How Cameron and the good old boys could still lose
More than eighty years separate the publication of Evelyn Waugh’s first novel and the Tory campaign for government in the British election, but the two are oddly connected.
The narrative spring that sets ‘Decline and Fall’ in motion is the expulsion from Oxford of its hapless hero, Paul Pennyfeather; and the reason he’s expelled is an act of bullying by the members of something called the Bollinger Club.
They “debag” him (pull down his trousers and pants) and force him to run around the quadrangle. He’s caught, ‘sent down’ as they say at Oxford, and left with no choice but to take a low paying job teaching at a seedy prep school, where his humilations grow steadily worse.
I first read ‘Decline and Fall’ when I was at Oxford myself, in the early seventies, and even then it was instantly obvious that the Bollinger Club was a thinly disguised version of the still-surviving, real-life, Bullingdon Club.
This is a group whose behaviour, in any other time or place, might be mistaken for an exceptionally drunken touring Rugby club or even a bikie gang.
The difference is that Bullingdon members can generally buy their way out of trouble. In my time, most members of the club had titles in front of the names above their college room doors: Viscount X, Lord Y, The Hon Z.
Most of them had been to Eton, Britain’s poshest school, and their parents were without exception rich; they had to be, because the membership and club uniform alone, (specially made blue tailcoats, mustard-coloured waistcoats, sky-blue bowties, etc), costs thousands.
And that’s before they start writing cheques for damages – because one of the Bullingdon’s chief reasons for being is smashing things.
In 1927, (the year before ‘Decline and Fall’), members of the Bullingdon smashed several hundred windows in the beautiful 18th century Peckwater Quad of Christ Church, the college founded by Cardinal Wolsey.
And according to this account reprinted from the ‘Oxford Student’ magazine they’re still at it, only now they confine themselves to smashing up each others’ rooms, as a matter of course, and restaurants, once or twice a term, before passing out, often face down in their own vomit.
What has this to do with the upcoming UK election? Well, the leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron and his Shadow Chancellor George Osborne were both members of the Bullingdon Club when they were at Oxford in the mid-eighties.
Now this could, of course, just fall into the category of idle gossip. It was more than twenty-five years ago, after all, and Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne are undoubtedly not the hell-raisers they may have been at Oxford.
But it’s the image itself that has the potential to damage, and no-one knows it better than David Cameron.
Before he was a politician, the Leader of the Opposition was a spin-doctor, doing the public relations for Carlton television, and he knows that class is still a key factor in the way that many British people vote.
Cameron’s approach, using every weapon of the modern media, has been to project himself as a man of the people, the natural heir to Tony Blair (who was also, though he also preferred not emphasise it, the product of an English private school and Oxford).
But as Philip Williams reported on Lateline this week, even schoolchildren are openly sceptical – asking Mr Cameron how he can understand ordinary people given that he went to Eton.
The class factor and the P.R. factor – they go a long way, I think, to explaining why David Cameron, although ahead in the polls, has seen his lead slipping in the last couple of months.
The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, should by most political rules be firmly on the skids, particularly as February saw the publication of a book by the widely respected veteran Observer correspondent, The End of The Party, which depicted him as a bully and at times scarcely in control of himself.
Yet no pundits – on the left or the right – are confidently predicting now that Cameron will beat Brown, certainly not that he will win an overall majority.
Contrast the same moment in the political cycle in 1997, during the rise of Tony Blair. I covered the Wirral by-election that February and the anti-Tory mood was so intense that I had no difficulty predicting that Labour would win, then sweep the country.
After that, following Blair around in his battle-bus during April seemed almost a formality, and so it proved, as the Tories woke up to crushing defeat on May Day morning.
Not this time. Niggling doubts about the airbrushed Mr Cameron seem to be widespread, and fed by some often very funny internet mischief.
Cameron’s ‘small target’ strategy has also left many voters unsure of what he would actually do in office – and exposed him to the Labour spin-machine’s accusations that his image conceals an old-school Tory of the Thatcherite school.
The beneficiaries of all this – from an electorate utterly disillusioned by revelations of parliamentary corruption of various kinds - may be the centrist Liberal Democrats, whose leader Nick Clegg is another bland-faced youngish man like Cameron, but who have on their side the most respected economic spokesman in British politics, Vince Cable.
Only a fool would predict this May’s election, especially from this distance; but from the indications I’ve seen, a hung parliament is a strong possibility.
Whether that’d be a good thing for an economy carrying debt estimated at 380 percent of the country’s gross domestic product is one thing; but after 31 years of governments with strong parliamentary majorities, the mood of the electorate is such that a more evenly-distributed House of Commons may be unavoidable.
Sir Alec Douglas-Home was the last Old Etonian to occupy 10 Downing St, in 1964.
David Cameron’s aspirations to succeed him – despite his efforts to obscure his own past - are by no means guaranteed.
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