Bullingdon is best left to literature, not real life
The raucous Oxford club is thankfully on its way out, but it will live on in art as a satire about entitlement
The Bullingdon Club, that notorious Oxford University bastion of excess, appears to be in its death throes. The president of Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA), Ben Etty, has declared that the all-male student club’s “values and activities have no place in the modern Conservative Party” and that members are henceforth banned from holding office. The ban may be more rhetorical than strictly necessary, because there doesn’t seem to be much of the Bullingdon left: membership traditionally lay somewhere between 10 and 20 students, but by 2016 it was reported to have dwindled to two, as incoming students declined the offer to join. Its kudos has undoubtedly plummeted: last year a small clutch of “Buller men” were run out of Christ Church by college porters, to the jeers of fellow students, having briefly attempted a little photo shoot in the quadrangle.
The Bullingdon always sounded ghastly to me, with its unlovable tales of drunk Hooray Henrys in silly tailcoats, chundering in flower pots and smashing up restaurants. Its withering from the national scene, however, marks the end of a particular era – rather like when I first heard that smoking was to be banned in pubs. For, while it brought misery to those who had to sweep up the debris after a “Buller” night out, the club and those who caroused within it have captured the artistic imagination for decades – although rarely in complimentary terms.
Evelyn Waugh first satirised its drunken destructiveness as “the Bollinger Club” in his 1927 novel Decline and Fall; its “cretinous, porcine” members later appeared in his Brideshead Revisited, attempting to dunk the aesthete Anthony Blanche – by far the most perceptive, witty character in the novel – in the Christ Church pond. More recently, its influence has echoed through Laura Wade’s play Posh, the film The Riot Club, and Elizabeth Day’s The Party, a satire on Cameron-era cronyism that, in the novel, is first forged at Cambridge in the “Pitt Club”. There is, perhaps, one piece of related literature yet to be written: a play in which the last two club members struggle to keep “the Buller’s” rituals of carnage in the air, shorn of the swagger that comes from a large group.
The Bullingdon and its culture has been so heavily scrutinised in recent years, of course, because it became central to our politics. The image of a young David Cameron and Boris Johnson, posed in a club photograph from 1987, returned to haunt their political careers – the same careers that were assisted by the tight social networks forged at Oxford, and which later came to dominate the country. Johnson, when mayor of London, candidly described membership as “a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness. But at the time you felt it was wonderful to be going round swanking it up”.
In certain coteries, though, dissolution was in vogue. The generation that went up to Oxford in the mid-to-late Eighties had been exposed in their formative years to the lush television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, and many were enraptured by the character of Sebastian Flyte, the charming, aristocratic drunkard. They often missed Waugh’s satire on entitlement while absorbing quite a different lesson – that the greatest social crime of all was to be seen as earnest and dull.
I can understand exactly, however, why Christ Church was so keen to banish the remaining Bullingdon stragglers from the quad last year. That particular 1987 photograph of a tiny, self-selecting group has come to define a certain idea of Oxford as overwhelmingly privileged, white, wealthy and male. It is certainly not how Oxford wishes to see itself now; indeed, it was not an accurate portrait of the university even then. I went up to Oxford the year after David Cameron left, to a college with a fairly high proportion of students from comprehensive schools and North of England backgrounds. While almost everyone drank to excess – in contrast to today’s students, who are increasingly teetotal – I can’t recall witnessing instances of vandalism or wildly arrogant behaviour. Even at a distance, I couldn’t understand the allure of the Bullingdon and its ilk: a night that ended in fighting, vomiting and smashing things up could so easily have been found in some of the less salubrious pubs in my home town of Belfast, although the perpetrators would have been more likely to face prosecution.
It’s harder to keep bad behaviour unrecorded nowadays, thanks to smartphones, Instagram, Facebook and Google. Performative piety is in: if a graduate hails from a wealthy background, employers are more likely to look for evidence of time spent in virtuous compensation for privilege – volunteering and campaigning – than boozing and shelling out cash for damage. The Buller, finally, is a busted flush. It was fun for a very few people while it lasted – but the best thing it gave us was a portrait of how not to be.