Monthly Archives: July 2022

Against the Law: published today


I’m posting this on the day my new book is published. I thought it might help to explain who the book is for and why I wrote it.

The book advocates for a world without law.

When you first suggest that idea, it seems ridiculous. Of course we need laws, don’t we? And now, of all times, with governments taking away human rights, laughing at the idea of asylum for refugees, coming up with ever more draconian anti-protest laws – isn’t this exactly the moment to be standing up for people’s rights?

For those who want to focus on the present, don’t worry, the book does a lot of that. I write in the book (as I’ve been doing in the press for the past few weeks) about the authoritarian side of populism and the benign laws it smashes, as well as the malign ones it creates.

What I try to show in my book is that, in the conditions of the past 40 years, we have come to rely on the law at just the same time that we’ve felt less power in our lives. In the workplace, for example, a structure of individualised employment law took root at the same time as the passing of anti-union laws. Workers were prevented from striking, and workers were rewarded for bringing their complaints in the tribunal. This two-step dance did not make workplaces better or reduce managerial power. In the 1960s, when unions were strong and laws were weak, employees who were dismissed would often appeal that decision to their managers. Around one in four employees who were dismissed was able to get that decision reversed. Move on a generation and under our present-day system of employment tribunals fewer than 1 in 1000 unfair dismissal claims leads to a worker’s reinstatement.  

If you have been a union rep then you will know how casework has drained activist time, and reinforced dynamics of self-policing within the unions. In talking in employment law, I don’t mean to extract it from other areas of law: the same processes of complexity and legal overreach have been going on housing law, family law, etc etc.

The most exciting of left-wing traditions imagine a world in which there is no state because the unequal relationships which a state seeks to mediate and protect have themselves gone away – in which there are no discrimination laws because there is no racism and no sexism. Or, in relation to the destruction of the environment, there is no bureaucracy of business regulations, because there is no longer “business” in the sense we understand it now, as a series of wealthy individuals hoarding resources for the sake of their descendants to the 50th generation into the future, with a complex regime of laws protecting them from being sued when those plutocrats take decisions which burn the forests and poison the seas.

If you can hold in mind that vision of the future, even as you look with open eyes at the world around us, then slogans such as “Save the Human Rights Act,” or “Defend judicial review,” can no longer be sufficient. Merely to save what we have now, you need to think beyond it.

They might involve certain expansions to the state: environmental courts to expropriate the polluters. But what I’m arguing for is, in general, the increasing power of social movements outside the law.

Faced with the crisis around us, I insist on optimism. It is in moments when you can see structures of law being dismantled, and they cease to seem permanent, fixed and unchanging, that you can start to imagine a different kind of legal system, one that corresponds to what people really need.

Against the Law is published by Repeater today.

I blame the school


It’s only in Johnson’s final hours that the nice people whose comment pieces dominate the Guardian (let alone the Times, or the Telegraph) have noticed that he is the same serial liar and thief that he was when he first came to public attention, for offering to help an old school friend crack the ribs of a journalist. Who would have guessed that all those columns insisting that the public should vote for anyone except Jeremy Corbyn would have left us with the Prime Minister tied to the mast of our own latter-day Raft of the Medusa. Who, indeed?

Here, though, I want to focus on Johnson’s education – his Eton education – and ask what he picked up at that school, home as it has been to 20 of our prime ministers, and two of the last three. After all, the parents spend their small fortune on fees and expenses, c£20,000 p/a in the first years when I was there in 1986-1991, and around four times as much these days. What they’re paying for is a training. So what exactly are the boys taught?

Let’s begin in October 2019, and a letter read out by Rory Stewart. Two months earlier, Johnson had won the Conservative leadership contest, making himself prime minister, and defeating rivals including Stewart. The latter’s days in politics were running out; as leader of the party Johnson was able to deselect him as a Conservative MP. Before he left the stage, Stewart gave one last effort at embarrassing Johnson by reading out a letter sent home to Johnson’s parents by his housemaster in his final year:

“Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the School for next half): I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

Stewart felt confident his audience would see the point for themselves; Johnson was a bad sort, indifferent to the rules which bound those in authority. As he had behaved when he was a prefect, so he would as Prime Minister.

You will further note that in this self-description, Eton College (as expressed by the teacher, the custodian of its values) is supposedly against Johnson. He isn’t the type that the school is seeking to produce. What then is the ideal Etonian, to which Johnson is the shadow?

Seen from its champions’ perspective, the ideal which Eton absorbs is the English upper-class ideal of the gentleman amateur. The school tells new pupils that they should aspire to be intelligent, hard-working and self-disciplined and that they should be incredibly ambitions. Crucially, they should be capable of concealing the public show of that ambition so that if they do arrive in power this will seem to be at just the same time both the most natural thing in the world (reflecting their innate talent) and the most extraordinary surprise, so that the recipient of power will be unassuming and modest.

Eton doesn’t just absorb that ideal passively, it is one of the institutions which teaches and spreads it, so that it becomes the norm for all our systems of government. Why, for example, are the education ministers never teachers? It is because of the same, destructive culture going back to the days of the British empire of the senior civil whose deep ignorance of the fields they administer is supposedly the guarantee of their objectivity.

Reflect on this ideal mixture of gravitas and humility and compare it to the most prominent Old Etonians you have seen: Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Were either of them this combination of talented, ambitious and modest? Ambitious, they were, but not one iota of the rest.

The fallacy is that you can teach people at the same time to be both privileged and gracious. When it is the very experience of knowing that the way is being eased for you which drives away the humility.

Beneath all of this, there are certain other myths which are equally ridiculous. There are around 750,000 people aged 18 in Britain at any time. Just 250 of them, or one in every 3,000, are pupils at Eton College. Saying that of those 250 boys, probably 1-2 in every year will end at some point in the Cabinet – means that 1 in every 3,000 people hoards the chance to make the decisions and 2,999 out of 3,000 are excluded.

The chief qualification for getting into Eton is that your parents are capable of paying for you to stay there. These days it’s equivalent to a one-off payment of around £400,000. Saying that people should get fast-tracked to these life opportunities just because they are rich is as obscene as saying that someone should be a poet because their parents were; or that purely on account of their wealth they should be made King or Queen and lord it over all of us.

Eton College is not a difficult school to get into. Many of its pupils are products of schools for those aged 7-12 which are little more than exam factories. It produces very few people who are both humble and talented. What it does produce, in vast number, is people who have been told since an early age that they will end up in positions of power. And because that’s what will happen, so it must reflect some virtue in them. In other words it teaches people to be like David Cameron (shallow and privileged) and it takes people to be like Boris Johnson (shallow and privileged and desperately vain).

I was at Eton in the same cohort as Rory Stewart, and in every class there was half a dozen David Cameron, and in every class there were 2-3 Boris Johnsons. Not Johnson himself, not exactly. He was something like 8-9 years older than me (as there are only 5 years of pupils at Eton at any on time), and we didn’t so much as overlap. And yet he was a constant presence: there in the autumn half-terms, joking with the younger boys at the summer Fourth of June parties. Even after his formal schooling had ended, he kept on coming back year after year, as if he knew he had left something behind there, something that he would never get back – whether the mirage of talent, a route towards advancement, or the availabilty of contacts. He needed the school, he idolised it, long after he’d left.

As for me, in my five years, I tried everything I could to tear the place down, brick by brick, like Samson’s temple. One day, I like to think I’ll go back – or someone like me – but this time, there will be whole crowds waiting, and hammers at the ready. So long as it stands, we’ll never have a true democracy.