Honoris causa? Margaret Thatcher and the eternal shame of Oxford University

Published by Daily Mail

Lady TWhen news of Margaret Thatcher’s death reached her alma mater, Oxford University, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, put out a terse statement: ‘As Britain’s first female prime minister, and one of its longest serving, Baroness Thatcher ranks among the most prominent of Oxford’s alumni. One of the foremost politicians of her age, historians will debate her legacy for decades to come; today we remember a graduate of the University who reached the highest public office and had a lasting impact on British politics and society.’

It was carefully worded. With the neutral observation that ‘historians will debate her legacy for decades to come’, and a passing mention of her ‘lasting impact on British politics and society’, Professor Hamilton trod delicately. He couldn’t say nothing, but neither could he say much at all beyond the facts: the merest whiff of praise for her accomplishments would have risked the ire of the Congregation – the academics who make up the governing body of the University, most of whom voted against awarding her an honorary doctorate back in 1985.

During the tributes paid to Baroness Thatcher in Parliament this week, Tony Baldry MP recalled how proud she was of having been made an Honorary Fellow of Somerville College, and how it saddened her that the University never made her an Honorary Doctor of Civil Law – the degree which, since 1946, had been conferred upon all Oxford alumni who had held the office of Prime Minister.

There were six before Margaret Thatcher: four of them received their honorary DCL while they were in office; the other two had already had the degree conferred. But the Congregation decided to withhold the honour from its seventh (and first alumna) because they thought it ‘unreasonable to expect the University to honour the holder of even the most elevated office under the Crown, and to ignore the effects of her policies on the values and activities we are committed to as academics’.

They were concerned about the ‘deep systematic damage to the whole public education system’ being meted out by ‘Mrs Thatcher’s governments’. They spoke of ‘grave cuts’ and the ‘irreparable nature of the damage done to Britain as a scientific nation’ (seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was herself a scientist). And so the signatures of protest flooded in – from Somerville, Worcester, New, Brasenose, St Antony’s, St Hugh’s, St Anne’s, St Peter’s, Wolfson, University, Corpus Christi, Queen’s, St Catherine’s, Christ Church, Nuffield, Exeter, Lady Margaret Hall, Merton, St John’s, Pembroke, Hertford, All Souls, Trinity, Magdalen, Oriel, Linacre, Mansfield, St Edmund Hall, Keble, Jesus and Balliol.

They included professors, doctors, knights, reverends, chaplains, deans and an archdeacon – all ranged against her with carefully-crafted polemics to defend Oxford’s ‘special responsibility’ as ‘the pinnacle of British education’. “If we were to confer this honour,” they wrote, “it would be a bitter blow for everyone in public education.”

And so the proposal was defeated – by 738 votes to 319 (meaning 1388 didn’t attend the meeting; there were no postal votes). As I look down the names, I note many of them are still there – including one Richard Dawkins. Prime ministers come and go, but academics are permanent fixtures. Professor Peter Pulzer of All Souls, who led the opposition, declared after the result: “This is not a radical university; it is not an ideologically motivated university.”

Right.

Six years of personal experience there leads me to conclude that Oxford is pathologically ideological, and that ideology is unremittingly Left, and most of the academics are blind to it. Petronella Wyatt found the same, and right-leaning students today find that they are ‘often actively isolated, personally attacked, and made to feel unwelcome’. The colleges and academic departments are full of pro-EU, pro-UN, statist, anti-individualist, environmentalist, ‘third-way’ soft-Socialists and un-reconstituted Marxists whose grasp of Conservatism is limited to a superficial Spitting Image caricature, and for whom the very name of Margaret Thatcher conjures a vision of evil. I once used the phrase ‘Thatcherite theology’ in a seminar, only to receive the swift riposte: “Even Satan can quote Scripture.” I have witnessed The Guardian and the BBC lauded as a sources of ‘social truth’ by academics, while the Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch were derided as sources of ‘Right-wing propaganda’. I am by no means alone in experiencing this deep-seated antipathy toward Conservatism: to insist that ‘it is not an ideologically motivated university’ is to understand neither political ideology nor human motivation.

It gives me no pleasure to write this. Oxford is my university: I am a graduate and a member, and owe the institution very much indeed. But the partisan politicking and petty spite displayed over Margaret Thatcher’s honorary DCL still needles me almost 30 years on. It irritates because I have spent years being lectured, interrogated and supervised by academics across three departments and faculties – theology, politics and education. The emphasis has consistently been on academic rigour, research integrity and fundamental validity. Students are taught to be aware of personal biases, and to acknowledge and ‘manage’ them. What a pity the Congregation cannot practise what it preaches.

This is not, as Tony Baldry told Parliament, entirely ‘all ancient history and in many ways water under the bridge’, not least because ancient history has ongoing consequences, and the Cherwell flowing under Magdalen Bridge will forever reflect that a manifest Conservative success lauded across the world was never quite good enough for the eminent academics and bureaucratic elite of Oxford University.

One can perhaps forgive the Congregation for not being able to see the bigger picture in mid-80s. And when Roy Jenkins became Chancellor in 1987, perhaps it was inevitable that social democracy would become the new academic solidarity. But why wasn’t Margaret Thatcher honoured after the liberation of the Falkland Islands? Why not when Britain ceased being ‘the sick man of Europe’? Why not after her part in the fall of Communism and the emancipation of half a continent? Why not after the collapse of the Soviet Union and her contribution to glasnost and perestroika? Why not when she became the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century?

Why was she not immediately honoured in 2003 when Chris Patten, a former member of her Cabinet, became Chancellor? And why was she not honoured during any year of his gilded decade in office since?

Lord Patten of Barnes has been indifferent, quiescent and mute. He wouldn’t even confront anti-Thatcher members of the Congregation when Wafic Saïd wanted to name a wing of his Business School after her. But there was no objection at all from them over the proposal to name an entire building after a multi-billion dollar arms dealer.

Lady Thatcher’s contribution to world history has been acknowledged by presidents and prime ministers all over the world. With Marx and Keynes, she has forged an eponymous politico-economic creed which is now an ‘-ism’. How many Oxford alumni have a global philosophy named after them? Universities and other seats of learning have showered her with fellowships and honorary doctorates. She was appointed a Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The Queen personally appointed her a Member of the Order of Merit, and President Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honour awarded by the United States of America.

Over the past 20 years, did it never occur to Oxford University that they had a ‘special responsibility’ as ‘the pinnacle of British education’ to let bygones be bygones and to confer an honorary doctorate on one of the dominant political figures of the 20th century irrespective of her politics? Or do they only give honorary degrees to people they like, or to those whose policies they approve of?

They’ve dished them out to Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela (..spot a pattern? Obama’s place is assured). Vaclav Havel received one (where would he have been without Margaret Thatcher?), and in more recent years honorary DCLs have been conferred upon sundry academics along with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Aung San Suu Kyi, Baroness Manningham-Buller, Philip Pullman, Sir George Martin, Dame Eileen Atkins, Darcey Bussell and David Cornwell (John le Carré).

Eminent and deserving recipients they all may be. But nothing will persuade me that Baroness Manningham-Buller did for MI5 or achieved in the Security Services anything even approaching the stature and scale of what Baroness Thatcher achieved in national and global politics and economics. At least it is now a matter of public record, etched in perpetuity on the pages of Hansard, that it ‘reflected badly on the image and reputation of Oxford University’ that they refused to recognise her ‘unquestionable and outstanding achievements in politics and public life’.

Thatcher - SomervilleIn an open letter Somerville College in 1980, the year after her election as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher told them how much she owed to her experience there. “The harvest gathered from those years has been rich indeed,” she wrote. “Rich in friendships which range across the world and form a common bond with people in many different countries. Rich in an enhanced awareness that universities not only transmit scholarship from generation to generation but that they are the main source of creative ideas which are both a hope and a challenge for the future.”

“And perhaps because I was there in wartime, rich in the knowledge that without freedom life would have neither dignity nor meaning. There have been times of corrosive cynicism. They pass. And the best endures.”

Margaret Thatcher – The Rt. Hon. The Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, LG, OM, PC, FRS – loved her years at Oxford: it forged her passions; influenced her virtues; shaped her vision; inspired her political optimism; and helped to mold her into one of the greatest Britons and historic leaders of the free and democratic world. The ‘Iron Lady’ was a stateswoman in every sense of the word. What a pity the ‘times of corrosive cynicism’ never quite passed for the myopic and vindictive Congregation of the University of Oxford.

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  • Leslie

    A great article articulate and extremely well written. I am pleased I opened the paper this morning and read this article. I am sick to the back teeth of the vilification directed at such a great a statesman as what Baroness Thacher was. not in recent times has there been her equal including this present bunch of wets.
    Thanks for restoring my faith in humanity, and shame on those who cannot recognise the honor and humility in which Baroness Thatcher conducted herself both in and out of office.
    She was a Great Britain of enormous fortitude and stature.

  • Peter North

    They were concerned about the ‘deep systematic damage to the whole public education system’ being meted out
    Considering the prepondeance of ex pupils of private schooling that infested the dreaming spires back then that was a bit rich!Of course they could no more wish to give an ex grammar schoo pupil this accolade than the curent privately and Oxford educated PM wishes to give todays kids of ordinary parents the chance of a better education in Grammar schools!

  • doppel

    I went to Oxford and was appalled but not surprised by her treatment.

  • Sylvia

    What a very good article and well written. What a shame, indeed, for one of our most respected universities (though not any more) cannot have the decency and foresight to bury differences and award someone as the “giant” she was for her achievements and world respect that she gained. How PETTY can human beings be?!

  • cp

    If the right do not recognise just how divisive she was (and they show no signs of doing so at the moment) then they will condemn themselves to the political wilderness for years, if not for eternity. Oxford was quite right to not accede to the “tradition”, given how few “traditions” she honoured!!

  • Saltpeter

    I never cease to be amazed at the folly of those who think themselves to be our “betters”. Remember the USAF General who got drunk in the mess, officers get drunk in the mess every night, and insulted Clinton. If Clinton had ignored it that would have been the end of the matter, but no, Clinton sacked him so that beautifully crafted insult crossed the Atlantic. Then there was the headline in New Woman that Pamela Bordes took exception to. You don’t seriously think an old man like me reads New Woman do you? But she sued so that headline was reported everywhere and we all had a chuckle. As for the high falutin Congregation of Oxford University, the congregation of any nonconformist Chapel commands more respect than that bunch of petty, narrow minded windbags. Their nonsense tells us more about their closed minds, unfit to be allowed to influence the young, than it does about Lady Thatcher. London school of Economics is no better, Leftist as well, is Leftism damaging to the brain? If they had said nothing about a few of their students taking a BBC reporter and his camera crew with them nobody would have been the wiser but these “Professors” and the stupid Student union woman went on television to tell the North Korean Government exactly who to target. What self important idiots.