Jayne Dowle: The PM, the pig and the Puritans who rake up past

LET’S just get one thing straight. If David Cameron really did do the things with a pig which that new book by Lord Ashcroft alleges, it happened almost 30 years ago. Cast your own mind back three decades. Didn’t you do anything then that makes you squirm with embarrassment to bring to mind?

David Cameron

I know I did. If I ever become Prime Minister, I sincerely hope that nobody still has photographs of that time in the first year when we all dressed up to go to the Rocky Horror Show. Perhaps “Call me Dave” Cameron was there too, resplendent in stockings and suspenders.

After all, we were at the same university around the same time, along with Michael Gove and Ed Balls, the latter of whom was at the same college as me. You’ll remember Balls having his own embarrassing moment a few years ago when pictures of him clad in fancy dress Nazi uniform for a jolly jape end-of-term Junior Common Room meeting emerged. And Gove? He just practised playing himself in the Oxford Union, and that was enough, really.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

You’re not smiling a wry smile of recognition? Never did anything embarrassing as a teenager? Never wore, said or drank anything you later regretted as you settled down to a quiet life of respectability? Okay. When was the last time you looked at your wedding photos then? Most albums from this period should be kept in a locked box in a drawer that no-one ever goes into.

Those perms. Those billowing folds of fabric. That particular shade of nauseous candy pink. And this is just the blokes I’m talking about. Never mind the fug of nostalgia giving everything a rosy glow. When you look back in time, it’s usually with one eye shut and through your fingers.

If then, as is alleged, the Prime Minister did somehow find himself somewhat slightly inebriated during an initiation ceremony for the “infamous” Piers Gaveston Oxford drinking club, the incident should stay where it belongs – in a locked box in a drawer that no-one ever goes into. It’s not what he did – or did not – do then, it’s what he does now which we should be concerned about.

I’m not defending him, because like the vast majority of the population, I don’t actually know for sure if there is anything to defend him against. However, I will stand up for his right to be judged on his performance first and foremost as a trustworthy politician and a capable Prime Minister, followed closely by the strength of his moral fibre as a man, a father and a husband. I might not always agree with his political principles, nor his penchant for “date nights” and tight Lycra cycling shorts, but as far as I can see he pretty much ticks the boxes on all of the above.

What then is the fuss? Well, to be honest, not much – aside from the political point-scoring from former Tory donor Lord Ashcroft, who has included the allegations in his just-published biography of Mr Cameron. Ask your average person in the street 
what they think about this spurious tale, and they will probably just shrug their shoulders with disinterest or come up with a daft joke involving the word “pork”.

It would be tempting to just ignore the incident and put it down to the unsubstantiated claims of a bitter man who 
never got the government role he was apparently promised.

However, it tells us so much about how we regard and judge those who govern us, that it cannot be ignored.

There is a particularly nasty streak to the British character which likes nothing better than a good old muck-rake. By attempting to embarrass the victim, the person wielding the actual rake can claim 
some degree of moral high ground.

This tactic is particularly prevalent when “toffs” are involved, especially if the incident under scrutiny involves copious amounts of alcohol and possibly illegal substances being in the vicinity.

It’s jealousy basically. Those Puritans. They weren’t around for long, but they made an impression on the British psyche. In the 21st century this translates into a prurient interest into what our political leaders got up to 30 – make that 40 – years ago. And despite this being a favourite tactic of class warriors, it does cross political boundaries. What a field day certain sectors of the media have had over the new Labour leader’s racy reputation with the ladies. Does anybody though – in their right mind – want to conjure up an image of Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott apparently enjoying a naked romp in a field in the Cotswolds? Thought not.

In these situations I’m always reminded why the writer LP Hartley, no stranger to a bit of Oxbridge decadence himself, was right. In The Go-Between, his chronicle of the Edwardians’ day of reckoning, he wrote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” A new BBC adaptation of this classic British novel has just come out. The timing couldn’t be better.