Bullingdon Club: behind Oxford University’s elite society
Former PM David Cameron reveals his reservations about being a member of controversial club
Lavish rituals, opulent banquets, smashing up restaurants and trashing fellow students’ living quarters – the activities of Oxford University’s notorious Bullingdon Club are back in the headlines as former prime minister David Cameron is set to publish his memoirs.
Excerpts from the book, For the Record, due out on Thursday, reveal details of his life in Downing Street, as well as the years before - including his reservations about being a Bullingdon member.
So, what do we know about the Bullingdon Club?
It is an elite dining society associated with, although not affiliated to, the University of Oxford. Founded in 1780 as a hunting and cricket club, it soon became better known for its raucous, hard-drinking dinners and ostentatious displays of wealth.
The vast majority of members previously attended Eton, although a few other major public schools have been represented. No women are accepted into the society. Membership has always been extremely exclusive, with the handful of new members accepted each year traditionally subjected to “trashing” – the invasion and destruction of their college bedroom by other Bullingdon members.
The official club uniform consists of navy blue tailcoats with a velvet collar and ivory silk lapels, monogrammed buttons, waistcoat, and a tie in the club colour of sky blue. The full ensemble can only be purchased from a single Oxford tailor, and costs around £3,500, according to The Independent.
Who has been in the Bullingdon Club?
Cameron, former chancellor George Osborne and the current PM Boris Johnson are well-known former members of the exclusive society. A club photograph which includes Cameron and Johnson among members posing in their dress uniform has often proved the bane of their political careers, frequently reprinted in newspapers and mentioned in Parliament as evidence that they are out of touch with ordinary people.
In excerpts of his new book, published in The Times, Cameron says the club “haunted me for most of my political life”.
“When I look now at the much-reproduced photograph taken of our group of appallingly over-self-confident ‘sons of privilege’, I cringe. If I had known at the time the grief I would get for that picture, of course I would never have joined. But life isn’t like that,” he writes.
The former prime minister says that when he joined, the club was “raffish and notorious”, adding: “These were also the years after the ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, when quite a few of us were carried away by the fantasy of an Evelyn Waugh-like Oxford existence.”
Other past members include former defence minister Alan Clark, broadcaster David Dimbleby and Princess Diana’s brother Charles Spencer.
Former international development secretary Rory Stewart was a member of the club too, although the Daily Express says he “only went to one meeting”.
Why is the Bullingdon Club so controversial?
Even when it was a sporting society, the club’s reputation for rowdiness was notorious. The future King Edward VIII had to battle for his parents’ permission to join, and was later told to leave after word of a particularly rambunctious dinner party got back to his mother, Queen Mary.
Newspapers have long revelled in reports of the club’s debauchery, centring on drunken dinners that end in brawls and destruction. Speaking of the club during the 1980s, Boris Johnson’s biographer Andrew Gimson commented: “I don’t think an evening would have ended without a restaurant being trashed and being paid for in full, very often in cash.” Even to this day, unofficial gatherings of the club in pubs or restaurants are usually booked under an alias due to this historical reputation for wanton destruction.
Cameron claims the stories of excessive drunkenness and restaurant trashing are exaggerated, but he says “it is true that the election ritual was being woken up in the middle of the night by a group of extremely rowdy men turning your rooms upside down”.
He says he remembers “walking from my bedroom into my sitting room to find a group of people making a terrible racket, with one of them standing on the legs of an upended table, using a golf club to smash bottles as they were thrown at him”.
A rumour about an initiation ritual in which new members burnt a £50 note in front of a homeless person also made national headlines in 2013, although the claim was never verified.
However, it is important to put the often unsubstantiated tales of Bullingdon debauchery in perspective. No-one knows exactly how many members the club currently boasts, but in 2006 it was estimated to be as low as four, meaning the vast majority of Oxford students will complete their degrees without ever meeting one.
What is the club like today?
With Cameron and Johnson frequently savaged for their past membership, the club’s brand has become so toxic that aspiring young politicians today wouldn’t be caught dead in Bullingdon blue. “The really ambitious stay away from it,” an Oxford undergraduate told the Evening Standard back in 2013.
Another student told Tatler that the extremely unflattering portrayal of a thinly disguised Bullingdon Club in Laura Wade’s play Posh – later turned into the 2014 film The Riot Club – was “almost single-handedly responsible” for the club’s poor image to current Oxford students.
In an age far removed from the “greed is good” excesses of the 80s, the circle of privileged youngsters who want to flaunt their wealth publicly is shrinking. With dozens of elite drinking societies to aspire to, few Oxford undergraduates are keen to embrace the stain of the Bullingdon legacy.
The Bullingdon has also moved with the times, however, severely toning down its public behaviour. Members rarely wear their £3,500 uniform nowadays, while room trashings and other extreme initiation rituals are a thing of the past. One of the last incidents involving members to make the headlines was a brawl in an historic Oxfordshire pub in 2004 in which crockery and wine bottles were smashed. In perhaps the ultimate sign of the changing times, there was no escaping by offering the landlord a cheque. Instead, four of the group were promptly arrested and slapped with penalty notices after a night in the cells.
Is the club facing extinction?
After more than 200 years, it appears the japes may be coming to an end. According to The Spectator, by 2017 the Bullingdon Club has fallen on hard times and was down to only two members.
There are a number of reasons for this, says the magazine, chief among them being that the club “just couldn’t survive 11 years of bad headlines from 2005 to 2016”, referring to the time when Cameron, Osborne and Johnson were “the most powerful Conservatives in the country”.
While the club has long been a subject of controversy, with its excessive behaviour even debated in parliament, its standing has fallen dramatically over the last decade.
In 2013, Johnson told the BBC he was “embarrassed” about being a member and said Bullingdon was “a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness”.
In 2017, The Daily Telegraph said “no one wants to join” and “it is now facing up to the real prospect of dissolving”.
It was dealt a further blow last year, when members were banned from holding positions in the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA).
The body has put the Bullingdon on its list of proscribed organisations, with president Ben Etty telling the Cherwell student newspaper it had “no place” in the modern Tory party.
Yet even if this is the final nail in the coffin, with its former members still residing in No. 10, the club’s legacy looks set to endure.