Private Schools, Rugger, and One of the Boys

Chris Holligan considers what the Registration of Interests by Scottish MSPs reveal about influence as a strategic tool serving political and corporate elites.

It is a questionable assumption that financially modest provisions of hospitality are necessarily not a potential source of influence. The economist Kevin Young and his colleagues argue the financial system is governed not only by formal rules, but also by social relationships that pervade every strata of society. They discovered evidence that the social distance of an organisation from a key regulator in the US was related to how frequently it adopted advocacy behaviour (see Young et al, 2017, and Mauss, 1925/2016).

In this article I take up these insights and claims, applying them to the Scottish Parliament’s system of data disclosure by MSPs. This article’s official Parliamentary disclosure data concerns sums in the region of around £500-£2000, costs arising from the provision of sporting match tickets and associated convivial hospitality on the day of the event. The Code of Conduct set by the legal authority invested in Parliament (in the Scottish Parliament Act of 2006) prescribes a set of principles and standards for Members of the Scottish Parliament in order to support their accountability and openness to the public. Categories of registerable interest that MSPs must respect include various kinds of renumeration that include employments, paid advocacy, partnerships, directorships, expenses and gifts. Gifts include tangible items such as hospitality or tickets to sporting or cultural events. Besides rugby match tickets I also utilise other sporting event declared gifts.

Rules exist about lobbying and access to MSPs. Under Section 5 of the Code of Conduct it is stated that:

The public must be assured that no person or organisation will gain better access to, or treatment by, any member as a result of employing a commercial lobbyist either as a representative or to provide strategic advice. 

Despite the existence of the Code of Conduct I argue that lobbying or other forms of influence through contexts of conviviality are not easily identified, nor does registering a permissible gift under the Code of Conduct norms rule out the receipt of later reciprocity from the recipient of the gift. Class elites are historically and in the present day associated with the sport of rugby as well as horse-racing to name exemplars of what Pierre Bourdieu calls forms of ‘distinction’. Class tensions led to the split of the Rugby Union and Rugby League in a game whose rules were refined in the public schools (Collins, 2009; Sheard, et al 2004).

Gifts are a possible mechanism adopted by capitalist and other players to establish systems of reciprocity and recognition. It is unlikely that in the case of corporate donors of hospitality that this is random behaviour or simply an expression of sheer generosity and kindness. In fact in any cultures of gift giving hospitality might signal a behaviour reward for earlier favourably treatment. I hypothesize – using the illustrative focus of gifting of tickets and hospitality to MSPs for rugby match internationals and other field sports – that politically valuable networks are enacted with potential to garner favourable treatment. The donning party’s self-interests are arguably committed to such transactions. Whilst MSPs may accept their generosity and classify the doner as a legitimate body for accepting hospitality their intent is unknown. The register of interests that only documents the disclosures of MSPs.

Besides drawing upon ideas about networks and cultures of gift giving the article uses as its evidence base the publicly available data MSPs have provided about gifts to attend sporting events. The sociological reach of my argument stretches beyond the rugby pitch at Murrayfield into support for private education coupled with a traditionalist rugged type of individualistic manliness. Experiencing hospitality at Murrayfield through a game that normally typifies traditions of sporting excellence at public and private schools gives opportunities for economic exchange and business dealings with others from a similar background. The class codes of conduct and values at play in the bar over whisky and nibbles allows MSPs to circulate among a Scottish social elite upon whose beneficence they may later rely for their social and occupational advancement once their career in parliamentary is over. The organisation gifting the tickets provides the others he/she knows are likely to be at the bar informal occasions to form connections with Scotland’s parliamentary often gentlemanly elite.

These significant micro-politics play out, I suggest, against a context of national politics existing, to some extent, in a parallel and insufficiently acknowledge or recognised social universe. The social closure established through the gifting culture described will interfere (negatively) with those not belonging to this comparatively exclusive ‘club’. They will not compete on a level playing field for valued goods including economic, cultural and social capitals as the insiders exercise disproportionate control over available and scare resources. Through such processes of micro-cultural transmission the reproduction of existing inequalities are perpetuated. In the next section I explore official data that is published by the Scottish Parliament when addressing this field of public audit and accountability. The examples included are not exhaustive of the particular subject which used to illustrate a more generic issue of political and corporate power that will undoubtedly be resistant to resolution given codes of cultural secrecy and the depth of power invested in sociological codes of elite social practice. 

Register of interests

Register of Interests are recorded in terms of the parliamentary year, copies of which are kept for a period of ten years from the last amendment in 2016 to the Scottish Parliament Act 2006. The Register is published annually. Turning to the most recent Parliamentary year 6th May 2021 – 13th May 2022 the following data was disclosed under the term “Gifts” or “Voluntary” (Register of Members Interests) for a proportion of the MSPs totalling 129 MSPs making declarations during this period: Table 1 details the 21 MSPs that cited the sporting hospitalities: Rugby match tickets dominate the events registered; most of the 21 MSPs are men (N=15). British Telecom is the most frequent hospitality provider.

                                                           Table 1

Parliamentary year 6th May 2021 – 13th May 2022

Sporting EventDonnerMSP gender
Scottish Six Nations at MurrayfieldHeineken UK Ltd, Caledonian BreweryMSP (female) and husband
Scotland v England rugby match, BT MurrayfieldBT OpenreachFemale
Scottish Grand National; Ayr Gold Cup, Ayr RacecourseGuest of Ladbrokes Coral Group plc; Guests of William HillMale
Scotland v France rugby match at MurrayfieldGuests of BT OpenreachMale MSP & daughter
Calcutta Cup, Murrayfield, 2 match ticketsScottish RugbyMale MSP and guest
Scotland v England rugby match, MurrayfieldGuest of BT ScotlandMale
Scotland v England match at Murrayfield.Guest of Liberty SteelFemale
Scotland v Japan match at MurrayfieldGuest of Sir Peter VardyFemale
Scotland vs. England Rugby, MurrayfieldHeineken UK, manufacturer, marketer and distributor of branded alcoholic drinkMale
Scotland vs England Six Nations men’s rugby international, MurrayfieldGuest of Heineken.Male
BT Murrayfield for the Scotland v Japan rugby international.BTFemale
Scotland v France rugby match at MurrayfieldGuest of Scottish Rugby UnionFemale
Three rugby football matches: Glasgow Warriors vs. Connaught, Scotland vs. South Africa, and Scotland vs. Italyguest of the Scottish Rugby UnionMale
Rugby match at BT MurrayfieldGuest of BT GroupMale
Scotland v Ireland, MurrayfieldGuests of BT ScotlandMale MSP and guest
Six On Nations Rugby, Murrayfield; Scotland v England Rugby, MurrayfieldGuest of BT Scotland   Guest of BTMale
Scotland v England rugby match at Murrayfield asGuest of Scottish Rugby UnionMale
Scotland v England rugby, MurrayfieldGuest of BT ScotlandMale
Rugby match at MurrayfieldGuest of BT Group PlcMale
Scotland – France 6 Nations RugbyGuest of NatWest GroupMale

Theorising ‘guest’ culture

Hospitality gifting predominates, as Table 1 illustrates, in capitalist, for-profit corporate business. BT, Liberty Steel, Heineken,  NatWest Group, Sir Peter Vardy, Ladbrokes and William Hill all thrive because of pro-business policy environments. This gifting is an example of ‘soft power’ in operation. Soft power is the capacity to co-opt rather than coerce through threat or demand for pay which is classed as ‘hard power’. It was coined by the US political theorist Robert Nye in the 1980s The distinction is arguable academic in so far as the donation of hospitality is likely to impact the orientation of psychological mindsets and to that extent there is arguably mental coercion.

Soft power shapes the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. The companies or other players soft power is classed by Nye as an asset helping these players to achieve a targeted actor’s acquiescence. The choice of rugby (a classist sport in large parts of the UK) in particular is significant because soft power must be calibrated instrumentally by an understanding of what would be seductive to the audience targeted. In Marxist ideology a corporate ruling class is an economic ruling class who, in order to retain their cultural hegemony, they manipulate the culture of society. The goal of the corporate elite – in our case – is to persuade the MSPs that the prevailing cultural norms are the natural order of things. Following Louise Althusser’s (1970) ideas about ideological state apparatus where state organs transmit the dominant ideology to the population the sport of rugby is one of several state organs harnessing the commitment of MSPs to support capitalist ideology.

Transmission of ideology occurs through social capital networks. Social capital theorists, Putnam, Coleman and Sander point to norms of reciprocity, a benefit emerging from social network membership. Social networks are the networks of relations brought into being or simply re-instated, in the argument of this article, through sporting or other modes of hospitality. For groups to coalesce a shared sense of identity, norms, values, trust and reciprocity is required. A guest status at high profile events where one’s prestige is celebrated through spectatorship, lavish food and drink are inevitable drivers of the formation of an elite in-group exemplified by partnering of business with politics.

The bridging social capital engineered by common interests identified by the corporate sector fosters bonding social capital arising in face-to-face settings, drinking cultures and manly sport are ideal environments for fostering the desired social glue. Bonding social capital, may of course pre-exist these ‘sporting’ occasions through shared social histories in cultures of elite private schooling whose ‘habitus’ is arguably imported into the guest hospitality political nexus described. Thomas Arnold (1828-1842) headmaster of the elite Rugby public school concerned with the exclusive education of boys sought to ensure they internalised characteristics that corresponded with their social class image of the ‘real man’ (Naddam, 2004, p. 305). This elite educational culture was based upon hierarchy and competition, tolerance of fights and violence in games. The ruling class masculinity this education fostered has not evaporated. Middle-class British boys continue to be sent away to prep school in readiness for entry to prestigious public schools. In both fee-paying institutions the decidedly physical field sport of rugby is celebrated. In the title of his book on this subject Brendon (2009) uses the term “a class apart” in his book’s title.


Peter Wilby (2021) writing in the New Statesman noted that the public schools are as secure as ever keeping their charitable tax advantages by showing “benefit to the community”. Rugby has remained unscathed into the 21st century. The toffs that continue to be associated with the game of rugby will continue to stifle meritocratic flourishing as they pursue the agenda of a privileged class milieux. Through the critical analysis presented the article signals some of the mechanisms through which class inequalities are manufactured and retain temporal continuity. The political nexus presented through data and argument is akin to a micro-culture whose social and material comforts are gained through complicity whose relative invisibly ‘enables’ societal injustice.


Brendon, V. (2009) Prep school children : a class apart over two centuries. London: Continuum.

Collins, T. (2009) A Social History of English Rugby Union. London: Routledge.

Mauss, M. (1925/2016) The Gift. (Trans: J.Y. Guyer). Chicago: HAU Books.

Neddam, F. (2004) ‘Constructing masculinities under Thomas Arnold of Rugby (1828-1842): gender, educational policy and school life in an early-Victorian public school’, Gender and education, 16(3), pp. 303–326.

Sheard, K., & Dunning, E. (2004). Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players: A Sociological Study of the Development of Rugby Football (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Wilby, P. (2021) Public school and the public: Why Eton, Harrow and Rugby and the rest thrived. New Statesman, Vol. 150, Issue 5611.

Young, K, Marple, T and Heilman, J (2017) Beyond the revolving door: Advocacy behaviour and social distance to financial regulators, Business and Politics, 19 (2), 327-364.

Chris Holligan is Professor of Education at the University of the West of Scotland