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Lucky rather than privileged


My overriding ambition to be President of the Oxford Union
Anthony Howard Writer
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I went up to Oxford in 1952 and I was there till 1955, and it was an extraordinary period. It was, sort of, pre-Suez, none of these great changes had happened, none of the great, sort of, ‘Year of Revolution’ or anything like that. And I can remember, I thought they were out of their toots, but I can remember that there were actually contemporaries of mine who went in 1955 to join the Colonial Service. They went off to be District Officers in places that we called then Kenya, now Kenya. But I thought, you know, that’s not going to last very long. But they went in quite cheerfully and sort of apprenticed themselves to White Man’s Burden. Well, it was quite clear it was coming to an end.

What else went on there? I suppose we were very conventional. I went to a rather conventional college, Christ Church, a rather grand college, full of Etonians. And I threw myself in, I suppose really, to the… because I went straight from school. I wasn’t… I hadn’t been in the army first. And that meant that you were still quite excited by the toys you were given to play with, and the toys were things like university magazines, the Oxford Union, the Oxford Labour Club, as far as I was concerned. And I quite, sort of… I think I was much keener. If I had two years in the army, I would have said, 'Oh come on, let’s be a bit grown up about this. What do these little speeches matter in the Oxford Union?' Instead of which, I went up and, I think, with the dedicated ambition that I would be President of the Oxford Union. I don’t know why I wanted it so much. Partly perhaps because there’d been a boy at school who was quite influential on me. He became Librarian of the Union. Oleg Kerensky, son of the famous Kerensky, the first Russian, sort of, post-tsar Prime Minister. And Oleg, who I got on well with… who was older than me, he’d sort of tried to be President and failed, and so that may have had an influence on me. But he did become Librarian. So I more or less said, 'Well you know, I shall... if I can’t do that, then I’ll have to settle for going off to be a librarian or a schoolmaster or something but if I get there, then I’ll think of a different kind of career’.

Had some trouble, in that it was quite a distinguished year that I was President in. There was... Michael Heseltine was President in the Michaelmas term. Jeremy Isaacs and I then stood against each other in November for the Hilary term, and rather, I have to say to my surprise, Jeremy won, quite handsomely, by about, sort of, 340 to 240 or something like that. And I think I’d become rather unpopular because I’d done a lot of, sort of, writing in Isis and Cherwell and places. And a lot of it was pretty egotistical stuff and I think this rather turned people off. It was also a bit awkward because Jeremy had been pressed into… no Chairman of the Labour Club, I think in the Trinity term of 1954 and I had been, or was, that year I stood for the Union, I was Chairman of the Labour Club in the Michaelmas term. So we were both, sort of, competing for the same vote, as it were. He made a much better speech in the Presidential debate than I did. I made a rather poor speech, I think. But it was a rather big shock to me. He’d been Treasurer… no he’d been Librarian, I was Treasurer, so there were two offices of the Union and you were meant, to keep the show on the road, you were meant, as it were, to have a proper contest for the Presidency. And people who ducked out and said, 'Oh, I’ll let him have it and I’ll have it next after you, Claude’, were not really playing the game. So it was quite right, we should stand against each other. We were great friends and I remember we went off on the day of the voting, went off to Burford together and had lunch in Burford, and I suppose we voted at some time during the day, I don’t know. But, you know, it was all very pally. And he deserved to win.

But then the next term, I was quite lucky in that the opposition was very feeble and therefore, in the Hilary term, I was elected. And so I became President in the Trinity term of ‘55 and had, in a sense, achieved what I wanted to. I was, I think, slightly miffed. Shows what an egomaniac I was that I quite wanted to be editor of Isis as well as being President of the Union. And I think I made it clear to the Holywell Press people, who owned Isis in those days, that if they offered it to me, I would take it. You got £30 a term in those days for being editor of Isis. But they thought I’d be distracted and I couldn’t do both jobs, and gave it to a dumb boy, I think, who went off to be a professor in Canada or something but he wasn’t very lively. But I think they deliberately decided that I couldn’t have both, and as I was already President of the Union, I’d better stick with that. The other thing I sacrificed by being President of the Union, I think, was… and I don’t know who’s right, but when I was defeated, I read law. Very unfortunate subject. Not really an academic subject at all. But I read law at Oxford and I remember on the, sort of, week after the treat going to a tutorial and my very nice tutor at Christ Church, Teddy Burne… Edward Burne, said to me, ‘Well look, at least one good thing can come out of this. If you now knuckle down, I think we can get you a first’. And I said, ‘Well, what are the chances?’ He said, ‘Well, I think the chance is probably 50/50 but you know, they’re about that’. And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I think that if I try for the Union again, my chances of winning next time are probably 70/30 and so on an odds basis, I’d better go for running again for the Union’. He said, ‘Well, if you run for the Union, you haven’t got a chance of getting a first’. And I said, ‘Well, I know that’. And that wasn’t just running but it was also being President during the term in which schools took place. So he was perfectly nice about it, but I think that… and I don’t know if he was right or not, but it was very sweet of him to say what he did. So on the whole, I suppose I came out of Oxford feeling that the thing had gone reasonably well. I got a second, quite a good second, I think. But I didn’t get a first. But I had been President of the Union, I had been Chairman of the Labour Club, I had been features editor of Isis, all these toys which, as I say, I wouldn’t have played with, in my view, if I’d come in as a jaundiced and, sort of, slightly cheesed off ex-national serviceman in 1957, which was the alternative.

But I was lucky in the fact that, in those days, Christ Church, if they gave you an award, and they’d given me an exhibition, did insist that you came up straight away because they thought they’d invested their money and that you would have, in two years in the army, you’d forget all the Latin and Greek you’d learned or whatever it was, and you wouldn’t be as good an investment as if you came straight from school. And so not every college did that but Christ Church certainly did, and it meant that I went up at the age of 18 and came out of Oxford at the age of 21.  Which is also true, incidentally, of Jeremy Isaacs, who was on an exhibition at Merton, and true also, and I’m not quite sure how this happened, of Michael Heseltine, who was at Pembroke. And Michael came straight from Shrewsbury, I think, to Oxford, a year ahead of us because he arrived in ‘51 but he didn’t have any awards, certainly not. But I don’t know how he persuaded Pembroke to take him straight away but I think it may have been because he said, ‘I want to be an accountant’. In those days, he did, and therefore he’d become an articled clerk afterwards and then you got a postponement through being an articled clerk. And in fact, Michael Heseltine was one of the last people to go in for national service, which he did when he failed his part two of the accountancy exams and was then yanked into the army rather against his will. Didn’t stay very long, was out within ten months, because he was the first person to do the demob thing of becoming a political candidate and then the War Office let you go. He sort of blazed the trail for all those demob happy boys later. He, of course, was in the, I think, Welsh Guards and was an officer but most of them were private soldiers. But he did blaze that trail. He doesn’t like being reminded of that now because he likes to wear his Guard’s tie and all that stuff, but in fact, he was only in the army for ten months.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Oxford University, Colonial Service, White Man's Burden, Christ Church College, Oxford University, Oxford Union, Labour Club, Burford, Holywell Press, Isis Magazine, Merton College, Pembroke College, Welsh Guards, Oleg Kerensky, Michael Heseltine, Jeremy Isaacs, Michael Ray Dibdin Heseltine, Oleg Aleksandrovich Kerensky

Duration: 7 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 24 November 2009