It was June 1978. At the front of the march snaking through the streets of Eton in southeast England was a lorry. On the back, like punk incarnations of the Pied Piper, the band Crisis was playing loud music. Socialist Workers Party members followed the truck and were later joined by Rock Against Racism punks.
This Right To Work march, in protest against rising unemployment, stopped at the gates of the elite school for boys, Eton College, a symbol of English privilege, entitlement and power.
There the protesters handed over a giant, fake silver spoon to the school’s head boy.
As the 17 June 1978 edition of the Socialist Worker newspaper reported, the head boy patronisingly told the marchers: “I hope your jolly campaign gets you somewhere.”
Paul Weller, leader of new wave band The Jam, saw coverage of the march on television. “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,” he recalled to Uncut music magazine in 2016. “I just thought what a great fucking image it was.”
It prompted Weller to write his famous song about class warfare and inequality, The Eton Rifles. It was released on 26 October 1979 and shot to number three on the hit parade.
The Eton Rifles was a song of its time. A few months earlier, on 4 May, the Conservatives had come into power with right-winger Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. A number of new policies led to a swift rise in unemployment and the class divide became even more pronounced.
Cadet corps and Thatcherism
The actual Eton Rifles, founded in 1860, were Eton College’s cadet corps. Now the Combined Cadet Force, schoolboys receive elementary military training and are taught how to fire guns.
The song isn’t only about the left-wing protesters of the day versus the Eton toffs. Weller used the incident as a metaphor for the economic oppression that came with Thatcherism.
He grew up as a working-class kid in the area. “Coming from such an uneducated background, I suppose I’d had quite a blinkered upbringing, and reading books like George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia and Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist had opened up my mind, seeing how the system works and how people are kept down,” Weller told Uncut. “They gave me a broadly socialist viewpoint and made me reappraise everything.”
In the song, Weller takes the piss out of the Eton boys, mocking their posh language: “Hello-hurrah, what a nice day, for the Eton Rifles”, and their elitist sport of cricket often being rained out, “Hello-hurrah, I hope rain stops play, with the Eton Rifles”.
Like all the best political and protest songs, The Eton Rifles has remained relevant over the decades. Its dripping sarcasm was, as is often the case with such songs, lost on some.
Former British prime minister David Cameron, who was in the Eton Rifles when he was at school, told the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2008 that his favourite song was “The Eton Rifles, inevitably. It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to. I don’t see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs.”
Weller told the Daily Mirror newspaper: “It’s a shame really that someone didn’t listen to that song and get something else from it and become a socialist leader instead. I was a bit disappointed really.”
To the New Statesman magazine he said: “Which part of it didn’t he get? It wasn’t intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps. It’s never been more appropriate, man.”
Eton’s 20 prime ministers
Eton, which with reason has been described as “the chief nurse of England’s statesmen”, and equated with elitism and the British ruling classes, has just produced its 20th British prime minister.
The school was founded in 1440 and is favoured by aristocrats and the wealthy from across the globe. It owns assets and properties worth more than £400 million (about R7 billion). The current fee for most of its 1 300 boys is £42 500 (about R750 000) a year – a small number of pupils receive financial support through bursaries and fellowships.
Prime minister number 20 is, of course, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. “Al” to his family, Boris to the rest of us. But that’s not all. He’s a man who reeks of the privilege, entitlement and power for which Eton College is infamous.
Predictably, commentators have not held back in describing the buffoonish BoJo as a “huckster”, “morally unfit”, “a con man”, “a self-absorbed charlatan”, “flamboyantly convictionless”, “a chimney of hot air” and, as Phil Burton-Cartledge wrote on the Verso Books website, “a man for whom the descriptors limited, lazy and decadent fit like a tailored suit”, to quote just a few. His ex-wife dubbed the serial philanderer a “liar” after he was caught out bullshitting about numerous affairs.
As John Crace wrote in The Guardian newspaper: “For his first outing in the Commons, Johnson had gone back to his more familiar default setting. The Fool. The court jester from whom no one expects the truth, so long as they are entertained.” Acting the fool comes naturally for the most powerful man in the United Kingdom, which is almost preferable, because “if there was one thing more terrifying than Boris acting the fool, it was Boris pretending to be serious”.
Johnson’s fake news-peddling journalism has also exposed him as a racist and sexist, calling black Africans “flag-waving piccaninnies” in a column for The Telegraph newspaper and comparing women who wear niqabs to “letter boxes”, according to The Independent newspaper.
Like his friend, United States President Donald Trump, he is known for his sloppy, rich-guy style of dressing. In a brilliant piece in GQ magazine, Rachel Tashjian wrote: “There’s no big message between their shared style, though, other than the fact that sloppy male power looks the same when it’s gained dishonestly.”
Novelist and literary critic James Wood wrote damningly as an insider-outsider in the London Review of Books about the background of his fellow Etonians, such as Johnson, Cameron and other members of the ruling elite: “A world of extreme wealth where there has never been any decline for them. They are secure as their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were before them.
“Once that security may have come from land; now it comes from hedge funds and shipping fortunes and extracurricular salaries (‘chicken-feed’, Johnson said of the £250 000 a year he was paid to write a column). Whatever happens in the next 30 or 40 years, post-Brexit, isn’t going to affect them. Privilege is like an unwritten constitution: you can never lose what you never have to find.”
As Martin Fletcher wrote in New Statesman magazine, “a tiny, anonymous cabal of 160 000 predominantly older, southern, white, wealthy, male, right-wing Conservative Party members” participated in the poll that elected BoJo, making it less than 0.3% of the UK’s population.
The question is how did they get away with it? Crace put his finger on it in his article in The Guardian: “If a developing country had just changed its entire government without an election, we’d be calling it a coup. And if that coup had been led by a man clearly unfit for office, whom even his own family can’t trust to tell the truth, we’d be calling that country a failed state. But as this is the UK and the leader in question is Boris Johnson, we plead the exceptionalism of a first-world democracy.”
Another explanation for how BoJo became prime minister can be found in a line from the 40-year-old The Eton Rifles, referring to the venal old school tie network: “What chance do you have against a tie and a crest?”