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 .

Twitter/@suttonnick
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From "cockroaches" to campaigns: how the UK press u-turned on the refugee crisis

Harrowing photos of a drowned toddler washed up on a Turkish beach have made the front pages – and changed the attitude of Britain's newspapers.

Contains distressing images.

The UK press has united in urging the government to soften its stance on the record numbers of people migrating to Europe. The reason? A series of distressing photos of the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy, face down in the sand on the Turkish coast.

Most papers decided to run one or more of these pictures on their front pages, accompanying headlines entreating David Cameron to take notice. While your mole wholeheartedly supports this message, it can't help noticing the sudden u-turn executed by certain newspapers on the subject of the refugee crisis.

First, they used to call them "foreigners" and "migrants" (a term that has rapidly lost its neutrality in the reporting of the crisis) who were flooding Europe and on the way to "swarm" the UK. Now they've discovered that these people are victims and refugees who need saving.


 

Photos: Twitter/suttonnick


The Sun went so far as to run a column by Katie Hopkins five months ago in which she referred to them as "cockroaches" and "feral humans". She wrote:

Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don't care. Because in the next minute you'll show me pictures of aggressive young men at Calais, spreading like norovirus on a cruise ship. Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches.

Photo: Twitter

Now the same paper is urging the government not to "flinch" from taking in "desperate people", those in a "life-and-death struggle not of their own making":

Photo: Twitter/@Yorkskillerby


And the Daily Mail still seems confused:

 

It's not really the time for media navel-gazing, but perhaps the papers that have only just realised the refugees' plight can look closer at the language they've been using. It may have contributed to the "dehumanising" effect for which Cameron and co are now being condemned.

I'm a mole, innit.