Eton College was in the news again last week (when is it not in the news? I’m half expecting the head to go viral on TikTok dancing to Material Girl, fabulous in pink, just to raise his profile a little higher than Love Island’s Tommy Fury).
The latest headlines came after the school announced it was going to give away a load of dosh to disadvantaged boys. In a first for a public school, it teamed up with The Sun on Sunday to reach a different demographic than it used to (namely, readers of The Sun on Sunday). "How very dare they?", people asked themselves and each other, scandalised by such generosity, in an echo chamber of such deafening virtue-signalling that St Francis of Assisi himself would have covered his ears and shouted “La la la la”, before throwing a rock at the tweeting birds.
Eton has got form over money, of course, but usually it’s because of the F-word (fees), and the chutzpah it shows by charging happy customers for a transformative and world-class education. Jeez, the beaks must be thinking in their oak-panelled bunker in Berkshire as they move pound signs around a map of likely Sun on Sunday reader hotspots, what have we got to do to get a lucky break around here? Abolish ourselves?
Well…step forward all kinds of people who would like to take them up on that particular idea PDQ. The media’s pet revolutionary communist Ash Sarkar provided a balanced, sober, objective look at independent schools on this short video. No, of course she didn’t: it was usual stuff from Novara, that ego-driven propaganda foghorn that makes LinkedIn Legends look like a safe space for introverts. The video was to nuance what a sledgehammer is to nuts.
But people like Sarkar, Aaron Bastani, and Robert Verkaik (who watches every breath Eton makes, and every step it takes, with an obsession that might tempt even Sting to say, “All right, mate. Back off”) are predictable in their misguided sense of what this country’s priorities should be: attack some schools because, if they’re in waistcoats and tails, then there is no shame in condemning teachers for teaching, and children for learning. As another famous Absolute Boy and posterboy for Shoreditch hipsters once said: “The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.” Which sounds like it’s come right out of Labour’s Brexit Policy playbook.
The gowns have to go
And it says a lot about the Labour Party, currently being driven insane by the collective earworm that is its own hellish version of Brexit – not to mention the endemic antisemitisim that has hollowed out the strong moral core the movement once had like a hideous remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – that some members nonetheless believe that the number-one task on their Wunderlist app is, yup, to get rid of Eton and public schools. Brexit? Racism? Nah, mate: the gowns have got to go first. This particular venture is backed by Ed Miliband, who is to successful projects what the White Star Line is to luxury North Atlantic cruises, so Eton might survive.
As I watched all this unfold, with apologists for a murderous political creed taking the moral high ground, pigs began to fly before my eyes: Squealers and Napoleons, trotters up. Winston Smith was screaming in Room 101; I saw the two-minute hate morphing into the twitchfork mob. I heard newspeak and doublethink…because, of course, the new bursary offered by Eton is named after that very famous old boy, George Orwell.
How appropriate, since Orwell could illuminate the arguments the sector is currently being dragged into. He would recognise that the drive to abolish private schools is pure politics masquerading as moral rectitude. He would be able to see the protagonists as the opportunists they are, and the language they use as a familiar tool for deception, an act of onanism that he saw as being particularly evident in the Left, in which “the world of facts hardly matters”. It was, after all, Orwell who wrote that ‘‘political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The politics of zealots
We’re in a storm now, where whisper-thin “facts” are built up and revered as sacred edifices. As Jonathan Simons has recently written, those involved in this new campaign must know that the cost of nationalising independent schools would be crippling, but they refuse to admit it publicly. They know that the billions needed to fund this, the thousands of jobs lost, the damaged communities, the massive strain placed on state schools, would be done with no guarantee that it would benefit society.
But this is about faith; this is the reckless politics of zealots. And so skilled are these believers in Orwellian doublethink that they can hold contradictory “truths” simultaneously in their minds, happy to accept that 2+2=5. And, in the current political climate, this lie is as true as any other we want to believe in and force others to worship. The Orwell Award is perfectly timed.
David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School