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Vol. 7 No. 7 · 18 April 1985

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The Oxford Vote

SIR: The main burden of Peter Pulzer’s article, ‘The Oxford Vote’ (LRB, 7 March), is that Mrs Thatcher has broken the Butskellite consensus of the post-war period, and that the reaction of the Oxford dons has been to enter the arena of party politics and take their revenge on her for this heinous act. Professor Pulzer seems to support this consensus: the time when, he argues, ‘the social fabric held together, because most people most of the time kept to the recognised rules of the game’. Now, reluctantly, yet, as with the philosopher of old who cornered the olive oil market, triumphantly, the non-ideological, non-partisan, utterly non-political centrists have left their noble towers and delivered a crushing rebuke to the grocer’s daughter who dared to break the centrist consensus and challenge their raison d’être. Pulzer also offers, as if it were an unchallengable truth, the notion that the university, uncut and in a condition of constant growth, is of special value as a place where ‘thoughts can be thought and books can be written without the worry about where next year’s support grant is coming from. Somewhere where new, critical, unpopular, even dangerous ideas can be tried out.’ He refers to the danger of elected dictatorship and polarisation, and talks of ‘creeping nationalisation’ to describe, not the takeover of Oxford funding by the state (which consensus Butskellites supported), but the process of imposing a limit to the growth of state funding, and the checking of unlimited growth of research expenditure. His article also includes sneers at populist responses: but these are largely irrelevant to his argument, though important to an understanding of centrist politics.

Despite the no doubt sincere organ swell of emotion that informs his arguments, Professor Pulzer would, I am sure, agree that these points are open to reasoned and rational criticism. If the claim to be non-ideological – and he has made that claim for Oxford University in public – has any meaning, it must mean that claims for freedom of thought and speech can be verified according to the customary liberal tenets. His defence of ‘intellectualism’ needs to show that the intellect of the Oxford dons actually needs a Butskellite consensus in which to flourish. He needs to show that contemplation, meditation and, surely, some occasional product of those processes are inexorably linked with, not just security of tenure (how many tenured dons in Oxford have been sacked?), but with increasing university job opportunities, unchecked increases in research grants with unverified results, and increased student numbers. He must demonstrate, not, indeed, that all members of the university contribute to thought, scholarship, art and culture, but that more significant contributions of that nature emerge from the universities than from the non-university world. I suggest that in the field of the arts that would be a difficult claim to substantiate. A wide range of disciplines, from history to archaeology, originated outside the universities, as has the finest literature. The role of the universities in the arts has been to cherish, guard and protect the heritage of the past. Their notable lack of success in this task in recent years has been due to their non-partisan cravenness in resisting new and trashy intellectual fashions, and not because of any cuts. As for science, Japan has managed to increase its proportion of GNP devoted to research and development through recourse to business support.

The use by Pulzer of Russell and Wittgenstein as examples of stimulating pure research is self-defeating. How far did either contribute to basic scientific thought? They merely contributed to a pervasive moral uncertainty and cowardice that has characterised university-based philosophy since their time. I suppose that Cambridge in Wittgenstein’s time was an autonomous institution: but if not, does Peter Pulzer really believe that the low-paid manual worker or shop assistant should have been called upon to support Wittgenstein as he cavorted around his room with a poker? How far did Newton’s university contacts contribute to his Rosicrucianism? In what way did the university contribute to his theory of gravity? These are serious questions, and should not be as condescendingly dismissed as they are in his article.

It is certainly true that Oxford has contributed to the post-war consensus, and instead of claiming its supposedly non-partisan nature as a victory, Peter Pulzer would do well to try to demonstrate that these post-war policies have had a beneficent effect on Britain, the British (much as he may despise them), and the colonies from which we gracefully and non-partisanly withdrew, leaving them to dictorship, famine and barabarism. What he claims as a non-political, non-ideological set of virtues proves, by his own argument, to be a subtle form of totalitarian dictatorship. It is a great error to suppose that centrism is non-ideological. Centrists in Oxford have supported specific policies, whose results can be examined and judged. They have supported – curiously, one may think, for such an élitist body – comprehensive education. They have supported the destruction of working-class communities all over Britain in the name of planning and slum clearance, and presided approvingly over the erection of hell-holes for the masses known as council estates. Dons do not live in council estates. They have supported creeping inflation, nationalisation and the Heathite corporate state. They have called for more overseas aid, and (with honourable exceptions, such as the President of Magdalen) seem unconcerned by the misuse of this aid by the corrupt or inept or genocidal governments to whom the aid is given. They are understandably concerned for the interests of the two million or so members of the British middle class working abroad, including many of their children, but with typically non-partisan selfishness show this concern by opposing British interests abroad, from the Falklands to the EEC, at every possible moment. Since scholarship is allegedly international, they are fanatical internationalists, and hate to be reminded of the fact that their financial support is coerced from an unwilling population living within a geographically-limited area coinciding with the nation state, an entity they especially loathe. Much as Professor Pulzer might dislike the reminder in his voluminous, populist postbag, Oxbridge has produced the majority of our more notorious traitors, not to think of that rogues gallery of incompetents who have been in receipt of prime ministerial doctorates in past decades. To ensure the continuation of this non-political tradition, Oxford dons have been electing only those who agree with them, to create a self-perpetuating oligarchy, while keeping a few Marxists around the place as pets. I was struck by the comment of one aspirant to fellowships who, at the time of the vote, remarked to me that, despite his support for Mrs Thatcher, he would not appear at the debate because his vote night well damage his chances of election to a post. While Professor Pulzer might argue that liberal, non-political dons would never before the era of Fortress Oxford have been obliged to protect their interests by biased recruiting, and that such a situation is all the fault of Mrs Thatcher, he must admit that the result of the THES poll to which he refers, showing an amazing preponderance of Liberal/SDP Alliance support considering its proportions in the country at large, demonstrates that the process of appointing only those with ‘nice’ political views has been going on for years, if not decades. No one is so intolerant as the centrist seeing his centrism under fire. If all he has as ideological support is the comforting awareness that he is in the centre of two opposing wings, with no intellectual buttressing other than non-ideological niceness, then it is hardly surprising that he should fight so viciously against the idea of unbiased, external evaluation of his activities. Professor Pulzer’s attacks on the populist anti-intellectual who, he alleges, does not realise that basic research is essential for pocket calculators and penicillin (and do they really, really think so?) demonstrate that. Perhaps one could refer here to the recent smear campaign carried on in Private Eye against non-Liberal/SDP candidates for the Gladstone Professorship which Professor Pulzer now holds, carried on not by or on behalf of Professor Pulzer, who is the most honourable of men, but because the dreaded possibility arose that the professorship might go to – a Conservative.

In short, let us have some evidence that ‘new, critical, unpopular, even dangerous ideas’ have emerged from Oxford in the last fifteen years, before this argument becomes a reason for increased and uncritical support of the university. It is a dangerous argument. The self-perpetuating consensus centrism he describes is, of course, perpetually and inevitably biased against ‘new, critical, unpopular, even dangerous ideas’. The logic of that point would be to abolish Oxford, whose main virtue is its ability to cling to lost causes, to maintain a tradition of scholarship, and (something virtually omitted from Pulzer’s article) to teach.

I am not a founder of the University of Buckingham, and can only assume that its founders have not attacked ‘creeping nationalisation’, as Professor Pulzer so curiously calls it, because they quite rightly see it as the logical extension of that state control they so bitterly fought in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and which helped lead to the establishment of the University of Buckingham. I observe that the University of Buckingham has managed to grow and flourish at a time of state cut-backs. It is a living refutation of Professor Pulzer’s arguments. I would be astonished to find that staff at the University of Buckingham are subjected to more thought control than at Oxford, that they are less intellectually free. I remember that in my two years there as a student several Marxists were recruited (three from Oxford, of course) to teach. This suggests that a wicked right-wing institution was actually much less ideological and conformist than Professor Pulzer’s totally non-ideological Oxford, where conservative ideas are ostracised and Thatcherites are virtually banned. Is it not a criticism of Oxford’s capacity to generate or even to comprehend new and critical ideas that the breaking of the Butskellite consensus had to be carried out outside its ranks?

A.C. Bramwell

Saatchi and Sartchi

SIR: Waldemar Januszczak (LRB, 21 March) is indignant about a ‘disgraceful union of art and commerce’ – a ‘sudden’ development he has detected – and he wonders what manner of ‘moral breakdown’ has made it possible. Perhaps he is so disturbed by the discrete association of United Technologies with Stubbs and the Tate Gallery in a temporary exhibition that he has not noticed that the Elgin Marbles are on permanent display in the Duveen Wing of the BM: but it is odd that he himself refers earlier to the foundation of Victorian municipal museums by coal and textile magnates.

As a consequence of a ‘giant wave of business’ which, according to Januszczak, has recently ‘broken over art’, the dealers now ‘call the shots’. A few years ago, he implies, the state did so. It would be interesting to learn more about the artists whose reputations have been made, or the artistic movements which have been launched, by the British state in this century. The only example of modern state patronage he mentions is Henry Moore’s work as a war artist, which he ludicrously associates with Michelangelo’s employment in the Sistine Chapel. Januszczak also alludes to Titian’s work for the Venetian state. Perhaps he has in mind the first of the few commissions which Titian received from the state – the decoration of part of the façade of the warehouse of the German merchants, a notable ‘union of art and commerce’.

Another consequence of the sudden soaking that the arts have supposedly received is that something called ‘Pragmatism’ has ‘replaced utopian Modernism as the prevailing artistic theory’. However, according to his own sketchy history of modern art, ‘Modernism’ only prevailed in Revolutionary Russia and the Bauhaus. Elsewhere Picasso was already a ‘perfect 20th-century consumer artist’ presiding over a factory conveyor belt (and improving his tan).

Ignorance of history, confusion of thought and trashy metaphors may help Januszczak to persuade his readers, and doubtless himself, that something momentous is happening, and that he is in the know. The tycoon Charles Saatchi, ‘the most secretive of men’, has ‘finally’ agreed to meet him in a ‘gleaming cavern’. The cavern is full of ‘marvels’ which have left the critic’s head ‘spinning’. Eventually we are told that these are the work of artists who have ‘gone into the tit-bit business’. It seems probable that Januszczak disapproves of this. On the other hand, ‘marvels’ may not have been intended ironically. A couple of years ago Januszczak announced that he was ‘finally convinced’ of Julian Schnabel’s ‘importance’ as an artist. Schnabel is one of the more expensive ‘expressionists’ collected and promoted by Saatchi.

Nicholas Penny
Balliol College, Oxford

Eliot at Smokefall

SIR: Barbara Everett is being a shade disingenuous when she attributes her phrase ‘behind Harrods’ to Eliot’s ‘behind the pig-sty’ (Letters, 21 March). She also seems to have a rum command of London’s social geography. In Angus Wilson’s short story, ‘More Friend than Lodger’, a Belgravia hostess explains exactly where ‘behind Harrods’ is between Knightsbridge, Pont Street and Belgrave Square. ‘The house which we live in is mine; and it was left to me by my Aunt Agnes and it’s rather a big house, situated in that vague area known as behind Harrods’s. But it isn’t, in fact, Pont Street Dutch …’ Unless Ms Everett is in the habit of visiting Harrods via the warehousemen’s and staff entrances, Gloucester Road is in front of Harrods and far away to its left. The quarter where Eliot lived was definitely a bit off the map, at least as defined by the snobberies of those Belgravians who still talk about ‘living behind Harrods’, with no sneaking reference to Little Gidding intended.

Jonathan Raban
Pimlico, London

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