Interview: Peter Hitchens debates the nationalisation of Eton at the Cambridge Union
On Tuesday, October 22, the Cambridge Union hosted the 'THW Nationalise Eton Debate', which featured an array of prominent speakers, including Mr Hitchens and Robert Verkaik.
It was an energetic debate in front of a packed chamber of more than 300 people, fuelled by passionate speeches from both the proposition and opposition, as well as from the speakers and the floor.
Acclaimed freelance journalist Robert Verkaik, who writes for various newspapers including The Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Times and The Independent, and is the author of Posh Boys: How English Public Schools Ruin Britain, began the proposition with a witty attack on the schooling behind Boris Johnson’s government.
This was followed by an opposition speech from the editor of Spiked, writer for The Sun and The Spectator, Brendan O’Neill.
O’Neill argued that “there are only two types of people who engage in a debate about private schools”: those who attended private schools, who were either traumatised or enraged by their experience, or those who did not, who, as “slightly-less-posh-middle-class citizens” resent the institution out of an inferiority complex.
His view was seen as controversial by the chamber, resulting in a string of ‘points of information’ from the audience.
After a couple of impressive floor speeches, Sam O’Bree, the only undergraduate speaker of the debate, spoke fervently about the need for educational equality.
Dr Zoe Strimpel, historian of gender, relationships and feminism, and a columnist for The Sunday Telegraph, challenged this with the need for a different kind of equality, encouraging the audience to consider "THW Nationalise Wycombe Abbey” or “THW Nationalise South Hampstead High School”.
The final round of speeches was taken by Peter Hitchens, the eminent journalist, author and broadcaster, and the Right Honourable Stephen Dorrell, former Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment under the Conservative government.
Peter Hitchens was certainly one of the bigger names of the night, and many were surprised to see him speak in proposition of the motion, considering that he attended private school until the age of 15.
The executive officer of the Union had initially asked him to speak on the opposition, but it was Hitchens himself who expressed a preference for the proposition.
Hitchens has debated at the Union on several occasions, including 'THB the Government has Failed Britain’s Youth' in October 2011, and 'This House Regrets the Rise of New Atheism' in October 2013.
This year, he returned to the Chamber with an argument that re-considered the word “nationalisation”, distinguishing it from the word “abolition”, and closely associating it to the term “renationalisation”: the “renationalisation of Eton” – in other words, a return to the time when Eton was attended by poorer students.
Stephen Dorrell rebutted against O’Bree’s earlier point on equality, probing whether we should be working towards equality or opportunity.
Despite a seven per cent swing to the ayes, the opposition were victorious: This House Would Not Nationalise Eton.
The day before the debate, on Twitter, someone had mistakenly believed that Mr Hitchens, a respected columnist for The Mail on Sunday, was actually anti-Eton, a misconception he quickly put right.
"They thought I was calling for abolition which is crazy; it's a great institution with an enormously important history," he said, speaking to the Cambridge Independent immediately after the debate.
"Part of the point of places like Eton is the huge institutional force they have, which of course engulfs the new arrival there and gives him a sense of an enormous amount of historical, cultural and moral legacy - which you inherit when you walk through those doors.
"It's the same with the ancient Oxford and Cambridge colleges - anybody who comes here feels there is something here that they're inheriting, and they are inheriting something very important.
"You can't build an institution in a day - it takes hundreds of years and it would be crazy to destroy it. The thing to do is make the best of it."
Reflecting on the debate, Mr Hitchens said: "I felt it was an opportunity for me because a long time ago, I was supposed to do a debate here on grammar schools and I was stuck in Burma and couldn't make it back...
"I've always wanted to make up for that and it [grammar schools] is one of my greatest passions.
"The reconstruction of state grammar schools in this country is achievable, would be of enormous benefit and is actually, if you think about it, both a left-wing and a conservative cause - and sensible people should unite around it.
"It's just so much better than the selection by money which we have at the moment.
"Two sorts of selection by money: one by school fees, which most people can never dream of paying, and the other is selection by house price.
"This rigid and ruthless selection excludes huge numbers of boys and girls from poor homes from the education which they deserve and which the country ought to be giving them."
Mr Hitchens added: "However many bursaries Eton sets up, however many satellite schools it sets up in Maidenhead, it can never open itself to poor people in that way without the backing of the state - which is why I jumped on the nationalisation thing.
"Nationalisation isn't always bad. The Royal Navy, an institution which I love, is nationalised and has been from the start, and there's nothing wrong with it in itself.
"There are types of nationalisation and that's the type I envisage."
More by this authorAdrian Peel