Too many dons do, not enough don't

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The Independent Online
I WAS shocked by an impious suggestion that Cambridge dons should lose their votes on the university governing body at 70. I have romantic ideas and memories of aged dons. Friends and I once watched from another college, thus unable to help, as one of these patriarchs, an octogenarian of vast knowledge and wisdom, strove doggedly to erect a deckchair.

Success eluded him. He stood back perplexed, analysing the principles underlying the construction of deckchairs. He attacked the problem again and struggled fruitlessly for 20 minutes or so until a college servant glided respectfully to his assistance, erected the chair and carefully arranged on it the don's rugs - upon which it started to pour. In the hands of such dons and servants, I felt, the university's traditions and splendours were perfectly safe.

Another guardian was the aged don, I think master of a college, whose position had been challenged by the winds of change. 'I am already an anomaly,' he stiffly replied. 'I intend to become an abuse and hope, God willing, to survive to be a scandal.'

The begetter of the present rash proposal is Sir Douglas Wass, former head of the civil service. He is an MA of St John's, therefore entitled now to vote; but he himself is 70. Threatening the pillars of society, he remembers his own legs - a fair man?

At present there are apparently too many dons entitled to vote. If so, this rules out an attractive suggestion, that the vote might be extended to college servants, so solicitous as I remember them for the gracious well-being of academe. Very well, why not disfranchise youth, the young dons, a prudent step favoured, mutatis mutandis, by Professor Hayek for national elections?

One snag is that the old dons of today were young dons in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, and thus in their youth exposed to all sorts of Marxist and other modern contagions. A maxim of Robert Conquest, the historian of the Great Russian Terror, is here reassuring. He rules that everyone is a conservative in the case of what he knows about. Old lefty dons, who still impenitently teach that the world would be happier if turned by violence upside down, are often crusty reactionaries when the universities they infest are under discussion. After all, old Herbert Marcuse, the radical who terrified even radicals, apparently valued his own comforts.

'F OR AN exciting, full career, join the Inland Revenue.' 'Join the taxmen and see the world.' Is that how it is now? My own relationships with the Inland Revenue have been, I confess, a bit humdrum - never did I dream I was dealing with maverick high-flyers or jet-setters.

Mysterious alleged misdemeanours on my part, hinted at by the taxman but never for some sly official reason specified, have melted away slowly like morning mists under my accountant's soothing touch. Revenue officials have sometimes displayed an interest in my well-being that I find touching. One, with paternal asperity, opined that if I dealt with my employer's business as negligently as I dealt with that of the taxman, I was fortunate to have a job at all.

Another Inland Revenue official kindly enclosed a complex form, which, if completed in triplicate and countersigned by a vicar or the like, would bring me a repayment of about 7s 6d - not much money even in those days. Negligent as ever, I ignored it. He wrote again, expressing surprise. I ignored this, too. In rising order of importance and seniority, other officials then intervened. They were successively 'surprised and disappointed', 'astonished and distressed', 'amazed and grieved'.

Presumably, the mounting emotions expressed were those thought appropriate to each rank. I pictured the chief inspector's personal assistant gently chiding him: 'Really, sir, you mustn't let this grief and horror get the better of you. Mr Welch simply isn't worth it.' Despite these enlivening moments, I have always thought the Revenue a dull place to work.

With all the more surprise, disappointment, astonishment and so on, did I read Paul Henderson in the Daily Mail, writing vividly about Mr Michael Allcock, 'the maverick taxman who targeted Nadir', 'the single-minded hunter of tax-evaders', the 'dedicated and brilliant tax inspector whose talents were wasted in a provincial office in Peckham Lane, Colchester'. There, however, he is said to have 'squeezed' taxes where none had been squeezed before. He is even said to have taken food from a Chinese take-away to analyse the cost of the raw materials and see if the proprietor was paying enough tax.

Promoted to the big time in London, Mr Allcock apparently immersed himself in the world of tax evasion, chauffeur-driven limousines and private jets. He enthusiastically made contacts in City restaurants, was 'gobsmacked' by the money being transferred to Jersey, flew to Paris and became by repute the most feared Revenue man in the Square Mile.

Phew] Here indeed, if truly observed, was a life that gave great satisfaction to Mr Allcock's superiors, as to all taxpayers who are convinced that money is better spent and saved by the Government than by the private citizen - a debatable point perhaps.

Ravishing visions arose in my mind of new and exciting movie genres - of Inland Revenue Westerns: a handsome tax inspector (Clint Eastwood in a white hat, of course) riding coolly alone into a lawless town. Outside the saloon lurk tax-evading bad men, toying with guns, impressed, despite themselves, when our hero at 100 yards shoots the cap off a bottle of contraband whisky in the bar.

Revenue crime thrillers, perhaps, and romances: Tax Girl Gloria (Demi Moore) falls for tax-swindler (Robert Redford). Revenue horror movies: you thrilled to Taxing the Living Dead; scream now at The Zombie Who Joins the Inland Revenue and the tax inspector who delivers a demand to a vampire in a graveyard. Revenue problem movies: a Revenue Indecent Proposal, in which the villain tries to swing his purchased prey on expenses as 'secretarial assistance'.

Perhaps 007 of the Revenue, in which our hero (Rowan Atkinson) assisted by many glamorous inspectorettes uses an underwater supersonic helicopter to enter a Korean expense-fiddler's impregnable subterranean fortress and pins his whole gang together with a huge hi-tech office stapling machine. I wonder what Sir Douglas Wass (Nigel Hawthorne) would make of it all.