Students at Eton College. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.