On January 29 Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, one of the university’s most splendid buildings, was the scene of a doubly unprecedented event. More than a thousand dons assembled there, completely filling its floor space and elegant galleries, to vote on a proposal to confer upon the prime minister, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law. After a two-hour debate the dons voted by passing through exit doors marked “Yes” and “No,” and the proposal was defeated by 738 to 319 votes. This was unprecedented because since 1946 every previous Oxfordeducated prime minister had received the honorary degree thus denied to Mrs. Thatcher, and never in living memory had any meeting of the body that denied it to her been attended by any number of dons even remotely approaching the number who voted on this occasion. Unprecedented too was the outburst of indignant anger, denunciation, and vitriolic comment with which this event was greeted in the columns of the London Times, the Daily Telegraph, and other, less prestigious, journals committed to the support of Mrs. Thatcher’s government.
To follow what happened at Oxford it is necessary to understand the peculiar features of the university’s constitution, which is quite unlike that of any American university or college. Oxford is in effect a democracy of its academic staff, since the final say on all important matters is reserved to its legislative assembly, called “Congregation,” in which all permanent teaching and research staff and senior library and administrative officials, amounting altogether to some 2,400 people, are entitled to vote. Though it has limited powers to initiate legislation, Congregation usually meets, attended only by a sprinkling of dons, to consider and accept, or more rarely to reject after debate, proposals put to it by the university’s “Council,” which in its system of government occupies the position of a cabinet with limited legislative powers.
Council is an august body: it meets weekly in private session, chaired by the university’s vice-chancellor (roughly an unsalaried equivalent of the president of an American university), and comprising among its eighteen elected members several heads of colleges as well as a number of professors and fellows of colleges willing to spare time from teaching or research to take part in its often lengthy deliberations. Proposals for the award of honorary degrees are among those which Council is required to submit to Congregation for its confirmation. Normally proposals to confer these honors go through Congregation without opposition; indeed, in this century, before Mrs. Thatcher’s case arose, there had been opposition and debate only in two cases.
The first was that of President Truman in 1956 when Elizabeth Anscombe, the well-known philosopher and now professor of philosophy at Cambridge, opposed conferring the degree because of the President’s responsibility for the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She was unsuccessful and the numbers opposing the degree on that occasion were very small and were not recorded. The second case …