Those of you who share my on-going paranoid fear that something nasty is going to be said about Oxford in the tabloids may have caught David Dimbleby’s reminiscence of his time in the Bullingdon Club. It was, of course, nothing like the den of debauchery that we all know and love today. They never “broke windows or got wildly drunk”, but spent their time behaving like Oxford gentlemen should, before Cameron, Johnson et al came in and ruined it all.
Credit where credit’s due, you have to be pretty brave to say something like that in an interview with a national magazine. It’s almost refreshing to see someone saying something that could be interpreted in such an elitist way so jovially, particularly when it’s so blatantly untrue. David Cameron has already taken away the formerly perfectly respectable name of Brasenose, surely we can’t claim that he was also responsible for Bullingdon’s reputation? The destruction of every pane of glass in one Christ Church quad in the nineteenth century comes to mind.
Even so, this didn’t make me particularly worried. A national headline about the Bullingdon isn’t anything new, and even less dangerous when it concerns a fifties graduate saying that they were all quite decent chaps, really. After the recent barrage of Oxbridge-bashing stories seized on by journos at the Mail and Telegraph, it could have been much worse.
It has to be said, we haven’t had a brilliant term as far as the Oxford image is concerned. Whether it’s the Corpus ‘commoners’ remark or the Mr and Mrs Christ Church fiasco, we haven’t really been doing ourselves any favours. What about last term? St Hilda’s firing a librarian over a Harlem Shake is a lot easier to deal with than straight-up snobbery, but it seems to me that we don’t even need a blue-blooded drinking club to provide the scandal these days.
Of course, the Bullingdon can still annoy people. When a certain esteemed individual let off a firework in Bridge broke last term he was panned both by this paper and of course by The Daily Mail. This wasn’t really because of the firework, though, which could have been a prank pulled by any idiot at any UK university; it was the idea that it was done for the club, all chimping around with white ties on crying “Bull-Bulla!” So when both papers printed an untrue accusation that he had also burnt a fifty pound note in front of a tramp, most people didn’t bat an eyelid. It just sounded like the sort of thing he would do.
This is why the club has become such a magnet for hatred over the years, from both Oxford students and people throughout the country. Smashing up a restaurant is one thing, being elected to a society which is proud of the wealth of its members and the expense of its dress is another. It would probably be easier for the town to get over the Bullingdon’s antics if it wasn’t done with the edge of “We’re special, and you’re not.”
Not a great symbol for the by and large welcoming and friendly University, you might think. Yet, the fact that it was so exclusive meant that people knew most Oxonians couldn’t be like that. This is, after all, where the supposedly brightest and best of the country go to study and prepare for careers; only twelve or so got routinely drunk and prepared for futures in politics. Regardless of how proud Dimbleby of “the uniform that [he] can still get into”, you’ve got to wonder how that sat at the time with the third he got in PPE.
This University has been producing innovative, hard-working and open-minded graduates for long enough to overcome any negative influence that this one club may have engendered. With institutions like the Union, even the most vehement critics of Oxbridge would have to admit that this narrow-mindedness can’t be applied to most of its students. The society actually acted as a pretty effective scapegoat, drawing attention away from anything else stupid we may have occasionally done.
These days, however, this exclusive club gets little press time.
Bullingdon is no longer needed when colleges and societies manage to regularly reach the papers. OUCA’s anti-semitic songs, a few rowing crews’ actions and of course some of our friends over at The Union seem to have the debauchery, exclusivity and bigotry sown up in recent years. When combined with a seemingly growing reluctance for the club’s members to stick their heads above the parapet of anonymity we slip into a very unfortunate position. Over the past few decades we’ve started to increase the risk of people associating these qualities with the whole of Oxford, instead of the tiny minority that actually do.
So, Bullingdon Club members. If you’re reading this, can you do me a favour? Go and do something really stupid. Nothing outrageous, you don’t even need to have Autoglass on standby. Just do something that takes attention away from the other scandals and (with any luck) remind the country that most of us are nice, accepting people. Sometimes, we even get some work done.