Bullingdon Club Britain: The Ransacking of a Nation
An exclusive extract from Sam Bright's brilliant new book, published today by Byline Books.
Bullingdon Club alumni have had a grip on Britain for the last decade. The elitist Oxford dining society has churned out three of the most influential politicians of the modern era: Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osborne.
And what has happened, politically, during this time? Brutal, systematic austerity measures have saddled deprived communities with declining health and limited economic prospects, while oligarchs and their friends in power have been showered with abundance.
Sam Bright’s new book, an extract of which is featured below, explains how this has happened, how our leaders have absorbed the ethos of the Bullingdon Club, characterised by arrogance, debauchery and destruction.
As Peter Jukes says in his foreword:
“This era that I called ‘Bullingdon Club Britain’ is a mirror of our national disgrace. Every supposed British gift or virtue has been transformed into a curse or vice. Our alleged tolerance? A license to make snobby or sexist or racist jokes. Our history of liberalism? An excuse for lockdown breaking and lawless libertarianism. Our sense of humour? They have been laughing at us, not with us.
Somehow the ethos of a university drinking club has invaded and taken over a political party, which in turn has transformed back again into a private party, which we paid for but couldn’t attend, and that broke the laws we had to obey.
Like an old story of some cursed fairy-tale kingdom, Bullingdon Club Britain went from being a state of mind to the mind of our state. It will take decades to wash away the shame, and to rebuild our country free of its taint.”
If you’re wondering why British politics has been plagued by scandals in recent years, and why those in power have been left largely unscathed, Bullingdon Club Britain explains it all. Order your copy today.
Bullingdon Club Britain
“Like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plough,” Boris Johnson declared on the steps of Downing Street as he tendered his resignation to the nation on 6 September 2022. After failing to prepare for the pandemic, supplying nurses with too little PPE, turning care homes into hermetically-sealed COVID hotspots, locking down too late, partying through the whole thing, and lying to the nation about it, Johnson used his departing address for one last act of ego-mania.
Cincinnatus – the person whose story Johnson invoked – was a retired Roman statesman and farmer, called on to save Rome in 458 BC, after which he returned to the fields.
Having read Classics at Oxford, the habit of adorning his language with arcane references has stayed with Johnson throughout his life and political career.
However, there is one such noun that I don’t remember Johnson ever using, which perfectly describes him.
Sophistry is used to describe the clever use of arguments that seem true but are substantially false, in order to mislead people. Indeed, this is precisely why Johnson deploys such ornate language – both in his writing and his public appearances. It is a distraction technique – a proven and successful one – designed to conceal his hazy attention to detail.
“The thing about Latinate words is they’re evasive,” Johnson admitted at a Latin-themed charity event in 2007, yet the media has lapped up this act ever since.
Other politicians are not as talented at sophistry as Johnson. His successor, Liz Truss, spoke to the nation through awkward, hesitant, bland prose – a marked departure from Johnson’s beguiling oratory. However, she still appeared capable of deception.
Soon after taking the top job, Truss spoke of an “anti-growth coalition” standing opposed to economic reform. She said this included “Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, the militant unions, the vested interests dressed up as think tanks, the Brexit deniers, and Extinction Rebellion.”
And yet, in her first three weeks in office, UK markets lost $500 billion in value – largely the product of Truss’s self-destructive ‘mini’ budget released on 23 September, which promised radical tax cuts for the rich. This economic ideology was incubated by the free market think tanks that line Tufton Street in Westminster – opaque organisations that are backed by big corporations that have a vested interest in tipping the scales further towards the rich.
This sort of wilful deception is happening with increasing frequency in Britain and across the world. Assisted by social media, which amplifies gripping myths over sombre facts to create a whirlwind of distortion, expedient politicians have been able to plant ‘fake news’ and watch it spread like Japanese knotweed, with fact checkers straining to pull these falsehoods out of public discourse.
With the Brexit campaign and the elections of populists Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Giorgia Meloni in Italy and Narendra Modi in India, this seems to be a feature of world democracies, not simply a passing bug.
This democratic crisis is mutually reliant on an economic crisis that has been suffered by Britain – and many developed countries – for the last 15 years.
Economic growth has stalled, inequalities have widened, working life has become more precarious, and identity-based divisions have festered – while, in the UK and elsewhere, governing parties have insisted that others are to blame, typically immigrants and nebulous liberal agitators, for our sad situation.
The 2008 financial crash and the subsequent rise of populist, anti-immigration politics in the form of UKIP and then Brexit; brutal austerity cuts to state spending; the UK’s high economic and health toll from the COVID pandemic. All of these events are interrelated, and have been the consequence of economic and political choices. While they are often written up in the media as freak events – a ‘once in a 100 year pandemic’ – they are not simply an anomaly or an accident. They are repeated, interlinked, and compounding.
Populists have therefore been fed by many justified anti-establishment grievances – notably the growing realisation that while most people have suffered, some have thrived. The number of billionaires in the UK reached its highest number ever during the pandemic.
In the UK, MPs and those close to power have been among those cashing in while imposing austerity on the rest of the population and our public services. Seeking to replace the income lost in the wake of the expenses scandal of 2009, when it was revealed that parliamentarians were funding often lavish personal items from the public purse (in one case using taxpayer cash to clean their moat), MPs turned to second jobs.
In November 2021, this second scandal detonated, when the public learned of the lucrative consultancy positions enjoyed by their MPs. Private service had once again trumped public service – MPs earning more than £17 million from their second jobs between 2019 and 2022. Conservative donors and associates, meanwhile, hoovered up £3 billion in Government contracts during the pandemic.
The question is therefore: what is so fundamentally and structurally wrong to have caused this condition; this sickness of democracy and economy in modern Britain?
Much like the Bullingdon Club, the infamed Oxford drinking society, Britain is suffering from the actions of an elite whose loyalty to self and the old school tie vastly outweighs its belief in the collective good.
It has been alleged that Bullingdon Club newcomers are asked to burn a £50 note in front of a homeless person as an initiation ritual – a claim that, due to the secrecy of the group, hasn’t been widely corroborated, but also wouldn’t be surprising. Confirming John’s account above, a former Bullingdon membership ‘scout’ told The Observer that “every time someone was elected, they had to have their room smashed to pieces,” saying that Bullingdon members “had an air of entitlement and superiority.”
The walls of privilege surrounding the Bullingdon Club are high, closely guarding the intimate details of this depraved syndicate – making a full history of the organisation virtually impossible. In a profile of Boris Johnson produced by the BBC in 2013, it was noted how “members of the Buller feel bound by strict vows of omertà [a code of silence] – and normally refuse to speak publicly about the club.”
Johnson even mutters “omertà, omertà”, according to the journalist Sebastian Shakespeare, whenever he is asked about his youthful transgressions in the Bullingdon.
Tackled about his former membership of the club, Johnson was presented with an awkward fact by BBC reporter Michael Cockerell: that, according to his fellow Bullingdon alumni, he still greets them with the primal chant: “Buller, Buller, Buller”.
Johnson didn’t deny the claim, though was visibly taken aback by the breach of omertà by his Bullingdon brethren.
This lack of detail has fed the imagination of journalists and scriptwriters, including Laura Wade, whose film the Riot Club dramatised an elitist Oxford dining society, portraying its members trashing a pub and violently assaulting its landlord.
However, these fictional and semi-fictional narratives have been fed by the occasional stories that have escaped from the Bullingdon Club’s vault of secrets.
The former Bullingdon scout – who rubbed shoulders with the group in the mid-1980s, when Johnson and Cameron were members – has claimed that female sex workers were asked to perform sex acts at lavish dinners, that women were routinely belittled, and that intimidation and vandalism were its hallmarks. “The whole culture was to get extremely drunk and exert vandalism,” she told The Observer. “People talk about the Bullingdon Club ‘trashing’ places, but it was serious criminal damage.”
She added that “Boris was one of the big beasts of the club. He was up for anything. They treated certain types of people with absolute disdain, and referred to them as ‘plebs’ or ‘grockles’... Their attitude was that women were there for their entertainment.”
“It is a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance and toffishness and twitishness,” Johnson said to Cockerell about the club – failing to acknowledge or appreciate how he had become the political embodiment of the infamous society. As Asher Weisz so aptly puts it in the Oxford Student: Johnson began his career “smashing up restaurants with the Buller and has now progressed to smashing up the whole country.”
This is the point; the central premise of Bullingdon Club Britain. Namely, that our institutions of power continue to be populated by individuals who are drawn from privilege, who have perpetuated a politics of destructive elitism. Just as Oxford was a playground for Johnson and his contemporaries in the 1980s – their enjoyment derived from the vandalism of both people and property – the ruling elite (including but not confined to Bullingdon alumni) are now ransacking Britain.
The Ransacking of a Nation
A decade of grinding austerity and stagnant wages has been accompanied by the enrichment of political and corporate elites. In this way, the political, social and economic establishment in Britain is effectively acting as a private club for the privileged, dedicated to its own gluttony at the direct expense of ordinary people. Money and power are hoarded among this alliance of aristocrats, oligarchs and their butlers – and you’re not invited.
Far from being marked by stable, ‘conservative’ governance in recent history, Britain has been afflicted by instability – stoked by expedient actors who have pivoted to populism in order to harness public rage with the status quo.
The Bullingdon Club elite has fractured the nation – demonising welfare claimants, trans people, immigrants, and ‘liberals’ – to retain their psychological grip on the nation; to direct the anger of the masses towards the vulnerable, rather than those in power.
As they berate their ‘woke’ opponents, populists in Britain and elsewhere have used this smokescreen to tip the economic scales even further towards the rich and powerful: reducing taxes for the highest earners; cutting local government spending in half; outsourcing public contracts to well-connected insiders; and dismantling the regulations that keep capitalism functioning for ordinary people rather than merely shareholders and rentiers.
The result has been the evolution of a great British plutocracy – a state in which political leaders are dependent on, or are heavily under the influence of, wealthy individuals who derive their growing riches from the decisions taken by their accomplices in high office.
Rampant immorality is permitted by the system – even facilitated by it – as the perpetrators in power shrug off their transgressions with the chameleon charm learnt in their boarding school dorms. If you think this is a stretch, think of the way in which Cameron avoided culpability for the 330,000 excess deaths caused by his austerity policies, or how Johnson clung onto power while the “bodies piled high” due to his COVID policy failures.
To many of these politicians – the ones who have jumped on the conveyor belt leading from an elite private school, to Oxbridge, and then to Parliament – democracy is simply a game. Whether a former member of the Bullingdon Club or not, they share, or have learned, the mentality – seeming to have no real concept of the harm they can cause. Their only understanding of politics is through frivolous, theoretical slanging-matches at student debating societies.
One of Johnson’s fellow former inmates at Eton – the upper-class private school – recalls to Sonia Purnell in Just Boris that the school’s debating society was “probably the most influential forum of [Johnson’s] life.”
Not only does this attitude breed an ignorance towards the suffering borne from political decisions, but it also encourages an arrogance, and a sense of impunity, among these sons of privilege who have won their own private political parlour game.
Bullingdon Club Britain is a study of how this has happened, unpicking the ways in which power operates in modern Britain – from the dark money think tanks that provide the faux-intellectual grounding to right-wing political campaigns, to the media outlets that carry these distortions to the public.
You would be correct in pointing out that elitist rule, of the sort described in this chapter, has been a feature of British politics for centuries. As George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn in 1941: “England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.”
However, something has intensified in recent years. The number of political scandals hitting the headlines has multiplied, while their scale has steadily enlarged. Now, barely a week goes by without a new Conservative donor being appointed to a public position or awarded a state contract. The Cabinet is equally as socially exclusive, measured by the proportion of ministers having attended private school, as during the early 1990s.
And while a hereditary elite is entrenching its wealth and power, the economy is flatlining for the majority of Brits. No longer is the British class system softened by the universal growth in living standards experienced in the post-war ‘age of affluence’. Taking inflation into account, real disposable incomes doubled in Britain from 1950 to 1970. The 2010s, by contrast, saw living standards in the UK grow at their slowest rate since the Second World War. What was formerly a fact of life, that you would be better off than your parents, is now a fool’s paradise.
Meanwhile, the British aristocracy – those born into wealth and privilege – which seemed to be in retreat during the 1980s and 1990s, has evolved and resurged. It has forged a pact with new money oligarchs from the East and West who have provided new sources of finance to Britain’s hallowed, old money institutions. This includes the right-wing press – controlled by a narrow-band of ideological billionaires, spearheaded by Rupert Murdoch.
Any lingering sense of national duty has evaporated among the elite, replaced by the thin, two-faced facade of nationalist populism. Our ruling class laments the retrenchment of Britain’s role in the world, not because this process has been accompanied by the stagnation of living standards for the average person, but because these elites no longer have an imperial power to govern.
In fact, they blame Britain’s relative decline on the evolution of the welfare state – which has protected Brits from hunger, disease and deprivation – and the social democratic consensus that emerged in the post-war years.
This Bullingdon Club mentality, at the heart of the Government’s ethos for much of the last 13 years, is based on the idea that the nation’s future prosperity should be built on the backs of working-class people whose current comfort is strangling the success of supposed ‘wealth creators’. The attitudes of the British Empire have been brought home, with state-sponsored capitalist exploitation draining the spirit and the affluence of the majority, while a small segment of society dines on the wealth of a nation.
Order Bullingdon Club Britain: The Ransacking of a Nation, via Byline Books
LISTEN: Sam Bright talks to the Byline Times Podcast about Bullingdon Club Britain, alongside former member John Mitchinson
 Harry Mount, ‘Who was Cincinnatus - and why does Boris use so many Latin words?’, The Oldie (September 2022).
 Sangarika Jaisinghani, ‘UK Markets Have Lost $500 Billion Since Liz Truss Took Over’, Bloomberg (27 September 2022).
 Jasper Jolly, ‘Number of billionaires in UK reached new record during COVID crisis’, The Guardian (May 2021).
 Haroon Siddique, ‘Douglas Hogg becomes first politician to step down over expenses’, The Guardian (May 2009).
 Sam Coates, Jennifer Scott, ‘Westminster Accounts: MPs earn £17.1m on top of their salaries since the last election – with Tories taking £15.2m’, Sky News (January 2023).
 Sam Bright et al., ‘Mapping the Pandemic: £2 Billion in Contracts Awarded to Conservative Associates’, Byline Times (March 2021).
 Ephraim Hardcastle, ‘Oxford Bullingdon Club's distasteful initiation ceremony’, Daily Mail (December 2012).
 Harriet Sherwood, ‘Sexism, vandalism and bullying: inside the Boris Johnson-era Bullingdon Club’, The Observer (July 2019).
 Tom Mutch, ‘Breaking the Bullingdon Club Omertà: Secret Lives of the Men Who Run Britain’, the Daily Beast (January 2016).
 ‘Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise’, BBC (November 2013).
 Sherwood, ‘Sexism, vandalism and bullying: inside the Boris Johnson-era Bullingdon Club’, The Observer.
 Asher Weisz, ‘A Day in the Lockdown Life of: a Bullingdon Club member’, the Oxford Student (February 2021).
 Patrick Butler, ‘Over 330,000 excess deaths in Great Britain linked to austerity, finds study’, The Guardian (October 2022).
 Sonia Purnell, Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, (Aurum, 2011).
 ‘Nearly two-thirds of new Cabinet attended independent schools and almost half attended Oxbridge’, Sutton Trust (October 2022).
 Valentina Romei, ‘Living standards grow at slowest rate since second world war’, Financial Times (January 2020).