The open society – and ...

J. R. Lucas

There was once a leak from Hebdomadal Council. The

Assessor told her husband, who told my wife, who told

me that Monday afternoon had been spent discussing

what Lucas would say if various courses of action were

adopted, leading to the conclusion that it would be best

to do nothing. I was flattered, but a bit surprised. The tide

of philosophical scepticism had ebbed, and it was generally

allowed that a reasonable way of discovering what

someone would say was to ask him. Dick Southwood did:

he would quiz me in Common Room – sometimes ending

"Thank you for letting me bounce these ideas off you"

– and had reliable information about how one member of

Congregation would react to various proposals. And not

only me: he was a listening Vice-Chancellor, who used to

bike from Wellington Square to Merton for lunch, greeting

many as he passed them, and ready to stop if occasion

warranted it.

Of course, there are many other leaks. I remember

once attending a meeting in the Town Hall to argue for

cycle tracks, and someone coming up to me, and saying,

"You’re having a tussle with Council, aren’t you? I think

you ought to see the minutes of their latest meeting"; the

next day there was a copy in my pigeon hole, giving me

just the ammunition I needed. What members of Congregation

tend the forget is the existence – the other side

of the green baize door, so to speak – of a corps of bedells

and bull-dogs, manciples, stewards, housekeepers, secretaries

and functionaries, who sustain the University and

Colleges, carrying out instructions loyally, but having

an even greater loyalty to Oxford, warrant officers who

guide their officers towards sensible orders, acknowledging

that they are not themselves academics, but being

shrewd judges of character and having much practical

wisdom. I have often been helped by them on other occasions

too – once in the Bodleian to find the printed text

of a Vice-cancellarial letter that would torpedo the latest

folly. On another occasion, at a Harvest Festival Supper, I

was treated to the minutes of the General Board, together

with the College entries to the University year-books in

the 1930s, full names of each Fellow, listed in order of

seniority. In a world of agenda and minutes, discussion

papers and reports, strict confidentiality is an illusion.

Not that confidentiality is unimportant. There are

some confidences we need to take great care to keep: in

Oxford, most notably and thus far successfully, I think,

the questions that are going to be set in public examinations.

In electoral boards and appointment committees,

each member must feel free to voice doubts about the suitability

of candidates, and to give details of defects, and

justify adverse judgements. Likewise in Council and university

and college committees, members need to feel free

to speak their minds without being shopped. I remember

being justifiably irked when an erstwhile Senior Tutor reported

to the JCR that it was I who had opposed one of

their proposals. As members of a committee we owe it to

our fellow members to treat what they say with respect

and discretion. But not more than that. Academic business

would be impossible if nobody outside a particular

committee could know what its thinking had been which

led to a particular decision. We need to know the arguments

that had been canvassed, the other proposals that

had been discussed, the problems foreseen, the obstacles

overcome, and the objections rebutted. If all this is known,

we may well be persuaded; and when we do disagree, we

shall recognise that there was a case for the decision, and

know what we can do in the light of it to achieve our own


In Cambridge proposals for important pieces of University

business are often accompanied by signed statements

by particular members of the Council of the Senate

giving the arguments for and against the proposal in question.

It is a valuable practice, and once, when I was on a

committee to reform the Gazette among other things, I

suggested that Oxford should do the same. In due course

there was a question on which Dick Southwood and I had

opposing opinions, and he and I each wrote his own, and

vetted the other’s, brief expositions. But they were never

published. Somewhere in Wellington Square there were

dark murmurings about journalistic integrity. It seemed

to me absurd that the Vice-chancellor could not have his

argument for Council’s proposal published in the University’s

Gazette, but I refrained from making an issue

of it, knowing that he was under great pressure on other


The only one of our suggestions that came through

unscathed was the diary of future events at the back of

the Gazette. But some other matters discussed then are

worth further consideration now. One of them was flysheets.

Council was fearful. Instead of welcoming them

as a means of encouraging discussion, and enabling a

consensus to emerge, it saw them as furtive attacks on

its own omniscience. I remember wheeling a perambulator

to Wellington Square with thousands of copies of

a fly-sheet, because the University, which had excellent

copying facilities and access to wholesale prices of paper,

had decreed that those who had the temerity to produce a

fly-sheet should produce all the copies required. Later it

was the fear of libel that apparatchniks used as a means of

obstruction. In order to have a fly-sheet circulated, there

had to be an undertaking by twelve members of Congregation

making them each personally liable for the cost of

any proceedings. Most dons are not rich and are not lawyers,

and are naturally hesitant about taking on responsibility

for expenses where lawyers are involved. It is quite

difficult to cajole the requisite number of signatories. I

remember one Friday of Noughth Week with my room

awash with undergraduates fixing tutorial times and subjects

for their first essay, being rung up by the Registry

with arcane doubts about the wording of the undertaking,

and wanting an answer before noon. The actual danger

of our fly-sheet then, or any since, being libellous is,

even by the most prudential reckoning, small. All that is

necessary to protect the University, without throttling the

free expression of concerned opinion, is that the Proctors

should vet the wording of projected fly-sheets, and if they

see any possibility of libel, discuss it with the promoters

and, if necessary, refer it to a legal expert. Only if the legal

expert cannot give it the all-clear and the promoters insist

on the dubious wording, is it appropriate to require a

written guarantee. Anything more than that betokens an

unwillingness on the part of the administration to have to

hear what outsiders are saying.

When I was a young don, I managed to get enacted,

on the back of another Young-Turkish proposal, a requirement

that Council should each year bring before

Congregation a general proposal about some policy the

University should adopt. My reason was that just as in

Parliament the Second Reading comes before the Committee

and Report stage, so there should be in Oxford a

general discussion about direction before detailed proposals

were worked out and presented to Congregation

to accept or reject. I got my measure through, but it was a

dead letter from the start. Council did not want to share

its thinking with Congregation, and there is no humane

method of extracting the thoughts of an unwilling body.

Instead of taking Congregation into its confidence,

sharing its thoughts and listening to the response, Council

lived in fear of Congregation, always afraid of being

ambushed by some unseen faction. To avoid this, it was

keen on raising the quorum for votes to be effective, and

the number signatures for initiatives to get off the ground,

to have long notice of opposition and short notice for getting

administration business approved. All this seemed

reasonable from Wellington Square, but not, as it actually

worked out, to outsiders. One measure towards the

neutering of Congregation was to cut out its right to have

second thoughts. The measure was heavily defeated,

thanks partly to a speech by a medical Fellow of Wadham,

but even more to the arguments put forward on behalf

of Council. But we had not mustered enough votes

to count, and I remember wearily writing notelet after

notelet to raise fifty signatures for a postal ballot, when

Dick Southwood telephoned to say that he had talked to

members of Council, and they had agreed to accept the

vote as conclusive. When numbers, signatures and notice

are in question, we need to remember how difficult it is

for outsiders to find out what is in issue, who is interested,

what the alternatives are, who is available. Dons are very

busy. There are seminars on Tuesday afternoons, which

should not be cut or put off except for very good reason.

Council does not need special protection against being

ambushed in Congregation – the postal vote is defence


Near the end of my time nearly £100,000 was spent on

having some chartered accountants come and say how

Oxford should do things. It is a common practice in business

to hire outside consultants, who, for a fat fee, will

recommend what the hirer wants to be recommended, but

does not dare to do so himself. The chartered accountants,

in an essay which would barely have scraped a II2 if it

had been served up in Finals, recommended that Congregation

should delegate its powers to Council who were so

much better placed to take decisions on its behalf. It was

£100,000 wasted. Council does not only not need special

protection against Congregation, but needs a wellinformed

and active Congregation in order to do its job

properly. Oxford is not a top-down institution, like an

army or a business, where top management decides what

is to be done, and line managers see to it that their underlings

carry out the necessary tasks, but a bottom-up society,

where new ideas are hatched in Common Rooms and

over coffee after lectures, and initiatives bubbling up from

the bottom, with the administration there to facilitate, to

coordinate, and to avoid needless clashes. Congregation

is not the only funnel for initiatives, but it can be a crucial

one, and it could play a much more effective and positive

role in University affairs if some obstacles were removed.

Procedure in Congregation is, perhaps inevitably, difficult

to fathom, and difficult to use. One recommendation

of our committee survives in vestigial form: with the

agenda for Congregation the Gazette gives the name of

someone who can advise and help the newcomer. But that

is not quite what we had in mind. We had thought of an

outsider, who could give earthy advice about useful tricks

and dodges as well as neutral and impartial information

about what was permitted and what was required.

I think I suggested – without having asked him – Richard

of New College as a suitable gad-fly who would be able

and willing to help others get their, possibly unwelcome,

initiatives off the ground. Gad-flies are good. They may

irritate, but they stimulate discussion – often, indeed,

causing establishment arguments to be articulated and

accepted. Aristotle in his brief review of Athenian political

history names, together with the great and the good,

the προστaτης τοu δημου in each generation, who spoke

for the outsiders, and kept the insiders on their toes. Some

years ago I had occasion, as an elector to a Chair in Cambridge,

to hobnob with the established leaders there, who

were incensed by the activities of their gad-fly, and could

not make out why she seemed to be gathering so much

support. They told me of many, no doubt serious, motes

that distorted her vision, but had evidently never asked

themselves whether there was anything in the way they

exercised power which gave her a constituency of the disaffected.

Openness is a great prophylactic. If the arguments

that guide the powers-that-be are widely known

they may well persuade, and will certainly defuse suspicion.

And if there are institutions that enable them to hear,

and encourage them to heed, the thoughts of outsiders,

Council will have little to fear from ordinary members

of Congregation, and will often find hitherto untapped

reservoirs of support.