The 2010 British General Election, which must be held by June 3, pits embattled Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labour Party against David Cameron of the Conservatives. Worldfocus contributing blogger Jamie Macfarlane writes about the perennial issue of class as a potential factor in the race.
The Bullingdon Club is Oxford University’s most exclusive dining society. Restricted to the most privileged undergraduates since its founding in 1780, the club is notorious for its destructive binges at unsuspecting restaurants, which are trashed from top to bottom at the end of the meal in the society’s signature ritual. The members escape trouble with the police by leaving a blank check behind to cover the devastation.
As depicted by Evelyn Waugh in Decline and Fall, The Bullingdon also helped to popularize the Oxford expression “debagging”, whereby an individual that irritated the club had his trousers pulled down in the street. Although the advent of tighter trousers has largely put a stop to this pastime, many other Bullingdon traditions persevere -the initiation ritual for example, where a new member discovers his invitation to join the club when he returns to his bedroom to find that the society has broken in and destroyed his possessions.
The 2010 general election could see the three most powerful positions in Britain all being occupied by “Buller” boys. The Conservative candidate for Prime Minister David Cameron, George Osborne, his prospective chancellor, and the current Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson were all in the society.
In a nation historically fixated with class, the prospective aristocratic takeover of government could turn this year’s election campaign into what the media are styling a “class war.” Journalists were quick to jump on Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s declaration to Parliament that Conservative policies seemed to have been “dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton,” the $50,000 a year private school attended by Cameron and several senior members of his party.
Gordon Brown has since backpedaled from the statement, claiming that he had just made an innocent joke. But some pundits think that Brown, who trails Cameron by around 10 points in the opinion polls, should get nasty. Tony Blair’s former adviser Alistair Campbell writes:
It was evident from Cameron’s face that he hated it. It was clear from the faces behind that they shared the hurt. Inflicting political pain on your opponents is part of the job of politicians.
Cameron’s detractors have always been keen to point out that his Eton schooling, his Bullingdon membership and a lineage that traces back to King William IV undermines his attempts at styling himself as an “ordinary bloke.” In comparison Brown is the publicly educated son of a Church of Scotland minister.
So why is Brown holding back from trying to politically debag Cameron?
Firstly, British elections tend to lack the same degree of personal attack as in the U.S. The British public was scandalized when Gordon Brown’s former special adviser Damian McBride was discovered formulating rumors about Cameron and other members of his team in 2009. Brown is still tainted by an episode that left his administration looking nasty.
The second reason for Brown’s reluctance is explained by George Pitcher’s blog for the Daily Telegraph.
Socio-economic status isn’t what it was when class really was the divisive issue in British society. Today you can be a successful PR flak or some ghastly (my dear, look at their suits) hedge-fund manager and buy your way into Royal Enclosures, or even the House of Lords if you’re subtle enough with the payments.
The Bullingdon club’s notoriety at Oxford University is partly because it is a relic of a bygone Britain, in which aristocracy was the law of the land. Similarly diminishing is the socialist reaction to this privilege that saw the rise of an embittered working class that formed the core Labour Party vote for decades.
Gordon Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair enjoyed his unparalleled success as Labour leader by shifting his party towards the center, as he embraced Britain’s ever expanding middle class. Tony Blair’s “New Labour” promised to govern a “Modern Britain.” Gordon Brown risks undoing this reinvention by pulling the trigger on a class war.
The dates of British elections are only announced a month in advance, so Britons must keep guessing about whether they are about to be caught up in “class warfare.” Brown, for now, has stuck to the softer language of Cameron being “out of touch with middle class families.” However if Brown continues to falter in the polls, he will become increasingly tempted to go for broke. After all, he would not want to see a blank check left in the rubble of Parliament’s restaurant.