I suppose you know you are getting old when the prospect of attending a funeral is more appealing than the thought of a wedding. At least funerals are shorter and the music is better.
Another sure sign of age, is when Prime Ministers look young and teachers and professors look like toddlers. David Cameron (for the record!) was the first young PM I could look down on with ‘age superiority’ and wonder why he didn’t call me for advice. He was born nine years after me in 1966 in the year of World Cup Willy, which was perhaps the last time Britain felt truly good about itself.
Our present PM, Mrs May, on the other hand, reversed the trend. She was born ten years earlier than Dave, on Oct 1st 1956, and just four months and five days before me. She attended St Hugh’s at Oxford between 1974 and 1977, while I was at Pembroke between 1975 and 1978. Although we overlapped, I do not think we gate-crashed the same parties.
So, I hope you will forgive some reflections on where you can end up after much the same starting point.
At Oxford, whilst I edited a forgettable arts magazine called Envisage, which I sold outside Blackwell’s, or door to door at colleges, Theresa joined the Young Conservatives. Remembering the liberal atmosphere of the period, it is an insight into the early character of our Prime Minister. The era was liberal to a fault. One of my English tutors, Dr Fleeman, a Johnsonian scholar whose edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson I can see on my shelf, required us to wear gowns and mortar-boards for tutorials, but still broke off a seminar to take us out on to St Aldate’s to watch a demonstration go by. ‘Democracy in action’, I remember him saying. Naïve, as I then was, at a later demo when word got out that the Shah of Iran’s sister was visiting Wadham to make a bequest, I interpreted the students lining Broad Street as potential purchasers of the latest edition of Envisage. As I started up the line, I came close to being lynched. It made me understand that politics was serious.
One thing is for sure, Theresa was serious. I was interested in politics, but mainly because my father was. He was Treasurer of Liberal International, a grouping of the UK Liberal Party with other like-minded, but not necessarily like-named, liberal parties round the world. The group met at No 1 Whitehall Place which was first port of call for a number of political exiles. One of them was the South African journalist, Donald Woods, the anti-apartheid campaigner and friend of Steve Biko. Like most students of my era, I was interested in left wing politics. I remember attending a left caucus meeting in a cellar at Lincoln College, at which everyone called each other comrade and the chairman had a Lenin beard. That evening our special guest was hot-foot from Northern Ireland and a representative of the ‘Troops Out’ movement.
In 1976, Jeremy Thorpe was due to speak in a debate and, as a result of my father’s friendship with him, I was invited to attend a post- debate dinner at the Union, and told to collect my ticket from Benazir Bhutto because she was President. I turned up at St Cats, found her room, and gingerly knocked on the door. Benazir answered straight from the shower wearing a towel which failed to conceal her shapely body or the water drops glistening in her dark curly hair.
The debate that evening was on the then topical subject of devolution along the lines of ‘This House isn’t too sure Devolution is a brilliant idea etc’. [I am afraid I have failed to bring up the actual wording on Google.] Speaking for the motion was a back-bench MP, Nigel Lawson, and A.N. Other whose name I cannot remember. Against the motion was Jeremy Thorpe, not long after his trial for conspiracy to murder, but still adored by the Oxford students for his eloquence and Edwardian gentility, dressed dapperly in black tie, white silk scarf and dark overcoat with fur collar. Tariq Ali, his seconder, appeared in more relaxed apparel, something leathery similar to the gear he had worn not many years before on the Paris barricades.
On the evening of the debate, Benazir led in her team of male officers, as I seem to recall, wearing burgundy-red thigh-length boots to the strains of the Strawbs 1973 song Part of the Union whose lyrics included:-
‘Oh you don’t get me, I’m part of the Union
You don’t get me, I’m part of the Union
You don’t get me, I’m part of the Union
Till the day I day, till the day I die.’
Another verse of which gives a bit of flavour of the time
‘When we meet in the local hall
I’ll be voting with them all
With a hell of a shout
It’s out brothers out
And the rise of the factory’s fall’
Later that evening at dinner, I was sitting opposite Benazir and sandwiched between Jeremy and Marion. Jeremy had just returned from meeting Mrs Gandhi in India whose state of emergency was in full swing. I remember Thorpe referring colourfully to the ‘madness in Mrs Gandhi’s eyes’. But in those days India and Pakistan were talking to each other, and perhaps Jeremy was just saying what Benazir wanted to hear. Later that evening, having drinks in the Union rooms, Benazir received a telegram from her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was still Prime Minister of Pakistan, and had attended Christ Church to study law in his youth. It was a message from a proud Dad to his adoring daughter, congratulating her on her Presidency of the Union, a success he had not achieved in his time at Oxford. A year after that evening Bhutto was deposed by the man he had previously appointed as his Chief of Army Staff, President Zia-Ul-Haq, and in 1979 sentenced to death.
In later life I watched and occasionally read about Benazir’s career from afar; her mistaken choices of husband and political friends, but also her bravery as the first female leader of a Muslim Country, Prime Minister twice between 1988-90 and 1993-96. I followed from a distance her 2007 trip back to Pakistan for her final campaign which ended in assassination.
What strikes me now, after all these years, is that Benazir’s life was a mission to right the wrong that had been done to her father. She was inept at economics, a bad judge of character, but determined and charismatic. We all know what happened to Jeremy Thorpe and we have now witnessed the agonising political death of our contemporary Theresa May.
I studied English and became a metal merchant. But reflecting on the fate of these two women contemporaries who rose to the highest office in their respective countries, I would say I have been extremely fortunate not to have entered politics and rather grateful for my low profile metallic life. Mrs May, like Benazir, also lost her father when young and perhaps both shared a determination to overcome their great loss through political action. Upon thinking about this matter of political motivation, I could also add another ill-fated female leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose career was driven by loss of father at a young age – the assassination of her father and Burmese leader, Aung Sang, in 1947.
Metal merchanting, unlike the thanklessness of politics, is an uncommon occupation. I found it to be one that tends to attract the most questions at dinner parties and has generated for me a store of anecdotes to keep people entertained. I have enjoyed all the astonishing places I have visited, largely un-touched by tourism, and appreciated the way in which resources and metals provide a different kind of lens with which to see the world (not all of it good). It lacks the high-minded idealism of politics but perhaps less too of its delusions.
It appears to me now that these three – I would almost say tragic – women, who came to everything through just a single political aperture formed in youth, denied themselves a better life. More brutally, I wonder if that narrow route which they followed could ever be sufficient to make a great leader.
It would surely be too cruel to suggest that Benazir was on top of everything else a rather fateful matchmaker too; as, of course, she is credited with introducing Theresa to Philip May. Unlike Theresa, Philip was (like Benazir) a previous Union President and perhaps Theresa felt the need to reach higher office in later life. You just cannot underestimate the motivations that are spurred by those University years.
Published May 29th 2019 on www.lord-copper.com