This makes reference to England's elite college, Eton. It is a song about class warfare, with lines like, "What chance do you have against a tie and a crest." Paul Weller was inspired to write the song by a news article that he read about unemployed demonstrators on a "Right to Work" march, a campaign initiated by the left wing Socialist Workers Party, passing the prestigious Eton College. The "Eton Rifles" are a cadet corps of Eton College, and the song itself is about the rivalry between boys at Eton and the neighboring working class schoolboys. Paul Weller himself attended Sheerwater Comprehensive school, which was located quite close to Eton.
Paul Weller wrote this during his first holiday since the ascendancy of The Jam two years earlier. In the summer of 1979 he rented a caravan in the seaside town of Selsey in West Sussex on the southern coast of England. The Jam was a Punk/New Wave band that came out of England in the late '70s.
Weller recalled to Mojo magazine in 2015: "We had a week off and I never even thought about going abroad for a holiday at that time. So I went down to my mum and dad's caravan in Selsey and it pissed with rain for the whole week, so I just ended up writing. And I wrote 'Eton Rifles.' I thought it was a powerful statement."
Throughout the 1980s Paul Weller was a political active Labour supporter. However he has since become disillusioned with politics. It was no surprise then, that he was shocked when in 2008 the Conservative leader David Cameron nominated this class war diatribe as a favourite tune. A flabbergasted Weller commented to the Daily Mirror October 24, 2008: "Which part of the song didn't he get? Did he think it was a celebration of being at Eton or something? I don't know. He must have an idea what it's about, surely? 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."
Its possible that Paul Weller read about the march in the June 17, 1978 edition of The Socialist Worker newspaper in which case he would have read the following: "Eton had never seen anything like it. Right to Work marchers met Rock Against Racism punks weaving through the streets of Eton behind Crisis, a band pounding out driving rock music from the back of a lorry. Two movements coming together outside Eton public school, heart of privilege and pomp. The chants, 'Annihilate the National Front,' fake upper-class accents, 'What does one want - the Right to Work,' 'Eton boys rather naughty, Liverpool boys rather good.' Pogoing in protest as a giant silver spoon is presented to the Eton Head Boy. 'I hope your jolly campaign gets you somewhere,' he said."'
The opening line, "Sup up your beer and collect your fags, there's a row going on down near Slough" is a clever start to the song. The word 'fag' has a double meaning in England. It can be another word for 'cigarettes,' but an Eton schoolboy would more likely interpret it as a slang term for a young public schoolboy who must perform chores for an older student.