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OPINION The strange tale of Buckingham University and the Thatcherite right

Reminiscent of the ‘Buffy’TV series the demons all come from one academic institution, they make a lot of noise, but they are all beaten by a gang of teenagers, who rely on a rather calm, older intellectual for guidance – where Corbyn plays the role of Giles the Librarian, read on...

SWITCH on the radio, look in the newspaper and see something nasty coming out of a university? Take a close look and you might see that it isn’t often just any old university. It’s the University of Buckingham.

Radio 4 have got a “University Leader” to say why Lecturers and Librarians should not go on strike. Oh look, it’s Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

A professor is trying to support the Sun’s absurd story about Corbyn being a Czech spy? It’s Professor Anthony Glees of the University of Buckingham.

Toby Young is trying to prove that he is not just a right-wing provocateur, he’s a sensible educational reformer with university positions who should have a seat on the Office for Students. Oh look, one of those positions is as a “visiting fellow” at the University of Buckingham.

Roger Scruton, leading Conservative philosopher, disappeared of the scene in the early 2000s in a scandal about secret tobacco funding. Where is he now a professor? The University of Buckingham

Oh, and for extra points, Brandon Lewis, the new chair of the Conservative Party, went to Buckingham University.

Sometimes it seems like the University of Buckingham is sitting on some
kind of Conservative hellmouth

 

In the popular bloodsucker-and-demon-hunting drama “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” our heroine begins to think the creepy monsters that keep turning up for a fight can’t all be coincidences.

Then she figures out that Sunnydale High School is actually sitting on the “hellmouth,” so all the ghouls creep up and out from there.
Sometimes it seems like the University of Buckingham is sitting on some kind of Conservative hellmouth.

Why is the University of Buckingham such a feature in the media? It isn’t a big institution. It has around 2,400 students. By contrast, the University of Liverpool, say, has 24,000 students.  

The University of Buckingham has around 100 academic staff. But the University of the West of England, in Bristol, has 1,500 lecturers to work with its 29,000 students.

The University of Buckingham is one of the UK’s five private universities, so it is not only very small, it is very atypical.

But – and this is the clue to all the media attention – the University of Buckingham says it has “had long and close ties” to former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

As education secretary Thatcher helped Buckingham’s creation as a “University College” in 1973. As prime minister, she helped elevate it to full University status in 1983.

Buckingham became the first private university in the UK, but was not, as Thatcher hoped, the first of many.

After stepping down as prime minister, Thatcher then served as Buckingham University chancellor in the 1990s .

Buckingham University houses the Margaret Thatcher Centre, “a library and museum devoted to the life and ideals” of the former prime minister.

I think it’s that Thatcherite link that gives the university such prominence in the media, despite its small size and sometimes iffy staff. 

The conservative links give the university an “in” to Conservative friendly media.

So Lord Seldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham, is treated as a wise educational leader. But his roots are in public schools, not universities.

He was formerly headmaster of leading public school Wellington. In 2012, Seldon and Lord O’Shaugnessy (now a Tory health minister, then working with Wellington) announced they were launching a network of Wellington-sponsored academy schools.

They got as far as one – the Wellington Academy. It turned out the public school head wasn’t especially good at running a state school.

Wellington Academy had poor results, protests by pupils, and reportedly Seldon was found “shrieking” and “going bonkers” at the kids in assembly.

Seldon could have learned from this experience that self-regarding people aren’t always up to it. But he hasn’t.

Toby Young became a visiting professor at Buckingham, and was supposed to work with Seldon on a plan to launch headteacher training there, a plan that foundered.

When Young was under fire after his appointment to the Office for Students, Seldon originally defended him, writing on a right-wing website that “higher education needs more people like Toby Young.”

Within days Seldon performed a volte face, and said that Young “turns out revolting, disgusting thoughts on an industrial scale on social media.” Young was retrospectively dismissed from his post at Buckingham. The affair reflected badly on Seldon, Young and Buckingham.

Meanwhile Buckingham’s Professor Glees, supposedly an intelligence “expert,” was one of the key witnesses in the Sun’s discredited, bonkers story that Jeremy Corbyn was working for Soviet bloc intelligence.

Glees’s contribution included asserting that the Stasi held a file on Corbyn.

Only it turns out he never asked the archivists who hold the Stasi files, who confirmed there is no such thing.

Glees’s own book on the Stasi was reviewed by the CIA, no less, who said it  “is awkwardly organised and its analysis is steadfastly mediocre. There is doubt that the conclusions are supported by the evidence and no way to check.”

Glees’s book, published in 2003, was to have been serialised by the Times, but they dropped it because they couldn’t support its allegations about a Lib Dem lord being a Stasi agent.
 

Scruton, for his part, was one of Britain’s leading Conservative intellectuals. 

But in 2002 he fell from grace. Scruton wrote articles opposing the regulation of tobacco smoking, without revealing he was getting about £60,000 a year from Japan Tobacco International, the firm behind Benson & Hedges, Camel, Old Holborn and other brands.

A leaked email revealed Scruton’s offer to “place an article every two months”  arguing against regulation in “the Times, the Telegraph, the Spectator, the Financial Times, the Economist, the Independent or the New Statesman”  for the tobacco firm’s money.

The resulting scandal saw Scruton retreat from British academic jobs. It’s unsurprising he should finally find a home at the University of Buckingham.

Young, Glees and Seldon all found a home at Buckingham, but they have also all been roundly defeated by the forces of the left.

This also seems reminiscent of the “Buffy” TV series. The demons all come from one academic institution, they make a lot of noise, but they are all beaten by a gang of teenagers, who rely on a rather calm, older intellectual for guidance – which means I think that Corbyn is playing the role of Giles the Librarian.

Solomon Hughes writes every Friday in the Morning Star. Follow him on Twitter @SolHughesWriter.

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