You are the prime minister

Thomas Jones

A general paper from the 2011 Eton scholarship exam has been exhumed and is doing the rounds. The first question required candidates to read a passage from The Prince ('it is much safer to be feared than loved' etc) and then (a) summarise the argument in no more than 50 words (5 marks); (b) in their own words say what they find 'unappealing' about the argument (5 marks); and (c), for 15 marks:

The year is 2040. There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East. Protesters have attacked public buildings. Several policemen have died. Consequently, the Government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but twenty-five protesters have been killed by the Army. You are the Prime Minister. Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.

I wonder if any of the candidates described the hypothetical protesters' actions as 'criminality pure and simple'.

'The question has been quoted out of context,' according to Eton's headmaster, Tony Little.

The previous part asked them to say what was unappealing about Machiavelli’s ideas, we are looking for candidates who can see both sides of an idea and express them clearly – both directly and through more imaginative writing.

High ability candidates at this level are often asked to put themselves in other people’s shoes. In that regard this is no different from a GCSE English question which might ask: 'Imagine you are Lady Macbeth, write a diary entry to express your feelings on receiving your husband’s letter.'

In other regards, though, it is quite different. It's fairly unlikely, for example, that any of the boys who sat the exam will find themselves in adult life encouraging their spouses to murder their way to the Scottish crown. But it's far from unimaginable that one of them will be prime minister in 2040. Of Britain's 53 prime ministers from Walpole to Cameron, 19 (more than a third) went to Eton, including both Walpole and Cameron.

'We don’t favour any particular political viewpoint,' Little says. And yet for some reason all six Old Etonian prime ministers since 1900 have been Tories. Twenty Old Etonians were elected to the House of Commons in 2010; all of them sit on the government benches (19 Conservatives, one Lib Dem). And none of them, if government policy is anything to go by, seem to be much good at putting themselves in other people's shoes, except possibly each other's.

The exam paper ends with some maths questions: 'Peter is having a large conservatory built at the back of his house... How many days’ labour will Peter have to pay for?'


  • 24 May 2013 at 2:28pm
    Dave Boyle says:
    I was far more astonished to see a school with a plagiarism policy stealing question 4(e) from Die Hard with a Vengeance (see for the scene)

  • 24 May 2013 at 3:36pm
    Stephen says:
    Now that's an education.

    ... our kids are faffing about with metalwork and IT and trivial crap like that, but at Eton.

    "What will you say after you've sent the army out to kill the poor?"

    it's also eerily reminiscent of Gramsci

    from the Prison Notebooks

    “to create a single type of formative school (primary-secondary) which would take the child up to the threshold of his choice of job, forming him during this time as a person capable of thinking, studying and ruling – or controlling those who rule”

  • 24 May 2013 at 3:45pm
    klhoughton says:
    +1 to David Boyle, though I still think they did it the hard way. (Use the 3-gal to fill the 5-gallon. Dump the five-gallon completely when filled with the second load, when the 3-gallon has one gallon in it. Pour the 1 gal into the 5 gall, and then fill the 3-gal again and pour that in.)

    9-5 = 4 seems a lot easier than what they did.

  • 25 May 2013 at 9:23am
    Bernard Porter says:
    'The year is (whatever). Workers are on strike against the decimation of their industry. Backed by the government of the day and the police, the employers bus in 'scab' labour in order to break the strike. You are a Trade Union leader. Write a script for a TV news conference to explain to the nation why throwing stones at the buses, and breaking the law in other ways, are both necessary and moral.' - Now that would be a way to get the little Etonians to put themselves in other people's shoes. I wonder whether it occurred to their (and our) masters?

  • 25 May 2013 at 11:26pm
    JWA says:
    As an old Etonian - and of the left (Green party member for ten years, considering switching to Labour) I find the latest twitterfest depressing. I'm not surprised by it, Tony Little the sadly somewhat gruesome current Headmaster has clearly grubbed for media attention in recent years and invited the kind of extra media attention that tends to turn sour (quite apart from Cameron's clique drawing the spotlight,)

    There may have been 6 Old Etonian PMs this century for the Tories - but the greatest reforming PM of the 19th century was the Liberal old Etonian Gladstone (also arguably the UK's best ever PM). Shelley was an old Etonian too. But if you want some more recent OEs here are a few - George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Henry Green, John Le Carre, Henry Ponsonby, JBS Haldane, Osbert Sitwell, David Astor, John Maynard-Keynes, Peter Benenson, John Bayley, Jeremy Thorpe, Tom Dalyell, Hugh Dalton, Mark Fisher, Johnathon Poritt, Pico Iyer etc etc etc - not to mention Soviet spies Guy Burgess and Tom Driberg. Even the younger generation's 'heir to Billy Bragg' - Frank Turner (writer of among other songs 'Thatcher F*cked the Kids') is an OE.

    That's more or less of the top of my head. It's a list that could no doubt be easily doubled without much effort by searching wikipedia for 20 mins.

    It's also the school of the LRB's own Neal Acherson and Rory Stewart (admittedly he is a Tory MP, but then you're the ones who commission him).

    How many other schools - public or state - can frankly put together a comparable list of their lefty credentials?

    It in't the school that makes them Tories. If anything judged from the above - your average crappy, rattle the cup, maybe-this-will-boost-my-Klout-score, blog-hack-drivel-merchants - Eton appears to be a breeding ground for dubious radical class traitors.

    The ones betraying the school's own largely Liberal outlooks - are to my mind the likes of Cameron, Letwin, Johnson - and far away the most embarrassing of all our current non-dead OEs (with the possible exceptions of Darius Guppy and Johnathan Aitken) - Jacob Rees-Mogg. He IS almost an invitation enough to burn the place down. Almost.

    Anyway it's this kind of drivel which keeps me from listing the place on my CV. And that I think is actually a shame.

    • 26 May 2013 at 2:28am
      Joe says: @ JWA
      JWA, while the intention of your post seems to have been to show that Eton has produced as preeminent a list of lefties as it has of Tories, I'm afraid that what I take from it is that you - and in this respect I would never wish to compare you to your former schoolmates - have no conception of what it is to 'be on the left'. I mean, the Green Part. Dear me.

    • 26 May 2013 at 8:28am
      Harry Stopes says: @ JWA
      Two things. Firstly if you think Frank Turner is a voice of the left, or 'heir to Billy Bragg', you aren't paying attention. Read his most recent interview in the Guardian. He's a rebel at best, but not a revolutionary.

      Secondly, are you really trying to suggest that the ideological centre of gravity of Eton is not conservative? Give over.

  • 25 May 2013 at 11:30pm
    JWA says:
    Apologies for some of the flailing sentences. Bit of a quick-fire drunken moan. I've lost my nice Green cap with red star on it. Annoying

  • 26 May 2013 at 3:23am
    Ubique says:
    Burn baby burn.

  • 27 May 2013 at 11:10am
    JWA says:
    You're quite right about Frank, (I have read that interview. Back in the day he would have described himself as a libertarian anarchist - there's another song about giving it up. There were a few of those - one of them ended up going to prison after sticking a chair through a MacDonald's window in one of the May Day riots). I was trying to sneak that in but you caught me (guilty). I am a bit stumped trying to find any high profile lefties under 40. But then there aren't many well known right wingers of that generation either.

    But - the ethos of the school is liberal, history (I can't speak for politics) was taught without I think any conservative agenda. (My history teacher used to moan that he was a Marxist but that the school had 'got him' by doubling the wages he was offered by his uni). The guest speakers at the school came from all over the place I remember going to talks by Germaine Greer, a spokesperson from the Nation of Islam, a vegetarian who explained that the brain science of fish proved they suffered pain & so on. (o put it in perspective we are talking teenage boys. The only speaker who ever completely packed the building was I think Andy McNab).

    And day-to-day the school was run in a very liberal style - students were cut a lot of slack (you could quit sports - not allowed in most public schools) it isn't a place dominated by a typically 'jock' culture. The resources allow it to look after all pupils, so there's very little resentment in the regard. There's a vast calender of plays (no year goes by without a Bernard-Shaw or Priestley being staged) etc. It also didn't always apply its own rules (its meant to have a 1 strike policy for drugs but this wasn't always enforced for example). As a student it felt egalitarian - markedly more so than universities I've been to. And it offered a number of bursaries each year (again that's the benefit of being obscenely rich, but then it didn't need to and a lot of its 'competition' didn't bother).

    I think its fair to say it makes about as decent effort at political impartiality as it can. And it certainly promotes the idea of public service for the public good (albeit entwined with ideas of leadership, but there you go). Even if you wanted to classify the ideology as conservative (which I would dispute) - it's Oakeshottian, not Thatcherite.

    Unfortunately of course half the students graduate and promptly remove themselves to the city. The school can only do so much to fight the prejudices of the parents. What I didn't realise was how many of my contemporaries had been dumped their by parents who were using their offsprings education as a facility to benefit their own business networking. They frankly didn't care much how well their sprogs did.

    A few years after I left I found out of my dozen closest contemporaries only one of the others had parents who were university educated. It's pearls before swine a lot of the time, which isn't to say the swine haven't already been well-fatted by the time they arrive.

    • 29 May 2013 at 11:56am
      Harry Stopes says: @ JWA
      Ok, no one's disputing how much fun you had at Hogwarts, or how many great opportunities it provided you. That, (especially the latter), is precisely the point when discussing how private schools are an integral part of how privilege perpetuates itself.

      On the political tone of the school, as Thomas Jones wrote:
      ‘We don’t favour any particular political viewpoint,’ Little says. And yet for some reason all six Old Etonian prime ministers since 1900 have been Tories. Twenty Old Etonians were elected to the House of Commons in 2010; all of them sit on the government benches (19 Conservatives, one Lib Dem).

      Perhaps you can confirm whether one was ever encouraged to put oneself in the sort of shoes that Bernard Porter suggests in his comment above.

      Whether or not your teacher claimed to be a lefty, or your mates' dads were all arrivistes, is irrelevant.

    • 31 May 2013 at 5:47pm
      JWA says: @ Harry Stopes
      Well I think I've already answered this question but anyway...

      To begin by indulging in the crassly literal as requested - I've no memory of being asked to imagine being a Conservative PM or a politician of any other shade. On the other hand I remember playing a football hooligan in a play, being required to research the role, looking at the character's likely background & outlook (Zigger Zagger - Peter Terson). Of course perhaps I should have checked my privilege before presuming to take the role, but in any case I did my best to have a wander in his sort of trainers, so there's a tick in the empathy checklist. (Unless of course you regard the lesson as a jolly opportunity for the double whammy of confirming existing prejudices while patronising the lower classes. Though I don't think that was the intent.)

      In a very broad sense the school promotes public service (if you choose to send your own son there I suspect he will suffer a significant number of lectures on leadership, some of them dismayingly managerial in tone & content).

      It is also pro-institution & pro-individual (just about) - so if it has a 'political tone' - yes there probably is a bias towards a classically liberal outlook (but scarcely unique I'd have thought). The OE Tories around may support this view. With the exception of Rees-Mogg, they are pragmatic ambitious climbers and largely unburdened by much political philosophy. But their particular success tells you more I think about the Tory Party's own masochistic genuflections than it does about Eton. (As for the Liberal MP - when he entered parliament it was almost certainly with the belief he would spend his career on the opposition benches).

      Narrow-minded ideologues should find it less easy to work their way into Oxbridge colleges - it's not in the school's interest to churn out Tory drones. Seeing it as some kind of feeder school for the Conservative Party is wishful thinking I'm afraid.

      My sensibilities as a journalist (rather than as an OE) are more troubled by those who pretend that the 20th Cent Conservative PMs are wholly representative of the school's political ethos - while happily disregarding figures like Keynes, Orwell, Dalton and Benenson. Porter's article is typical of the kind of dishonest cherry-picking I usually associate with The Spectator. I wouldn't have thought that I needed to say this on the LRB blog - but the reality is rather more nuanced.

      There are a lot bigger debates around - about the status of private education and how best to counter cronyism in public office - but whining about Eton while misunderstanding and misrepresenting it's legacy won't get you very far.

      Wish I had gone to Hogwarts though. They had girls.

    • 31 May 2013 at 5:52pm
      JWA says: @ JWA
      Anyway, I apologise for the length, you've touched a nerve. This must be what it's like to be a football fan or a Liverpudlian.

    • 31 May 2013 at 7:27pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ JWA
      Yeh, it must be exactly like that.

    • 3 June 2013 at 5:39pm
      JWA says: @ Harry Stopes
      ouch! such keen & withering & dripping sarcasm. Very hurtful; most unnecessary. And such a pity too when I made the joke just for you! - Ah well, next time I suppose I will just have to narrow my pigeonholes to the approved size (and I truly desire your approval, having had something of a long range crush on your dashing prose).

      Ooh, but can I guess your next line? "You, do that" So dry! So puissant! So chippy! Can't wait.

  • 27 May 2013 at 7:50pm
    SOR says:
    Not sure why the LRB is so exercised, while it gives Old Etonian David Runciman a platform to write negatively about Occupy.

  • 29 May 2013 at 5:49pm
    streetsj says:
    Peter is having a large conservatory built!!

    It's so wonderfully out of touch - the whole thing is going to be built in 27 days and the workers will be there every day including weekends. Get real!

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