Saturday, January 22, 2022

Westminster Bullying and Public School Culture

 The allegations of bullying and intimidation at Westminster don't come as any surprise. I mistakenly went to Oriel College, Oxford for university, and my teenage mind hadn't twigged how big a deal rowing was. One of my first experiences there was the Captain of Boats telling the assembled freshers, in his finely honed accent, that they would all be expected to join a rowing crew, with a clear message of menace and threat for those who didn't. I spent a large part of my first term, as a non-rower, waiting in fear for something unpleasant to happen. 

Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their generation passed through public school education in the 1970s and 80s. It has shaped them, their values and behaviour. It would be no surprise if it shaped the way their government works, and how their herd of MPs is kept together. 

One recipient of a 'top' public school education wrote this

From the teachers we learned about mockery and sarcasm as techniques for social control, with our boy hierarchies regulated by banter, ranging from a sharp remark to a knuckle in the crown of the head. Attack was the best form of defence, and ridicule was honed as a deeply conservative force, controlling by means of fear, either of being the joke or of not getting the joke. There was plenty of fear to go round. The author Paul Watkins, in his memoir Stand Before Your God, remembers at Eton the huge amount of energy, in the time of Cameron and Johnson, that went into “teasing and ignoring people”. “I felt a harshness that I’d never felt before.”

George Orwell, during his time at prep school, remembers being ridiculed out of an interest in butterflies. The banter that day must have been immense. Nothing was sacred, and once we found out what another boy took most seriously we were ready to strike, when necessary, at its core.

another former pupil writesEton had other, for me less attractive, sides. I particularly disliked Pop, the self-elected club of prefects who strutted their stuff and lorded it over underlings in brightly embroidered waistcoats – the club to which Boris Johnson (but not David Cameron) belonged. This was more Game of Thrones than “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.
If boys learn at school that bullying and intimidation are effective ways of exercising power, and go unchallenged, it should be no surprise if they apply those lessons later in life.