Singh commits Oxbridge adultery - In honorary degree speech, PM forgets undergrad college

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By AMIT ROY in London
  • Published 10.07.05

London, July 10: Cambridge University also wanted to confer an honorary degree on Manmohan Singh but he accepted the offer from Oxford “because it got to him first”, it has been revealed by a source close to the Prime Minister.

Last Friday, laced with much Latin at Convocation House in Oxford, an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law was conferred on Singh.

In his speech, Singh declared that “there can be nothing more valuable than receiving an honorary degree from one’s own alma mater”.

The Prime Minister, whose red gown looked splendid against the blue of his turban, told the chancellor, Lord (Chris) Patten: “To be so honoured by a university, where one has burnt the proverbial midnight oil to earn a regular degree, is truly a most fulfilling experience, I thank you for it. This is a day I will truly cherish.”

This statement, while genuine enough in its sentiment, is not entirely accurate.

Natwar Singh, who has been travelling with the Prime Minister, is a Cambridge man and ought to have put him right. The external affairs minister did not go to the Oxford ceremony.

When it comes to Oxbridge, there are certain unwritten rules which govern whether someone, who has been associated with both these ancient universities, belongs to Oxford or to Cambridge.

The deciding factor (as everyone on the inside track knows) is where someone did his or her undergraduate degree. By that reckoning, Manmohan Singh is a Cambridge man and in referring to Oxford as “one’s own alma mater”, he was in the position of a man about to take a new lover.

He was an undergraduate at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he got his BA in 1957. He then received his MA in 1961, for which he had to do nothing.

After Cambridge, he moved on to Nuffield College, a small Oxford establishment for postgraduate students, where he was awarded his DPhil in economics in 1962. His area of research was “India’s export trends and prospects for self-sustained growth”.

No doubt, he worked hard on his research project but if any midnight oil had been burnt, it would have been in Cambridge. By the way, he gets no brownie points for burning the midnight oil. He should have been drinking late and chasing girls and still managed a First (the First he got but a swot who gets a First is unpopular with peers and tutors alike).

Strictly speaking, Punjab University, where Singh studied before coming to Cambridge, ought to be considered his first love.

“He feels more at home in Oxford,” commented the source close to Singh.

That is almost like saying someone finds his second wife to be more agreeable.

The source revealed that Harvard, too, was keen to confer an honorary degree on Singh but it wanted the Prime Minister to come on a day which suited the university. “Oxford said come any time you like, we will fit in with you,” added the source.

According to an anecdote, it was apparently suggested to the Master of a Cambridge college, possibly that of St John’s, that he write to congratulate Singh when he became Prime Minister.

The Master, who was not overwhelmed that a Cambridge man should have become a Prime Minister, is said to have replied: “If he is in the vicinity of Cambridge, please ask him to drop in for a cup of tea.”

The links between Oxbridge and India have been strong but could be stronger. According to figures from Oxford, in 2003-04 there were 27 undergraduates and 107 postgraduates from India studying at the university.

In his speech, Lord Patten said he hoped that for bright Indian students who wished to go abroad, Oxford would be their university of choice.

After the conferment of the honorary degree, there was a lunch for Singh at Nuffield College hosted by its warden, Sir Tony Atkinson.

“It is not often that the college hosts the lunch following an honorary degree ceremony,” said Atkinson. “But then it’s not often that one of our former students becomes a Prime Minister. We have provided many fewer prime ministers than, say, Balliol, to take a college at random.”

This description is not apt since Balliol is a college mainly for undergraduates.

Among the lunch guests was Ian Little, who had supervised Singh’s DPhil.

Atkinson said he had been through the college files and found a reference to Singh from the late Joan Robinson “dating back to his Cambridge days”.

Robinson, an iconic figure from the economics set at Cambridge, had written: “Mr Singh has a good head for theory but keeps his feet on the ground ? he has great strength of mind and a determined resistance to bunkum of all kind.”

Given that, the Prime Minister would recognise that the suggestion that Oxford is his alma mater borders on the bunkum.

For the record, the colour of Singh’s turban in Oxford was light rather than dark blue. This is known in the business as Cambridge blue.