“Boys, Boys, Boys”: The Eton Debate at the Cambridge Union

Amelia Holloway 26 October 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For a university populated with students fighting for access, lobbying for diversity, and urging increased state school success, the vote at the Union on Tuesday was shocking: students were against the motion to nationalise Eton.

Clearly, there can’t have been that many bitter middle-classes or resentful bullied ex-public-school boys in the audience, because according to Brendan O’Neill, those are the only people against Public Schools.

Even without these so called “experts in self pity” who went to public school and hated it, or the “bitter middle classes” giving off “a very strong whiff of social envy” to vote it down, the impossible complexities, coupled with doubts over increased equality, quashed many idealistic dreams of students who would have favoured nationalisation. The motion was pertinent, with Labour voting for abolishing private schools last month. Yet at the Union, with speeches against the motion from Brendon O’Neill, Zoe Strimpel and The Rt. Hon. Stephen Dorrell, Eton had a stay of execution.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The concern crossing both sides of the debate was the inadequacies of state schools.

O’Neill defended Eton by placing the crisis in social mobility firmly in the hands of below-par state schools, rather than high performing publics. Or, in the more direct words of Zoe Strimpel: since when did “trashing anything, improve things for anyone”. Peter Hitchens, speaking in favour of nationalisation, took this idea further. Instead of bashing public schools with the stick of state inadequacies, he called for true nationalisation which would return Eton to its ‘intended’ purpose of 1440. This purpose is “the best possible education for the largest number of people best qualified for it” – a true ‘public’ school. He redirected the propositions argument first laid out by Robert Verkaik, citing the grammar glory days of the mid 20th century, when seas of state students reached Oxbridge without the outreach and access programmes which attempt to achieve the same today. This demonstrated an important point; raising state schooling, rather than lowering the Oxbridge bar, isn’t a complete pipe dream.

Hitchens was right, Eton does ‘catch the eye’, and so perhaps the debate’s narrow focus was unsurprising.

Yet whether twenty Prime Ministers have done more for the country than Downe House’s alum of Clare Balding and Miranda, is another question. Zoe Strimpel’s perceptive quip: “where is the argument #AbolishWycombeAbbey” drew attention not just to the strange place Eton holds in the imagination, but the peculiar gendering of this very debate. Strimpel’s lament was right – it is all “boys boys boys” – and the person who picked up on it was the only female speaker. Elaborating on this after the debate, she condemned the traditionally “hideously misogynistic” left, saying “it just goes to show that those who are most keen on abolishing Eton purport to be the most socially progressive, but are often the most misogynistic.” Hitchens went on to point out that a truly “intelligent policy” would ensure better education regardless of sex, colour, or any other factor. O’Neill then suggested that today, due to the “supposedly feminine values” influencing the education system, it is working class boys who draw the shortest straw. However, this is perhaps immaterial. We can all lobby for better education for all, but question why this needs to be achieved under a male-gendered debate. Is it, as Strimpel said, “the sort of assumption that in really vexed issues that ostensibly have nothing to do with gender… it becomes all about men.” For her, it was a reminder of “the time I was here in Cambridge… the sense that the real debates about Power and Politics and History; they were men’s things”.

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