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.