It should come as no surprise that a society forever torn between deference and populism has perfected the art of the “humblebrag”. Here’s my modest effort for the week: I spent Thursday evening at Blenheim Palace, but of course I was just helping out with a gig at the local literary festival (genuinely top-drawer, by the way). Still, the grandiose battle-booty gifted to the warlord John Churchill by Queen Anne proved a good place to reflect on our love-hate relationship with patrician self-indulgence.
True or not, will the rumours about the Prime Minister’s gilded youth peddled by the Ashcroft-Oakeshott biography tarnish the Cameron brand or – conversely – seal his deal with the voters as a posh dilettante who sobered up and knuckled down to work and duty?
In general, the British rule is to pillory the snob but to forgive the nob. During his years at Oxford, the cocksure social climber who became Lord Curzon used to cultivate a connection with the Duke of Marlborough’s family. Hence the rhyme that later clung to him: “My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,/ I am a most superior person./ My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,/ I dine at Blenheim once a week.” Ruthless and ambitious, Curzon won high office but few friends. The further he rose, the more his overweening airs and graces struck a tinny note. He was often feared but never loved.
In contrast, the Blenheim-born Winston Churchill benefited from the latitude granted to the authenticated upper crust in their flaky youth. As late as 1930, when he had already held two great offices of state, Churchill could boast – in the memoir My Early Life – about the night in 1894 when he and his hooligan chums had trashed the Empire, Leicester Square. They tore down the screens that, at the behest of the Social Purity League, the London County Council had built to separate prostitutes from potential clients. The chief vandal – by the time of writing a former Chancellor and Home Secretary – recalled that he told them: “Ladies of the Empire, I stand for liberty.”
That should put thinly sourced yarns about a small part in some student bacchanalia into historical perspective.
Much of the public ambivalence about David Cameron – a Conservative Prime Minister, remember, for fewer than 20 weeks – stems from the certain fuzziness that still clings to him. Does he rank as more of a Curzon, or a Churchill? The snob might be wounded even by groundless innuendos about a vulgar, reckless youth; the nob could hope to shrug them off with a lordly chuckle. In Britain’s non-stop carnival of class, you need proper credentials to play the fool – or cad.
Pigs’ heads at the Piers Gaveston Society; lines of damsels traipsing to an alpha male’s door: no longer the bullying Flashman, the young Cameron as depicted – or maybe fictionalised in the newspaper serial of Call Me Dave – now looks more like an 18th-century rake in the vein of Samuel Richardson’s Robert Lovelace (from Clarissa). It might turn out to be hogwash. We can say with assurance that, if Isabel Oakeshott believes that a single source who repeats a tall story four times equals the weight of four separate, independent witnesses, then she is to investigative journalism what Inspector Clouseau is to criminal detection.
What matters here is not the pork but the crackling. In the case of the disputed biography, tales of past “debauchery” (that vintage styling from the divorce courts of the 1920s) have left behind the solid nourishment of fact. Now they float in the media air with a faint whiff and sizzle of outrage – delicious to some, disgusting to others. However improbable or trivial, the Cameron apocrypha will linger in the mind because they fit in all too well with a master-narrative of elite decadence and depravity. We already know the plot, and the type.
Yet the embittered Lord Ashcroft may in the end help more than harm his enemy. The reformed hellraiser with a rackety past but sober-sided present may prove an easier sell that the slippery opportunist who wears a different face for every day.
Besides, political rumours with an aroma of narcotic or erotic self-indulgence always bring out the theatrical qualities of British public life. On this worm-eaten but over-lit stage, every character must play the part allotted by class or by conviction. Not for nothing did John Osborne set his allegory of a dilapidated, histrionic national culture – The Entertainer – in a crumbling music hall. “Don’t clap too hard,” as Laurence Olivier’s broken-down comic Archie Rice warns the audience. “It’s a very old building.” From Jeremy Corbyn’s long-ago trysts to David Cameron’s sybaritic escapades, Osborne would have greeted the allegations of the past fortnight with a bitter grimace of recognition.
In the Carnal Cabaret of Westminster (slogan “We Never Close”), right-wing toffs must act heartless, cynical and perverse: apprentice de Sades in their narcissistic quest for kicks. Left-wing idealists have to embark on doomed utopian romances that, just like their politics, later implode into messy recrimination. Woe betide the pleasure-seeking politician who tries to cut loose from this typecasting. Witness the downfall of hapless Lord Sewel, a thoroughly bourgeois university administrator and Labour Party apparatchik caught in flagrante acting like a feckless aristocrat. Snapped and shopped with the same substances and company, a Tory 10th earl with a sinecure in the House of Lords would have lost his job for sure – but not quite so much face.
Perhaps poor Sewel failed to learn (as opposed to snort) his lines well enough. It appears that elite pleasures call for careful study, practice and rehearsal. Much has been made in recent days of the sway that Brideshead Revisited exerted over Cameron’s hedonistic pals at Oxford in the 1980s. It sounds like hard work. The pursuit of decadence figures not so much as wild, spontaneous frenzy but a strenuous, rather suburban exercise in imitation and pastiche.
Itself the story of a middle-class student’s bewitchment by patrician style and grace, Brideshead became a campus cult not via Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel but thanks to the Granada TV adaptation in 1981. First, Waugh’s Charles Ryder copies the doomed sensual and spiritual fervour of the aristocratic Flyte family. Then commercial television converts a niche novel into a mass-market entertainment, which anxious or aspiring students in their turn re-enact in a hunt for ready-made glamour. So mimicry piles on top of masquerade. Peculiar rituals at dining clubs aside, it could be that the politics of spin and spectacle grows out of upbringings in which success depends on keeping up an act.
True or false, this week’s porcine storm will probably fail to shift a single vote. Most voters have already decided whether Cameron can carry off his role, and if he more resembles a wolfish Curzon or a lion-hearted Winston. In the meantime, we can treat the warmed-over gossip peddled by Ashcroft and Oakeshott as consoling entertainment that cements our own beliefs in place.
For some reason, the greatest musical comedy ever written also sprang to mind this week. In Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, the scheming, randy Count has his lecherous plotting interrupted by a delegation of village maidens. They strew him with flowers and serenade him with a charming little chorus. Their lord and master, they imagine, has safeguarded their virtue by nobly surrendering the ancient droit du seigneur that let him have his wicked way with each freshly married girl. Little do they know that he plans to revive the savage custom...
It’s almost certain that the droit du seigneur – or jus primae noctis – never really existed in pre-modern Europe. Rogue landowners no doubt did their worst to serfs and peasants under their control. Yet no formal right of ravishment ever licensed them. As anti-feudal sentiment spread with the Enlightenment, people chose to believe in the myth because it summed up the undeserved entitlements of the ruling class so well. And still does: you will find the idea given an airing in the film Braveheart, that fanciful anthology of tartan tosh.
Mozart’s Figaro and Susanna manage to thwart Count Almaviva’s yearning for his neo-feudal rites and rights. Thus he wins credit for renouncing what, in reality, he never enjoyed anyway.
Will rumours of Bullingdon and Gaveston affinities lend the PM his own brand of – discarded and disowned – droit du seigneur? A hint of barbarian indulgence, long superseded, may make present virtue shine all the brighter.
Turn back to Brideshead Revisited itself, where Charles Ryder tells a tale of youthful sin that ripens into mature adulthood. Twenty years after Oxford, he insists: “There is little I would have left undone or done otherwise... all the wickedness of that time was like the spirit they mix with the pure grape of the Douro, heady stuff full of dark ingredients; it at once enriched and retarded the whole process of adolescence as the spirit checks the fermentation of the wine, renders it undrinkable, so that it must lie in the dark, year in, year out, until it is brought up at last fit for the table.”
David Cameron as a vintage port, smooth on top but still a little gamey underneath? Cartoonists, sharpen your nibs!