How the world of Eton sees Scotland and Scottish Independence

In the same week that the terms of the referendum on Scottish independence were agreed, a debate on Scotland was held at Eton College. So what do the posh boys think?

Gerry Hassan
25 October 2012

The name of Eton resonates down through English tradition and privilege: from the Dave ‘n’ Boris show to the wider return of the old Etonians across public life.

It has produced nineteen British Prime Ministers and a host of Scottish and British iconoclasts and radicals from Tam Dalyell and Neal Ascherson to John Maynard Keynes and George Orwell.

Eton was an august setting for debating Scottish independence in the week of the Scottish and UK Government’s agreement on the single question referendum: yes or no on whether Scotland should exit the union. On the same day the Eton master Mike Grenier publicly warned of the dangers of parents micro-managing their children’s free time. Grenier advised that the ‘turbo-charged fathers’ and ‘tiger mothers’ that pay £30,000 per annum in fees should ‘embrace a little idleness’ with their children.

Orwell famously had a rather unhappy time at Eton as a lower middle class child. One view on why he chose to write ‘1984’ on the Isle of Jura is that he wanted to reclaim it, after hearing all through his youth about the summer breaks on Scottish estates of his much more wealthy Eton peers.

A fitting place for debating Scottish independence, then. The setting was the magnificent Upper Common hall, its walls resplendent with busts of old boys from Fox and Gladstone to Shelley. Two hundred and fifty pupils attended, boys aged between 13-18, alongside staff and the patron of the college, William Waldegrave and his wife.

The panel was comprised of Anas Sarwar MP, Pat Kane, Alan Cochrane and myself, an all-male panel, chaired by 17-year-old pupil Ran with confident skill and charm. We opened with a presentation from Nat La Roux from the Constitution Society who posed seven questions about the specifics and detail of Scottish independence.

Nat’s seven points illustrated that Scottish independence is now seen as feasible and viable, and that we are now in a transformative moment. Whatever happens in 2014, Scotland and the UK will never be the same again, nor will the world see them as the same.

Musician and writer Pat Kane had to deal with the first question on the currency issue and keeping the pound, and said that a "sterling zone" would be "a stabilising wheel for Scottish independence".

Labour MP for Glasgow Anas Sarwar at one point quietly invoked a common front of himself, myself and Pat as social democrats who agreed on many of the basics of the Scotland we want to see. Perhaps even more impressively and I assume at great effort, the word ‘separatism’ did not cross his lips once!

Alan Cochrane of the Telegraph added a bit of lightness to proceedings, although he did comment that the decision to have an independence referendum was "bizarre" and "ridiculous". He went even further, asking "why are we embarking on this vote when only one-third of a bit of the country wants it?"

The debate and evening was good-natured; the student questions were considered and relevant; none were disrespectful or uncomprehending of Scotland. What was even more impressive was their attentiveness and willingness to listen; when the audience weren’t applauding or laughing, you could hear the powerful silence of the hall.

Before and after the debate we talked to the boys. Each had lots of questions, took in information, and asked good follow-ups. They demonstrated that they have an informed view about Scotland and Scottish politics: that we could become independent and make an economic, social and political success, and that this is something historic and with huge repercussions.

The attitudes and demeanours of the boys strike me as significant. They don’t come across as over-arrogant or filled with self-importance; I wonder if they know so deeply in their core that they have status, privilege and are part of an elite that they don’t feel the need to show it.

There could be something interesting in Eton boys showing such an interest in Scottish affairs and matters. Part of it is that they are taught how to listen, understand arguments and show manners. But I wonder if something more is at work.

The college patron William Waldegrave and a range of voices underlined over the course of the evening how worried they are about the impact of the rise of UKIP and the effect it might have on the Tory Party. We talked about what everyone sees as the inevitable European Union referendum, and several people believed that whatever the actual question it will in reality be an in/out question which could easily be won for UK withdrawal. That too, we mused, would be a historic watershed and one with Scottish consequences.

I left Eton the next morning to drop in on my in-laws, Joan, 81, and Cyril, 88, who live nearby in Whitton - but a world away from Eton College. They have contributed to society all their lives and done the right thing, Cyril is a war veteran from Anzio, and yet their lives are filled with care and financial worries. The difference between their situation and that of the Eton boys is a story of modern Britain.

After leaving Whitton, I picked up a copy of the new issue of ‘The Spectator’. In it Charles Moore, the official biographer of Margaret Thatcher, gives us his thoughts on the week’s agreement between David Cameron and Alex Salmond.

Moore is not a happy unionist to put it mildly. He thinks Cameron has stumbled into making a profound blunder and takes the view that "votes on the future of the United Kingdom are not a devolved matter. They should be settled by all MPs with, in this case, a decisive role for Scottish MPs". This seems to be taking unionist fundamentalism a bit too literally, and he argues that, "this is a matter on which a Labour Government, knowing more about Scotland, would make fewer unforced concessions than the Tories". This represents the death-knell of Tory unionism which was once such a powerful force.

The Tories, wider British political classes and establishment increasingly don’t understand Scotland and increasingly don’t understand and reflect the nature of the United Kingdom. They stopped trying and making the effort years ago.

Now because Scotland is back on the agenda, a whole new generation, including some of tomorrow’s elites as seen in the attitudes of Eton boys, are making the effort to learn and be curious about what is going on here.

This might be significant and it might not. The uncompromising views of the Charles Moores of the world are representative of much Conservative thinking which have given up on understanding the nuance and partnership of the union. The Eton boys we encountered will have to overcome the Moores of this world, and even if they did, which I have my doubts on, I wonder if it just isn’t a little bit too late, maybe by about twenty years.

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