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We need to talk about Eton.🔷

The British public school system is unfit for purpose with regard to producing an efficient and ethical political elite.


On Sunday, Channel Four broadcast an expose of bumbling buffoon Boris Johnson, asking the pertinent question of whether this man is really fit for office as British Prime Minister. A highlight of the programme hit the national headlines due to an incident in Myanmar in which Johnson was on the verge of committing what might be his biggest gaffe yet.

Boris was visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda, a temple in Yangon, the country’s largest city. Myanmar, of course, is the former British colony of Burma, and it isn’t just India that still feels aggrieved by what the British did to their country and many of their citizens. Imagine then the tension felt by the British Ambassador to Myanmar, Andrew Patrick, when Boris started to recite lines from Kipling’s 1890 poem Mandalay:

“The temple-bells they say: "Come you back, you British soldier” and “The wind is in the palm trees… the temple bells they say.”

Andrew Patrick interjected instantly:

“You’re on mic. Probably not a good idea.”

“What, The Road to Mandalay?” Johnson replied.

“No,” the ambassador said. “Not appropriate.”

“Good stuff,” Johnson concluded.

Anyone who doesn’t know that much about Kipling is naturally going to ask why this was going to be the gaffe of the year had it been allowed to carry on. The answer lies in the fact that although Kipling, in his time, was hugely popular in Britain, he himself was a rampant colonialist and Mandalay, in particular, remains incredibly insulting to the Myanmarese.

Orwell called Kipling a prophet of British Imperialism, noting that, as a “jingo imperialist,” he was “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” Orwell regarded Kipling's work as having qualities that ensured that “every enlightened person” despised him.

“Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally,” wrote Orwell in the magazine Horizon. “This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery.”

Acclaimed Indian writer R. K. Narayan was not shy about showing what he thought of Kipling when visiting Michigan State University in 1958: “Kipling, the supposed expert writer on India, showed a better understanding of the mind of the animals in the jungle than of the men in an Indian home or the marketplace.”

Back home in India, a supporter of Narayan’s views on the matter described Kipling’s famous The Jungle Book as a work that “presents India as a jungle inhabited by wizards, wild beasts and aborigines.”

Mandalay was first published in The Scots Observer in June 1890 and featured in a number of later collections. According to John McGivering and John Radcliffe of the Kipling Society, it was inspired by his visit to Burma, for a few days, on the way home in 1889. The poem’s narrator mocks Buddhism, the country’s major religion, when he describes his Burmese lover as “wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot” referring to the statue as a “bloomin’ idol made o’mud, Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd.” It also demeans Burmese women.

Kipling only visited Burma for three days, yet the impressions recorded in his writing forever influenced the perception of the country back home in Britain. Furthermore, Myanmarese still regard British colonialism as an insult and humiliation.

So just imagine what Myanmarese present during Johnson’s visit would have felt had he carried on to recite the “bloomin’ idol” bit. Fortunately, Mr Patrick managed to stop him.

Johnson’s previous gaffes are also well-known. In Ankara, in 2016, he was asked to apologise for a limerick he wrote about the Turkish president in which he describes him as having “sowed his wild oats with the help of a goat.” He has also described Hillary Clinton as looking like a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital,” referred to European leaders disappointment over Trump’s election victory as a “winge-o-rama” and compared French President Hollande to a wartime prisoner-of-war camp guard who wants to “administer punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape, in the manner of some world war two movie.”

Unfortunately, though there is a wider issue here, which becomes strikingly clear when you consider other Tory politicians.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example, is another former Eton schoolboy who has been widely condemned for having outdated, almost 19th century views, particularly on abortion, whilst Johnson’s school chum David Cameron has been ferociously attacked, and rightly so, for launching a totally calamitous EU referendum in which facts were largely absent and not enough time was given to thoroughly and comprehensively educate the public in the particularities of what the European Union is and how it functions, thus allowing the Leave side to get away with focusing on emotive arguments and spurious claims that have since, regularly, been condemned as lies.

There is a common and recurrent theme running through these issues, and that theme is, quite simply – boarding school.

“The boarding school system provides a pathway, for those whose parents can afford it, from home, via Oxbridge, straight into the elite”, wrote Nick Duffell in The Guardian, in 2014, referring to institutions such as the army, the judiciary, finance and the Government. The problem is that what the boarding school system tends to produce, more than anything else, is damaged young men who are seemingly unable to cope adequately with the various relationships with others in the real world.

First, there is the loss of family, exacerbated, secondly, by the boarding school environment itself, often characterised by bullying, elitism, misogyny and, more rarely but more seriously, sexual abuse.

Duffell, a psychotherapist who has been working with former boarders for 25 years, as well as being an ex-boarder himself and a former boarding school teacher, is the author of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion – a Psychohistory, a book that claims, convincingly, that the boarding school system is a well-worn pathway that in 1914 led Britain into the First World War, but which is still taken for granted for the offspring of the privileged. The major adverse impact is that it delivers men who are deficient in ‘non-rational skills’ and thus who are not actually fit for leadership in the modern world.

Duffell’s studies led him to conclude that boarders tend to repress their emotional-selves and become defensive. He believes that Cameron, Johnson, Hunt, Mitchell and Letwin all fit into this category. Once separated from family, they have to rapidly reinvent themselves, so that they become, or appear to become, tough and self-reliant, ‘pseudo-adults’ as Duffell puts it. This, in turn, produces an ‘abandoned child’ complex, which explains the ‘boyish’ affability of Johnson, for example, with other characteristics being duplicity, anxiety, defensiveness, over-reaction, bullying, a tendency to dismiss aggressive behaviour as merely a bit of fun and charming buffoonery. It also delivers an environment in which women are effectively shut out.

In other words, our Government is being run by damaged children, not by properly mature adults.

David Cameron exhibited bullying misogyny when he told Angela Eagle Calm down dear! in Parliament. This caused many in the House of Commons to compare him to Flashman (the bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays). Cameron was also quick to defend Jeremy Clarkson when the former Top Gear motormouth uttered that he would have public sector strikers shot. Nick Duffell also explains that this is why everyday business in the House of Commons thrives on and indeed utilises polarised debate and bullying.

So, what to do?

For Duffell, the answer is that in order to change our politics, we will need to change our education system. The trouble is, this has been tried before, and it failed. Attlee tried it, and Wilson didn’t even dare to try. Unsurprisingly, it all comes down to money in the end. The public school sector is worth billions and therefore, also unsurprisingly, has a massive lobby that is constantly poised to defend it.

Unfortunately, particularly when there is a Conservative Government holding power, that means we might just be stuck with utter bumbling clowns such as Boris Johnson for some time.🔷


(Cover: Photograph by Flickr / Luke McKernan - Eton College.)


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Freelance journalist with special interests in renewable energy, climate change, environmental issues and social justice, with a variety of other interests besides (e.g. transport).
Weston Super Mare, UK Website