Status anxiety

Sorry, but the Bullingdon Club really doesn’t help your career

Elite university drinking societies just make their members look out of touch  — and the networking side is overrated, too

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

I’m getting a lot of abuse on Twitter for saying that having been a member of the Bullingdon is more of a hindrance than a help in contemporary Britain. My comment was a response to a piece by Charlotte Proudman in the Guardian on Monday that Oxford and Cambridge’s drinking clubs ‘cement the succession of power and influence in Britain among a narrow elite’.

In response to my claim, numerous people have pointed out that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Mayor of London were all members of the Bullingdon. The problem with this rebuttal is that merely pointing out that Cameron, Osborne and Johnson are successful politicians doesn’t, by itself, prove their membership wasn’t a hindrance. It could be that all the other advantages they enjoyed — high IQ, good education, devoted parents, bags of drive and ambition, etc. — combined to overcome the disadvantage of being associated with Oxford’s most notorious student society.

Why do I think it was a handicap? Well, for starters, every time one of those Gillman and Soame photographs showing them posing in their tailcoats is reproduced, it makes them look posh and out of touch. The photographs are rarely reprinted without a reference being made to members of the club getting drunk and smashing up restaurants — not a good look in contemporary politics. And the fact that the club was male-only instantly antagonises a decent percentage of half the population, not just radical feminists like Proudman.

But it isn’t just me who thinks the Bullingdon is a curse. Do those who believe it has helped Cameron and Osborne think the reason Ed Miliband kept harping on about it at PMQs was to boost their electoral prospects? Indeed, the very same people who are attacking me on Twitter for saying their association with an elite Oxford dining society is harmful to their reputations don’t hesitate to remind people of it at every opportunity.

OK, Proudman might say. Perhaps the optics of being a member of the Bullingdon isn’t good for your image if you’re a frontline politician. But that handicap is more than offset by the whopping great leg-up you get from having been anointed as a future member of the ruling class at Oxford. According to this view, Oxford and Cambridge’s all-male drinking clubs operate as a kind of careers advice service for well-connected public schoolboys, putting them in touch with old members who can help them gain entry to elite professions like banking, politics and the law. That was certainly the impression given by The Riot Club, Laura Wade’s well-received play (and film) about the Bullingdon.

The problem with this view is that not every member of the club — or indeed Oxbridge drinking societies in general — has been catapulted to the top. There have been several ‘Where are they now?’ features about the other eight people in the Bullingdon photograph featuring Cameron and Johnson, and none of them have exactly set the world on fire. If the Bullingdon is an elite careers service, it isn’t doing a great job.

More importantly, this theory of how the ruling class renews itself is out of date — as out of date, in its own way, as the Bullingdon. It assumes that rapid advancement in Britain’s elite professions is simply a matter of buying your way into the right -networks — or having your -parents buy your way in — and neglects the extent to which those networks and professions have embraced meritocracy.

Believe it or not, you have to take a test to be admitted into an elite public school like Eton or St Paul’s and — incredible but true — you don’t just automatically get a place at Oxford or Cambridge if you’ve been to one. The same goes for entry into professions like medicine and accountancy, all of which surround themselves with hurdles that successful entrants have to overcome. In the case of frontline politics, you have to pass an additional test, too — you have to get elected.

I’m not arguing that Britain has become wholly meritocratic and that everyone at the top deserves to be there on merit alone. But unless you acknowledge that the establishment has become at least partially meritocratic in order to preserve its legitimacy, you won’t begin to understand how contemporary Britain works. Charlotte Proudman’s hypothesis would have been true at almost any time in Oxford’s 919-year history, but not in the past 50.

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  • davidshort10

    What is certainly true is that going to a public school gives you a leg up in the Guardian, where Proudman published her silly piece. Almost all the senior editors there are public schoolboys and girls.

  • rtj1211

    Mr Young

    The concept that ‘you have to get elected’ to become a politician can be reduced considerably by the reality that ‘you have to find yourself a safe seat’. David Cameron, Boris Johnson have only ever represented seats where you would have to be Fred West not to get elected as a Tory. Henley upon Thames, Witney and Uxbridge weigh the Tory majorities. So all they needed to influence was Tory HQ and a few local Tory bigwigs in a safe seat. Not very many people, is it?

    Boris won the Mayoralty by having the media muzzled. I don’t know by whom or why, but it was muzzled. He has never, ever been properly challenged by the media in either of his Mayoral elections and that is something that you and your colleagues should feel profound shame about. You won’t because shame is a concept ditched to tribal values.

    None of that says that Boris didn’t deserve to get elected, what makes me incandescent with anger is all this fawning media sycophancy toward Boris when every single policy he enacts should be put under the spotlight and the fact that he didn’t even bother to issue a manifesto for election should have led to him being removed from the ballot paper. What happened was: ‘vote for Boris because he’s got a big fat c**k!’ It is to the eternal shame of Londoners that they voted for that……..

    You need to ask yourselves why you allow Boris to be crowned by media and who it is who is paying for that. Is it the USA? Is it the City of London? Whoever it is, they are subverting democracy and it isn’t acceptable. Ever. I’d say the same if Jeremy Corbyn managed to do it, if Sadiq Khan managed to do it, if Ken Livingstone or George Galloway managed to do it.

    Democracy is about politicians standing for election on a manifesto. It should be a criminal offence to stand for office without issuing a manifesto and the terms of the ballot paper being drawn up should exclude anyone who has not issued a manifesto at least 28 days before polling day. That would teach Boris Johnson how to behave, the Tory Party how to behave and the London Media how to behave.