This produced a slightly muted equivalent of a Bateman Cartoon: "The Mandarin who had never heard of the Research Assessment Exercise!", as a Bateman-style caption would have put it,
We were genuinely shocked but, characteristically, being academics, were all too polite to say so. Here was a very eminent Whitehall figure, not exactly removed from the public expenditure processes which, in the end, determine that trickle down of funds which reach our university departments, our libraries and our laboratories. And he'd never encountered the RAE - that acronymic cross to which we are nailed every four or five years, and by whose demands we live daily (at least, if we are doing our jobs properly).
The occasion, once my immediate reaction had subsided, set me thinking about the remark which had brought forth the cruel blow. It linked up with Roy Jenkins's latest book, which I was reading for the purposes of reviewing it in the Times Literary Supplement. His study of The Chancellors (Macmillan. pounds 25), Chancellors of the Exchequer from Randolph Churchill to Hugh Dalton, comes a mere three years after his hugely successful Life of Gladstone. And Lord Jenkins is still performing politically. He will shortly be producing a report on alternative voting systems for elections to the House of Commons which might - just might - change the political ecology of the United Kingdom forever.
But Roy Jenkins stands alone amongst front rank politicians who have produced an oeuvre (as opposed to a first class memoir) which scholars have to take seriously, absorb and learn from.
Roy Hattersley has come close, and still could approach the league of Big Roy (as Jenkins was known when both were active in Labour politics). Sir Robert Rhodes James has a fine stable of books to his name, to which will be added this autumn his study of the politics of George VI. But, sadly to my mind, Sir Robert was never given the ministerial office he really deserved.
When I allow myself to succumb to buffer-like, uncharitable thoughts abut the currently dominant political class, I wonder how much they read, beyond the occasional guru-book of the Will Hutton variety, or the latest production from the Armani-clad minds of the young men and women at Demos.
I suppose they read Tony Giddens on society and social change: some of them, too, will have benefited from a dash of Eric Hobsbawm. But one does not get the impression they bring the well-stocked mind of a Jenkins, a Denis Healey. a Tony Crosland, a Harold Macmillan, a Quintin Hailsham or a "Rab" Butler to the Cabinet Table.
I may be wrong (and about to receive one or two hurt telephone calls putting me straight). But if I am largely right, it's doubly depressing, because the Cabinet is now brimming, not just with graduates who rose up the ladders put down by the 1944 Education Act, but also with beneficiaries of the post-Robbins expansion of the Sixties and Seventies. I simply do not accept that "more has meant worse" in our seminar rooms; it may mean that in the Cabinet Room. What a depressing thought! I shall banish it instantly and blame my Whitehall chum for starting the train of thinking which led to it - and quickly turn my attention to the book I'm writing for inclusion in the next RAE.
Peter Hennessy is Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of LondonReuse content