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THE NUFFIELD SPIRIT
- How the shadow of Oxford falls on India’s prime minister

The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, knew the real priorities of life. As chancellor of the exchequer in Stanley Baldwin’s government, he didn’t let the infuriating intricacies of the world of high finance bog him down. In early-1933, when the world was trying to make sense of the turbulence in banking — a situation not dissimilar to the one confronting finance ministers today — Chamberlain was moved to write a letter to The Times. “It may be of interest to record,” he wrote sombrely, “that in walking through St. James’s Park today I noticed a grey wagtail... Probably the occurrence of this bird in the heart of London has been recorded before, but I have not myself previously noted it in the Park…I mean a grey wagtail and not a pied.”

It is worth recalling this trivia in view of a curious clarification in last week’s Businessworld: “I am shocked that you should describe Manmohan Singh to be a Cambridge PhD. As an Oxonian, I must point out that he holds a D.Phil from Oxford University, which is a much older institution than some obscure and parvenu university by the river Cam. Manmohan Singh is from Nuffield College which rescued him from a place called St John’s College on the Cam. Also, one gets a D.Phil from Oxford. A PhD is given at the other place, whatever it is called.” Since the indignation over this colossal factual inaccuracy was in the context of an article on the budget, it is instructive to probe the shadow of Oxford on India’s prime minister.

As another Indian who benefited enormously from Lord Nuffield’s munificence — my doctorate, alas, was courtesy another “parvenu” university established by Royal Charter in the metropolis as recently as 1836 — it is reassuring that Manmohan Singh has played his part in establishing Nuffield College as an integral part of the pedigreed Oxford firmament. Even in the early-1980s, it was fairly routine for older fellows of the university — usually the ones who last stepped out of Oxford before 1945 — to regard Nuffield as the new kid on the block, an institution created on the proceeds of vile commerce, and its imposing tower (completed as late as 1950) a blot on the landscape. Mercifully, such derision is reserved these days for a glass-fronted institution named after an Arab king, located next to Oxford railway station.

What, however, distinguished Nuffield from the older colleges was not merely the newness of its cellars, the relative modesty of its high-table fare and the absence of boisterous undergraduates. Nuffield was modelled along the lines of the venerable All Souls College, but with a touch of modernity.

In keeping with the philosophy of its self-made, car-maker founder, the focus of Nuffield College was statecraft — politics, economics and sociology. Power and policy were the themes that resonated in the conversations at the Wednesday- and Friday-night high-table dinners. Unlike other colleges where dons entertained fellow dons, plotted, bitched and made incestuous jokes, outward conviviality and small talk were at a relative discount in Nuffield. The honoured tended to be politicians, diplomats, industry honchos and lots of visiting Americans. The betting book in the senior common room was filled with recordings of a professorial fellow betting a cabinet minister a bottle of decent claret that Labour or Conservative would secure such-and-such a majority three years down the line; the more abstruse bets were over currency fluctuations and rates of interest. Apart from the historian, David Fieldhouse, once telling me that Labour couldn’t be supported because it opposed hunting, I can’t recall too many occasions when a serious conversation was couched in ideological grandstanding.

Manmohan Singh, it may safely be presumed, imbibed the Nuffield tradition. He has moved quite effortlessly from the earnestness of the Brandt Commission to the idiom of market economics. Without being a preacher, he has quietly presided over some of the most fundamental changes in the Indian economy. As prime minister, his ideological interventions have been limited to deifying ‘inclusive’ development. But apart from putting a loose philosophical gloss on expediency, he has ensured that his Congress-led coalitions have kept their focus on the nuts and bolts of governance. He has tried to operate within the loose framework of what was idolized at Nuffield: old-fashioned pragmatism laced with a measure of (attempted) empirical rigour. He has shied away from the very un-British ideologism of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Even blatantly populist moves have been tempered by a matter-of-fact spirit.

There is one area of governance, however, where the Nuffield spirit appears to have deserted the prime minister. On foreign policy, Manmohan Singh seems to have been bitten by two different bugs: the radicalism he may have imbibed in Cambridge, and the woolly capitulationism that was the hallmark of All Souls.

The parameters of the radicalism that pervaded the Cambridge air have been the subject of both detailed inquiry and imaginative fiction. Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and the Apostles may have defined an earlier generation, but it set the benchmark for an uninhibited radicalism that later resurfaced in a less treacherous form in continental Europe during the 1968 student unrest. Did the institutional memory of the unwillingness of those who invested in Stalin to fight for king and country influence the prime minister’s disavowal of the nuclear nationalism he inherited from Atal Bihari Vajpayee? Interpretations of why Manmohan Singh risked his own political future on the Indo-US nuclear agreement will vary. But in the context of formative influences, it is tempting to discover a link between the blunting of India’s nuclear assets and romantic radicalism.

A.L. Rowse’s monograph, All Souls and Appeasement (1961), chronicles an alternative tradition that Britain’s most ancient university isn’t very anxious to publicize. Oxford’s most rarefied institution, All Souls College, was the nerve centre of Baldwin and then Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement that gave Hitler the time and the elbow room to prepare for war. The main architects of appeasement — Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Simon and Times editor Geoffrey Dawson — were fellows of All Souls and dined in college regularly.

Rowse’s analysis of why the mindless accommodation became the hallmark of pragmatism is worth recalling. In his view, the institutional ethos of All Souls epitomized “the decadence of British empiricism”: “The practical way of looking at things, not looking too far in advance, not rocking the boat and other clichés that do duty for thinking ahead, may serve well enough in ordinary, normal times. But our times are not ‘normal’ in the good old Victorian sense…This conventional British way of looking at things was simply not equal to the times, and it caught these men out badly.”

Secondly, Rowse added a class dimension. “These men, even Halifax, were essentially middle class, not aristocrats. They did not have the hereditary sense of the security of the state…They came at the end of the ascendancy of the Victorian middle class, deeply affected as that was by high-mindedness and humbug. They all talked, in one form or another, the language of disingenuousness and cant: it was second nature to them…”

Rowse was writing of another time and another place. But those with a sense of intellectual history may be inclined to locate the philosophy behind the joint Indo-Pakistan statement issued in Egypt last week to the triumph of pre-war All Souls over Nuffield. Manmohan Singh is an Oxford man caught in the contradictory impulses of the various Oxfords and, for good measure, the misplaced certitudes of a lost Cambridge generation.

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