Michael Beloff

Diary - 22 October 2004

Do we get overexcited about the whole issue of university education?

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The reverberations from my HMC conference speech on Oxford admissions have not stilled. With my crème de la crème PA Yvonne, I am chauffeured Sky-wards to be interrogated by Adam Boulton after Oliver Letwin and before Jackie Stewart. Cheerily greeting the demon driver, ‘Good to see you again’, I am stalled by his polite inquiry: ‘Remind me where we met.’ ‘Um ...er ...Chequers actually.’ (Cherie’s half-century party.) I admire Ollie’s manual gestures, slashing (without commitment) at an undergrowth of taxes, but decide to adopt a safer tactic of clasping my hands au Jonny Wilkinson.

The Sunday press is predictable. To the Observer I am a humbug; to the Sunday Telegraph a hero. Jasper Gerard’s interview in the Sunday Times, while 98 per cent faithful to his promise of verbatim quotes, by sinuous rearrangement makes them mere footnotes to his own acidulous comments. The student press finally catches up with the national. Oxford Student’s roving reporter asks whether my retirement from the Presidency of Trinity (still almost two years away) was the result of reaction to my speech — an ingenious conspiracy theory. Astonishingly, I am described by the journal (the voice of OUSU) as ‘commendable’. Cherwell, founded in 1925 by Trinity’s John Sutro, is more critical, assuming that a private Oxford would necessarily reverse the trend to wider access — but why? By now heavier mortars, Chris Patten and Lord Butler, are firing away, and the minister appears to be beating something of a retreat. He says penalties for failing to reach state school targets were never in the DfES’s mind. We must wait to see if the tanks are truly back in the garage.

I am stood down from a Newsnight discussion about the appointment of Offtoff (the least popular public official since the hangman was made redundant?), because the minister wants not only star but also solo billing, so am free to enjoy the annual No Confidence debate at the Oxford Union, where I am given further reminder of this government’s lack of relish for a mano a mano confrontation. The motion pitches the Tory high command, past and present and future (Lamont, Redwood, Boris, the Young King Cool) against a radical journalist (‘Iraq is for me somewhat problematic’) and two backbench Labour MPs, one whose hour of maximum celebrity was in inverse proportion to the amount of clothing he was wearing on a gay website; and another who said that Tony Blair was the worst prime minister since Wellington. When I was Union president in 1962, the same battle was joined between Bill (now the Venerable) Deedes and Dick Crossman. My successor, 42 years on, is a Muslim woman — did someone say that Oxford is insufficiently diverse? She decides to say a Latin grace and taps me for a minimalist version.

But do we get overexcited about the whole issue of university education? One of my high-table guests is Lord McLaurin, the original Tesco kid. Could he have done any better had he enjoyed three years among the dreaming spires? I suspect not. One Union speaker couldn’t resist recycling the hoary un-PC joke about Madam President’s bust adorning the wall, but even for those of us who ply an unpaid trade on the after-dinner circuit and borrow, magpie-like, the best lines from the night before, this one was unusable for the female-free Forty Cricket Club where, at the invitation of Sir Oliver Popplewell, the oldest sophomore in town, I supply the entertainment at the Savoy with Tom Graveney, Neil Durden-Smith et Al Haselhurst MP.

Trinity is about to advertise for my successor — am I a lame duck president already? I shall leave after ten years in the post with happy memories of a portfolio life. Evensong in College Chapel (early Wren design, Grinling Gibbons woodwork). What role will the chapel play when Trinity, 450 years old next year, reaches its 500th anniversary? Faith centre? Museum? Sombre thoughts mitigated only by the melodic voices of our CD-producing choir. A three-line University whip for the ceremony in which the visiting high court judge Madam Justice Rafferty is presented by town and gown with two pairs of gloves. I raise academic eyebrows in daring to kiss my fellow bencher of Gray’s Inn. I speak low-key at the dinner for our fresher graduates, a global group from New Zealand, Russia, Croatia, Canada, the PRC and Taiwan, as well as the home countries. For the undergraduates I try to pitch it somewhere between Harry on the eve of Agincourt and the Ten Commandments (three to be precise). One fresher told me I made her feel fuzzy inside: good or bad?

Because of a mini monsoon I wimp out of seeing our Canadian lacrosse international strut her stuff in the Parks, and settle down indoors to watch a docudrama based on the US reaction to 9/11, scripted and directed by Trinity’s only (known) Oscar nominee. The major American figures are all played by approximate lookalikes. With Tony Blair the casters have thrown in the sponge: think Robin Cook beardless and black-haired.

At the first Governing Body of term — Wednesdays weekly, serious business mixed up with the banal and the bizarre — we confer Honorary Common Room Membership on the Mayor of Baltimore (the first two Governors of Maryland, the Calvert brothers, were Trinity alumni). I shall go back into the law; but part of me has never left it. I attend a meeting of the Legal Panel, a radar screen to alert colleges to legal missiles on the horizon. New statutory staff grievance procedures. New national students’ complaints adjudicator. New charities’ supervision. New Labour, new regulation.

With two fellow members of the ICC code of conduct commission (one a Kiwi, one a Sri Lankan), I vet the report of a South African judge into the alleged impropriety of a Kenyan cricketer and send our analysis to the ICC board meeting in Lahore. My cunning clerks at Blackstone invite me to give some advice to a client for what they euphemistically call ‘non-commercial rates’ on the basis that it will be ‘high profile’ — and after I agree, tell me, paradoxically, that I must keep it ‘very hush hush’! I put the finishing touches to one judgment for the Jersey Court of Appeal; and another for the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Funny to think that the identity of the Olympic gold medal winner of the Men’s all-round gymnastic competition is decided not in the stadium at Athens but in Trinity’s Mackenzie Chalmers law library.

Here endeth the first week of Michaelmas Term.