The Oxford Union: Playground of Power by David Walter - review by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

Mother of Unions

The Oxford Union: Playground of Power


Macdonald 240pp £9.95

A goodish test in the case of a book like this is – how accurate is its account of my own life and times? On page 184 appears the following:

One of the leaders of the revolutionary students, Christopher Hitchens, made up for his participation in a bourgeois activity like Union debates by being as rude as possible to Establishment guests. In 1969, when Denis Healey was in the Chamber, he accused him of being on the end of a very elegant piece of string pulled by the State Department. He welcomed him to the debate on the grounds that Healey would learn something from what he, as undergraduate proposer of the motion was going to say. Healey replied that Hitchens was clearly a very nice chap and nice chaps did not make competent revolutionaries.

This is pretty accurate: as was my description of Denis Healey. Mr Walter could have mentioned that I had the honour to be speaking with Fenner Brockway, and he could have avoided the old gag about radicals in bourgeois surroundings. But that gag never stales for some people, who semi-consciously believe that only conservatives and liberals have a right to privileged education or even (one feels sometimes) the right to participate in English institutions at all.

On other pages, he confuses a demonstration involving Richard Crossman with one that actually took place to commemorate the second (only the second!) anniversary of UDI. And in an entry for 1970 he gives a slightly truncated account of how ‘Christopher Hitchens, the left’s voice on the order paper, made one of his elegant introductions.’ When I got up to oppose the Foreign Secretary, shortly after Nixon and Kissinger’s invasion of Cambodia, I cared only for insult and hurtful remarks – nothing at all for elegance. If there’s a sarcasm here I don’t see it and don’t want to. As the debate closed amid chaotic scenes (the man who dropped the noose from the gallery is now doing rather well at the BBC) the author of this book sidled up to me and said, ‘Piss off Christopher, actually.’ It was the rudest thing I have ever heard him say; certainly ruder than anything he ever said about the war in Indochina. With Tim Smith, now an inoffensive Tory MP, Walter helped to found a mass movement called ‘Oxford Moderate Students’, a band as large as it was intrepid. If I hadn’t come to its opening meeting to keep an eye on developments, the attendance would have been cut by ten per cent. The author here quotes the Times editorial on our roughing up of Michael Stewart; an editorial which said that we were ‘one of the nastiest political phenomena that Britain has experienced in this country.’ If we make the charitable assumption that the last word is intended to be ‘century’, the pronouncement is still more absurd. To have found excuses for the Somme, the Slump, the Sudetenland and Suez, not to mention Skybolt, Smith and Saigon and not forgetting the SDP, and to have drawn the line at this reviewer, is nice going even for the Times.

But enough about me. What about the book? David Walter loves the Oxford Union. There are some surprising people who will tell you all the same that the Union was a great influence on their lives. Not all of these people are suffering from a reluctance to grow up. Something in the chemistry of the institution seems to ‘fit’ people who aspire to certain kinds of political and journalistic life. It would be plausible to say that ex-Union people are so thickly spread around in politics and journalism that the whole thing has become a freemasonry, but it would be facile, too, and somewhat circular.

It’s quite good for the character to be debating with Cabinet Ministers at the age of seventeen. Or it can be if you don’t, like Michael Heseltine, let it go to your head. As Robert Robinson wrote in Isis in 1950:

The Oxford politician is ponderous. Young men of twenty-one are to be seen straining to adopt the comportment, the gestures, the facial expressions, the phraseology and the inflections of old port-poisoned buffers …

How true. But how instructive to see at first hand. There are at least two dozen members of the House of Commons today whose names I cannot read without laughing because I know what poseurs and place-seekers they are. To have been able to find this out before I was old enough to vote is what I would call a privileged education.

The same went for meeting the famous at first hand. That man in the cummerbund, hideously ogling the new lady Treasurer over a dinner at the President’s infamous table – he was the Minister of Defence? Give me two, three, many breaks. The idea was supposed to be that the Union Chamber prepared you for the rigours of Westminster, yet every week you could see household names from the Mother of Parliaments, doggedly proving that they were not up to Union standards.

Walter writes much as I remember him speaking – in a moderately humorous, moderately thoughtful, moderately modest way. His method is anecdotal, and there is much good stuff on Robin Day, William Rees-Mogg, Paul Foot, Roy Jenkins, Jeremy Thorpe and others. He takes the Union seriously enough to write a book about it, but he doesn’t want to be thought too solemn. On the whole, he succeeds in this innocent ambition. He gives a fair account of the two occasions on which the Union made some kind of a difference – the Vietnam Teach-In of 1965 and the occasion in 1939 when its protest at the Nazi slaughter of Czech students brought a telegram of gratitude from Eduard Benes to the then President Nico Henderson. But he can’t resist the temptation, in his long account of the ridiculous King and Country controversy, to discuss it at its face value.

Almost anything one writes about the place has to be written in code. It is of the essence of the Union that most people can not be members of it – a prohibition which extended to women until not long ago and to members of Ruskin College even when (or could I brag and say until?) I and my thuggish friends were there. Memories are revived by allusions and shared jokes; everything that was summed up by Kenneth Tynan when he referred to the ‘draughty old speakeasy’. I catch myself beginning to sound like a buffer.

Not long ago, I received a letter from a friend who had left Washington to return to Oxford as a post-graduate student. He had gone into Union politics and had played a part in staging the debate between E P Thompson and Caspar Weinberger. He had, he told me, just been elected President. Did I feel like looking in next time I was ‘over’? My photograph, apparently, still hung on the staircase. I thought – don’t be silly. The whole thing is a charade. But I caught myself thinking, over the next few days, of the absurd battles we had about whether or not to wear dinner jackets. Of the time when you could order cinnamon toast in the Gladstone Room. Of the debate between Brigid Brophy and Basil Blackwell over Last Exit to Brooklyn. Of the slogan ‘Sack Eden’, painted on the garden wall in 1956 and changed to ‘Back Eden’ by the Young Tories. Of the fatuous jokes and the pompous points of order. Does all that still go on?

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