Beneath the Depraved Spires?

The Riot Club uses the Bullingdon Club as a microcosm for the Conservative party and the British elite. It isn’t. (Plus my potted review of the film).

The Riot Club is not a film that is going to let you forget it’s set in Oxford*. If the shots of the skyline and the city’s more iconic streets were not enough to let you know, characters are constantly talking about the fact they are in Oxford. Which is ironic because it’s not really a film about Oxford.

Sure it’s set there and nobody’s going to be in any doubt that the drinking society for horrible rich Oxford students of the title is really the Bullingdon Club. But precisely because it’s about the Bullingdon Club, it’s not about Oxford. The Club has much the same impact on the university career of the average Oxford student that Yetis do on the average climber ascending Everest: you’ve seen photos, you’ve met people who have stories of encountering them and sometimes you wonder if the rather strange thing you saw was down to them. But that’s it. And frankly that’s what you’d expect from an organisation whose total membership represents around 0.1% of the University’s student body.

But it is of course not because it represents one university that people are interested in the Bullingdon Club. With the leader of the Conservative Party, his chancellor and likely successor being former members it seems to many people to represent something about the Conservative Party and the British Elite. And that does rather seem to be the premise of the Riot Club. That, however, is a mistake.

Let’s start with the Tories. Yes a lot of the club’s members have gone on to be influential Conservative politicians. But what impact does that really have on the party? Even if every one of them went from wearing tails to being Top Tories they’d still be a small group. Cameron, Osbourne and Boris might have belonged to the Club but Theresa May, Phillip Hammond, Chris Grayling, Eric Pickles, Michael Ashcroft, Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove and just about everyone else didn’t.

It’s tempting to draw a mental connection between the literal wreckage left behind by the Club with the metaphorical carnage wrought by austerity but that makes little sense. Within the Tory Party there is little or no correlation between toffiness and radicalism: Thatcher “the green grocers daughter” was far to the right of the Old Etonian Harold MacMillan. Similarly, it is hard to believe there would have been less austerity had the grammar school educated David Davis beaten Cameron for the leadership of the party and gone onto become prime minister. The Tories are a broad coalition as much – at least until UKIP came along – Daily Mail as Daily Telegraph. Dismissing it as the work of horrible aristocrats is tempting may make those of us who didn’t vote for them feel better but it doesn’t change the fact that in 2010 more than 10 million people voted Conservative, most of whom presumably haven’t even heard of the Bullingdon Club.

What goes for the Conservative Party applies even more so the British Elite as a whole. In the Riot Club, almost invariably the posh characters are vile while middle and working class characters are decent. In reality it was more complicated than that. One of the upsides of having gone to Oxford is that it despite coming from an affluent professional family, I can still maintain the illusion that I am not part of that elite. I was state school educated, had no titles and was subject to some financial constraints. Therefore, next to the public school boys and girls (not to mention the Gulf royalty, Russian oligarchs kids etc.), I could feel downright common. And like most middle or working class Oxford students (which for the record is the majority of us), I have tales of the amusing poshness to tell. Take for example, the Etonian I met in freshers week who was genuinely astonished to discover that passing through a metal detector to get into a state school happened in American TV shows but in actual British schools. But that didn’t make him a character out of the Riot Club. He was a friendly, polite and like most Etonians somewhat apologetic about his privilege. While he leaned rightwards that was not a given for posh people: think of the late Tony Benn. And privilege was as likely to spur compassion and public duty as to stunt it. When in my capacity as a councillor, I went along to meetings of charities and campaign groups at Oxford generally the voices I would hear were generally cut-glass (or more amusingly terrible attempts at estuary English).  And while it is fortunate that there are nice people amongst the elite, some of the rest of us can unfortunately be as vile as any Bullingdon Boy. Walking past Oxford’s clubs at chucking out time you’d see drunken violence and vandalism worthy of the Club perpetrated by students and non-students alike.

This is what the Riot Club gets wrong. The problem with our ruling class is not that they have a weaker moral fibre than the rest of us. Rather it is that that class has been allowed to congeal into a caste. Britain’s poor levels of social mobility mean that the people who take positions of people are too often not the best person for the job but those who parents did it. And if we want to understand that we have to look to the fact that Conservative ideas have such resonance beyond the elite the Riot Club depicts.

Mini review: 5/10 – The first half is a bore. The second is claustrophobic and somewhat disturbing. It’s effective but I wouldn’t say I liked it.


*This is one of those contexts in which the fact that Oxford is a city with a university in it (two in fact) rather than just a university gets lost.


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