the cabinet also attended the school. Nearly all of our most powerful politicians, in short, went to Eton, and were trained in its values. Values that include responding to a question about shooting protesters dead with clever rhetoric rather than a long, hard look at your own conscience, as well as reading Machiavelli as an instruction manual rather than a satire. Whoever set this exam question, one that obliges thirteen-year-old boys to defend the murder of protesters as Prime Minister, knew of the likelihood that one of those boys might well actually be Prime Minister one day, and be in the position to order protesters killed for real. How many marks do you get for that?

In most elite clubs and societies, there are questions you’re not allowed to ask. For a certain breed of flush-cheeked young British aristocrats, this is the question that will never, ever appear on an exam paper:

Is there any particular reason why we should be in charge?

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.