What a scramble for Africa. A full-page advertisement in Monday’s Guardian, rather cautiously worded, said that its signatories ‘supported the overall aims’ of those lobbying the G8 leaders and recognised ‘the complexities of the challenge in hand, but commit ourselves to asking our leaders to make positive and practical steps forward to help lift millions out of extreme poverty’. They were leading business people, and their names were splashed across the map of Africa, in varying sizes. Thus the important words ‘Niall FitzGerald KBE’ were so large that they stretched almost from coast to coast, cutting through what look to me like Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Two names higher up, ‘Sly Bailey’ filled the whole of Zaire, while ‘Sir Richard Branson’, I am glad to say, was stuck in the Sahara, and ‘Peter Bazalgette’, whose contribution to civilisation is Big Brother, clung precariously to the Egyptian coast. It looked strangely old-fashioned, as if these potentates were staking their claim to great swaths of the Dark Continent. In this surreal week, when millions seem to believe that Western political leaders can transform the future of an area several times larger than the European Union if only we shout at them loudly enough, I found myself asking what it would be like if it were the other way round. Suppose lots of black pop stars held a concert in, say, Johannesburg (currently squatted on, in my Guardian map, by Philip Green), and told the leaders of the African Union to save Europe, what would we think? We might be rather touched by their concern, but we would not give much for their chances of success. Yes, comes the answer, but we are rich and they are poor; we have the power and they don’t. True, but does that give us confidence, when you look at the history of our engagement with Africa, that we know what to do next?
In July 1965, when Alec Douglas-Home resigned as Conservative leader, it took six days to elect his replacement, Edward Heath. At that time, the Labour government’s majority was 4. Today, the Labour government’s majority is 67. Michael Howard announced his resignation, though not its precise date, on 6 May, and it seems all but certain that his successor will not be chosen until late autumn. There must be a Parkinson’s law of political activity — the more piffling the position, the longer and more elaborate the contest.
A letter arrives from the Vice-Chancellor of my university, Cambridge, addressed to ‘Dear Alumni and Alumnae’. Professor Alison Richard, its author, says it is the first letter that one in her position has ever written to all of us. Its purpose is not, strictly speaking, obvious. She points out that Cambridge is very good, that it matters both to our society and to the world (‘among the top ten universities worldwide’) and that, in 2009, it will be 800 years old. She goes on to inform us, though, that government money covers ‘just over half the estimated cost of a Cambridge undergraduate education’, so there is a ‘fundamental imbalance’ between income and costs. The letter is not an appeal for money, but you could call it a pre-appeal. I have heard rumours that the university will eventually ask us for £800 million — a million pounds for each year of its history. It is a good cause, but it seems to me that £800 million is not nearly enough and therefore, paradoxically, will be difficult to raise. Prof. Richard wants to ‘share and pursue’ the goal of sustaining Cambridge’s excellence with the government and emphasise how much ‘we can and must do for ourselves’. I fear that this mixture of public and private no longer works, if it ever did. In an age of the mass production of universities, governments will always be short of money for them and always be under pressure not to give more money to those that already have the most. If it gives money at all, then, it will attach more and tighter strings, tied at the other end to whatever policy it happens to be pursuing at the time — letting in more comprehensive school pupils, training more people for business, ‘producing’ more doctors, or whatever. These strings tie a free academic institution in knots and also condemn it to something not far short of beggary, preventing it from paying the salaries which will keep all the able people who will otherwise go off to America or worldly careers. They also discourage donations by alumni because we feel a) that the matter is not fully our responsibility and b) that we do not like what the government is trying to do with the university which we love. Who wants to give money to something that Ruth Kelly (or, indeed, some future Tory minister) can bend to her purposes? The solution is bolder — to try to raise so much money (£3 or £4 billion?) that the university can exist perpetually independent of government. If Prof. Richard proposes that, then the moral onus falls very heavily indeed on all of us who receive her letters, particularly on the large numbers who have made a lot of money in the unparalleled national prosperity of the last 20 years. If she doesn’t, her appeal will fall not so much on deaf ears as between two stools.
It is the season of school speech days. At one recently I heard a recitation of all the places that the pupils had visited on school trips. How eerie, among the list of beauty spots, mountain expeditions, art historical tours, places like Chartres or the Jungfrau or Mull, to hear the word ‘Auschwitz’. A good but strange thing that such a place has passed into the safety of educational tourism.
Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, was criticised by a tribunal for having ‘hung out to dry’ three of his officers in a trumped-up racism case against them. Would he still be in his job if the officers so treated had been black? Sarah Forsyth, the former art teacher at Eton who secretly taped Prince Harry so that she could later trump up an accusation of cheating against him, won her case for unfair dismissal this week, although the employment tribunal did say that her taping of the Prince was ‘unprofessional’. Would she have won her case if the pupil she taped had been a commoner? Is it legal for me to ask either of these questions?
Curious the power of a small detail.
Sir Lawrence Freedman’s magisterial official history of the Falklands war, just published, mentions that when Argentina invaded the islands, the proud conquerors immediately changed the rule of the road: ‘...the result was chaos, and the Argentines were obliged to put up signs in English, saying “Keep Right”.’ Perfect proof of the absurdity of their adventure.