IT IS only very occasionally that an individual's decision on whether or not to accept the offer of a job makes a difference to the development of British institutions, writes Tam Dalyell. Possibly the clearest cut example of such a decision occurred in 1952.
The newish Conservative government was faced with filling the crucial post of the chairmanship of the University Grants Committee at a time when there was a consensus that university education should be greatly expanded. Elements in the Government, but more particularly in the Treasury and Department of Education, thought that the expansion would be controlled if the chairmanship of the UGC was given to a civil servant, and they had a number of ideal choices in mind, with the immensely talented and energetic Toby Weaver being front- runner. Rab Butler, with his many Cambridge and university connections, demurred, and said that at least academia should be given the opportunity to put forward an acceptable candidate.
In their unhappiness at the prospect of the universities' suffering the thin end of the wedge of state control, the Oxbridge heavyweights turned to the Rector of Lincoln who as bursar had rescued his college from looming financial disaster. Keith Murray was at that moment looking forward to becoming Vice-Chancellor of Oxford in the following year, 1953, and did not want to be severed from Lincoln. However, he succumbed to the pressure of his friends, led by Oliver Franks, Canon CE Raven, Master of Christ's, Cambridge, and the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, Sir Lionel Whitby, Master of Downing. By doing so, he ensured that the universities would remain at arm's length from the Government, and this was with beneficial consequences for the next quarter of a century.
My abiding memory of Murray was his commanding performance before the Public Accounts Committee as accounting officer. As a 29-year-old MP I had asked him some direct questions about university education which Sir Edward Compton, then the Controller and Auditor General, observed to me afterwards were 'a bit over the top'.
However, the following week I had a message from Murray that he would like to give me a cup of tea and talk - which was kind and thoughtful. When I entered his room he put me firmly in my place. 'Why,' he said, looking up, 'did your parents take you away from my old school, Edinburgh Academy, and send you to Eton? Do you think that was good for you?' After my watery smile, he simply could not have been more charming or educative to a young politician about the working of higher education in Britain.