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May 26, 2013



"The difference is that political speeches need not be true or sincere. The legitimation of power rests partly upon lies and half-truths."

True but as 'Skinner's Theorem' suggests political speeches made in public create the expectation that they will be acted upon. Not carrying a promised action will lose you support/popularity. So bad faith has its limits.


I have rarely read such ill-thought-out rambling mutterings masquerading as intellectual analysis. It is full-to-the-brim with unproveable assertions which the author appears to be believe should be taken at face value without the awkwardness of referencing any supporting evidence whatsoever. I know nothing of the Eton entrance exam. However, if one assumes that the above question was actually included in it one can view it in several ways. It could be seen as a reflection of the political ethos underpinning the school; it could simply be an exercise in seeing how potential pupils marshal arguments and the question itself is irrelevant; it could be seen as being deliberately provocative to see what response it generates. Frankly if I were responding to that question in that situation I would rage against it with every fibre of my being and every argument I could muster. If my writing had any merit I would expect those reviewing it would give me credit for not conforming.Who knows!!?? However, maybe you should have approached the school and asked for its motivations in setting the question rather than simply going off at a tangent into a load of specious analysis reflecting your own political prejudices rather than anything real.


I take it Eton does not subscribe to Karl Popper view.


"Karl Popper defined democracy in contrast to dictatorship or tyranny, thus focusing on opportunities for the people to control their leaders and to oust them without the need for a revolution"

How is the use of force justified in the context of opportunities for non-violent change. Of course there is the question of how representative, representative democracy is. And the fact we are governed by self-selecting elite of idiots, explains the failures in policy.

Perhaps Eton like Islam should move on from the middle ages.

As President Assad of Syria has discovered use of force can provoke a violent reaction (initial opposition was non-violent) and revolution if it is seen to be illegitimate.
Bloody Sunday is another example, where the use of force resulted in the troubles, and Cameron apologised for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (1919) in Amritsar.


"The massacre caused a reevaluation of the army's role, in which the new policy became "minimum force", and the army was retrained and developed suitable tactics for crowd control"

Could this be the reason the Riot Act (1714) was repealed in 1967.

You don't have to be a Marxist to understand power on the left.



The question makes it clear that violence is to be considered the "only" option available and asked to justify it as "necessary and moral".

My previous comment rejects this view but the Eton question makes explicit what approach candidates are expected to justify.

Teaching should allow the student to agree or disagree with the premise on political or moral issues, or is there just one right view at Eton?


If the Eton examining board had asked candidates to write one piece justifying the shooting and another condemning it, would Chris and the enraged readers think that better or worse?

Greg vP

Chris, this is one of the best blog posts I've ever read.

No stumbling or mumbling, just a crisp summary of the facts of political life: matured and double-distilled Machiavelli. Beautiful.

Luis Enrique


don't be ridiculous, being told to construct an argument for a particular conclusion is not the same thing as "not being allowed to disagree".

I think stevedd has a point. Interpreting this question at face value - Eton saying: "we would like to recruit pupils capable of justifying shooting protesters hence suited for joining the ruling cabal" - smells funny to me (although I know zero about Eton). If that was really what's going on, I don't believe any examiner would be so direct. I mean, who's writing the exam, Dr Evil? You can be set the task: "justify something morally abhorrent" as an exercise.


Aragon: the Northern Irish troubles did not result from Bloody Sunday.

You may be surprised to learn that before then 227 people had been killed in the troubles (75 British security forces, 71 Catholic civilians, 43 Protestant civilians, 30 republicans, 4 civilians from outside NI, 3 loyalists and 1 Irish garda. Source: Sutton Index of Deaths).

Which does not, of course, justify Bloody Sunday.


Eton justify the question in the context of a long quote from the Prince and the Riot Act was law of the land until the seventies, and is still in effect in Canada.

We should take the question at face value.
Eton justify it at face value.

And given the Stanford Prison Experiment


"The results of the experiment have been argued to demonstrate the impressionability and obedience of people when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support. The experiment has also been used to illustrate cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority."


"Under this interpretation, the results are compatible with the results of the Milgram experiment, in which ordinary people fulfilled orders to administer what appeared to be agonizing and dangerous electric shocks to a confederate of the experimenter."

Which also brings us back to Woolwich.

Luis Enrique

The right PR response from Eton would be to ask next year's candidates to put themselves in the shoes of a revolutionary leader as write a speech justifying killing soldiers, government employees and (accidentally) innocent bystanders. Or to justify ex-post changes to the law to facilitate jailing bankers.

Whilst I am not quite comfortable taking it at face value, if all they wanted to do was get candidates to display their ability to see different sides to moral arguments, this was an awful choice of question. So maybe Chris is right, they want children who are already prepared to justify killing to "restore order"


To be precise, the candidates were asked to write a speech justifying the shooting after the fact.

Beyond that, all correct. A+ and the soggy-biscuit cap for Dillow Major.

Richard Powell

"Wimperingly" is a handy new coinage.

Knowledge is power, as your (3) suggests. To get into Eton you're expected to know enough at the age of 13 to respond confidently to these questions:


Whereas hoi polloi at tthe age of 16 won't really need to know much to score a passing grade at this:


It was not ever thus. I've just dug out my O-level English paper from 1976, the distant ancestor of the GCSE in the link. This allowed candidates much more latitude than the GCSE, and was also much more stretching. Essay choices included:

- A team you are supporting is having a disastrous season. Explain why you loyally continue to support it.

- Disillusionment. (You may have been let down by a friend, or disappointed in a place, but use your own experience.)

- 'Cheap travel will put an end to nationalism.' Say what you think this statement means, and how far you agree with it.

- Your favourite character in fiction. Explain why he or she appeals to you.

- Wales in the year 2000. (You might like to consider population, language, resources and government, etc., but treat the theme in your own way.)

There is a price to paid for dumbing down, and it isn't the Etonians who will pay it. The wimpering left has remarkably little to say about all this. Indeed, their house journal gives the impression that all would be fine and dandy in the state sector if it were not for the interference of the hated Gove.

Really what's surprising is not that there are so many products of elite schools in positions of authority; but that anyone else gets a look-in these days. (No, I didn't go to one - a grammar school boy, me.)


God, I feel like I souhld be takin notes! Great work


An apparently hard-headed but actually naive post. Political power ultimately rests on political legitimacy. Without legitimacy violence cannot save the regime.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

" Discussing the ability of a monarch to meet the people's wish for liberty, Machiavelli comments that “as far as the … popular desire of recovering their liberty, the prince, not being able to satisfy them, must examine what the reasons are that make them desire being free” (Machiavelli 1965, 237). He concludes that a few individuals want freedom simply in order to command others; these, he believes, are of sufficiently small number that they can either be eradicated or bought off with honors. By contrast, the vast majority of people confuse liberty with security, imagining that the former is identical to the latter: “But all the others, who are infinite, desire liberty in order to live securely (vivere sicuro)” (Machiavelli 1965, 137). Although the king cannot give such liberty to the masses, he can provide the security that they crave:

As for the rest, for whom it is enough to live securely (vivere sicuro), they are easily satisfied by making orders and laws that, along with the power of the king, comprehend everyone's security. And once a prince does this, and the people see that he never breaks such laws, they will shortly begin to live securely (vivere sicuro) and contentedly (Machiavelli 1965, 237).

Machiavelli then applies this general principle directly to the case of France, remarking that “the people live securely (vivere sicuro) for no other reason than that its kings are bound to infinite laws in which the security of all their people is comprehended” (Machiavelli 1965, 237). The law-abiding character of the French regime ensures security, but that security, while desirable, ought never to be confused with liberty. This is the limit of monarchic rule: even the best kingdom can do no better than to guarantee to its people tranquil and orderly government. "

In short violence is not enough. The Prince must ensure the minimum conditions - in this analysis security and tranquility - to secure the political legitimacy of the regime among the population.


There's another interpretation, which is rather less sinister


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