Bullingdon Club: The politics of Posh

Alastair Campbell

posh new 300x208 Bullingdon Club: The politics of PoshIn the first of a series of blogs this week looking at the politics of class, Alastair Campbell discusses Laura Wade’s Posh. The play, which, if any comparisons with the notoriously elite Bullingdon Club are drawn (of which Conservative trio David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson were all members) opens a more disturbing concern than our political leaders not knowing the price of milk. Last year the Prime Minister denied that there were similarities between the club he was famously a member of, and the destructive behaviour witnessed in the summer riots.

There are many ways to judge a play. Did you enjoy it on the night? Would you recommend it to others? Do you want to see it again? And does it make you think, and keep thinking?

One would imagine the first of these is the most important, and likely to dictate the answer to the others. But with Laura Wade’s new play Posh, I did not enjoy the experience of watching it. Yet I have recommended it to everyone, am planning to see it again soon, and I have spent at least part of every day since I saw it thinking about what it means, what I really think about it and whether it has lasting political and cultural significance.

So why did I not enjoy it, when it is clearly topical, well-written, well cast and acted, and likely to damage the Tories? The answer is that for parts of it  I felt quite ill. Not ill in the manner of the Riot Club members throwing up after downing too much wine, champagne and spirits. But ill at the thought that this might just be an accurate portrayal of the Bullingdon Club on which it is so clearly based, and therefore a picture of our current rulers, their values, what they really think, believe and say when they are not minding their ps and qs whilst decontaminating the Tory brand.

The audience reaction also made me feel queasy. To one side of me was my partner Fiona and her mother, both of whom like me would argue that a non-meritocratic class system based on wealth, connections and private education has done real damage to Britain. We laughed rarely, even when what was said was funny. To laugh would be to indicate a shared enjoyment of what was being said and done.  Around us there were other, perhaps like-minded people revolted by the sexism, the snobbery, the belief that money and contacts could get them out of any scrape. To my immediate left were three middle aged American tourists who seemed bemused but gradually joined in with the laughter of those who were enjoying the jokes and the banter more than I was. I sensed a fifty fifty split between the laughing and the silent.

I did some pretty wild and crazy things at university but nothing like this lot, though I do confess to occasional drink-fuelled violence, not least with types similar to those in the play. I had never encountered people like this and their braying, arrogant born to rule ’superiority’ brought out the worst in me, broadened my anti establishment streak and hardened my support for the politics of the left.

I do not loathe all posh people in politics. My diaries contain frequent fond references to two Old Etonians in particular, fellow diarist Alan Clark, and Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames. I liked them hugely, because of the size of their personalities and perhaps also because they never pretended to be something they weren’t.

The story in Posh is fairly simple. The Riot Club has had to move out of Oxford and instead hold its night out in a small hotel. They are determined to live up to the worst excesses of their predecessors and as they do so, social, political, cultural and sexual views emerge which some in the audience found repellent, others hilarious. ‘That brought back so many memories,’ chuckled the cashmere-sweatered, check-shirted, orange-chinoed, pinky ring wearing guy behind me to his wife as they left for the interval.

When I chaired a debate on the play a few days later, Lyndsey Turner, the director, who is from a working-class background, said that during the interval you could feel the divide between people. The posh enjoying it more than the non-posh. At times she thought things might explode.

The interval is directly preceded by a hugely powerful speech by a character who alas shares my name and who is sick to death of the wealthy having to pretend to like and care about the poor. He also reveals a vulnerability, a real worry that whereas many think they have everything, it doesn’t feel like that to them. They know most people think they are ridiculous. They have to lie about the purpose of the dinner. And though Labour are out of power, they don’t yet feel like the Tories are in power.

Alistair becomes the key character in the second half when he makes another powerful and brilliantly crafted speech and gets involved in an altercation with the hotelier whose daughter is molested after a prostitute hired for the night is asked to leave.

But enough on the plot, what of the politics? David Cameron must have thought he had managed to defuse his poshness as an issue when Labour ran a by election campaign with class as a major theme, only to see it backfire. And when he was decontaminating the brand he did a pretty good job presenting himself as a fairly ordinary middle class guy, albeit of the upper variety. He was clearly conscious of the issue’s risks. He didn’t talk too much about Eton and makes sure – for now at least – that his children use state schools. And  someone has gone to a lot of effort – and presumably used a lot of money – to take out of circulation the picture of Cameron and Boris Johnson in their Bullingdon uniform.

Governments create culture whether they intend to or not. It was a while before so-called spin became the favoured target of comics and satirists, but it stuck, as I know only too well from Rory Bremner, Malcolm Tucker and the rest. Posh could well become to this government the cultural tag that spin became to ours.

It is doubtful the play would be the success it has become had Cameron and co not been in power. The question is whether it really does capture something about him and his ilk. When I was on Midweek last week I chatted with Libby Purves in the green room about it. She thought it was ridiculous. Over the top. Unrealistic. Silly.

But one of the panellists on the debate I chaired said she felt it did portray a kind of truth, that there are people like the Riot Club members in existence and they include people now running Britain. The panellist was Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady, sister of Boris. She went on to say class was becoming more not less relevant and ‘at the risk of sounding like your beloved Fiona’ it will not change while we have the social apartheid of private education. Wow.

One of the most powerful political quotes of this Parliament was the jibe by Tory MP Nadine Dorries MP that the problem with the Government was that it was run by two arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk. ‘Don’t forget the arrogant,’ said Rachel. ‘it is the combination of posh and arrogant that could be lethal.’

So why has that lethality seemingly now been unleashed when in the Crewe by election the posh card was deemed to be a disaster? The answer probably lies in the Budget. The top rate tax cut revealed an instinct. It put an end to ‘all in this together’ and suggested they were in it for their own kind.

Empathy matters in modern politics. Cameron was quite good at it in opposition. But in government – from student fees to scrapping EMAs, unmandated health reform to a stealth strategy to return to two-tier state education, from horse rides with Rebekah Brooks to misunderstood LOLs and country suppers, the sense is of an out-of-touch elite pretending to be different from who and what they really are. They have to pretend because they want to do what they failed to do last time, and win a majority. They would struggle to win a seat if the public thought Posh was them. But when your profile becomes as high as that of a PM or a Chancellor  or a wannabe PM with a personality as big as Boris Johnson’s, the public will work out their true character.

If their true character is the one they try to present to the world, Posh will be nothing more than an interesting and divisive piece of entertainment. If the public decide it is closer to the one on stage at the Duke of York’s then by the time the planned cinema version comes out, which could have an even deeper cultural impact; Cameron could be on his way to becoming  a political novelty – a one-term PM who fought two elections and won neither. And his poshness will be one of the reasons. Because it is impossible to see this play and imagine that the people it portrays remotely get how the majority in Britain live their lives, or even care.

Alastair Campbell’s diaries, Burden of Power, were published on Thursday, £25.

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  • Daniel Priestley

    My previous comment referring to Alistair Campbell as a murderer complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis has been deleted.

    Why? It was a statement of fact. The Iraq War was justified upon claims, now found out to be lies originating from Blair and his cronies such as Campbell, and hundreds of thousands died as a result.

    He is a war criminal and murderer and I hope he is someday prosecuted.

  • Desmond22

    The best example of the “politics of posh” was John Prescott playing croquet.

  • Bonnielad

    I’ve just cancelled my Independent subscription. A small protest but when your newspaper starts paying this miserable wretch for his views you really have lost the plot. Campbell should be in a jail cell where his spin and lies can’t cost the lives of British servicemen.

  • Gareth Roberts

    The reason why I make the Blair comparison is because Alistair Campbell uses this review to claim to be a working class activist who rails against the privileged class, yet he made his political name and reputation working for and vociferously defending a Labour leader and PM who himself was privately educated son of a lawyer, and younger brother of a high court judge. Blair is as much the beneficiary of class injustice as Cameron. Campbell (not me) chose the framework of class conflict to review this play, and take a pop at Cameron. As for my comments about politicians in general, the overwhelming majority of MPs across the political spectrum, and their political employees, are privately educated, born to upper middle class or ruling class families, and do not represent the interests or life experience of the majority of the population. The class system itself, and not the objections to it, is the malignant fault line that divides this country. This country doesn’t fail because people like me loathe the class system, it’s the injustice and inequalities that the class system perpetuates that divides the country.

  • Gareth Roberts

    Or an over inflated sense of self importance.

  • Charlie Benjamin

    Do people who criticize the Iraq war not remember the first gulf war? Perhaps they’re too young to remember that Sadam Husain had and used biological and chemical weapons to kill (according to the UN) 250 thousand people in the north and south of Iraq, which led to the imposition of no fly zones over Iraq for eleven years. The idea of Saddam Hussain having WMDs isn’t just a fairytale concocted for the sake of it. He really did have them, and did use them. So, it didn’t take a huge leap of imagination to think he might still have them, or use them again. And indeed, following his downfall, though the weapons weren’t found, let’s not forget that even Hans Blix was on record as thinking he probably did have them, though he should have been allowed to continue his inspection. Even without the weapons, UN troops did find 13 thousand scientific documents relating to the design and manufacture of WMDs.
    Though I don’t think the Iraq war had anything directly to do with Afghanistan or 9/11, strategically it did. If troops, aircraft and weapons and money had been redeployed, ending the no fly zones over Iraq, and sent to Afghanistan, the first thing that would have happened was Sadam Hussain would have gone into the north and south and massacred yet more people, perhaps another 250 thousand people, or half a million. The only way to free up the military assets being used to impose the no-fly zones was to topple Saddam once and for all. Strategically, it was also important because behind the scenes politicians and military strategists were doubtless looking in the long term at Iran and Syria as the possible cause of future wars. I’d rather have peace, and not see soldiers being sent to their deaths, or see civilians get caught in the crossfire. But the Middle East has been a warzone waiting to happen for the last seventy years.
    On the subject of the article, Alastair Cambell is always interesting to listen to. I despair and laugh at just how incompetent David Cameron and George Osbourne are. They’re great for political satire, not so great for the country.

  • Alex

    “… even Hans Blix was on record as thinking he probably did have them, though he should have been allowed to continue his inspection”

    A somewhat inaccurate (spun?) representation of Blix’ position,

    ”I think this was one of the most significant things of the whole story, … ‘We got tips not only from the UK but from other intelligence, the US as well, so perhaps some 100 all in all. … ‘We had time to go to about three dozen of these sites and in no case did we find any weapons of mass destruction…. We said if this is the best (intelligence), then what is the rest? Doubts arose from that. … I said to Mr Blair ‘Yes, I also thought there could be weapons of mass destruction’, but I said ‘Are you so sure? Would it not be paradoxical if you were to invade Iraq with 200,000 men and found there were no weapons of mass destruction?’ ~ Radio 4 Today Programme interview.

    And as we knew back then, and as is clearer to the population at large in hindsight, if Blix had been allowed to continue his investigations as he wished, he would have shown that US intelligence was hopelessly inaccurate (perhaps even “sexed up”)

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