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 was in 1975, when Council proposed for an honorary degree the late president of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was also an Oxford graduate. To the consternation of many this was successfully opposed (239 votes to 181) by those who thought he had been implicated in the massacres in Bangladesh.

The debate on Mr. Bhutto’s case had made Council wary, so that when Mrs. Thatcher became prime minister in 1979 it did not then follow precedent and propose her for an honorary degree. This infuriated many Conservatives in and out of Oxford, but by the time Council came to consider the matter it was plain that the policy of Mrs. Thatcher’s government of compelling all universities to make large increases in fees charged to foreign students had made it widely unpopular in Oxford. But as the years went by and no step was taken to bestow on Mrs. Thatcher the honor that many thought her due, complaints, mainly from the Conservative establishment, that the delay was both an insult to the prime minister and a disgrace to Oxford, became vociferous. Finally last December, Council, dismissing its earlier misgivings, gave notice of its intention to propose to Congregation conferring on her an honorary degree in June at Encaenia, the equivalent of commencement at an American university.

The timing of this ill-fated step could hardly have been worse, for by the time it was taken very many Oxford dons, scientists and humanists alike (including many who in politics would vote for the Conservative party), had become convinced that under Mrs. Thatcher’s government savage and ill-conceived cuts in state funding of education and research had done great damage not only to Oxford, and not only to universities, but throughout the education system of the country. So when at last Council announced its intention to propose Mrs. Thatcher for an honorary degree 275 dons signed a statement explaining their intention to oppose it, which was published and circulated in the university’s weekly Gazette.


The signers of this document, of which I was one, were of many different shades of political opinion and in some cases of no shade whatever, and were drawn from many different academic disciplines, but they included, among a large number of scientists who normally take little part in Congregation’s proceedings, no fewer than ten Fellows of the Royal Society, Britain’s most prestigious scientific academy, founded in the seventeenth century. The document that they signed deplored the effect of Mrs. Thatcher’s policies on the values to which as academics they were committed, in the following terms:

Mrs. Thatcher’s Government has done deep and systematic damage to the whole public education system in Britain, from the provision for the youngest child up to the most advanced research programmes. Vice-Chancellors, presidents of learned societies and senior officials of Research Councils have recently warned of the gross and possibly irreparable nature of the damage done to Britain as a scientific nation.


The ensuing debate in the crowded Sheldonian Theatre over which the vice-chancellor, flanked by two proctors, presided from his elevated ceremonial chair was decorous and serious though passions were engaged on both sides. There was time for eleven speeches, and apart from one depressingly facetious speech made by one head of college, which drew no laughter from the assembly, the speakers addressed themselves to the central issues with relatively few deviations from relevance or sense.

Mrs. Thatcher was one of seven distinguished persons proposed for honorary degrees on this occasion (among them were the president of Italy, Alessandro Pertini, the famous opera baritone Geraint Evans, and Professor Fritz Stern of Columbia University), but only in Mrs. Thatcher’s case was the proposal opposed. The case for her degree was opened by the warden of All Souls College, Sir Patrick Neill, a distinguished lawyer who will succeed the present vice-chancellor next academic year. He did not dispute that cuts in state funding of education and research made by Mrs. Thatcher’s government had caused the university great alarm and indeed listed the numerous occasions on which the university had properly protested to her government against them through various channels open to it. But even though nothing had come of those protests, he argued that for the university to make a further protest by refusing the prime minister an honorary degree would be a petty, insulting gesture which would have no effect on her government’s policy but would disgrace the university in the eyes of many outside Oxoford and be misinterpreted abroad. He claimed that to take such a step would be doubly wrong: it would be an unwarranted departure from established precedent and it would make the award of such honors a political matter and degrade them.

The general lines of Sir Patrick’s argument were followed by most of Mrs. Thatcher’s supporters. Some additional points were made, not all of them obvious improvements. One speaker claimed that Mrs. Thatcher’s opponents were motivated by male resentment of women’s advancement, while another invited Congregation to salute by its vote Mrs. Thatcher’s achievement in combining a most distinguished career in politics with matrimony and motherhood. The most serious further arguments used in Mrs. Thatcher’s support concerned the government’s record of expenditure on education and research. One speaker argued simply that in the country’s economic plight cuts all around were necessary and the university should not expect to be spared what others had suffered.

Surprisingly, the most lively of the speakers supporting Mrs. Thatcher seemed to contradict two of the main speakers on her side by claiming that all talk of cuts was mistaken, and quoted figures purporting to show that under Mrs. Thatcher’s government state funding of education and research had actually increased. The precise interpretation of the figures is a somewhat technical matter which I relegate to a footnote, but in January the government itself issued a statement of its expenditure on higher education showing that overall funding for universities had, with allowance for inflation, been reduced by 8 percent since 1980.*

The principal speakers opposing the degree were the Professor of Government and Public Administration, Peter Pulzer, and Denis Noble, professor of physiology, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and one of the most eminent cardiac physiologists of his generation. Professor Pulzer spoke in grave and measured tones and subjected to close criticism the argument that a proper respect for tradition and precedent required the university to honor the prime minister as Council had proposed. There was, he said, a time for conforming to such conventions but also a time for departing from them, and since the long series of protests through the usual channels against the government’s damaging policies had proved fruitless it was now time to depart from them. No one could have a right to an honorary degree as the prime minister’s supporters were in effect claiming for her with their simple stress on precedent. For no convention should overrule the deep conviction felt by so many in the university that it would be utterly wrong for Oxford to give its highest mark of approval to the head of a government which had done so much harm to education not only at Oxford but at all levels throughout the country.


Professor Noble’s speech was by general agreement the most impressive of the debate and was greeted with loud applause. A spare, slight figure, he spoke with calm authority and undecorated eloquence. He agreed with Mrs. Thatcher’s supporters that it was in general perfectly proper for Oxford to confer honorary degrees on politicians even though many in the university disagreed with their policies. But what motivated those who opposed this in Mrs. Thatcher’s case was not mere political disagreement: it was great anxiety felt right across political party lines, because the policies to which they objected were causing possibly irreparable damage to the central purposes for which the universities and other educational and scientific institutions existed.

This was not, he continued, just an Oxford grievance; indeed other universities had suffered much more severely. For over the last seven years the government’s provision for all basic scientific research had declined in real terms by 20 percent. British science, which had been the envy of the world, immensely successful and extremely profitable, was being destroyed. In two or three years, he said, it would be too late to stop this nearly irreversible decline, and when Britain’s oil wealth ran out the country would find itself the pauper of the scientific world without a scientific and technological base to face the future. It was vital to make this grave situation clear to the government, and the university’s refusal to confer this degree, motivated not by spite or intention to insult but by such widespread anxieties, would eventually make its impact.

Undergraduates at Oxford are, by a recent innovation, permitted to speak though not to vote in Congregation’s debates, and among the speakers in opposition to conferring the degree was one undergraduate. He brought with him a petition signed by five thousand undergraduates (more than half the total number) urging Congregation to reject Council’s proposal. He made a wellphrased, well-spoken speech before an audience that many might have found daunting and asked members of Congregation in exercising their votes to remember how severe the impact of the Thatcher government’s policies had been on the young, not only on students actually attending universities but on all those seeking admission to higher education. Not only had state-funded maintenance grants to students been cut, but in a country where a far smaller proportion of the young proceed to higher education than in other advanced countries, the limitation on student numbers introduced by the Thatcher government meant that some 12,000 well-qualified students are being turned away from the universities each year. He made a moving appeal to Congregation and he sat down to much applause.


The size of the turnout for the debate and of the majority vote astonished even the most optimistic of those who came to Congregation prepared to vote against conferring the degree. At the end of the debate, scores of apolitical scientists, along with the heads of colleges, senior professors, and others known for their conservative, center-right, or center opinions, trooped out of the Sheldonian Theatre through the door marked “No.” Those who saw this could hardly believe their eyes when they read next day what was said in the London press about Congregation’s decision and the motives of those who voted with the majority. The impression was given that the decision was brought about by a Red plot: a Marxist minority bent only on discrediting Mrs. Thatcher’s government had successfully conspired to bamboozle innocent, uncomprehending scientists into following their lead. Thus the London Times in a leading article entitled “Sale of Honours” said the decision was “the culmination of a nasty campaign which has oscillated between political spite and logic-chopping.” The campaign had begun, according to the Times, “very much as an exercise by militantly left wing dons” but it had gathered “other and more apparently respectable support.”

Even the view that honorary doctorates should not be awarded to politicians but only to those distinguished in scholarship, and in the arts and sciences, which has since the Bhutto debacle gained wide support in the university, was attributed by the Times to “Marxist dons who spearheaded the campaign….” “What lies behind this sorry business,” the article concluded, “is that Oxford now sells its honours, giving doctorates when the Government promises money enough and not otherwise.” Many, even of Mrs. Thatcher’s supporters, thought that misrepresentation and bias could scarcely be worse than in the Times article. The Marxist plot was pure fantasy; for those who helped to organize the collection of signatures for the statement explaining why the degree should not be conferred included a number who were not even supporters of the Labour party but of the Liberal or Social Democratic party.

Perhaps the lowest depths were plumbed by an article in the Daily Telegraph, “On the Decline of a University,” written by Lord Beloff, a former holder of the chair now held by Professor Pulzer, and an enthusiastic supporter of Mrs. Thatcher. In this article Lord Beloff mentioned Sir Kenneth Dover, who had made clear his opposition to the degree. He is president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, a most distinguished and productive classical scholar, and a former president of the British Academy. Lord Beloff chose to refer to him as “hitherto only known to the British public as the author of the standard work on Greek homosexuality.” In the same article Lord Beloff claimed that “in one sense” Congregation’s decision “was a well organized coup by the political left,” and he hinted darkly, without identifying anyone, that the names of the 275 signatories of the statement “would themselves be enough to make clear who were behind it.”

Lord Beloff then proceeded to list and examine various causes of Oxford’s decline. Among them he found “a succession of Marxist appointments not on the grounds of merit but pour épater les bourgeois“; “changes in the admissions procedures designed to broaden the intake”; “exaggerated attention paid to the opinions of students”; and, strangest of all, “constitutional and bureaucratic changes that permitted absurdities like Congregation’s huge vote.” It is unclear what this last mentioned cause of “the decline of the university” envisaged by Lord Beloff is, since earlier in his article he had correctly attributed the size of the vote to the extraordinarily large turnout of scientists who certainly do not owe their vote to any “constitutional and bureaucratic change.”

During the next few days the correspondence columns of the London and provincial press carried many letters under such headings as “Ill Nature Among the Ivory Towers” deploring Congregation’s decision. Some spoke of it as “folly and pettiness,” others of its “spitefulness and self-importance,” and one Conservative member of Parliament, after first describing Mrs. Thatcher as “one of the very finest women who have ever passed through a university,” wrote, “The bigotry is beyond belief. The discourtesy defies description.”

Later, however, a somewhat cooler tone emerged and letters appeared defending Congregation’s decision and rejecting the story of a Marxist plot. The Times, to its credit, published a thoughtful article attributing the vote in Congregation to

the sentiment among sober centre and centre-ight dons of many disciplines who feel that this government is composed of philistines who regard university education as just another lobby to be cut down to size, or another service industry which ought to be given the choice of “shaping up” or going under, rather than as a special activity at the very heart of the national culture.

The truth of the matter could hardly be better expressed.

This Issue

March 28, 1985