Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Oxford should refuse this honour to Mrs T

A controversy is about to break out in Oxford. The hushed lives of dons are unsettled and cloisters begin to reverberate. Once more the cause is Margaret Thatcher, its infamous old girl, or according to some, "its most illustrious alumna". In 1985, at an emotive meeting of its governing body, Congregation, 738 academics voted to refuse her an honorary degree, the first time an Oxford-educated Prime Minister had been denied the award. They were cross, not about the miners, but the cuts she had made to higher education budgets.

Now Wafic Said, the Syrian billionaire and a close friend of Baroness Thatcher, wants to name a new centre after her, so Oxford can atone for that "insult". Said's own reputation is not wholly unsullied. He once brokered arms deals between Britain and Saudi Arabia and, in 1996, donated millions to found the Said Business School at Oxford, a gift received there with mixed feelings.

Prominent people back Said's idea, among them the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson and the leftish Baroness Helena Kennedy, the prominent human rights lawyer. The objectors, including eminent professors, are being denounced as "lefties".

I saw Margaret Thatcher a couple of years ago at a function, led gently by David Cameron, her eyes vacant and walking slowly as if that would stop time. The lady is old and frail. One would have to be monstrous not to be affected. Britain's first female Prime Minister, famous for her self-belief, iron will and hard politics, was losing herself. Old age and death spare no one. And I can imagine her loneliness and sadness. But none of this should wipe out her questionable legacy.

An academic centre named after her in Oxford would transgress and betray the principles and morality of university education. As one emeritus professor says: "It is inconceivable that Congregation should accede to such a naming." Her ideas and record should be taught and debated freely, but a centre bearing her name is a statement of undisputed greatness. Too many of us dispute that and will do so long after she passes on. Agreed, she took the nation out of economic stagnation and played a vital part in the dismantling of Soviet communism. But there was too much bad stuff. We remember her moves to wreck the welfare state; her ruthless instincts; her promotion of privatisation; her complete opposition to equality campaigns and laws; her support for apartheid; her fondness for dictators generously armed by her government; her contemptuous small Englander sentiments. What's to admire in that?

Plans are afoot for a state funeral too, and that too would be a travesty. Unusually, the Thatcherite admirer, Peter Oborne agrees that instead of bringing the nation together, such a send-off would rip us asunder. "There are too many people – for example, ship workers from Glasgow, miners, those whose livelihoods were destroyed" who abhor her.

As the years have passed, much has been erased from the national memory, often because revisionists have claimed the story. And now there is The Iron Lady, with the wonderfully talented Meryl Streep, which completes the makeover. Now Thatcher is a feminist icon, the can-do daughter of a grocer, a carrier bags-to-riches heroine, an example to us all.

Is it enough then to be a woman leader whatever you go on to do? Not in my view. Equality means equal opportunity and equal responsibility. A man who had carried out Thatcher's programme would have been judged more savagely and would not have been rehabilitated, even if George Clooney had played him in a hagiographic film. Using gender as an excuse is inexcusable. Even more distasteful is that a billionaire admirer of Mrs Thatcher is using his position to whitewash her reputation. If Said gets his way, he will prove again that top educational establishments are easily bought. I hope the protesters do prevent this shameful "honour". But I fear they won't and there will be no sense of shame either.

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