Belfast Telegraph

Why Oxford should refuse the Iron Lady this honour

By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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.

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'. 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.

Her hair, of course, was coiffed immaculately. 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 her image.

Intimations of mortality reflected off her made-up face. 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. 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, her ruthless instincts, her promotion of privatisation and her complete opposition to equality campaigns and laws.

Then there was the 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?

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 changed the world. Is it enough then to be a woman leader whatever you go on to do? Not in my view.

If Wafic 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.

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