During end-of-term festivities at Keble College, Oxford, Eddie, the president of the Junior Common Room, was handed a Nazi uniform: “At the Christmas dinner, the members decided that the committee should be required to wear costumes. Mine was chosen by them. They decided I was a dictator. When you’re 20, and it’s the Christmas dinner, do you make a stand as a matter of principle, or do you go along with it? I went along with it. Everyone has their regrets, I’m sure.”
Eddie is now 46, and is known at Westminster as Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. After the photograph of him in his student days in Nazi uniform was printed in the Daily Mail, he made various comments, including: “Of course I’m not embarrassed by it…I went along with it for a laugh.”
Balls is right. At the age of 20, one sometimes goes along with things for a laugh. Young Englishmen can sometimes be found donning costumes which are in the worst possible taste. That is the point: those who do this sort of thing are engaging in what might be called a bad-taste joke. The more shocking the clothes appear to normal, sober, decent people, the funnier the joke seems to those who are engaged in it. Hence the institutional loutishness of some student groups, including some Oxford dining clubs. This is an ancient tradition, which thrives on the moral disapproval which it generates.
But there is never any point in trying to explain a bad-taste joke after the event, to an audience which is not disposed to find it funny. That just makes matters worse. A joke about Hitler is never funny in such circumstances: it becomes a most dreadful insult to those who suffered under the Nazis.
And Aidan Burley’s bad-taste joke seems to have been a wretchedly protracted affair, conducted not when he was a student, and not at the instigation of others, but in his early 30s during a stag party in the French Alps, after he had already been elected MP for Cannock. In vain he said the event “was done in the spirit of mocking the Nazis“. His apologies were far too elaborate, and worst of all, he attempted to minimise his involvement by giving an account which turned out to be untrue. He was branded a liar and has now announced that he is standing down. No other course was open to him.
When Prince Harry was photographed at the age of 20 wearing a swastika armband to a party, he just apologised. After making such a mistake, that is all one can do.