Sometimes a story comes along which grabs so much attention that you can’t avoid commenting on it, no matter what you were intending to write about. This in itself often arouses suspicion: the big story is what the controllers of the mainstream media want us to be thinking about, so what else are they up to? But the latest political scandal to hit the front pages is not a distraction, but an all-too-vivid view of what really goes on at the heart of governments the world over.
As half the world now knows, it has been alleged that British Prime Minister David Cameron engaged in a sexual act with a pig’s head, being held in the lap of another man, when he was at Oxford University. This allegation is one of a number made in a biography of Cameron co-authored by Lord Ashcroft, a former Deputy Chairman of Cameron’s Conservative Party and a very significant donor to it. Ashcroft claims he got the story from another prominent Conservative MP who was also at Oxford at the time, who is not known for making up outrageous smear stories. He also claims he has seen a photograph of this act taking place.
Cameron has officially refused to comment on the content of the biography. He has however insisted off the record that the allegations about the pig are “utter nonsense”. Ashcroft has himself admitted that the attribution to Cameron may be mistaken identity. However, no one else has come forward to clarify the incident, despite the fact it is common practice for people in prominent positions to do so in order to rescue their friends from embarrassment.
Why has this unsubstantiated allegation aroused so much interest? Because we know very little about what really goes on in any government, anywhere. We don’t yet know if Cameron really did this dirty deed or not. But we do know that he has long supported the very opposite practices to those he is obliged to uphold as Prime Minister of a Western democracy – and that is why the world is eagerly awaiting further revelations about “Piggate”, as it immediately came to be known.
Friends in low places
Cameron’s alleged encounter with the pig was not part of his course of study. It was an initiation ceremony for prospective members of the Piers Gaveston Society, an exclusive undergraduate club consisting of only 12 members at any given time. This is described as a “dining club”, but has a reputation for holding wild sex and drug-filled parties. This reputation may be exaggerated, but as members are forbidden to divulge what goes in within the society there is no way of knowing.
Like most UK universities Oxford is festooned with clubs of various sorts. These can be divided into two types: those designed for people with a common interest, such as a shared nationality, political viewpoint or taste in music, and those which are clubs for the sake of it. These latter are designed to segregate students into those who are “in” and those who are “out”, providing valuable connections, and future career advancement, to the “in” crowd at the expense of others.
The Piers Gaveston Society is undoubtedly one of these “clubs for the sake of it”, as can be seen from the small membership, the fact it is named after the worthless favourite of King Edward II, who was executed for exerting undue influence over the king, and the fact that it serves no purpose other than providing a secretive network for its members. These alleged members include Darius Guppy, a convicted fraudster who was best man at the wedding of Princess Diana’s brother, and Count Gottfreid von Bismarck, of the historic German family, who was associated with two drug-related deaths at gay orgies and eventually died himself after a massive cocaine binge.
The founder of the Piers Gaveston Society, Valentine Guinness, has gone on record as saying that “as far as he knows” Cameron was never a member of it and would not therefore have undertaken the initiation ceremony with the dead pig’s head, although he is known to have attended some of its parties. We do know however that Cameron was a member of a similar Oxford institution, the Bullingdon Club. This is likewise very exclusive, all-male and very expensive to join and has also “produced” a number of prominent members, who may well not be in their positions had they had a different background.
One well-known former member is Boris Johnson, the current Mayor of London. Having made a name for himself as a journalist and TV presenter with a comedic turn of phrase Johnson entered parliament in 2001. He swiftly became an embarrassment to his colleagues, lying about numerous affairs and claiming that the people of Papua New Guinea were cannibals. Despite this, he was given a number of high-profile party jobs and became its candidate for Mayor of London despite being seen as a joke, many of London’s politicians and editors having been members of the same Oxford clubs, implicated in the same activities.
Chancellor of the Exchequer [Finance Minister] George Osborne is another former Bullingdon member. Unlike in Cameron’s case, embarrassing photos of his university days have been published, one of which clearly shows a line of cocaine on a table he is sitting behind with glazed eyes. He has also attracted criticism as Chancellor for not knowing the size of the structural deficit all his policies are supposed to be reducing, and increasing public borrowing, and thereby this deficit, to pay for his measures. But he likewise remains in post, having been appointed by his friend Cameron over the head of more qualified candidates.
Power to the right people
Why should this matter? Because democracy is not just a matter of one person, one vote. It is a system of accountability. We do not know exactly who the people in these clubs are, what they do, or who is helping them. They from a state within a state, not subject to any public accountability, who operate according to their own laws.
This is the definition of the ruling elite of a corrupt, third world state. Western democracy, by definition, should not allow such things. Not only is the UK presently allowing them, without any of its Western partners saying a word, its Prime Minister has built his career using this system and is still unrepentantly using it against the people he is supposed to be serving.
It is not allegedly having sex with a dead pig’s head which is harming Cameron’s reputation. It is the fact that he openly courted these exclusive clubs, and the protection they afforded him, and thus put himself outside the democratic system. If he had been elected to such a club on merit … that would be one thing! When the qualification for membership is buggering a dead pig’s head, or performing the Bullingdon Club ritual of burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person, that is where the “sleaze” really lies.
Such behaviour is not restricted to Cameron and his Conservatives of course. At one time a number of Labour MPs, and even party leaders, owed their positions to the practice of “block voting”. This meant that a trade union would cast the votes of each one of their thousands of members for a particular candidate without even consulting them, meaning that the elected person wasn’t accountable to the public but the leaders of the unions who cast those block votes, who were seemingly able to influence them by the back door.
This practice played a big part in the decline of the Labour Party in the 1970s. Labour did not regain power until it created a clear separation between itself and its natural support base. Cameron returned the Conservatives to power after a similarly long wilderness period by pretending he was an “ordinary bloke”, not one of the generation which was now so badly out of touch. For a long time the public didn’t care that he was really anything but. But where can he go, now the secret of his rise has been shown to be a dead pig’s head?
Cameron knows full well that Western electorates may accept privilege, but not when it is used against them. They don’t mind someone else owning their home until they violate their rights. Similarly, they didn’t mind Cameron using his wealth to join Bullingdon and use it to build a political career based on secrets which needed to be kept. He is a Conservative, after all, it is presumed to go with the territory.
But they do mind their Prime Minister indulging in disgusting behaviour, even if it was many years ago, and giving the keys to the corridors of power to those who did the same. No one wants a world in which that is the way to achieve things, and influence others, during a period of austerity, imposed by Cameron’s government, which closes off so many avenues for so many people.
Dead pigs breed dead ducks
Less than six months ago Cameron achieved the impossible. Having seen a coalition government for five years almost every politician, commentator and voter assumed there would be another coalition, as no party had convinced the electorate. Instead the first past the post system delivered Cameron a most unlikely majority. But it is here that his present problems really began.
Throughout his premiership Cameron had been criticised within his own party for making concessions to his coalition partner, the more moderate Liberal Democrats. Now he can do whatever his party wants. But what the Conservatives say they want is more of the things the LibDems stopped them doing as much of before – more cuts, more attacks on the poor and vulnerable, more tax concessions for the rich.
These are things the public don’t actually want, but have felt they have to put up with for the sake of an economy. But that economy is still not rewarding them, and that changes the landscape. Now every move Cameron makes will alienate an electorate which never wanted him to be able to do what he wants.
The claims made by Lord Ashcroft have created what may prove an indelible association in the public mind – what Cameron once did to a pig’s head he is trying to do to the whole country. It may be that it was someone else who sexually abused the pig. But Cameron was a known member of clubs which did similar things, and chose to join such clubs when there were others available.
At university Cameron was a private citizen. Now he is responsible to the public, but still pledging to do everything the public thinks is equally distasteful. So does he believe in public accountability, that cornerstone of Western democracy, or in being part of a shadowy, unaccountable few who behave in ways the public would never tolerate?
The world beyond pigs
Cameron is only one politician in one Western country. But he is far from the only one to owe his position to connections the public cannot control and never see, despite the democratic process. Every Western democracy can point to similar scandals involving its leaders, whether sexual in nature, as with the Dutroux child abuse scandal in Belgium, espionage, as with Jean-Louis Jeanmaire in Cold War era Switzerland, or corruption, as with Tangentopoli in Italy which brought down the entire political system and everyone in it.
Citizens of democratic countries may not be very interested in politics but they regard the vote as a great gift. They assume that countries which are not Western-style democracies, or do not have as long a tradition of it as the older ones, are inferior and inherently repressive. Democracy is held to be the optimum political system, this fact is never questioned, and voters always say they want more of it, not less.
If a Western democracy like the United Kingdom, much praised for its long tradition of functioning parliamentary democracy, produces a leader like Cameron, who is not merely a member of a secretive state-within-a-state but apparently a particularly disgusting one, what does this say about democracy and those who support it? How can any democratic government claim a mandate for a course of action when it does not answer to the electorate but to people who do things the electorate would never accept, but cannot control?
This story may well have deeper repercussions than Lord Ashcroft or anyone else involved realises. The Western world has long demanded unipolarity on the grounds that its democratic system is inherently superior. But soon politicians who act on this basis may find dead pigs are their only friends, because they are the only ones who will treat their desires with any respect.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.