Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Oxford should refuse the Iron Lady this honour

Her ideas should be freely taught, but a centre bearing her name would be a sign of undisputed greatness
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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. Then they were cross, not about the miners or her divisive politics, 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" and memorialise the great lady. Said's own reputation is not wholly unsullied. He once brokered arms deals between Britain and Saudi Arabia, and then in 1996 donated millions to found the Said Business School at Oxford, a gift that was received there with mixed feelings. But all was soon forgotten and forgiven.

Prominent people across the political spectrum enthusiastically 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 include eminent professors, lecturers and researchers, who 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. Her hair, of course, was coiffed immaculately and she wore a well-chosen dress with those pearls, given to her by Denis, which she stubbornly refused to stop wearing when advised to do so by those who sought to soften and modernise her image. Intimations of mortality reflected off her made-up face. I remembered those stories about her having "electric baths" to keep young, a secret she apparently shared with Gorbachev in 1989. Old age and death spare no one. And I can imagine her loneliness and sadness as she looks back. 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 (now pushed even further and harder by the Coalition), her ruthless instincts, her promotion of privatisation, her complete opposition to equality campaigns and laws, her utter disregard for human suffering, her support for apartheid, her awful behaviour over the Belgrano, her fondness for dictators generously armed by her government, her contemptuous Little Englander sentiments. What's to admire in any of that?

Plans are afoot for a state funeral too, and that too would be a travesty. Unusually, the avowed Thatcherite admirer Peter Oborne agrees that 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.

When it premiered Streep and the director Phyllida Lloyd wittered on about the brave and ambitious woman who broke though glass ceilings and changed the world. 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 Baroness Thatcher is using his position to whitewash her reputation. Rupert Murdoch funds a professorship of language and communication at Oxford and until recently Gaddafi money was welcomed by the LSE. 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.