09 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher and Oxford’s radical leftists

Further on the topic of the late Lady Thatcher and the former Principal of Somerville College, Dame Janet Vaughan, this is an extract from Margaret Thatcher: The Grocer’s Daughter by John Campbell:
To Janet Vaughan, proud of Somerville’s left-wing reputation, Miss Roberts was an embarrassment, a cuckoo in her progressive nest.
Campbell quotes Ann Dally, an ex-Somervillian, about Thatcher:
In wartime Oxford, most students were left-wing, especially at Somerville ... We used to laugh at Margaret Roberts when she knocked at our doors and tried to sell us tickets for the Conservative Club ball or a similar event. She seemed so solemn and assured about it and we were intolerant of other people’s certainties ... She fascinated me. I used to talk to her a great deal; she was an oddity. Why? She was a Conservative. She stood out. Somerville had always been a radical establishment and there weren’t many Conservatives about.
There is a strong taboo against any suggestion that those who are running other people’s lives can be adversely motivated towards them on account of their personality. In the case of Margaret Thatcher, vague speculations are entertained that Dame Janet’s discouragements may have influenced her direction in life. But even if so, they are not regarded as damaging, since she was ultimately outstandingly successful as a politician.

In the case of those whose prospects in life might be regarded as damaged by Dame Janet’s discouragement, the possibility is not even entertained that Dame Janet should be regarded as in any way responsible.

There are many more ex-Somervillians who have plainly failed to get into the sort of career they wanted or needed to have than there are who have become Prime Minister.

Dame Janet is described as socialist. Indeed, she was what at the time was called a Fellow Traveller, and was in sympathy with much of what went on in communist countries. This included the rejection of innate ability.

It is not usually supposed that differences of political opinion between educator and student can have an impact on the academic work and success, or otherwise, of the student. However, it is unrealistic to think that the attitudes of those involved in someone’s education may not be significantly favourable or, alternatively, damaging, even if it is not clear why their reactions to a particular person should be negative. (In Margaret Roberts’s case, the reactions were partly due to politics. In my own case, the hostility was not obviously linked to any differences in world view between Dame Janet and myself.)

It can never have been easy for a person to rise to a different social class by exercising exceptional ability. Those already in the higher social class would be threatened by the potentially intrusive outsider. Those who managed to get to Oxford from state schools, such as Margaret Thatcher and myself, aroused antagonism and a wish to prove to the newcomers that they were not so clever as they might think.

Dame Janet’s attitudes were mirrored by those of the Somerville dons, when I was there.

An undergraduate at Somerville who had obtained a scholarship in classics despite her unfavourable state school background, and who was particularly proficient in writing Greek poetry, was told by one of her tutors when she had a Latin epigram published in a prestigious Oxford magazine, ‘It's the first thing you have done since you came up that justifies your scholarship.’ Subsequently, she was told that her tutors did not think she was good enough for an academic career, although they thought she should be able to hold down a non-academic job.

Dame Janet seemed to look down on those from a less exalted background than her own, but tended not to be antagonistic to students from an upper-class background, nor to those of a socialist inclination. However, even being a thorough-going socialist from an upper-class background was not necessarily enough to protect a student from arousing her hostility if the student was also ambitious, especially if they had ambitions to become an academic.

We appeal for £1m as initial funding to enable the relevant departments of my unrecognised and unsupported independent university to publish more adequate analyses of the many unexamined issues in the fields of education and academia. It is high time that an airing was given to many issues which contribute to the ongoing deterioration of modern society.