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Sunday, September 27, 2015

What did top Tories really get up to at Oxford?

The rather lurid claims abouit the Prime Mnister and his youthful antics at Oxford that were circulating last week may or may not be true, but what seems to be beyond question is that the University was home to some rich and very posh people whose antics have become something of a legend in their own lunchtime.

It is unlikely that anybody will actually know for certain what went on but the Independent has taken a good stab at establishing the truth. They have looked at contemporary accounts of events as well as various books written by participants, all of which of course may be exaggerated or distorted so as to meet the agenda of the particular author.

They quote, for example a chapter of the book, The Oxford Myth, by Allegra Mostyn-Owen, then fiancée of Boris Johnson, which is candid about the presence of hard drugs at Piers Gaveston parties:

“Back in 1981, a surprisingly large number of students seemed to be dabbling in heroin,” she writes. “Decadence was considered fashionable and cool.” Quoting a friend who was a prominent figure in the society, she continued: “You felt that you should exploit your mind, that you were not stuck in prejudice, that you were grasping something beyond the mundane.” And she gives an intriguing hint that some of these heroin users went on to take places at the heart of the Establishment: “Very few of them actually became addicted, and most of them are now comfortably off in the professions.”

The article goes on to quote an Oxford Mail front page dated 23 September 1982 headlined “The Bistro Assassins”, which reported on a group of hell-raising Oxford students who got their kicks out of getting drunk, smashing up restaurants and then trying to pay their way out of trouble after causing £560 worth of damage to Thatchers Bistro in Thame:

They reportedly told police it was “part of a good night’s fun”.

The article says that members of the club were fined for being drunk and disorderly and for obstructing police. Officers at the scene had found “vomit on the carpets … curtains ripped from the rails … food smeared all over the walls …wine bottles smashed against the wall.”

Similarities with the Bullingdon are not exactly a coincidence: a Bullingdon Club photo from 1982 shows several members who had belonged to the Assassins Club.

In The Oxford Myth, writing just six years later, Sebastian Shakespeare lamented: “The Assassins gained considerable publicity in the late 1970s because of their rowdy behaviour and restaurant-wrecking, but their meetings today tend to be rather low-key affairs and last summer they convened in a private house. Smashing up a restaurant has become too predictable and embarrassing, and the presence of women has contributed to the dilution of boyish joie de vivre.”

And then there are the accounts of current members of Cameron's cabinet:

Senior figures in the Oxford Union, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, participated in a mock “slave auction”. Gove, now Secretary of State for Justice, bought the then Union president Jessica Pulay for £6, according to an account of the auction published in a student paper. Boris was sold in his absence, while Gove himself was purchased for £35, after attracting “enthusiastic bidding”.

The Cherwell student newspaper accounts how, while president of the Conservative Association in 1987, Jeremy Hunt, now the Health Secretary, found himself at the centre of a political storm after two of his colleagues on the society’s executive committee organised a dinner for Adolfo Calero, a leading member of the American-backed Contra rebels who fought Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government. Hunt and his colleagues were publicly accused of harming the Conservative Party by extending “invitations to terrorists” in a resignation letter from a local Tory official, Andrew Foulsham. Responding to Cherwell, Hunt insisted that “the fears attributed to Andrew Foulsham are grossly exaggerated”

A student of modest means and from a working class or middle class background could well have had their future career prospects ruined if they had indulged in such antics whilst at university. These incidents quite graphically underline why so many people think that the current Tory Cabinet is so out-of-touch with the real world.
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