I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from More4’s When Boris Met Dave last Wednesday night, and well timed to air just before David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference. As I work at Oxford University, I’ve seen a little of the silliness that the place induces in those who ‘come up’.
The Bullingdon Club, a silly little ongoing stag party for posh boys, still exists: everyone hates them, nobody likes them. They are mostly ignored until they get a mention in a student rag for destroying some restaurant or college quad. Their tailored coats and posh accents shouldn’t distract you from the fact that they are drunken vandals. Their more open ideological neighbour, the Oxford Conservative Association, was recently suspended from the students’ union for asking candidates to tell a racist joke at hustings (This article in the Cherwell says that the Conservative Party has quietly taken on the racist club as its official branch at the university). Then the rugby club went on the piss round town dressed as ‘comedy Jews‘. So, the Buller is just a part of the stupid hierarchy of trainee fascists at the university.
When Boris met Dave is a dramatised documentary of the meeting of the two most prominent British Tories, Boris Johnson and David Cameron, at the university in the 1980s. Back then, with Maggie Thatcher in power and Brideshead Revisited serialised on the telly, Oxford seemed to have an overabundance of young things hell-bent on demonstrating their superiority in all manner of fashion. The documentary includes a cringeworthy interview with James Delingpole, an Oxford undergrad contemporary of the pair, who speaks about his desire to emulate Sebastian Flyte and be noticed by the Buller boys.
I suppose the purpose of the documentary is to remind us that these two Tory leaders are toffs. In Johnson’s case, he constantly plays the comedy toff to win our affection and divert attention from his mismanagement of the capital city (I’ve lost count how many deputy mayors have resigned for all manner of reasons). Cameron has long played the opposite role, covering up his background with an attitude and language designed to resonate with that fickle entity called Middle England.
If anything, the documentary failed in its exposé of toffs, if that’s what it ever was meant to do, by emphasizing Johnson’s clowning and Cameron’s seriousness. But, perhaps, that was exactly what the film makers wanted us to see. Also, seeing as most Britons find it easier to forgive a toff for ‘high jinks’ where the tabloids would spew hatred for a working-class boy who was a drunken vandal, it points out that Johnson and Cameron’s bourgeois pedigree makes them classically fit for power, if not humanly. However much having elitist politicians damages equality in our society, we still instinctively want to be told what to do by our supposed ‘betters’.
Near the end of the film, we hear how Cameron was ushered from the dreaming spires into Conservative Central Office after a phone call was placed from an equerry at Buckingham Palace who is alleged to be Cameron’s godfather. We can see here that unearned privilege is still a massive lever on wealth and power in our society.
We have come a long way since the 80s, and much has changed. The outer skin of our class system has changed, but underneath the same anatomy persists. Even though the gap between rich and poor has increased, many in the upper class have learned to conceal their differences better. It is not for nothing that Cameron was keen to ‘hug a hoodie’ and be seen riding his bike. The aspirational middle class, with its complex internal stratification, is as aspirational as ever. Thus, the New Tories, faces of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’, are often as not second-generation immigrants who wish to cut immigration levels, which reminds me of the Goodness Gracious Me sketch about aspirational Indians trying to out do each other in being English.
Of course, there’s nothing compassionate about Cameron and Johnson’s brand of Toryism: they are thorough opportunists (highlighted by Johnson’s campaigning under any party label he thought would get preference to become president of the Oxford Union, after being defeated by an SDP accountant-to-be the first time round). The party has its staunch libertarians and monetarists, but the centre holds this together with opportunism. Every politician does this, but Cameron is the arch-opportunist of the moment. He will promise things that make superficial but media-worthy change: rolling back New Labour authoritarianism, and supporting minor ecological policies. However, his cabinet team will cut public services viciously if they get into power, the wealth gap will widen further still, unemployment will continue rising, and jails will get more overcrowded. The point is: what does a toff need with public services?