Lessons from the Bullingdon: Exposing the Hypocrisies of Boris Johnson

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The (in)famous Bullingdon Club has once again been thrust into the public gaze following reports that former member David Cameron will discuss it in his memoirs.

According to reviews of the upcoming book – ‘For the Record’ — Cameron describes his time in the elite Oxford society as having “haunted” his adult life.

The exclusive, male-only ‘dining’ club — proudly synonymous with excess, elitism, and vandalism – has indeed haunted the former Prime Minister. Allegations about his activities there plagued his political career, permanently branding him a pompous toff, with absolutely no grasp on reality. Whether or not he might have been able to muddle towards this image himself without the help of the Bullingdon stamp is, of course, debatable; his austerity measures, which have been criticised for “breaching human rights”, certainly didn’t hurt the persona. 

The club, which is now frowned upon by most (including Oxford’s Conservative Society which has banned Bullingdon boys since last year) has dwindled to around four members – according to the grapevine. Alternative reports have found that the club is alive and well and operating more covertly.  

Cameron describes his time in the elite Oxford society as having “haunted” his adult life.

In the 1980’s, the ‘Buller’ – as it was affectionately named by members – welcomed several high-seated Conservative MPs to its ranks. As well as David Cameron, Boris Johnson (pictured alongside Cameron in the below portrait) and George Osborne also adorned the famous blue-velvet tails and took active roles in the club during their undergraduate years.

‘Hilarious’ hijinks

Not just a symboliser of wealth and elite, as is the case with other well-known aristocratic drinking clubs, the Bullingdon’s activities are a purposeful display of decadence, excess, and entitlement. An “ostentatious wealth celebration”, to quote one Oxford student.

The Bullingdon Club’s ‘Class of ’87’ photograph
Featuring David Cameron (top left, second along), Boris Johnson (bottom right, first along)
The photograph also features Ralph Perry-Robinson (as quoted) (top centre, third along from left)
Image credit: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/uknews/7682276/David-Cameron-the-new-Prime-Ministers-life-and-career-in-pictures.html?image=5

 Vandalism and destruction are at the very core of the Buller philosophy. Stories of the Cameron-Johnson-Osborne era include burning £50 notes in front of homeless people, dressing up in Nazi uniforms, and destroying priceless collections of art, history, and public and private property.

In the latter tradition, “trashing” was the term jovially selected by members to describe drunkenly destroying private rooms, restaurants, venues, galleries, and really any other space they could get their hands on.  

An ex-student, who was involved in scouting for the club during Johnson’s membership, recalled one such incident, which took place at Magdalen College during Johnson and Cameron’s membership in the 1980’s.

“[There was] a large galleried room that had just been refurbished with expensive wood panelling” she told The Guardian. “Every piece of furniture that could have been broken was broken, the panelling was cracked, and everything was piled in a heap in the middle of the room. The college door to Magdalen was smashed to pieces”. 

Although the club was initially formed as a sporting club, with a focus on horse-racing, hunting, and cricket several centuries ago, by the 80’s its official pastime was ‘dining and drinking’. Dining and drinking, in this sense, usually meant hiring out a private room in an expensive restaurant, eating a five-course meal, and getting drunk on champagne, before ‘trashing’ the room. Stories of such occasions describe the destruction as almost ‘methodical’, with members ensuring that every single item and aspect of the room was sufficiently damaged before leaving. Witnesses of the events remember bottles, mirrors, and windows being smashed, fires being started, and cricket bats being used to smash ornaments and crockery. Members would then pay off the unlucky owner of the establishment to avoid any criminal prosecution and go off on their merry way.

…the Bullingdon’s activities are a purposeful display of decadence, excess, and entitlement… an “ostentatious wealth celebration”.

In comparison to the club’s formal events, these evenings look like child’s play.

The Bullingdon Club has hosted between three and four major events every year since its establishment in 1780. By the 1980’s, these were known to be the most lavish, raucous, and expensive events of the academic year.

Ralph Perry-Robinson, an 80’s Bullingdon member (from the same class as Johnson and pictured above alongside the current PM and Cameron) described one such event which took place in 1986 – the infamous ‘Buller brekker’ — which took place annually.  

This champagne-breakfast event, which included every Bullingdon member along with several other plus-ones and elite guests, was by far the most excessive — in every sense.

“We always hire whores” Perry-Robinson said about the ’86 breakfast: “prostitutes were paid extra for those who wanted to use them.”

Still image from The Riot Club (2014) written by Laura Wade, and based on the play Posh, also written by Wade.
It is widely acknowledged that both are not-so-loosely based on the exploits of The Bullingdon Club.

One report in the Oxford Newspaper described how members had also hired a string band to play during the day, and then proceeded to destroy their instruments once the meal had finished. Among them was a priceless Stradivarius violin – estimated to be around 250 and 300 years old.

Above the law

Of course, no members were ever prosecuted for their vandalism, at the events or restaurants, and were able to pay off the cost for the damages and then some to avoid legal caution.

Vandalism and destruction are at the very core of the Buller philosophy

This really sums up the narrative of the Bullingdon Club. It goes beyond having wealth or even being proud of wealth. Instead, it is a needless display of excess and waste, and a sense of being above the law.

Upon learning about the long-standing Bullingdon initiation ceremony, in which all new members set fire to a £50 note in front of a homeless person (a fact which was revealed in 2013 by a former member), Labour MP Ian Mearns made a very similar comment:

“It wasn’t just about having cash – [they] had to rub it in the faces of those who didn’t,” he said. “It’s distasteful and disgusting”. 

Into Westminster

Cameron’s claims to be “haunted” by his memories of the Bullingdon at least show some level of understanding for how distasteful his past actions are. Although, I do wonder how deep-felt this understanding is. In the same book, Cameron describes his only regrets over the austerity measures he oversaw to be that he didn’t introduce them soon enough.

“Given all the hype and hostility, and yes, sometimes hatred, we might as well have ripped the plaster off with more cuts early on” he states. “We were taking the flak for them anyway […] you’d think we had reinstated the workhouse.”

But it isn’t Cameron I’m worried about. He’s done all the harm he can. His old dining buddy, Boris Johnson, on the other hand, does make me concerned.     

Unlike Cameron, Johnson doesn’t seem to show any regret, or even concern, for his past actions. In fact, various reports show that he still greets his old peers with the infamous chant: “Buller, Buller, Buller”.

Stories of the Cameron-Johnson-Osborne era include burning £50 notes in front of homeless people, dressing up in Nazi uniforms, and destroying priceless collections of art.

Notably, when asked, it was not Cameron who the club’s former scout (who described the break-in to Magdalen College) was worried about either. When asked about the Buller trio, it was Johnson who she singled out as a concern in terms of the (then) prospect of him becoming Prime Minister.

“The characteristics he displayed at Oxford – entitlement, aggression, amorality, lack of concern for others” she warned “are still there, dressed up in a contrived, jovial image”.

A world of contrast

As you might imagine, membership to the Bullingdon does not come cheap.

With membership fees of around £10,000 a term and weekly fine-dining expenses, the costs per term are well within the tens of thousands for each member. Add in the ad-hoc criminal damage pay-offs/prostitute fees/and money-burning sessions and it all adds up: members spend hundreds of thousands per year for the honour of being a Buller.

Of course, money is no issue for members, and it is very unlikely that anyone who can’t afford it is selected for membership in the first place.

Now, I will put my hands up and admit that it is none of my business how undergrads at Oxford choose to spend their money. Although I – and many others – would label the level of decadence and the way in which it is displayed as obscene, it is, after all, their money. ‘To each, their own’ is the phrase I think I’m looking for (even if I am saying it through gritted teeth).

However, there is a serious issue in the hypocrisy with which David Cameron, and now Boris Johnson, present their political messages and policies, in light of their past exploits.

“[Johnson showed] entitlement, aggression, amorality, [and] lack of concern for others”

It is no secret that Boris Johnson consistently voted in favour of every austerity measure which has been pushed by the Tories. It is also no secret that he has called for harsher punishments and more prison spaces for young, working-class people who effectively commit the same crimes he was committing at the same age.

But a topic which is often neglected – or rather, misrepresented – by the media is Johnson’s approach to immigration and, in particular, his approach to asylum-seekers and refugees.  

When an asylum-seeker comes to the UK looking for refuge, they are required by law to make a claim at a UK port.  This is ingrained within global asylum-law; no person seeking refuge in another country can make an application from outside of it. By law, they are required by one way or another to flee their home country and find a way into the UK before they can legally apply for refuge within it.

…it isn’t Cameron I’m worried about. He’s done all the harm he can. His old dining buddy, Boris Johnson, on the other hand, does make me concerned.

So when, last month, Johnson described families who were making the perilous journey across the channel as “illegal migrants” who “we will send back”, he was being deliberately inflammatory and misleading. By refugee laws, this is a perfectly acceptable way of travelling to the UK, and we are legally obligated to offer them the chance to make an asylum claim once they have arrived.

Photo credit: https://www.portsmouth.anglican.org/social-justice/asylum-seekers/

This focus on “illegals”, which has been driven by the Conservative government, and propagated by Johnson and his extremely right-leaning Home Secretary Priti Patel, inevitably leans into discussions of expense and cost. Many on the right see asylum-seekers and refugees as in some way draining the UK’s economy, a fact which Johnson is knowingly playing into by erroneously casting them as “illegals”.

While a person awaits the results of their asylum claim in the community, they are provided with a maximum of £37.50 per week by the UK government. This amounts to £1,963 per year – which works out as about a third of the cost of one set of Bullingdon suit and tails (£3,500-4,000).   

…when […] Johnson described families who were making the perilous journey across the channel as “illegal migrants” who “we will send back”, he was being deliberately inflammatory and misleading.

The immigration and asylum policies and opinions Johnson and his cabinet have presented since he became PM are not particularly surprising, considering the overtly xenophobic and racist comments he has made in the past, as well as his bizarrely colonialist fixation on minimising the use of languages other than English in the UK.  

“Too often there are parts of our country, parts of London still and other cities as well, where English is not spoken by some people as their first language,” Mr. Johnson said at a Conservative rally. “And that needs to be changed.”

Johnson’s remarks, which were made as a part of his leadership bid, closely echo those made by Nigel Farage earlier this year, in which he stated that he “felt very uncomfortable” when hearing people speak in other languages on public transport.

In many ways, there is real irony in the fact that Johnson would have such an adverse reaction to people and communities that wear different clothes, speak different languages and have different customs to him. In my opinion, there is no greater example of an unintegrated social group than the Bullingdon Club. And I think that almost every member of the world’s public would likely feel alienated and concerned by a group of Latin-speaking, lapel-wearing men, whose traditions revolve around trashing absolutely everything in sight.  

 Immigration lawyer, John Cahill, recently wrote about the Prime Minister’s habit of leaving his car(s) parked on double yellow lines and no-parking zones and leaving them to fill up with tens of tickets without concern. This he discussed in relation to the ‘good character requirement’ which those applying for British citizenship must meet; such an outright disregard of UK law would likely mean they could not be considered ‘of good character’ and therefore not considered for citizenship.

I think that almost every member of the world’s public would likely feel alienated and concerned by a group of Latin-speaking, lapel-wearing men, whose traditions revolve around trashing absolutely everything in sight.

Johnson has clearly failed to learn a single lesson since his time in the Bullingdon and, what’s more, still clearly feels that he is above the law, able to disregard national laws and social codes while showing no empathy for those who have not been born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Ultimately, he knows that he will still be able to pay off any mistakes he makes.

This behaviour is proof that yet another leopard has not changed his spots; in this case, he knows he doesn’t have to.

2 comments
  • This is an excellent piece of writing that highlights, to me, the simple fact that Boris Johnson and his ilk have never moved away from the mindset of the “Buller” bully. Power and privilege are teachers of meanness and a callous disregard for human life.