Two men, worlds apart

I can’t resist making a comparison today between the university days of  David Cameron and Gordon Brown.

First off, we have the infamous photo  [above] of a bunch of toffs preparing to embark on a long night of alcohol-fuelled debauchery in 1987 (or 1897?). This is Cameron [back, second from left] and his cronies: 10 of Oxford University’s poshest undergraduates, members of  the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive dining society whose raison d’être has for more than 150 years been to afford tailcoat-clad aristocrats a termly opportunity to behave very badly indeed.

The Buller, as it is known to members, was founded in the 19th century as a hunting and cricket club, but is now devoted to drink and dining. Membership is by invitation only and normally limited to alumni of leading public schools. New recruits are secretly elected before being informed of their good fortune by having their college bedroom invaded by way of a window and methodically “trashed”.  The club’s notorious dinners typically involve members booking a private dining room (under an assumed name) and drinking themselves silly before destroying it elaborately. They wear royal blue tailcoats with ivory lapels, and – having made merry – pride themselves in politely paying the restaurant’s owners compensation in high-denomination banknotes.

Now, by way of contrast, here’s Gordon Brown recalling his university days in today’s Guardian.  This is his contribution to the ‘My Hero’ feature, in which he explains why he’s chosen Nelson Mandela.  Having just been involved in a 40th anniversary reunion of those who took part in the occupation of Liverpool University’s Senate House in March 1970 in protest against the university having the racist Lord Salisbury as Chancellor, I know who I would prefer to be the country’s leader. This is the column in full:

Back when I was at university I was a journalist on the student paper and led a campaign to get Edinburgh University to disinvest from apartheid South Africa. It felt a long way from Scotland when, more than 30 years later, I found myself face to face with Nelson Mandela – Madiba – for the first time. He pointed at me, and smiled, and said “Welcome, representative of the British empire!” It was typical of the man I have come to know – a man whose generosity of spirit and capacity for forgiveness make him a true hero for our times.

Back then – when students, trade unionists, musicians and human rights campaigners formed a grand coalition against apartheid – we talked about a future rainbow South Africa in hope more than expectation. The brutality and tyranny seemed simply too great to be overcome in one lifetime. And when there were even people in Britain opposing sanctions and wearing “Hang Mandela” T-shirts, it could sometimes feel that justice would never come. But the lesson of the struggle against apartheid is that no injustice can last forever – that if people of courage and good conscience are prepared to stand and fight, there is nothing we can’t achieve.

That is the spirit that animated so many of the other people I have admired – Burmese monks, Iranian students and Zimbabwean trade unionists, whose names we may never know, but whose courage has been immortalised in the campaigns they have waged for freedom. Back in 2005, there was an amazing video made for Live 8: it showed the leaders of great movements – Martin Luther King at the march on Washington, Wilberforce at the great abolitionist rallies, the Pankhursts during the suffragettes’ protests. Then it focused on the faces in the crowd.

The message is that anonymous people aren’t the audience for change, they are leading the change – that progress is only possible when we recruit a movement: first hundreds, then thousands and, finally, millions-strong. If any one man can embody that message, it is my hero, Madiba.

3 thoughts on “Two men, worlds apart

  1. It saddens me that we have such a poor choice. Between the posh Tory public schoolboys and posh Labour public school boys? There is not a world of difference unfortunately and it is a poor argument to show a photo of smug Tory boys 30 years ago.We know what they are, we know how they will govern, they always behave the same. We should expect more from a Labour government.It is also innapropriate to juxtapose Mandella, the anti apartheid struggle and even the aims of the 1970 sit-in with Gordon Brown.

    Gordon Brown is the man who financed Tony Blair’s illegal and immoral war . The man who remained silent when Tony Blair meekly followed George Bush into Iraq and Afghanistan. Had he any courage or conviction he could have spoken out as Robin Cook and (belatedly) Clare Short did. Tens of thousands of lives might have been saved in Iraq. Tens of thousands in the future may be at risk because of this immoral and illegal adventure.
    Gordon brown is the PM who encouraged the City of London to take risks, to be adventurous with our money and who moved “decisively” to bail them out with £billions. He and his party have significantly failed to tackle poverty and inequality in this country when they had a massive majority after 1997 & could have done almost anything. He has presided over a period when civil rights have been eroded more significantly than ever happened under a Tory government.

    No doubt Labour apologists will hope we will forget all this.
    It may be said that all this is in the past, we should look to the future, think of the Tory alternative. Think about Tory cuts, NI taxes etc…This is selfish and shameful.
    Unfortunately history may repeat itself, even now we hear the same old scares about WMDs, this time in Iran, and the possibility of sanctions and military action.
    Gordon Brown and Tony Blair have brought Labour to such a level that they and their sheeplike MPs and would-be MPs are not fit to govern.

  2. I wouldn’t disagree with anything so say in your second and third paragraphs, but it can’t be ‘inappropriate to juxtapose Mandela, the anti apartheid struggle and the aims of the 1970 sit-in with Gordon Brown’ because this was who the man was in 1970 – and in 2010 he’s recalling that involvement, something that Cameron can’t do. There’s a comparison to be made on that score at least. I haven’t forgotten Iraq, but if we’re talking about the upcoming election and the prospects of a Cameron victory, and what that would mean for public services and working class people in this country, the prospect is fearful. I’m reminded of Richard Neville in ‘Playpower’: ‘there’s only half an inch between Labour and the Tories, but in that half-inch we survive’.

  3. Bill, whatever else you say about Brown, he wasn’t posh and didn’t go to a public school. Agree about Iraq but it’s not the whole story.

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