Decadence and Madness at the Top Inside Britain's Secretive Bullingdon Club

They drink heavily, shatter champagne flutes and smash furniture -- before moving on to positions of leadership. The elite Bullingdon Club is an exclusive haven for Britain's rich and powerful. But members don't like to talk about it.
London Mayor Boris Johnson and UK Prime Minister David Cameron were both members of the exclusive Bullingdon Club.

London Mayor Boris Johnson and UK Prime Minister David Cameron were both members of the exclusive Bullingdon Club.

Foto: Peter Macdiarmid/ Getty Images

To understand England's elite, it helps to go back in time, to the summer of 1987. A pack of bow-tied young men dressed in midnight blue tails with brass buttons and cream-colored silk lapels are stumbling through the streets of Oxford after one of their dinners, tipsy on champagne and in a boisterous mood. None of them is older than 24. One of them hits upon the idea of visiting a fellow student -- and a short time later, a flowerpot flies through a restaurant window and a police car arrives. It is a night that the entire country will still be talking about decades later.

Four members of the group flee to the nearby Botanical Garden and hide behind a hedge. They lie on the ground for several minutes, says one of the men who was there. They are determined not to be caught, four young men dressed in tails, lying on their stomachs in the grass. Once again, they have managed to escape unscathed.

The episode says a lot about the thin layer of the chosen few who would be running the country one day. They are members of the Bullingdon Club in Oxford, a gathering place for the country's young elites, people who know that they are destined to make it to the very top. One of the four men in the grass is Boris Johnson, who will later become the mayor of London. Another is David Cameron, currently residing at No. 10 Downing Street. The two others are sons of prominent members of the financial world and now part of London's moneyed aristocracy themselves.

Cameron would later deny that he was involved in the escapade on that summer night in 1987, even though two of his friends at the time insist he was there. Johnson, on the other hand, boasted that he spent several hours in prison that night.

The truth about the Bullingdon Club is probably somewhere in the middle, between exaggeration and denial. Rarely have so many former members of the club held key positions in British society as they do today. The club became a gathering place for the male establishment, and its members now inhabit the top floors of banks, government ministries, law firms and newspaper publishing companies. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was also a member.

Unchanged for Centuries

The Bullingdon and other dinner clubs are seeds of power in the United Kingdom, and not just because membership provides influence. Members also gain access to a group of like-minded individuals who will later assume leading roles -- allies for life, just as it has always been.

If there is a stable core of British society that has remained unchanged for centuries, it is the upper class. Unlike the elites on the European continent, the leadership clique in Britain was largely spared from revolutions and uprisings. For generations, the children of the country's powerful families have attended boarding schools like Eton, Winchester and Harrow, followed by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It is a form of patronage that Britons simply refer to as tradition.

Not everyone has fond memories of those colorful student days. David Cameron was not only a member of the Bullingdon Club, but also of the Piers Gaveston Society, a club for younger students well known for its excesses. If a new biography about the premier is to be believed, Cameron, during one Gaveston party, placed his private parts into the mouth of a dead pig as part of an initiation ritual. The affair was lampooned in the press as "Pig-gate," and had the entire country laughing at the prime minister. Cameron initially kept mum about the incident before explicitly denying it and his spokeswoman refuses to dignify the book with an official statement.

The most amazing part of the story isn't the story as such, but the fact that most in Britain think it could be true. Few in the UK are surprised anymore by the excesses and affairs of the powerful at Westminster, a place that has long been viewed as sleazy and tainted. In the summer, to name just one recent example, the Sun published photos of Baron Sewel, a member of the House of Lords, who was photographed, half-naked, snorting cocaine with prostitutes.

There is a direct relationship between the excesses of these men and their lives as university students. One of the traditions at the Bullingdon Club was to invite prostitutes to a group breakfast. Excesses are part of the careers of these men rather than exceptions; they are part of the British elite's DNA.

Daddy's Castle

The Bullingdon represents money and myth, decadence and madness -- it is a haven of the upper class. No Labour politician neglects an opportunity to badmouth the Old Boys network and to show who the Tories really are. And the stories are also fodder for the tabloid press.

The club was founded around 1780 and was first mentioned in a written document in 1795, as a cricket club. Membership is by invitation only. There are no fixed rules of admission, but it does help if daddy owns a castle, a small newspaper empire or a diamond mine. The number of members ranges from 10 to two or three dozen. Members are often sons of barons, lords and governors, with past members including King Frederik IX of Denmark, the father of Winston Churchill and the crown prince of Jodhpur. Evelyn Waugh wrote about the club in his 1928 book "Decline and Fall," and last year the film "The Riot Club," which depicts the Bullingdon as a club of the arrogant, rich and violent, debuted in British theaters.

There are no club premises and members tend not to respond to messages. The only way to approach the legend of the Bullingdon Club is to speak with former members. After a few emails and telephone calls, I meet with a gray-haired gentleman at a café in London's St. James's neighborhood. We'll call him Julian. A former student at Eton and a graduate of Oxford, he is clean-shaven, clad in a perfectly tailored suit and extremely well-connected in the city's political circles. He is even on a first-name basis with the prime minister.

Julian appears in a photo with Cameron and Boris Johnson, which depicts the Bullingdon Club in 1987. The photo shows 10 young men wearing tails, light-colored vests and bow ties on a stone staircase in an inner courtyard at Christ Church, one of the most prestigious of the 38 colleges that are part of the University of Oxford. None of the men in the black-and-white photo is smiling, which only enhances the look of absolute superiority in their faces. Cameron looks as if he were cast in bronze.

These constant reminders of his wealthy friends are not helpful for a prime minister who is trying to slash social benefits. But the British press revels in such discrepancies. How does someone who was immortalized in this photo feel about it today, almost 30 years later?

'Rewarded for Getting Drunk'

"For God's sake, put it away," says Julian, looking as if he had just been unmasked as a Russian spy. The photo was meant ironically, he says, and the arrogant pose was just that: a pose. Before the photographer took the picture, the then president of the club, Jonathan Ford, said: "Okay, friends, don't smile. This is the Bullingdon!" Julian insists that the photo needs to be seen and understood in the neo-Romantic tradition of the late 1980s.

Like David Cameron and many other members, one can spend half of one's life running away from questions about the club. Another former Bullingdon member from 1986 says today that he wished he had never joined. At the time, he says, he was the first member in 20 years who had not attended a private school. An overt claim to leadership had prevailed in the club, he says. "We all do stupid things when we are younger that we regret," says the man. "But the Bullingdon was different. You were actively and openly encouraged, even rewarded for getting drunk and causing as much damage as possible."

There were many reports of nights that ended badly. The Bullingdon men destroyed pubs, became involved in brawls and drank themselves unconscious. The damage was usually paid for in cash. In 1977, four people died when Bullingdon member Bartholomew S., apparently highly inebriated, rammed his Maserati into another car. He got off with a fine and a suspension of his license.

The members have since become more cautious. Today's Bullingdon members are concerned about their careers, and they meet under a veil of secrecy in the vicinity of Oxford.

This spring, they met for a dinner at the "Manor," a luxury hotel in Oxfordshire. They were taken there in a minibus, 15 young men in formal dress, including Vere Harmsworth, son of the owner of the Daily Mail, and George Farmer, whose father is a member of the House of Lords and treasurer of the Conservative Party. Two other members of the group were Tom Gibbs, grandson of the 3rd Baron Wraxall, and Ali Daggash, who says that his uncle is the richest man in Africa.

Fifty Bottles

The Manor is a country hotel in a 16th-century manor, with a swimming pool and tennis courts. For their dinner, the Bullingdon Club had reserved the Tudor Room, with its heavy oak floor and a mahogany table in the middle. Waiters served about 50 bottles of wine and champagne.

It wasn't long before the first glasses were broken. One guest was bleeding from a cut on his cheek, while another had passed out on the floor. The tablecloth was covered with spots -- perhaps nothing but red wine -- and at the end of the evening the staff swept the shards into a garbage can.

"They turned up here all dressed up, acting like the royal family," says John, one of the waiters. "And then, after dinner, half of them passed out, while the other half were smashing the glasses." He describes the men as nothing but a bunch of pissed up toffs. But he also points out that there were no drugs involved -- just alcohol.

Excesses at the Bullingdon Club are the result of boredom. In the past, when Boris and David were members, the club was much more raucous. The initiation ceremony consisted of dismantling the candidate's dormitory room. Members would storm into the room, deface the walls, tear up pictures and shred mattresses. Radoslaw Sikorski, a student at Oxford with Boris Johnson in the 1980s who later served as Polish defense minister and as foreign minister, also submitted to the ritual. When it was over, Johnson shook his hand and said: "Congratulations, man. You have been elected."

For a novice, the destruction of his room was a good sign that he was considered sufficiently interesting to advance into the innermost circle. Mark Baring was a member of the Bullingdon Club, the scion of a banking family and the second child of Baron Ashburton, who was chairman of oil giant BP. Baring's country house is in Hampshire, two hours southwest of London, and when the lord of the manor opens the door, he is wearing comfortable corduroys, the kind of pants the English aristocracy is practically born wearing. After spending a few years in banking, he now manages his family's property in Hampshire, which includes large estates, a vineyard and an opera house.

'Sometimes We Hired Strippers'

Baring is one of the few former members who talk openly about the club. He told a historian with the British Library that the members sometimes behaved like vandals. "I suppose you could say it's very unattractive, particularly by people who, you know, had every advantage in their life. … In my experience, it didn't really get horrendously out of hand. Yes, we would sometimes break plates or furniture or whatever, but we tried to be as polite as we could be to the people whose establishments we were in."

The dinners were "riotous," says Baring in his kitchen. He appears in the 1980 group photograph with Philip Dunne, the current Minister of State for Defence Procurement, and Jonathan Cavendish, the producer of the "Bridget Jones" comedies. Spending one's evenings in this way was not unusual in Oxford, he explains. "Sometimes we hired strippers." He sees nothing wrong with the club's activities and points out that there are probably similar clubs "on the other side of the social divide."

In Baring's second year at the club, his fellow Bullingdon member Jonathan Cavendish bought a five-bedroom, semi-detached house south of the university. Baring and Dunne moved in, together with several female students and a chameleon that was fed grasshoppers. The friendships they formed at the time are still intact today. Baring's later wife Miranda was once Dunne's girlfriend. Baring recalls the time as being light-hearted and carefree.

His son shuffles into the kitchen. "Do you want to go hunting this weekend?" Baring asks. Little has changed since his Oxford days: the friends, the dinners, reveling in their own importance and place in history. Life becomes a blur of endless dinners with the former Bullingdon members. Later on, Baring says that he can't understand what is so significant about the Bullingdon Club. Perhaps the club only seems unusual to those standing on the other side of the divide. He leaves the kitchen and returns with the framed portrait of his class at the Bullingdon, covering the names at the bottom with a piece of cardboard.

A few weeks later, the students at Christ Church celebrate the approaching end of their time at Oxford. None of the members of the Bullingdon Club are present, but many of their friends and fellow students are. Most seem a lot like their own parents -- there's the banker, the reporter and the historian. In Oxford, they try on their roles like custom-made suits. The walls seem to bring out their ambitions and obsessions. Instead of studying, they make mischief, instead of laughing they shout, and instead of celebrating they destroy.

Stairway to Paradise

Between drags on her cigarette, one student says that she will be working for Goldman Sachs. "It's a rational decision, isn't it?" At Oxford, students learn early on to hold their champagne flutes by the stem, not by the bowl.

For those who play their cards right, Oxford can be a stairway to paradise, to the City of London, to Westminster or, farther afield, to Singapore or Wall Street. The student clubs and societies are no guarantee of a future job, but they are indispensible rungs on the ladder to the top. The networks help graduates obtain internships and their first jobs. Someone's father always has a job for a recent graduate in his bank.

Sometimes there are people who fail and fall. For example, Darius Guppy, in the same class as Boris Johnson, was sent to prison for fraud. Ambition and delusions of grandeur are close cousins, especially at the Bullingdon Club. But the Facebook profiles of the latest graduating class, the photos from parties and vacations, depict a cheerful, weightless upper class, and there is no sign of fear and concerns about the future in their faces. Only of determination and power.

They occasionally get together at The Bridge, a club in Oxford. The entrance is up a flight of stairs, and only those with a golden wristband are allowed into the club. The lion's throne, surrounded by a cord, is at the back.

"Why is our table occupied?" asks Ali, the student with the rich uncle. There is a tense conversation, and then someone says: "We're the Bullingdon, man." The table empties within a few minutes.

With additional reporting by Christina Hofstatter and Nick Mutch