I don’t think there’s any question that David Cameron’s student days were more colourful than mine. According to a book serialised in the Daily Mail: his antics included drug taking, membership of obnoxious drinking societies and, most strangely, putting his penis into the mouth of a dead pig. By contrast, I became a local councillor and wrote a blog.
One of the posts on that blog reflected on revelations made about Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, who were at the time competing for the Lib Dem leadership. Clegg was accused of having set fire to a rare cactus collection, while Huhne had apparently written an article praising hard drugs.
I didn’t think lingering on such incidents was wise:
The presumptive future Lib Dem leader says that: “I did some damage to some plants. I am not proud of it. I think we all have blemishes in our past.”
Not me. I am ashamed to admit that but I have been such a goody two shoes throughout my life that there is nothing scandalous in my past I can think of. It is early days, I am only in my fourth week of University. But given that I don’t drink, smoke, take drugs, break the law in any serious way and that my love life has never been terribly exciting, this is a state of affairs I can’t see changing.
Let this be a warning to you all. If politicians are hounded for silly mistakes they made a long time ago then no good will come of it. If people with blemished pasts are put off going into politics then the people left will be a lot like me: dull, puritanical and self-righteous.
Today I’m less sure that I would survive unscathed if for some reason the press did decide to rake through my entire life – a brush with mental illness does that to you. But that hasn’t changed my conviction that dwelling on politicians’ misspent youths is a bad idea.
I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if the Daily Mail circa 1960 or so had found out that Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland had been lovers in their student days. It seems unlikely that either man’s career could have survived the revelation and their contribution to public life – including the legalisation of homosexuality and a big increases in access to higher education – would have been at best delayed.
Besides the narrowing of talent this process potentially leads to, it is prurient. The Cameron story is a good example. It’s classic Daily Mail: allowing its readers to vicariously experience debauchery whilst hypocritically feeling smug about being better than the people involved.
And it’s not really fair. The David Cameron who studied at Oxford is not the one whose Prime Minister today. That goes beyond the idea of ‘learning lessons’ and into the very structure of the brain:
…the changes that happen between 18 and 25 are a continuation of the process that starts around puberty, and 18 year olds are about halfway through that process. Their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. That’s the part of the brain that helps you to inhibit impulses and to plan and organize your behavior to reach a goal.
And the other part of the brain that is different in adolescence is that the brain’s reward system becomes highly active right around the time of puberty and then gradually goes back to an adult level, which it reaches around age 25 and that makes adolescents and young adults more interested in entering uncertain situations to seek out and try to find whether there might be a possibility of gaining something from those situations.
Therefore, it is the most outrageous and stupid traits of a young person that are least likely to persist into proper adulthood. A fully developed pre-frontal cortext will generally inhibit molesting a pig’s carcass or burning down cacti.
Besides these general problems, there’s one specific to this story: it is quite possibly untrue. It originates with a book by Lord Ashcroft, who is apparently angry at being scorned by the PM. Neither Ashcroft nor his co-author Isabel
Hardman Oakeshotte has direct knowledge of the pig penetrating incident. Rather they claim to have been told about it by another person present who claims that someone else has a photo of it. The fact that this single unsubstantiated source subsequently became an MP, given his social mileu presumably a Conservative one, is used to lend their account weight. However, many of Cameron’s fellow parliamentarians harbour ill will towards him and election to the Commons does not exempt one from the human tendency to mis-remember and embellish. Unfortunately, such lurid stories have a staying power independent of their accuracy: the story about David Mellor having sex in a Chelsea shirt was pure invention but it’s still the main thing most people – myself included – associate him with.*
So I cannot share the glee of many others at Cameron’s humiliation. Even if the pretext for it is genuine – quite an if – it’s undeserved. It is trivial, malicious and unnecessary. Cameron was an adolescent when his alleged misdemeanors took place. Ashcroft, the Mail’s editorial team and most of the tweeters wetting themselves with mirth about ‘piggate’ are adults who have no such excuse.
*Not I must say that I feel much sympathy for Mellor. However, I feel Cameron is in a rather different position.
Update (19:55 21/09/2015) I’ve corrected a mistake regarding who Ashcroft’s co-author is.