Why would the Prime Minister respect human rights? Nobody respected his

Many of Britain's leading politicians spent their childhoods in boarding schools, being deprived of their basic human rights. Is it any wonder they won't respect ours?

Sally Fraser
2 June 2015

Harrow School, 1615/Wikimedia

The Prime Minister has delayed plans to scrap the Human Rights Act, but we are told this is only a delay about getting the changes right, not about abandoning the changes altogether. Human rights are still very much in trouble, and it doesn’t surprise me, because I would argue that David Cameron and a third of his cabinet were raised in institutions which undermined their human rights. I believe that if we continue to tolerate the practise of deliberately raising small children out-with their homes and families, we are perpetuating a systemic flaw in how rights are valued.

When David Cameron left home aged seven his right to respect for private family life and home, under article 8 of the HRA, was contravened. Attending a preparatory school in the seventies, it is highly likely that his correspondence was not private either, as letters home were often checked as late as the 1990s. I wouldn’t like to speculate as to the level of freedom of thought under article 9 he experienced, or whether he endured punishment without breaking the law (article 7), or degrading and inhuman treatment (article 3) as was not uncommon in boarding schools of the era. While corporal punishment was on the wane in the eighties, due to fashion and complaints rather than a genuine belief that beating children wasn’t very nice, it was not outlawed in private schools until 1999. We do know that he was made to write a Georgic, some sort of weird repetitive writing task, which would nowadays be classed as menial and degrading. Living in an institution surrounded only by other wealthy upper class young men, we might question whether his freedom of assembly and association under article 11 was upheld. And anyone who has ever tried to borrow so much as a herbal tea-bag from an ex public school boy will have felt the wrath of what an upbringing where article 1 protocol 1, that freedom to peacefully enjoy ones possessions, is not respected, can do to a person.

But I am aware I am on risky territory here. I am discussing the experiences of some of the most wealthy and powerful people in society in the terms laid out to protect the most vulnerable. But bear with me. If we expand our understanding of human rights to include the rights of the child, then boarding schools are in even more trouble, as contraventions of the UNCRC in boarding schools are arguably numerous. Even though harsh punishments and austere living conditions are a thing of the past, the central principle of raising children away from home is the same. The convention begins with the preamble that “the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”. Yet there is currently no lower legal age limit for children attending boarding schools. The argument for this is that parents have the right to choose how they raise their children. But the emotional needs of a six or seven year old simply cannot be met by living in an institution where they are not allowed to be held or cuddled: early boarding intrinsically involves emotional neglect, parents should not be free to neglect their children, even if they are paying large amounts of money to do so.

This is one of those vast, glaring hypocrisies which permeates everything it touches upon with something insidiously rotten. Much as Tolstoy suggests that while we permit the murder in the name of war, there can be no ethics but only ‘the semblance of ethics’, if we deny the rights of wealthy children and call this contravention of their rights a privilege, we will only ever have a semblance of justice. Educating children about rights is central to the vision of what we want society to be. Article 29 of the UNCRC describes how the very goal of education as to ‘encourage a child’s respect for human rights, respect for parents, their own and other cultures and the environment’. Failing to educate them, or worse, deliberately giving them a false impression of what their rights are, can, and arguably has, led to a society where no rights can be taken for granted, where the weak can expect to suffer, the vulnerable can hope for no protection.

Because the thing about rights is, they are universal, and if there is one thing, in my experience, that ex-boarders can’t tolerate, its anything being unconditional, and universalism is an uncomfortable idea to people raised with rigid hierarchies. In the boarding schools of the seventies and eighties, where our leaders were raised, rights were transient, earned, awarded. When my husband was at Harrow in the eighties his house actually voted to keep fagging. That is, they democratically opted to keep their exploitation: we like our toilet seats warm and our power unjust round here, thanks very much. You tolerate making the toast you are not allowed to eat because it will be your turn to eat it one day, you take the beating because one day you will hold the stick. That’s how things work. Except in the rest of the world some of us never get the toast, and even if we wanted to we will never hold the stick.

So those of us who will never be prefects need to fight for the universal and unconditional nature of rights. This means we cannot turn a blind eye to those violations of rights which are veiled by privilege. To firmly uphold the right of a child to unconditional love, home and family, is key to creating a society where nurture is valued and the vulnerable are afforded dignity. Otherwise, we run the risk of a situation where rights, along with vulnerability, nurture and unconditional love, are repressed by the ghosts of school-bullies past for fear of being, well, a bit wet.

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