Eton Rifles and political education

By Bernadette Meaden
February 29, 2020

Richard Burgon has said that if elected deputy leader of the Labour Party he would establish a ‘Tony Benn University of Political Education’, which could include free online courses in progressive history and alternative economics.

This suggestion has predictably attracted criticism and even mockery, but there is a definite gap here which needs to be filled. When people have a poor understanding of the history, politics and economics which shapes their lives, they are more easily led down dangerous paths. When people aren’t aware that austerity is a political choice, they are more easily persuaded to blame immigrants for long waits at A&E. When they are unaware of the massive scale of the wealth hoarded in offshore tax havens, they are more ready to believe that ‘benefit scroungers’ are bleeding the country dry.

Of course, the majority of people are not greatly interested in the minutiae of politics – that’s only natural, and unlikely to change. But a general understanding of where we have come from, what political forces and movements have shaped our country and our lives, should be part of our national DNA – and at the moment it is either missing, or distorted. And that seems to be not so much a matter of education, but of culture.

An academic involved in the UCU strike recently tweeted “I was telling my 1st year students about the reasons for the strike and then asked if they had questions. One put their hand up and asked, 'What's a strike?'. The cohort was utterly shocked that we weren't going to get paid.”

This sparked a wider discussion which revealed that concepts like workers’ rights, trade unionism, and collective action are now simply alien concepts to many people, young and older - they are just not part of their world view. And an understanding that politics may be an extension of this, that parties may represent different and often conflicting interests, may also be rapidly diminishing. Before the last general election I spoke to a middle aged man with no assets and very little income, who confided that he didn’t know what left wing and right wing meant, he didn’t know what values the different parties represented – but he quite liked Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, because they were funny.

We shouldn’t be surprised at this. In my experience it’s quite possible to get through a decent education in England knowing very little about the political history of our own country, particularly its more radical aspects. It wasn’t until I followed my own interests that I read about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Levellers and the Diggers, the Chartists and the Peterloo massacre.

Perhaps the only radical movement which is generally acknowledged and celebrated in English culture is that of the Suffragettes - maybe because it is considered mission accomplished, finished business. Celebrating the Suffragettes is relatively safe, because their fight was won and is in no danger of being reignited.

On the other hand, hearing about radical land reformers or brave trade unionists could give people ideas. What if people learned about the Enclosures  or William the Conqueror’s land grab and the Diggers, and thought that perhaps it isn’t immigration that makes it so difficult for them to get a decent home, but our grossly unjust concentration of land ownership, whereby half of England is owned by less than one per cent of its population?

If events like the Preston strike of 1842 or the Jarrow March featured larger in our national story, perhaps people might be more inclined to consider that it wasn’t immigrants keeping their wages down, but exploitative employers – and more, that they should get together and do something about it?

We may take our identity from our history – but we can only take it from the history we know about, and when people don’t study history, their perception of it relies on what is transmitted through our culture. Currently the aspects of our history which take up much of our cultural bandwidth are, it seems to me, wars and monarchy. The fact that so many social media accounts sport the union flag, glory in how ‘we’ won two world wars, and are hostile towards those of another nationality, colour or creed may not be unconnected.

And sadly, Christianity is being appropriated as part of this nationalistic identity. People now frequently proclaim that ‘Britain is a Christian country’, not as a statement of religious belief, but a statement of identity in opposition to other faiths and cultures. Britain is often declared a Christian country by people voicing deeply unchristian views about their neighbours.

Here again, a greater knowledge of our radical past could help, as so many of our radical movements were rooted in Christianity, not as an exclusive identity, but as a fundamental belief that all people of are equal worth, without exception. An encounter with these stories would present an alternative model of struggle. If people knew a little more about the England of Gerrard Winstanley, or Elizabeth Heyrick  John Lilburne  or Elizabeth Pease and a little less about military victories, perhaps their political impulses would be more progressive, inclusive and focused on true justice.

Instead, we have a situation which was epitomised for me by a scene on Brexit Day, when a group of Leave voters in London played the song Eton Rifles on a makeshift PA system. The song was written in 1979 by Paul Weller of The Jam, who explained why he wrote it: “I was watching the news on TV and I saw this footage of a Right To Work march going past Eton, where all the kids from the school came outside and started jeering at the marchers.”When asked in 2015 why he hadn’t written any more political songs, Paul Weller said: “But I would just write exactly the same fucking things I wrote thirty-odd years ago. Nothing’s really changed, has it?”

And yet here we are. Many working class people now identify with Old Etonians, who it seems to me are still jeering at them, (though not openly), and with Brexit, a political project which has zero potential to solve the problems they face, or improve their lives in any concrete way. Lacking knowledge of our radical history, the things many people have taken hold of and take pride in are empire, military victories, and a feeling of being defined by what they oppose, which is then manipulated in the interests of people who one suspects would still inwardly jeer at them, if they marched in protest at their lot.

So many of our historic movements for social reform had their roots in Christianity. If the churches could highlight these aspects of our history which have been sadly neglected, they would be introducing people to a Christianity which is a commitment to justice and equality for all, not an identity in opposition to others of a different faith. It may not be a University for Political Education, but it could be a very positive contribution to our national life and culture.

"I have said, both in writing and from the platform many times, that the impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined." Keir Hardie.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 


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