Sam Leith

Is anti-Etonian prejudice really OK?

Angela Rayner shouldn’t indulge in the politics of out-group hatred

Is anti-Etonian prejudice really OK?
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Don’t you wish Angela Rayner would come off the fence, just once in a while, and tell us what she really thinks?

In a meeting of delegates to the Labour Conference, the heiress presumptive to the Labour leadership is reported to have said of the governing party: ‘We cannot get any worse than a bunch of scum: homophobic, racist, misogynistic… banana republic…vile, nasty, Etonian…piece of scum.’

I’ll let the purity-police in her own faction take Ms Rayner to task over the orientalist and patronising stereotyping of communities in the Global South as ‘banana republics’. What bothers me, if I’m going to speak my truth, is the way in which ‘Etonian’ appears as the last and by implication most iniquitous in her laundry list of moral abominations.

A person chooses, at least arguably, to persist in homophobia, misogyny and these other forms of horridness. Those are defects of character. To be an Etonian, on the other hand, is a condition you acquire ineradicably, in the innocence of childhood. It is an accident of birth (or a bit before, usually, which is when you’re put down on the General List). You no more choose to be Etonian than you choose to be black, or gay, or a cervix-haver. So snarling at Etonians like that… it’s, like, racist, yeah?

And saying – as is of course a fair point – that Boris Johnson and David Cameron have not proved very good ambassadors for the old place doesn’t make it any less so. Here you are in the territory of those who take Osama bin Laden as a representative example of Islam, or who make ‘anti-Zionism’ the cover for a not-so-subtle hatred of the Jewish people.

Of course, arguments will persist about diversity; and the value of multicultural distinctiveness as against a ‘melting-pot’ approach to co-existence.

The truth is, though, that in practice most Etonians are keen to integrate into the mainstream of society. Their strange rituals and impenetrable language are a private matter of conscience. With each generation, more and more of them ‘marry out’ and will tend to call taxi-drivers ‘mate’ rather than ‘my good man’.

Some even end up on public transport. I dwell on this point not, obviously, because anti-Etonian prejudice is the most pressing social injustice we face. Rather, because it seems to me a very striking tell.

Ms Rayner is a senior member of a party that vaunts itself as fighting against those who dehumanise and revile whole categories of people on the basis of a single characteristic (a party, incidentally, many of whose supposed principles would be endorsed by Old Etonians Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Orwell and Tam Dalyell). Yet here she is doing exactly that.

Categorical thinking and the politics of out-group hatred are categorical thinking and the politics of out-group hatred even if you’ve satisfied yourself that you’re ‘punching up’. No good comes of it.

Indeed, if you carelessly muddle moral categories and accidents of birth or circumstance (the current intra-Left punch-up over ‘white feminism’ being a prime example) you risk licensing something far uglier and more rancorous than will be found in your average unthinking reactionary.

Once someone has persuaded themselves that their team are the goodies and the other team are the baddies, as is routinely and drearily exemplified online, there’s no evil they won’t permit themselves.

I write, incidentally, as someone whose politics is probably closer to Ms Rayner’s than the Prime Minister’s. I have spent 25-odd years working alongside writers and thinkers of the right – many of whose views I have thought wrong and some I have thought positively demented. But I don’t regard them individually as monsters (well, maybe the odd one) and I certainly don’t regard them collectively as scum. It would be bizarre to do so.

Many people of good conscience believe that free markets create prosperity, that keeping control of the public finances is a useful hedge against future disaster, that uncontrolled immigration isn’t an automatic and unqualified good, that traditions have a value in themselves and that cultural continuities help bind communities together. Argue against them, sure. Demonise and dehumanise them? Nuh-uh.

No doubt cries of ‘Tory scum’ play well with the student-debating leftism of one faction in Ms Rayner’s party. But it’s in no way the behaviour of someone who merits consideration as a serious person of good conscience aspiring to do serious politics to improve the lives of her fellow citizens. Shame on her, and floreat Etona.

Written bySam Leith

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator.

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