Have you heard the one about the future Prime Minister, an Oxford drinking society and the pig’s head? Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, chances are you probably have.
Never mind the fact that the allegations come third-hand from an anonymous source. Or that they were made public by a bitter rival with an obvious personal agenda. Or even the fact that no-one from the now-infamous Piers Graveston Society can recall him ever attending a party. No, so graphic is the the mental image – a smirking 20-year-old Dave, trousers about his ankles, “private parts” dangling ominously over his deceased porcine victim – that, accurate or not, it will take some time to scour from the national consciousness.
Lord Ashcroft’s new biography of David Cameron also contains that ever-present mainstay of the political character assassination: allegations of illicit drug consumption. Apparently he liked to smoke a bit of weed and listen to Supertramp. Those revelations were made with one single intention: to embarrass and discredit the PM.
This seems strange, because that sort of stuff is more or less exactly what I was brought up to expect university to entail. Not specifically the pig stuff, obviously. That does sound a bit niche. Or even necessarily the drugs. But after all the promises of opportunities to “broaden my horizons” and “engage with new experiences”, wasn’t getting up to mischief always sold as part of the package? At least, that’s what the subtext always seemed to be.
Let’s be clear: David Cameron almost certainly did not do what Ashcroft’s book claims he did. But even if he did, so what? He was a young, drunk, university-age male. Putting parts of your anatomy in places they shouldn’t be for laughs is practically par for the course. Is participating in the consumption of soft drugs big or clever? No. But surely the possibility that a politician once partook in the sort of stuff that we all know happens on a fairly regular basis even in a town like St Andrews shouldn’t be shocking or outrageous in the 21st century.
If there’s one thing my four years as an undergraduate have taught me, it is a deep appreciation of the limitless ingenuity of students when it comes to designing initiation ceremonies. Granted, some are worse than others. But I have either heard or observed the use of fish, root vegetables and, yes, even the occasional pig’s head in myriads of different ways and in rituals which hundreds of freshers go through every year without it reflecting at all on their wider character.
Boys being boys, kids being idiots, call it what you will. As long as they aren’t harming anyone other than themselves, whose business really is it? For many of us, some of our best student memories will likely involve alcohol-fuelled adventures with friends that we might not be proud of the morning after. Think about Raisin, or May Dip, or any given sports social. Chalk it up to youthful exuberance – blowing off some steam before getting a proper job and becoming productive members of society.
The sort of people to be genuinely outraged by the claims made in Ashcroft’s book are the same sort who signed that petition saying P.U.L.L was an inappropriate name for a Union event. They are missing the point of the undergraduate experience: to make friends, have a laugh and hopefully graduate with a half-decent degree at the end of it all. Our time at university is too short to be spent navel-gazing about the feelings of hypothetical people who might possibly get offended by something we do.
All of this also raises an interesting dilemma for current students with aspirations for public office. Cameron was a student a quarter of a century ago. Now, in this era of smartphones and and automatic tagging on Facebook, any given drunken misdemeanour could have devastating consequences when the evidence is dredged from the depths of an old acquaintance’s hard drive in a few decades’ time. Given the sheer volume of compromising photographs floating around now, it will surely be all but impossible to deflect or negate such accusations in the future.
As I see it, students of our generation have two options. We can all abstain totally from anything remotely fun or potentially controversial for fear of future embarrassment, or we can acknowledge the fact that everyone does things they’re not necessarily proud of over their undergraduate career and end this bizarre hounding of public figures when it turns out that they too had a relatively normal student experience.
Experimentation is a well-established part of the British university experience. Of course we do so at our own risk, and should take responsibility for the consequences. But maybe it’s time to cut public figures some slack for their undergraduate misadventures. For the vast majority of us it’s hypocritical not to, as time and the internet may well show.