No one does sleaze quite like the posh English male. A new unauthorized biography of British Prime Minister David Cameron alleges that, while a student at Oxford University, he performed, as a judge might put it, a lewd act on a deceased pig.
This may sound unconscionably scandalous to Americans, who tend to think of English gentlemen as charming Hugh Grant types with floppy hair and crooked smiles. But let me assure you, Brits know that upper class males, behind the pleasant façade, are often debauched baboons. And so we're rolling our eyes at our genteel PM's animal antics. "PigGate," as Cameron's alleged episode of porcine intimacy is being called on Twitter, is exactly what we have come to expect from privileged males who attend top private high schools and then go on to Oxford or Cambridge. Elite clubs such as The Piers Gaveston Society — which Cameron belonged to when he supposedly violated a dead farm animal — are just part of the package for posh boys.
Indeed, our top-end universities' most coveted societies, most famously Oxford's Bullingdon club, boast initiation rituals and traditions that would make members of even the most notorious U.S. frat house wince. It's an extension of British boarding school culture (think "fagging," where younger pupils are made to act as servants for older boys), plus a perceived need by the elite to create secretive, seedy bonds between the young gentlemen who will go on to join the old boys' network that still dominates so many of Britain's political and financial institutions.
According to Cameron's Oxford contemporary, James Delingpole, The Piers Gaveston Society, which was formed in 1977, has "Bacchanalian parties at grand country mansions fueled by champagne, caviar, and illegal drugs." The annual summer ball, say insiders, is "basically a very well-organized orgy" where the society's all-male members (12 good-looking former public school boys) wear drag and have sex with Oxford's prettiest girls.
The 200-year-old Bullingdon Club, meanwhile, has a reputation for boisterous, flashy behavior, including trashing restaurants, then ostentatiously paying for the damage in full. In 2010, members allegedly ripped up bathroom plumbing at a fancy country house hotel, while more recently Britain's Daily Mirror claimed that the new member initiation ceremony involved setting fire to a £50 note (worth around $80) in front of a homeless person. Former Bullingdon alumni include not only David Cameron but also his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, and London mayor, Boris Johnson.
The Black Cygnets Society at St Hugh's College, Oxford, made headlines in 2013 when it hosted a "fox hunt" event. Male members wore red coats while the invited women (mostly first year students) dressed as sexy "foxes" and tried to avoid being mauled by the men.
The salacious details of these clubs' activities could have been pulled from an Evelyn Waugh novel or a biography of a 1970s rock band. So we ordinary Brits, instead of angrily condemning upper class antics, choose to find them entertaining and make excuses: "Oh, they're just being posh twits," we say.
For sure, these stories and the scandal in which the British prime minister finds himself embroiled are hugely amusing. And it's no small comfort to critics of Cameron that he will likely have to endure the snorts and squeals of his opponents for years to come.
But perhaps, in light of our PM's shame, we Brits should rethink our laissez faire attitude toward the elite. University administrations should look to shut down these elitist societies, punish the students who flout the rules and, in doing so, help these "traditions" fade into history. Clubs like Bullingdon and Piers Gaveston are just archaic hangovers. Surely, it's time we cured them.