Is Oxford’s infamous Bullingdon club finally dead?

Categories: Members, People, Power

In October, for the first time in its history, the world’s most infamous gentlemen’s  dining club admitted that it failed to attract sufficient membership applications.

So, farewell then, dear Bullingdon Club, taken from us this Michaelmas at the tender age of 236. Yours was not an easy life. Of course, there were the good times: the braying laughter of friends in high places; that reassuringly expensive dress sense; the broken glass and opened doors; those very smart photographs on all those steps and things. But, near the end, your ailments came in crowds.

How unkind Evelyn Waugh was to write, in his prophetically named Decline And Fall, of your ‘epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands’. Illiterate? Uncouth? What rot! Don’t these people know that three of your younger sons – Johnson, Cameron, Osborne – recently made it to the pinnacle of government? (Never mind that the latter two – oh cruel fate! – have since felt their own decline and fall.)

How painful, meanwhile, were the charges of Laura Wade’s play Posh, that hysterical vehicle that so exaggerated your inner workings? (They said you’d punched a man to death; in reality you’d just smashed in a lot of his windows and kicked about a listed building.) And then for it all to rear its head again in that movie The Riot Club (so unrealistic: for one thing, the protagonists were far too handsome.) Is it any wonder –  when very recent alumni describe their time with you as a ‘catastrophic embarrassment’ or a ‘toxic memory’ or simply, in the words of one friendly OE, ‘a bit cringe’ – that you struggled this year to get a single decent membership application? Just two rolled in, if the rumours are true, from a minor public school pretender and then from a chubby, badly-trousered Harrovian who was apparently born at the age of 53. Not even enough to populate this year’s club production of Waiting For Godot. ‘Nothing to be done.’                                                                                                                          

Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Across the pond, your cousins in the grand fraternities were also spluttering with the plague. A Greek Tragedy: applications at an all time low over across the board; funding pulled wholesale from underneath all those Sperry Topsiders; all that hurtful talk of racism and mutilation and psychological torture and rape. Perhaps it’s all in some way pegged to the rise of all these campus safe spaces, and that ‘no platforming’ nonsense, and all this stuff about wanting to tear down statues of people who you happened to be friends with and who may or may not have stolen people’s countries. And there was something about trigger warnings, too. While others were treading on eggshells, you were stamping on broken glass. (And you hung out exclusively with boys – not a good look when NYU considers ‘you guys’ a micro-aggression towards absolutely everybody else.) We will miss you now more than ever. What a dreary, worthy place this might become. At least you had a sense of humour.

There had always been talk of nepotism and networks and old boys, as if these were somehow dirty words. ‘The existence of drinking societies like the Bullingdon is the antithesis of equality,’ said some girl you’d met at the Feathers ball who now writes for The Guardian. More deadly still was the creeping realisation that the opposite, in fact, was probably true: ‘If the Bullingdon is an elite careers service, it isn’t doing a great job,’ said The Spectator (Et Tu?!). Career kryptonite, apparently. No wonder the boys are seeking out more palatable alternatives in their droves.

Might that yet be your legacy? Yes, the bores may finally have choked you – but, like the Hydra, where one head is lopped off, many more flourish in its place. (Or don’t they read any Peisander?) And what beautiful heads! My friends high and low tell me of The Goblins, the Phoenix, the Myrmidon, the Halcyon, the Musketeers, the Miller, the Loder, the Gridiron… 48 clubs active at Oxford alone, pushed underground, strengthened and hothoused like soviet bloc cells by the priggish threat. They’ve learned, too, from your mistakes: at the Piers Gaveston, the orgiastic and campish countryside Colombiana that saw D.C do something or other with a P.H, technology has been resolutely banned, with cameras and smartphone confiscated on the blacked-out coach; at the equally oofy Stoics, meanwhile, a former member told me they’d learned to become ‘a lot better at keep things quiet’; while a handful of clubs have said ‘if you can’t beat them, let them join us’ and invited girls (!) along for the beano, which might actually make things more fun, come to think of it.

Perhaps, then, underneath the gilded veneer of entitlement and cocaine and tail coats, this was your calling, at once humble and noble; this was your grand inheritance, and your revealed truth; this was your twitch upon the thread: to die, so that others might live. Or perhaps we all just grew up. Anyway, rest in peace etc etc, and if you see St. Peter, maybe go easy on all the ‘Buller Buller Buller’ stuff as apparently they’re being really sniffy about that kind of thing up there at the moment.