Ideas

  • A Box of Love Letters

    Most people, I guess, found that in “lockdown” they got round to doing things that were only on their really long list of things to do. In my case this included opening up the box file containing my father’s letters to my mother during the Second World War. He was in the Eighth Army in […]
  • The “Right Wing” Case for the NHS

    I am inclined to be snotty about the NHS. Debunking things that everyone else seems to believe in is one of my stocks in trade and I found all that clapping to be a bit North Korean. Moreover the service is the last proud moral possession of the Labour Party, not an organisation I’m fond […]
  • The True Meaning of Alastair Campbell

    About thirty years ago my wife and I attended a wedding at the House of Commons. At the drinks between the ceremony and the reception proper the two of us were talking to a young journalist. We asked him exactly what his job was and he said he was the political editor of the Daily […]
  • In Which America Goes Crazy

    So this is me doing what I am sworn not to do. That is, write briefly about the contemporary events that everyone else is writing about and for no money. It’s almost like tweeting – but not quite. On January 6th 2021 a bunch of hooligans as we would call them became the first people […]
  • Life with the Blind

    One night in late 1964 I assisted at a bizarre ritual which involved three blind men climbing up a drainpipe. It led them to the easily opened window of the Junior Common Room in Queen’s College, Oxford. I had been drinking with them because they were school friends, from Worcester Royal College for the Blind, […]
  • The Professorial Class

    My involvement in universities goes back well over half a century and I think it’s safe to say that the changes in universities during that time vastly exceed those in the half century before that. They have increased enormously in scale, shifted to much more vocational emphases, are much more international in nature and are […]
  • How Much Work should You Do?

    In 1971 the National Board for Prices and Incomes felt itself obliged to research how much work university employees did. Lord Redcliffe-Maud, the Master of University College, Oxford, but also the person most associated with the reform of local government as he had chaired the recent Royal Commission on the subject, offered a simple piece […]
  • At Last I Get to Join the Class War

    In its earlier manifestations I was left out of the class war. I grew up in a terrace house in a Lancashire Mill Town and before you begin imagining I’m looking for some kind of sympathy I must add that it was absolutely idyllic. The row of houses was between a field and a park […]
  • Good Old New Society

    Friday October 5th 1962: my sixteenth birthday, but more widely known for the coincidence that the first James Bond film, Dr. No, was released that day and so was the first Beatles single. Some people have portrayed it as the day that the sixties really kicked off, but I was unimpressed. I thought that “Beatles” […]
  • The Joys of the Virus

    “I like the virus. I want the virus to stay forever.” My grandson Teddy was a few months off his fifth birthday when he said this and one can appreciate his position. Under the rule of Corona you get to be with Mummy and Daddy all the time and they give you their full attention. […]
  • Waking up in Bardland

    On the morning of March 17th 2020 I checked the website of the Royal Shakespeare Company: business as usual. Great! But by teatime government policy on public events had become drastically more stringent and I had an email saying that they were closing their doors. It was like having a part of my being, a […]
  • The Psychopathology of International Organisations

    In the years since the Brexit referendum all possibility of rational debate about the issue seems to have evaporated and has been replaced by a combination of boredom and hostile emotion. Instead of argument we get a shabby sort of deconstruction of the opposition: it is difficult to get enthusiasts for the European Union to […]
  • Scottish Independence

    There are things that people say because they believe them and things they say – and may believe – because you have to say them to prosper. For most of history you had to say you believed in God and opposed homosexuality; no longer true, apparently, and a good thing too. But if you live […]
  • On Loathing Labour

    There’s a family legend that I was present when Aneurin (“Nye”) Bevan called the Tories “vermin”. I was three years old, on my father’s shoulders, and allegedly roared with anger. This incident was supposed to have taken place at the “Big Meeting” (aka the Durham Miners’ Gala) in 1950. Unfortunately, as so often with family […]
  • Grade Inflation

    I was super cool about my degree result: I was away when it was announced and made no efforts to find out what had happened until about a week later when I had a party to attend in Oxford. This was partly adolescent bravado, but it was also a firm belief that intellectual life was […]
  • Professionals and Eccentrics

    When you deliver a lecture course you want people to turn up and listen, particularly the people who are supposed to turn up. And at the end when your performance is evaluated you want them to say nice things, stressing that you delivered on aims and met the needs of those to whom you would […]
  • On References, Obituaries and “Personal” Statements

    When I was a young man an elderly academic once took me aside and asked me if I had ever been required to write a Times obituary. It was a crazy question though not actually the craziest question an elderly academic ever asked me. That would be, “Lincoln, did you ever meet Winston?” The great […]
  • A Lament for Academic Life

    When he was in his early twenties one of my sons said something to me that must count among the stranger things that sons ever say to fathers. Asked what he wanted to do with his life he replied, “I want to be exactly like you, Dad”, putting some vehemence into the adverb. And why […]
  • Pareto & Co.

    On an edition of University Challenge in 2013 there was a question on elite theory. I was pleased and relieved that the student competitors had heard of Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels, even if they mixed them up a bit. All of this intellectual triumvirate were born in the mid-nineteenth century and they […]
  • Universities: a Return to the Dark Side?

    A few years ago I was involved in a silly controversy about Shakespeare. I was asked to review a book which claimed that the plays attributed to him could not have been written by him, but were actually written by Sir Henry Neville. An explicit premise of the argument was that the author of the […]
  • In Praise of Showing Off

    By 1989 I had been teaching in universities for half a lifetime, twenty one years, arguably my entire time as an adult. I had no training in the job and I had never been faced with any formal assessment of my performance. Then, like the London buses of legend, forms of measurement of one’s performance […]
  • On the Expansion of the Universities

    Grade inflation is a universal human tendency. There are badges of esteem, which relate in complex ways to feelings of self-esteem, and the desire to acquire these is always present as is the pressure to make them available. Thus, for example, in societies in which there is a defined aristocracy the proportion of the population […]
  • Of Essays

    Since my early retirement from academic employment in 2004 I have taken to describing myself as an “essayist” and have had the occasional gratification of seeing others use the term to describe me. The reason for using this term is largely residual. “Writer” seems wrong at both ends because most people can write and specifying […]
  • The Philosophy of the Economics of the Garden

    SCENE ONE: (A changing room of a cricket club some time in the 1990s.) Two of the older players are discussing vegetable gardening. A younger man, overhearing their conversation, remarks sarcastically, “Grow-your-own. I bet that must save you loads of money.” Seen from that narrow angle it does all look slightly ridiculous. If you are […]
  • The Assessment of Academic Performance

    In a lifetime as a self-appointed “essayist” I have published over a thousand articles. There are all kinds of ambiguities about that figure including revisions and syndications, but it a rough indication. Mostly they were part of continuing series and the vast majority fell “still-born from the press” to use David Hume’s rather chilling phrase. […]
  • The Fundamental Flaws in Internationalism

           As I was leaving the polling station having voted in favour of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union my eldest son was passing on his bicycle. Having ascertained what I had done he berated me, albeit jovially, mentioning in particular his difficulty in recruiting adequate British staff for his niche in the electronic […]
  • Jobexit Strategies

           My first boss, the chairman of my department when I was a young lecturer, was Wilfrid Harrison. Even though there was approximately forty years difference in our ages I would have described Wilfrid as a friend. He was a distinguished and influential figure in many ways: the first person to be appointed as teaching […]
  • The Curious Fate of the Campus Sexual Revolution

           One day in 1981 I noticed that a woman I had passed in the street and tried to greet, the friend of a friend, had studiously ignored me. A couple of weeks later she appeared to cross the road to avoid me, chin jutting determinedly away from my direction. So far as I knew […]
  • Brexit: the Wonderful Options

         My first reaction on hearing about the Brexit vote was apprehension about the short- and medium-term consequences. My second was sympathy for the losers (but where was all that pro-European emotion during the campaign?). My third was the complete rescinding of the second and an onset of schadenfreude. They were such bad losers. During […]
  • Taking (Academic) Liberties

            When I was a visiting academic at Stanford in the mid-1970s the game of laureate spotting was a common practice. I don’t know how many Nobel prizewinners were then on the campus – the claim now is twenty one –  but there were plenty about. The biggest spot was Linus Pauling and I always […]
  • The Venal and the Ascetic in Academic life

           In 2014 a former colleague of mine resigned his job as the vice-chancellor of an Australian university. He didn’t have a lot of choice as he had been suspended by the Senate of the university and reported to the Crime and Corruption Commission. Many people were baffled and intrigued by the events, scanning the […]
  • Conservatism and Sport

    The suffix “ism” has two distinct implications, though they may be combined. The first is doctrinal: “marxists” are defined by beliefs, propositions derived from the thought of Karl Marx, even though the meaning and relative importance of those propositions is likely to be interpreted diversely and contested. The second implication suggests tendencies of attitude and […]
  • Trump and Corbyn: different chaps, same phenomenon

          Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn are in obvious ways opposites: in the over-used terminology we learned from France’s revolutionary National Assembly in the 1790s one is at the extreme “left” of orthodox politics in the anglophone world and the other at a version of the extreme “right”. But they also have similarities. They have […]
  • Pol Pot Was Right

           We just returned from a first visit to Cambodia. Of course, we visited the temples, but we also read the appropriate stuff, including Edward Short’s excellent biography of Pol Pot ( subtitled The History of a Nightmare and published in 2004) and Loung Ung’s moving account of a childhood destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, […]
  • Philosophy versus Prostate Cancer

    When you are diagnosed with prostate cancer you are faced with a number of aphorisms with more than a hint of paradox about them: “You are far more likely to die with it than of it.” “The cure, of course, is worse than the disease.” And then your friend remarks, in the pub, “It’s just […]
  • Fun with Pareto and Pyramids

           On an edition of University Challenge in 2013 there was a question on elite theory. I was pleased and relieved that the student competitors had heard of Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels, even if they mixed them up a bit. All of this intellectual triumvirate were born in the mid-nineteenth century and […]
  • In Memoriam (?): the Gentry

    Adam Nicolson, Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class, Harper, 2011, pp. 460 My wife was brought up in a house where the number of people exceeded the number of bedrooms by five. There was no car and no telephone and no prospect of a holiday. She worked hard at school and went […]
  • Ched Evans – and the state of contemporary ethics

           In forty six years of lecturing I have only had to deal with one protest against the content of my lecture. The subject was coercion; it raised questions about the nature of choice such as when one can be said to have a responsibility for an action as opposed to being “made” or “forced” […]
  • Whatever Happened to Social Mobility?

    Captain E.J. Smith of the Titanic was described as “the highest paid seaman on earth” and “a celebrity in his own right”. He was born in 1850 in a terrace house in Hanley, Stoke, the son of a potter. Sir William Robertson (Bart.) was born in 1860; the son of a Lincolnshire farm labourer, he […]
  • Are Novels a Waste of Life?

    Earlier this year I realised that three months had passed since I last read a novel and that it was the first time in the sixty years I have been able to read that this had happened. And then I also realised that the novels I had read in the last few years had not […]