The Spectator's Notes

In defence of Eton’s headmaster

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

My inbox is crowded with messages from Old Etonians attacking Simon Henderson, the headmaster of Eton. They are furious that he sacked a master, Will Knowland, for putting on YouTube his talk to boys about masculinity, and then refusing to take it down. As one complainant puts it: ‘Eton and Woke are both four-letter words, but they should have nothing in common beyond that.’ I agree, but the case is more complicated. In disciplinary questions, one must ask: ‘What else could the boss have done?’ Suppose I, when a newspaper editor, had told a staff journalist that he could not publish an article he had submitted, yet he went ahead and did so. I think I have would have been right to punish him severely, even if I had been wrong about the merits of his piece. It would have been direct disobedience, not a free-speech issue. Like an editor, a head should have control of what his staff publish (and, no, ‘personal’ disclaimers don’t necessarily do the trick). In Mr Knowland’s case, it seems, the problem started when a female colleague complained about his talk. The head took advice from a lawyer whom — with Mr Knowland — he had recently asked to serve on a new working group looking into these fraught issues. The lawyer said the complainant would have a prima facie case under the Equality Act. Mr Henderson therefore wanted the talk removed from school circulation and taken out of the public domain, at least until the matter was settled. Mr Knowland would not accept this. Surely that puts him in the wrong — for normal reasons, not woke ones. In a letter he has circulated to ‘the Eton community’, Mr Knowland disputes some of the school’s account, saying the Equality Act was never given to him as a reason for removing the talk from YouTube, but this feels somewhat hair-splitting: in a school, the headmaster must be in charge. A school is not a university, in which power is deliberately diffused.

It could be, however, that the head was also at fault. Perhaps he alarmed Mr Knowland by talk of lawyers. Perhaps he could have challenged the legal advice. Or perhaps he could have allowed him to cool off a bit, rather than sacking him. It is hard to know; but it is possible to share Mr Knowland’s resentment. If he had given a talk about femininity which had said things which a male member of staff had found offensive, one can be confident that the threat of legal action would have been negligible. Even though he was not sacked for his views, he is a victim of a law which truly does intrude upon free speech. That — rather than the head’s conduct — is the serious public-policy aspect to all this.

Many of my friends think the head should now go. If Eton, of all places, does not take a stand against the Thought Police, they ask, who will? Hold on. There is a danger that conservatives are accidentally imitating the woke left and trying to ‘cancel’ people who annoy them. How would it look to the world if Eton’s headmaster were forced out for exercising his legitimate authority? In 1915, the then headmaster, Edward Lyttleton, argued in a sermon that once we had beaten the Germans, we should treat them generously. Feeling ran high against him, particularly from parents. This was understandable, given that Germans were killing their sons, but the persecution of Lyttleton was ugly. He was forced out the following year. It left a bad taste. Given how high feelings are running now, with a propaganda war in full swing and Mr Knowland raising money for a legal case, I feel pessimistic. It is hard to see how he could be reinstated, or how Mr Henderson can fully recover the confidence of parents and OEs and of the many boys proclaiming: ‘We care about this man!’ If peace cannot be achieved, it will help not the people who love Eton the best, but its enemies.

Philip Geddes is a trustee of the Gilbert White Museum at Selborne in Hampshire, where White wrote his celebrated Natural History of Selborne. White was also Dean of Oriel College, Oxford. Seeing Oriel’s difficulties about its statue of Cecil Rhodes, which the Fellows this year voted to take down, Mr Geddes has written to Carol Souter, whom Oriel has charged with sorting out the Rhodes problem. He has a proposal. The Gilbert White Museum also houses the Oates Collections, including a permanent exhibition about Frank Oates, another great naturalist, who explored and collated the natural history of southern Africa at the same time as Rhodes was searching for diamonds there. Mr Geddes suggests that Oriel should pass the Rhodes statue to his museum. It would be appropriately ‘contextualised’ in the Frank Oates section. For the plinth thus left empty, he goes on, Oriel should commission a statue of the universally admired Gilbert White. In reply, Ms Souter has described Mr Geddes’s suggested ‘swap’ as ‘a most intriguing proposition’. Personally, I think I oppose it, on the grounds that Oriel should keep its benefactor in place, and not be given a way out. But as the chairman of the Rectory Society, I like the idea that Rhodes and White, both parsonage boys, should end up together, well-looked after in White’s old house and parish.

On Monday, our ambassador in Washington, Karen Pierce, kindly gave a private Zoom reception for my Thatcher book, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of my subject’s fall. The NBC journalist Andrea Mitchell (wife of Alan Greenspan) interviewed me. Guests asked about The Crown, which is followed avidly in the United States. In conversation, they confirmed two points I had noted from doing American interviews. The first is that the US media — though perhaps not the public — has clocked the drama’s numerous factual untruths. The second, however, is that, even in this controversial fourth series, it is superb propaganda for the Queen. She is seen somehow to have conquered adversity for longer than anyone in the audience — apart from Dr Henry Kissinger, who is 97 — can remember.

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