EVERYONE is talking about “piggate”, Lord Ashcroft’s allegation that a student David Cameron made unnatural union with a dead pig’s mouth. Of course Twitter was bubbling with pig puns and swinishly-clever memes – as well as the usual expressions of outrage that greet every political scandal these days.
Some commentators, by contrast, urged us to rise above this voyeurism and remember the real damage of Cameron’s government: the welfare cuts, the poverty, and the travesty of what passes for British democracy.
Jeremy Corbyn, for one, seemingly oblivious to Westminster’s everyday depravity, used the occasion to call for railway nationalisation. Ex-Tory MP Louise Mensch, for her part, asked, “Who f****** cares?” The critics, she implies, are behaving like prim and proper prudes, tutting away at the antics of some student rascals like buttoned-up Victorians. But she misses the point – the whole incident is about how the privileged learn to keep their power close and remain beyond public reproach within a closed circle of initiates.
GREAT AND THE GOOD: A young privileged Cameron raving away with other future aristocrats from Oxford and Cambridge.
That’s why piggate matters, and why it might even tell us something about Scottish independence. A crucial starting point is this: rituals of sexual degradation are not about sex (Cameron does not fancy pigs), they are about power. More particularly, they are about the networks of intimacy and bonding that unite the British ruling class as a real entity.
This explains how piggate relates to the endless flow of accusations about high-level sexual abuse in the upper reaches of British society, from Jimmy Savile to Edward Heath. Sexual abuse takes on ritual significance among very powerful men in the corridors of influence. Though most won’t participate, the silent compliance of Britain’s elites was crucial to allowing these predators to go unpunished in their lifetimes. piggate is certainly not abuse on the same level, of course: not by any means. But the extreme cases show how degrading behaviour helps to unite ruling elites in conspiracies of silence, creating lifetime bonds of trust between the upper echelons of government, business, law, military and media.
In America, as in Britain, male students in exclusive universities revel in the atmosphere of clubby secret societies. The Skull and Bones Society at Yale University, whose alumni includes John Kerry and George W Bush, rival presidential candidates in 2004, is renowned for its bizarre, sexualised initiation rituals. This includes confessing one’s darkest desires while enclosed in a coffin and being harangued with carnal threats and insults. The effect, for whatever reason, is a feeling of extreme intimacy and trust towards one’s fellow initiates.
All of this posh-boy behaviour is mostly cringeworthy rather than threatening. But its function is crucial: where power is concentrated and passed between fathers and sons, the sexual humiliation of initiation serves as a rite of passage into the most exclusive club in society, the ruling class.
CLASS is just as crucial as sex and power. Cameron, after all, was also a member of the Bullingdon Club, a dining society notorious for nights out that ended in the violent destruction of restaurants and bars. Humiliating the “oiks” was their goal, demonstrating to the unsuspecting barmaid, customer, or restaurant-owner their weakness before the savagery of wealth and privilege. “What it basically involved was getting drunk and standing on restaurant tables, shouting about ‘f***ng plebs’”, one Tory MP who left the Bullingdon Club remembers. “It was all about despising poor people.”
Sex and violence, class and power, bonding rituals help to unite these disparate features of inequality into (literally) naked displays of ruling class anarchism. Members of the club share a common humiliation; members of the public share a double humiliation by being reminded we are all pigs’ heads, props to be used and abused in the formalities of passing power from one generation of inherited rulers to another.
The tragedy of British democracy is that we’re so immune to scandal that this revelation will probably prove, in the long run, relatively harmless to Cameron. After all, we have former prime ministers who seem to have been complicit in covering up paedophilia, and another who allegedly engaged directly in this far more serious act. Put in that context, Cameron’s poke-in-a-pig becomes something of a bad-taste joke.
In Scotland, we’re tremendously lucky that we don’t have an electable party that directly represents the violence of inbred capitalist power, as the Tories do in England. True, our centre-left parties are often complicit in the worst of free market ideology. And yes, Holyrood is too often an insulated club or “chumocracy” that doesn’t truly engage with democracy in an interesting fashion.
But put that lot next to Westminster, where we expect the Tories, on a slim public mandate, to inherit government for coming decades, and the contrast is clear. At least nominally, Labour and the SNP belong to the people: they are open to influence, change, and challenge, and they compete for working-class votes, so they must retain formal links to democracy. The Tories, immersed in public school and Oxbridge initiation ceremonies, look for every opportunity to make the oiks squeal like helpless piglets.
Scotland has its own ruling class with its own university rituals, and they make their way into Scottish business and public life, true enough. Too often, our centre-left parties bow and scrape to these people. But these people don’t and won’t have power in Holyrood anytime soon. In Westminster, even in the most optimistic times, we have a pendulum between a Labour Party compromising with the markets, and a gang of upper-class vandals who wreak havoc upon us as if we were low-paid bar staff in an Oxford eatery.
That’s one good reason why, given the choice, I’ll always vote for escape. If the Bullingdon boys rudely disrupted your dining one evening, you’d make a quick dash for the exit, stopping perhaps to register your complaint. Let’s not be the suckers who stick around gawping – while the restaurant gets trashed…
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