Argument

What #PigGate Really Says About the State of British Politics

What #PigGate Really Says About the State of British Politics

I am going to try to do something perhaps unwise, perhaps impossible: I’m going to try to write something serious about David Cameron and the scandal that has come to be known as “PigGate.” I’m even going to abstain from porcine puns — because for all that this story is gleeful tabloid filth, I think that at its beating heart, there is an important story here about control, about authority, and about the nature of power in modern Britain.

If you’re in the dark regarding PigGate, the details are relatively simple. Billionaire tax exile and former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman Lord Michael Ashcroft has co-written, with journalist Isabel Oakeshott, an unauthorized biography of Cameron. It is not flattering and includes allegations of drug use, among other things. But the attention-grabbing assertion is that during an initiation ceremony for an Oxford student society, Cameron “put a private part of his anatomy” in the mouth of a dead pig — and that photographic proof of this deed exists.

Previous revelations about Cameron’s behavior as a student at Oxford — such as his participation in the restaurant-trashing Bullingdon Club, whose initiation rituals include burning a 50-pound note in front of a homeless person — have not harmed Cameron’s career much. Such antics are undoubtedly odious, but are largely the kind of thing lapped up by those already ideologically opposed to him rather than the sort of story which offends his base. How this latest revelation will play out, though, is tough to predict; it should not need to be said that cases of bestial necrophilia among leaders of major nations are uncharted territory.

The danger to Cameron is that PigGate makes him a laughing-stock — that his seriousness as a political leader will be forever deflated by the cat calls and innuendo that will, undoubtedly, follow him for the rest of his life. A leader who becomes a political liability for his party is not long for the job; up until now, the security of Cameron’s position has been based on him being the most likeable and statesman-like politician of the Conservative front bench. But how long can a leader be followed around by snorting noises and other pig-related heckling before his party decides that he’s no longer suited to be its public face? This calculation is no doubt being pored over and debated at length by the Conservatives today. There will be those who point out that sexual scandals of the past have blown over eventually, but I don’t know that those models can be applied to something so utterly visceral, so profoundly embarrassing, and so downright grotesque. I don’t know if this kind of story, once attached to the person of a politician, ever goes away.

I suspect that David Cameron will limp on in 10 Downing Street, not least because he will understand the historic shame of being the prime minister who resigned over that thing with the pig. But his authority will be weakened to the point where a leadership challenge over a rather less intimate issue in the relatively near future will give him an opportunity to bow out with some grace. Whether this scandal is ultimately Cameron’s undoing or not, it is clearly a calculated attack. Lord Ashcroft felt snubbed and sidelined by Cameron, who seemingly declined to offer him the cabinet position to which he felt entitled; the billionaire’s revenge was to dig up this singularly humiliating moment from the prime minister’s past and ensure that it is splashed on the front page of the Daily Mail, the preferred scurrilous tabloid rag of the very heartland of Conservative voters.

Lord Ashcroft, pollster and political guru in his own right, knows as well as anyone else what this will do. This is not a playful aside in a fun little unauthorized biography that he’s putting together as a hobby with his journalist pal; this is a carefully targeted, focused attack designed to wreak career havoc upon, and cause huge personal embarrassment for, a man whom Ashcroft sees as disloyal or as having stepped out of line. And here, I think, is something much bigger and more interesting than the details of Cameron’s vivid indiscretion; here is a rare public example of how power is wielded by Britain’s elite, of how control is exerted over those they wish to manipulate, and of how those groomed for success from a young age can be destroyed should they be seen to diverge from the steps they’re told to dance.

Initiation ceremonies or “hazing” rituals — often of a painful, humiliating, transgressive, or sexual nature — are a well-documented part of the culture of many organizations run by and for young men, especially those in positions of privilege or at elite institutions. Hazing is a fixture, albeit usually in a less extreme form than many might imagine, of Greek life at U.S. colleges; initiation rituals are relatively common in elite societies at top educational institutions elsewhere. Such rituals are an especially important part of groups that require extreme discipline, such as certain military units. The primary social function served by these rituals is to accelerate and deepen the bonds shared by members of the group — and the sense of loyalty to the group each person holds. By committing transgressive acts together, members develop a sense of sharing in a mutual secret, thus creating trust; by overcoming some humiliation or pain, new members deepen their commitment to the group. Their internal logic reasons that if they are willing to endure such an ordeal, it must mean that the group is important and deserving of loyalty (otherwise, they would have made a terrible mistake and gone through all of that suffering for nothing). Through these acts, bonds are forged, networks established; the “old school tie,” used as a metaphor for Britain’s elite networks, is also a metaphor for the actions and rituals, transgressive or otherwise, which created these networks during their members’ formative years.

That much is somewhat understandable; in truth, few of us are not part of a “network” based in some way on the same psychology, even if our networks are perhaps less likely to involve prime ministers and billionaires. Bearing witness to one another doing embarrassing things, usually if not always under the influence of alcohol, is a fairly standard part of the socialization process, especially for young men. It may not be quite as ritualized or organized as ceremonial events which require very specific orders from local butchers, but moments of embarrassment or transgression shared with close friends are a basic building block of many of our relationships.

The ritualized, sexually grotesque nature of Cameron’s initiation sets it apart somewhat, of course; but what’s also different about this kind of ritual in elite circles is the calculation behind it, the power and control it affords, and the self-perpetuating network of influence it creates. Consider this scenario: At elite institutions, those earmarked — by wealth, title, connections — for future leadership roles are forced, as impressionable young people, to carry out humiliating acts in order to gain acceptance by an in-group. That same in-group will, over the course of their lives, help advance their careers massively in ways both overt and covert; membership in that group essentially secures their success in life. The cost of entry, paid by all members of the group, is participation in humiliating acts which will forever wed them to the group. Because should they later act in a way contrary to the group’s interests or desires, their indiscretions can be brought back to destroy their careers or personal lives.

Precisely this kind of model of control is sometimes operated by groups with a clear hierarchy — one could argue that Catholic confession is a variation on the model, and Scientology’s “auditing” is a very clear case of a system designed to ensure compliance by extracting humiliating personal information from its subjects and then holding that information over them in case of disobedience. Political and business elite networks are different; there’s no evidence of a shadowy cabal or secret Illuminati who run this kind of scheme among the elite of Britain (or the United States for that matter). There is no need for such conspiracy theories. This system is self-sustaining and decentralized. It’s in the interest of people in the group to promote the careers of their fellow group members, precisely because they have control through their knowledge of that person’s transgressive acts; similarly, it’s in the interest of that person to promote the careers of the other members for the same reason. It’s a community of mutual self-interest and reliance, bonded together by a Mexican standoff over embarrassing private information. The structure survives and is passed down to successive generations of elite young men precisely because it is self-policing, self-sustaining, and remarkably effective.

How serious are the acts we’re talking about here? Who knows, honestly? The punishment unleashed on Cameron for his “betrayal” of Ashcroft includes allegations of drug use and a lurid pig story — but nothing of terrible legal gravity. For all that conservative commentators like Louise Mensch look terrible for trying to defend Cameron today, there is some extent to which this behavior is but youthful indiscretion. Certainly, it’s far less reprehensible than the rituals of other groups of elite young men. It did not involve, say, drugging and/or raping young women. Is this the most humiliating or illegal thing Cameron has done? I have no idea. I hope so, but regardless of his personal behavior, it’s clear from other accounts of hazing, ritual initiations, and in-group behavior that the limits of young men desperate to cement their inclusion in a desirable social group are often shockingly low and lowered even further by alcohol and drugs. The more horrifying and illegal the act committed, the more the network “owns” its members. There’s a vast difference between distasteful student hijinks and truly horrible acts like rape, but the underlying logic of the network of control would only be strengthened, not undermined, by the increasing severity of the acts involved.

“Follow the money” is one of the most important exhortations to bear in mind for those investigating political power and influence, but not all control is financial. The control exerted by elite networks is based on long-standing trust and loyalty, but also, in some cases at least, by a black and rotten heart of what is, in effect, lifelong blackmail. Britain’s establishment, at least in part, can be visualized (for those of strong stomach) as a group of powerful men standing close together, each with the balls of the man next to him held in a powerful grip. Lord Michael Ashcroft just squeezed, very publicly indeed; yet his revelations, though tremendously damaging, may be tame indeed compared to what the friends and compatriots of some of our other political, media, and business leaders just so happen to know about one another.

A version of this post previously appeared on the author’s personal blog.

Photo illustration by FP