A number of my parliamentary colleagues are dismayed by the puerile, unfunny contributions when we return as visiting paper speakers at the Oxford and Cambridge Union Societies. The debating societies of the universities of Glasgow and Durham, to name but two, tend to be superior these days to Oxford and Cambridge.
But in those far-off days in the decade after the Second World War, most of the debates were of quality. And none more so than that on Tuesday 8 June 1954 on the motion "This house refuses to take itself seriously". It was proposed by the late Nicholas Tomalin, then an undergraduate at Trinity Hall, and opposed by Raghavan Iyer. John Betjeman spoke third and Sir Norman Birkett, among the most silken-tongued lawyers of all time, spoke fourth.
When the debate was broadcast on the Third Programme on Friday 11 June Raghavan Iyer's 19 minutes were widely applauded as a masterpiece of young oratory.
It was perhaps characteristic that he should have chosen as his own presidential debate in Oxford on 27 May 1954 "That the law is an ass". It was proposed by Jeremy Isaacs, later of Channel 4, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and much else. Opposed by Desmond Watkins, Stephen Potter spoke for the proposition and Viscount Hailsham for the opposition. The recollections of those present were that Oxford had not witnessed a better conducted debate.
Raghavan Iyer was born into a Brahmin family in Madras at the end of British rule. Hasha Hutheesingh, then an undergraduate at King's College, Cambridge, and son of Pandit Nehru's younger sister, a Cambridge contemporary, tells me that the Iyers were great friends of his own family and among the most influential backers of the Congress in southern India. Raghavan, a child prodigy, had been sent to university at the age of 15, and at the age of 18 began teaching at the University of Bombay. Precocious in the extreme, he went to Magdalen College, Oxford, assisted by one of the rare Indian Rhodes scholarships. To no one's surprise he got an impressive First.
When he came to the Cambridge Union my clear memory is that over the customary pre-debate dinner Iyer haranguedJohn Betjeman on the brilliance of a junior don at Magdalen College of whom most of us then had never heard - his name was Alan J.P. Taylor.
Iyer returned to India, unlike many of his gifted contemporaries, and got a job with the Indian government and their development plans. Alas, for complex reasons, this task was not to last. Indeed, it is the opinion of a number of his contemporaries that it was an enormous pity that Iyer did not make his life in India, to which he could have contributed so much.
Instead he opted to return to Britain, for intellectual reasons. His self-appointed task was the reconciliation of differences between West and East and he formulated the concept of a glass curtain. This he discussed before he was 30 years of age in a famous dialogue with the great Dr Arnold Toynbee. Iyer argued that there were many people who would deny that there was any curtain at all between Asia and Europe or that "East" and "West" were easily manageable terms. However, he contended that there was some sort of invisible, yet impenetrable curtain.
Albeit we didn't need to invent another kind of curtain standing for incompatible interests or irreconcilable ideologies, Iyer believed that there did exist this subtler one, transparent, but ever-present. We could replace old glass panes with new, but there were no chinks in the curtain. To this argument Toynbee replied: "Of course, with the Iron Curtain, you know it is iron and you can't get through; with a glass curtain you mistake and think there's nothing there, and then as soon as you try to get through you find that there is. It is a more awkward thing to manage, isn't it?"
To this, Iyer replied: "And it is not incompatible even with genuine goodwill, or of course with apathy. It is in fact the problem of seeing through a glass darkly, a condition similar to that of the schizophrenic who felt that between him and the rest of humanity there was some kind of hard glass pane through which he couldn't make real contact with the other side."
Iyer's magnum opus and the work for which he will be remembered is The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (1973). It is heavy-going scholarship. Perhaps Iyer succumbed to the temptation of which we had seen traces when he was at Oxford of showing off his undoubted erudition.
Iyer explained Gandhi's view that it was worse than futile for the Oriental to pose within the cloak of Eastern dignity, to trade upon a past reputation while at the same time greedily assimilating the very Western weaknesses he affects to despise and condemn. Iyer supported Gandhi in suggesting that the Oriental ought to hold fast to what was best in the history of his people and while retaining his self-respect, the more surely to win the respect of his Western neighbours.
Equally, Iyer explained Gandhi's view that the Westerner should abandon an attitude as stupidly consistent as that which demands from his Oriental neighbour conformity to his own ideals of propriety while denying him every facility.
Iyer took the view that the only lesson to be learned was that East and West were no more than names. Human beings were the same everywhere. He who wanted to do so would conduct himself with decency. There was no people for whom the moral life was a special mission. Everything depended on the individual.
If we looked into the future, was it not a heritage that we had to leave to prosperity that all the different races co-mingle and produce a civilisation that perhaps the world had not yet seen. There were difficulties and misunderstandings but Iyer, like Gandhi, believed, "We shall know each other better when the mists have rolled away."
Iyer devoted his life to trying to roll away the mists. I hope his efforts will not go unforgotten, because he so much wanted to be a prophet.
Raghavan Iyer, political philosopher: born Madras 10 March 1930; Lecturer, University of California, Santa Barbara 1965-86; married 1956 (one son); died California 20 June 1995.Reuse content