Monday, September 28, 2015

British Elite's Peccadilloes: Truth or Legend?


The latest? The very British "Piggate".

(source)



A biography of UK Conservative PM David Cameron, titled "Call Me Dave", co-written by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft and the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, tells of drugs, sex, booze, and wild parties, among the "talented and virtuous youths, about to enter the world" -- using John Maynard Keynes' inspired expression -- at Oxford University, including allegations that "David Cameron inserted a private part of his anatomy into the animal's [dead pig's] mouth". (here, Sep. 21)

That particular event, according to the authors, would have taken place after Cameron left Eton and was a student at Oxford University as part of an initiation ceremony for the Piers Gaveston Society, an elite men-only dining club for Oxford undergraduates. Cameron also joined the Bullingdon Club, another exclusive men-only dining club based in Oxford, legendary for its snobbishness and rowdy behaviour.

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How much truth, if any, is there in those allegations?

We may never know with certainty.

At one hand, it is common knowledge the British elite have an enormous appetite for "extra-curricular activities" -- matching their own sense of superiority and entitlement -- and descriptions in films and literature are frequent:



Nick Mutch (here, Sep. 25) tells similar stories of youthful excess involving not Cameron, but "other middle-class undergraduates, invariably public school, who share the same accents and snobberies, and who meet each other at the same parties".

Others contend such tales are greatly exaggerated. Writing one year ago Theo Merz describes "the mundane reality of Oxbridge's secret societies" (here, Sep. 14, 2014):
"The men-only Pitt Club is often described as Cambridge's answer to the Bullingdon, but previous members insist that this outrageous reputation is undeserved. 'Girls would get invited to our parties but that doesn't mean anything actually happened,' says one recent Cambridge graduate and Pitt member. 'It was all incompetent, chinless wonders; the people who wanted to be part of a club but weren't any good at sport'."
Well, possibly. However, "talented and virtuous youths" would say that, wouldn't they?

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Merz's quote reminds us of something the current debate seems to have left out: elitism and/or debauchery are not an Oxford monopoly; neither is that "youthful exuberance" a modern thing, limited to Tory brats.

The Liberal Lord Keynes -- another Eton alumnus -- was known for his numerous extra-curricular social activities: while busily studying at Cambridge University (here), he was a member of the Cambridge Apostles, Cambridge Union Society, and Cambridge University Liberal Club. All of them, I'm sure, mundane associations of Very Serious Students.

In fact, if Wikipedia is to be believed, His Lordship was also a member of the Pitt Club (later in life, he was a member of the Bloomsbury Set, and joined the British Eugenics Society).

As another member of the Pitt Club, would Lord Keynes be included among the "incompetent, chinless wonders" Merz spoke of?

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"How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above bourgeois and the intelligentsia who, whatever their faults, are the quality in life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement?" (J.M. Keynes)
Personally, I have much less faith in the quality of "the quality in life". See also here and here and very especially here.

UPDATE:
29-09-2015. American readers can relate to the above. Kevin Roose, from last year's "All In" with Chris Hayes:


UPDATE:

02-10-2015. Veronica di Mambro, writing on the life of the University of Cambridge Eugenics Society and the reasons for its demise:
"John Maynard Keynes was treasurer of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society during its early years, in addition to his involvement with other societies. What is interesting is that there appears to be no mention in biographies of his connection with the Cambridge University Eugenics Society. The fact that he was treasurer and not just a member of the Society indicates that he had a keen interest in being involved. He was also a Council Member of the Eugenics Society in London from 1937-1944 and gave the Galton Lecture in 1937 on 'Some Consequences of a Declining Population'." (here)
Isn't that an interesting mystery?



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