Those mild, mild days of youth: Tony Blair was only 'slightly rebellious' in his college days. Cal McCrystal talks to those who knew him then

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The Independent Online
AS A LAW student at Oxford in the early Seventies, Tony Blair wore his hair long and his jeans wide-bottomed. He enjoyed a good sit-in. He strummed a guitar and he took up with Australians. He also, it seems, spent some time praying.

Beyond that, there is mystery. The only fact on which there is some consensus is that he did not, as people put it at the time, 'get laid'. As Mr Blair emerges as the most likely next leader of the Labour Party - and possible future Prime Minister - his friends, contemporaries and former tutors at St John's College become reticent and forgetful. The years at university are supposed to be formative ones, when a man's character is formed and wild oats sowed. But perhaps Mr Blair was just not very memorable. Certainly, not one contemporary could oblige with an illuminating anecdote.

'I was well aware of him as a lively member of the college,' said Peter Atkinson, now at Chichester Theological College. 'We had circles of friends that overlapped, but I'm trying to think of a particular episode and can't. . . was it law he was studying?'

Robert Garvin, a consultant actuary in Redditch, Hereford and Worcester, remembers a student 'on the arty side'who 'blended into the background'. Peter Hore, now a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, recalls 'extremely long hair, beyond which I was aware of nothing'. Mark Ellen, founding editor of Q magazine, who played in a college rock group with Mr Blair, says nothing at all. In other words, the undergraduate from Edinburgh craved the limelight (according to Eric Anderson, his former housemaster at Fettes College in the Scottish capital, Mr Blair was a good actor), but seldom caught the spotlight. At St John's, he and his room-mate Duncan Foster, now an Essex computer expert, produced and acted in satirical revues that parodied contemporary television programmes. Which programmes? 'Can't remember,' Mr Foster says.

Graham Dow, then a college chaplain and now Bishop of Willesden, recalls a chap he prepared for confirmation: 'Full of vitality, warm, and politically aware - I enjoyed him enormously as a person: someone who reached out to other people.' Robert Lockwood, finance director of Pilkington Glass, remembers Mr Blair 'socialising in mixed company', but with no special girlfriends. Another college man has memories of Blair cigarettes, Blair tennis, Blair attempts to sound like the Grateful Dead, but no Blair seductions. 'I've no doubt there were opportunities, but I don't think he was that sort of opportunist.' To which Duncan Foster responds: 'I suppose that's fair.' The MP himself has said that he was 'slightly rebellious'. But, according to Bishop Dow, rebelliousness 'was always quite measured in Tony'.

St John's College declined to talk about the Shadow Home Secretary. Mr Blair's former law tutor, Dr M R Freedland, said: 'I have decided after careful consideration that I'm not, I'm afraid, willing to engage in discussion (of Mr Blair) or provide material or comment. I do speak for the college in this respect. Thank you very much for your interest.' He would give no reason for the college's decision. Consequently, Mr Blair's Oxford years have been made to seem more intriguing than they actually were. Far from kicking over traces, however, he spent much of his time in the college chapel, becoming a member of 'the chapel group'.

Too late for the student hedonism and campus rebellions of the Sixties, his years at Oxford were stirred by no great ideological crises to make great claim on his loyalties, sear his conscience or dilute his ambitions.

'I do remember,' says Duncan Foster, 'Tony became somewhat indignant when a girl, Angie Hunter, who I believe is now his researcher, suggested that shoplifting from Marks & Spencer was not wrong since it didn't hurt anyone. Tony took the view that it was unacceptable from a moral perspective.' Was Miss Hunter persuaded? 'Can't remember,' Mr Foster says.

Four years ago, Mr Blair said: 'I went through all the bit about reading Trotsky and attempting a Marxist analysis. But it never went very deep . . . and there was the self-evident wrongness of what was happening in Eastern Europe.' Robert Lockwood believes that Mr Blair at Oxford, while involved in student politics, was not 'party political'.

It was a time, Mr Blair has also recalled, when 'there was perhaps a feeling that if there were an absence of guidance for people they would come naturally to the right conclusion - and at times a feeling that the only problem that existed for people was the problems that society had given them.'

Nevertheless he did accept guidance, much of it from two Australians. Political guidance was provided by Kim Beazley, now Minister of Finance in Canberra's Labor government (who still stays in close contact with Mr Blair); religious guidance by Peter Thompson, then doing a theology degree and currently teaching at Geelong Grammar School.

Bishop Dow recalls Mr Blair's college 'sit-in' in support of greater student representation in the college authorities - and his 'insistence that political awareness and concern was very much part of following Jesus Christ. It was something he got from Peter Thompson - something I supported too'.

Echoes of those influences were heard in Mr Blair's speech in Wellingborough in which he advocated teaching 'the value of what is right and wrong' and warned of 'moral chaos'. Recent suggestions that he frequently climbed into and out of college late at night could not be confirmed last week.

What Duncan Foster recalls is a party to celebrate first- year exams. It was on the top floor of the 16th-century part of the college. 'Some guests went out on the battlements, very Brideshead Revisited, and were tossing glasses down gaily on to the grass below. But none of the glasses broke. I think Tony may have been encouraging these guests to come back in. I can't quite remember.' The MP, Mr Foster adds, was exuberant but not reckless at Oxford, seldom consciously stepping out of line. So he has remained. 'Tony,' says Mr Lockwood, 'is very consistent.'

(Photograph omitted)

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