In 2011, applicants competing for a place at Britain’s elite Eton College were asked to consider the following question on their entrance exam:
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. Protestors 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 stopped but twenty-five protestors 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 protests was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.
Absurd on its face given that the applicants were quite literally thirteen-year-old boys, the question’s premise is even more demented once you’ve paused to give it a second thought.
For one thing, a prospective respondent is left with little to no room for maneuver. The objective, after all, is not to craft a policy response to some vaguely defined public disorder, but rather to defend a militarized massacre of protestors that has already taken place (though it would still have been absurd, an alternate version of the question might have asked applicants to choose between sending in the troops and a less incendiary option). The challenge, instead, is simply to justify slaughter. For another, even this is constrained by the proviso that the deaths of more than two dozen people was not only necessary but moral: the upshot being that a hypothetical respondent would be too constrained in their answer even to express regret.
All of this was clearly by design. As Laurie Penny remarked in the New Statesman after the text had leaked:
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. . . . 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 people will get hurt, just so that their team can win.
The case wasn’t particularly anomalous either: similar questions, as Penny observed, had popped up throughout British elite education “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.” Ten years on, those dominating the upper ranks of Britain’s Tory establishment haven’t changed their stripes. In 2011, the prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party (David Cameron) hailed from Eton. The man fulfilling both roles today was quite literally there at the same time, his cabinet now stuffed with more privately educated ministers than any since the Major era. Eton alone has educated five of Britain’s last nine Tory prime ministers — a reality that none other than arch-Tory Michael Gove once observed is without parallel in any other country today.
Whether it ultimately harms the government or not, the seven hours of testimony given this week by Boris Johnson’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings is nothing short of incendiary. In brief, Cummings painted a picture of a serially incompetent prime minister doggedly uninterested in scientific expertise, callous in his disregard for human life, and chronically absent during a moment of national crisis. According to his testimony, Johnson not only refused to declare a second lockdown last autumn but insisted that the first one had never been necessary. Perhaps the most damning charge, previously alleged by the Daily Mail but until this week only reported off the record, was Cummings’s claim he had heard the prime minister suggest he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than order another lockdown.
Johnson effectively disappeared from public view in February 2020, an absence his former advisor has alleged was connected to work on a biography of William Shakespeare originally promised to publishing house Hodder and Stoughton in 2015. (According to the publishers, the book — titled Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius — will see the author settle the question of “whether the Bard is indeed all he’s cracked up to be.” Though it still lacks any official timeline for publication, the treatise has already earned Johnson, who has purportedly suffered financial woes following a costly divorce, an advance worth £88,000.)
Cummings is, to say the least, a somewhat unreliable narrator given both his own role in these events and highly personal motivations for criticizing his former boss. Nonetheless, as the Guardian’s Heather Stewart points out, much of what he said had the ring of plausibility given the nature of what’s publicly known about the government’s bungled response to COVID. It reads as something more than simply plausible if you know anything about how aspiring members of Britain’s Conservative establishment are trained to think from a young age: boys of no more than thirteen quite literally being asked to imagine how they might defend the hypothetical massacre of their future subjects in the act of trying to enter the cloistered world of a public school that charges more than £48,000 a year.
“Shamelessness,” writes author Musa Okwonga in a critical memoir documenting his own time at Eton, “is the superpower of a certain section of the English upper classes. . . . They don’t learn shamelessness at Eton, but this is where they perfect it.” Indeed, membership in the upper echelons of Britain’s traditional elite has long implied a kind of privileged immunity from responsibility or consequences, the likes of which few mere mortals could ever dream.
You can be a completely unserious buffoon and still be called “prime ministerial.” You can publish books which depict Jewish people controlling the media, describe Kosovan Muslims as “hook-nosed,” and people of African descent as “hunter-gatherers,” then look on with glee while a lickspittle media spends years stoking a moral panic about racism in the opposition. You can write in the cringeworthy prose of a teenage popinjay inspired by Rudyard Kipling and still earn effusive write-ups in the national press for books with advances that vastly exceed the average person’s salary, even if they’re riddled with errors (some passages from Johnson’s 2014 book on Winston Churchill truly have to be seen to be believed).
None of it matters in a country where spanielish deference to elites has become a more ubiquitous civic religion than any doctrine promulgated by the state’s official church. Cummings’s testimony may inflict damage on Johnson’s premiership, though lasting fallout of any kind would be both surprising and anomalous. What is neither surprising or anomalous is the Tory government’s disastrous response to COVID — an avoidable calamity presided over by the kinds of people it’s uncomfortably easy to imagine legislating social Darwinism or speaking cavalierly about bodies piling high in the streets while others are within earshot.