Some people are unhappy that an Eton entrance exam asked candidates to write a speech justifying the shooting of protestors. Their disquiet reflects the discomfort the soft-headed left feels when confronted with the cold hard facts of life.
It is no accident that the question follows a passage from Machiavelli. What we're seeing here is that Eton - the training ground for our future leaders rulers - instinctively understands the nature of power, whereas its soft left critics have always been simperingly naive about it. I mean this in five senses:
1. Political power rests, ultimately, upon force and violence. Plan A for the ruling class is to govern by consent. But there is a plan B.
2. Power comes with risks. If you give bosses power over companies, there's a danger they'll extract wealth for themselves at others' expense. If you give bankers' power over the economy there's a danger of damaging financial crises. And if you give guns to some people and not others, there's a danger people will be killed*. This is something New Labour never really understood. In creating so many new criminal offences and bolstering the power and self-importance of the police, it thought it was acting out of good intentions but was - to take only the latest example of many - merely giving them licence to bully old ladies.Good intentions are not enough.
3. Power depends upon mechanisms. The question rulers must ask is: what tools do we have to exercise our will? Eton knows that one such mechanism is force. Again, though, social democrats have long been naive here. One reason why New Labour was cringingly deferential towards bosses was that it thought that "leadership" was a magic which enabled things to get done, and that the secrets of such ju-ju were known by a priestly elite of "business leaders". But that naivete was nothing new. Back in 1931 a Labour government was replaced by a coalition government which promptly left the gold standard, prompting one Labour politician to bewail "Nobody told us we could do that." Both episodes betray social democrats' ignorance of the tools of power. But Eton's examiners know what the tools are.
4. The role of bad faith. The examiners are not asking for a philosophical defence of killing protestors, but for a speech. The difference is that political speeches need not be true or sincere. The legitimation of power rests partly upon lies and half-truths.
5. Who, whom? Lenin got it right. Power is about who does what to whom? Eton's examiners know that their charges will be the "who" and the rest of us the "whom."
A great thinker - well, greater than most on the non-Marxist left - once asked: "what chance have you got against a tie and a crest?" None at all, given that they know what power is whilst the soft left is just wimperingly emotive.
* I nearly wrote here that there's a risk that power will be abused. But when people speak of the "abuse of power" they often mean what they mean when they speak of "drug abuse" - the routine use of it.