Thursday, 20 April 2017

Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough

One-on-one election debates are a standard part of US political lore, and have been ever since Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts squared up against Vice-President Richard Nixon in 1960. American voters expect to see them now, and, indeed, expect to see primary debates before the final run-off. In the UK, it is a much more recent addition to the general election schedule. John Major challenged Tony Blair in 1997 but Blair wasn’t game. The leaders’ debate first shot to the fore in 2010, when we saw Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg go head-to-head-to-head, famously giving us the phrase “I agree with Nick”. Then, in 2015, we carved up the various leaders in all sorts of permutations, in an election in which several parties were in play.

It is not clear what will happen in this election. The Prime Minister has said she will not participate in a multi-leader debate, as she prefers to be out in the country speaking to voters, but she has, as I understand it, indicated that she would be willing to subject herself to a question-and-answer session, moderated, presumably, by Paxman or a Dimbleby, to engage with the ordinary public. This is a sort of compromise, but will it work?

We know that Mrs May does not take advice from a wide circle. She relies very heavily on her husband, Philip, and then there are her joint Chiefs of Staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. Beyond that, it seems a very closed circle. So has this tightly-knit cabal delivered good advice?

The argument in favour of shunning a debate, or debates, is that there is really very little for Mrs May to gain. She is the Prime Minister, she has inherent status and gravitas, and she has a pump-primed platform (or bully pulpit) any time she wants it. Lady Thatcher was fond of jetting off on international meetings around election time, because it emphasised that she was a statesman, a serious woman of business, striding above the petty politics of her opponents. Mrs May might choose to do the same, and already the rhetoric coming out of Downing Street is that she and only she can deliver strong leadership as we embark on Brexit negotiations.

Let us look at her opponents for a moment. Mr Corbyn is, I suspect, a busted flush; in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister has demonstrated her ability to best him in debate and she must have little to fear from that flank. Nicola Sturgeon is a different proposition. As First Minister, she has her own, more modest, platform: why, then, would Mrs May want to offer her another? Lastly, we come to Tim Farron. The Liberal Democrat leader pops up on television all the time clanging the bell for a revival for his party, which, personally, I think is deeply unlikely, and is certainly not borne out by the latest opinion polls. But the Richmond Park by-election was a nasty shock for the Conservatives, and, with the spectre of 1997 still hanging over them, the party hierarchy must worry that the polls will be wrong and there will be a yellow surge. Whether or not that is true, again, it is a strong argument against a debate. Mr Farron leads a party of nine Members of Parliament, fewer than the DUP, so why on earth would the PM want to provide him with a platform, a platform which would imply some degree of equality?

If you are cautious, then, as many have suggested that Mrs May is (her decision to call an election notwithstanding), why would you roll the dice on participating in a televised debate with two, three, four or however many other leaders?

There are reasons to doubt whether the Prime Minister’s decision might not be so sound after all. The greatest worry must be that the broadcasters will simply empty-chair her, and all of the other party leaders will have an hour of primetime television to talk about their competing policies, while the Conservative position is lost by default. That cannot be a good thing. All the psephological evidence suggests that a huge proportion of the electorate was influenced by the debates in 2015, and if you have no voice in that, you might lose out.

There is also the danger that Mrs May simply looks afraid to face up to her challengers. After all, she had to face down the Opposition parties in calling this snap election by asking them what they were scared of. They might reasonably turn that weapon back on her now if she declines to appear in a multi-leader debate. The electorate has, I think, an innate sense of someone running away from a fight (think of the famous incident of Roy Hattersley pulling out of Have I Got News For You and being replaced by a tub of lard).

I am not a political strategist (though, God knows, it would seem that some people advising some party leaders are not either). What would I have done? I think it is incredibly finely balanced. The PM can point to a year of facing Mr Corbyn across the dispatch box at Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday, and generally coming off better. And the willingness to appear at a Q&A will allow her to speak directly to voters, in a way that John Major did so successfully in his soapbox campaign of 1992. Still, some voters will wonder if she’s running scared. That may do her damage. We will see in the next few weeks if she has made the right decision.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Can a man serve two masters? Yes

George Osborne’s announcement today that he will not seek re-election as the Member for Tatton in June has resolved one of the most controversial conflicts of interest of the past year or so. Mr Osborne can now devote his time to the day job of being editor of the Evening Standard, while continuing his four-days-a-month gig at Blackrock, for which he earns a very respectable £650,000. Well, a man’s gotta eat (caviar).

This is not how it was supposed to be. When his surprise appointment at the ES was announced, he insisted that he would continue to sit for his Cheshire seat in the House of Commons. Indeed, he argued that Parliament would benefit, and that outside experience, remunerated handsomely or not, helped MPs, especially former ministers, in “continuing to contribute to the decisions we make”. (It should be noted that this would not necessarily have been a long-term conflict of interest: had the Boundary Commission’s proposals been implemented ahead of a general election in 2020, Mr Osborne’s Tatton constituency would have been broken up.)

Inevitably, the Opposition, because it is their job, decried Mr Osborne’s appointment and demanded that he resign from the Commons. Jeremy Corbyn muttered darkly about press freedom and impartiality, and one Labour MP spoke of the “deep overlap” between Mr Osborne’s role as a legislator and his position as a newspaper editor. Some of the sound and fury was synthetic and politically motivated, of course, and no-one should criticise the Labour Party for that. Oppositions are supposed to oppose. But it raised a deeper question. Should MPs have outside interests?

In times gone by, of course, it was commonplace for Members of Parliament to have other interests. This was reflected in the relatively paltry salary they received, and to some extent in the sitting hours of the House. The Commons sat in the afternoon and evenings because Members were at their day jobs the rest of the time. One great disadvantage of this system was that it in effect required MPs to be wealthy individuals, as the salary was not enough to support them, certainly not if they maintained two homes.

(Can I pause here to rehearse one of my bugbears: MPs are not paid enough. Sure, their salary is currently £74,000, plus allowances for offices, second homes and the like, and that’s way above the national average. But I would argue two things. Firstly, if you want to attract really bright people, you need to offer competitive salaries. I know friends with political ambitions who would be taking massive pay cuts to be MPs. The chief executive of Sunderland Council, to take a random example, is paid more than £600,000. Who do you want to scrutinise legislation and hold the Government to account? The second, more fundamental, point is that the work MPs do is important, and that should be reflected in their remuneration. Rant over.)

Outside interests are nowadays much less common. Some former ministers have City directorships, and there are still a few pre-eminent lawyers, like Sir Edward Garnier QC or Geoffrey Cox QC, who make good livings at the Bar. For a very few (George Osborne is one of them, as was Sir John Major in his time after 1997), speaking engagements offer lucrative rewards. In the main, however, Members rely on their salaries and concentrate on their duties in the House, whether in the Chamber, as members of select committees or on constituency work. That is commendable in its own way, and I know from experience that there are very few lazy MPs. They work hard and they work long hours, for very little public esteem. They are certainly not in it for the money.

My view is an unfashionable one now, but I think a moderate amount of outside interest is a healthy thing. Different experiences make MPs more rounded people, and allow them to maintain parallel careers. It means that the ambitious need not choose so starkly between public service and private remuneration, and offers the possibility of a continuing career after Parliament. The value added by outside interests is evident to anyone who spends a lot of time watching Commons debates, as I used to do as a Serjeant at Arms. Dr Phillip Lee, for example, until he became a minister, continued to practice as a GP part-time, so when he spoke on health issues, he did so with current, front-line experience. Equally, when you hear one of the really good lawyers, like Dominic Grieve QC, take apart a lazy argument with forensic skill, you see the value of all those hours spent in the courtroom. It’s a matter of balance, of course: being a Member of Parliament is time-consuming. But I think this kind of life experience enriches the quality of debate and scrutiny which the House of Commons can bring to bear.

Fundamentally, I don’t regard being an MP as a job in the normal sense. It is many things: an honour, a burden, an opportunity, a public service. Some Members devote themselves wholeheartedly to Parliament, and that is a fine and noble thing. Here’s a strange thing, though. George Osborne becomes editor of the Evening Standard and there is an outcry at his having another job as well as being an MP. Nobody complained when he was simultaneously MP for Tatton and Chancellor of the Exchequer, which I’m fairly sure is quite a demanding role. We accept without demur that MPs can be ministers – indeed, that, apart from the Lords, ministers must be MPs, though there is no constitutional requirement for this to be so – but anything outside Whitehall, particularly one which smacks of personal enrichment, is infra dig.

So, within reason, I say bring it on. Newspaper editors? Great. Iain Macleod’s constituents didn’t suffer during his brief but brilliant time at the helm of the Spectator. Doctors? Fantastic. Bring your experience of what delivering healthcare is really like to the deliberations of our legislature. Lawyers? Super. You have a very useful skill set and a knowledge of how the laws Westminster makes are applied day-to-day. Like Lord Mandelson, I am “intensely relaxed” about people making a decent amount of money, so long as it’s made honestly and they pay their taxes. If it attracts bright, talented, successful people to sit in Parliament, it can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Vote early, vote often

Well. A general election. Whitehall and Westminster are usually the worst places to try to keep a secret, but, to her credit, the Prime Minister seems to have pulled it off this time. Only hours before she strode out into Downing Street, Guido Fawkes was speculating that the statement might be about the imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland, or the PM stepping down on health grounds. Genuinely, it seems to have been a surprise. It certainly was to me.

The fact of an early election is not really so much of a surprise. The Conservatives are leagues ahead in the opinion polls – the one I saw most recently gave them a 21-point advantage – and the Labour Party is in what, out of respect for private grief, we shall politely call disarray. In addition, Mrs May does not have that nebulous thing called a “mandate”, unknown to the constitution and to old buffers like me, but which people do seem to harp on about. So an early election makes sense. The chances are that the Conservatives will win, and win handsomely, and then the PM can forget about the grubby business of electioneering for another five years and concentrate on delivering a red, white and blue Brexit.

But the manner and the timing are a surprise. The logical time would have been last autumn, flush from her coronation as party leader, and with the Labour Party going through its own divisive leadership election. Moreover, the evidence is – I stress I do not know her personally, and have only ever encountered her in the division lobbies of the House of Commons – that Mrs May is not a risk-taker, not a gambler, not someone who acts on gut instinct. After all, she could quite easily have sat out the Brexit negotiations safe in a (relatively modest) parliamentary majority and knowing she would not need to go to the polls until May 2020. (Parenthesis: the National Review carried a headline today, “May orders march to a June election. Arf.)

And yet here we are. Tomorrow, the House of Commons will debate a (non-amendable) motion that “there shall be a parliamentary general election” on 8 June. This will require a bit of legwork. Under the provisions of the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, a wretched piece of legislation introduced for short-term political gain, the House must vote by a two-thirds majority (and that’s two thirds of all the seats, 650, therefore 434 votes in favour) for an early election. The other mechanism is for the Government to lose a vote of confidence, but that takes longer, and, in any case, you can see the absurdity of a Government asking its backbenchers to vote against itself.

Now, the Government does not have 434 seats in the Commons. In fact, it has 330. So the ball is now in the Labour Party’s court. As the official Opposition, with 229 seats, it can allow the Government’s motion to pass, or sit on its hands and see the Government twist in the wind. Politically, I think it is inevitable that they will have to vote in favour of the early election. It is not, of course, in their interests; as I said, they are almost historically far behind in the polls, and every indication is that they will get a good shoeing in June. It may be a mortal blow to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, though the party membership seem to have drunk so deeply of the Kool Aid that he may survive. Certainly there is no obvious replacement for him who might change the party’s fortunes.

Why, then, will they vote in favour? I think because they cannot be seen to run away from a fight. No party can afford to be seen as “frit”, if I may borrow Lady Thatcher’s Lincolnshire patois. Jeremy Corbyn has said that he welcomes an early election. That may be true. It may be true for a number of reasons: it could free him from what cannot be an enjoyable stint as Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition; he may be delusional enough to think that the Labour Party can win and he can start measuring up Downing Street for organic, biodegradable hemp curtains; or he may simply not care any more.

This last point works both ways. I do not know Jeremy Corbyn, though in my time as Associate Serjeant at Arms I often sat close to him in the Chamber. I do not pretend to know what makes him tick, and whether he enjoys being leader of the Labour Party. I suspect not (“I’m not sure this is a good idea, Seumas”). But he is a politician, like any other in some respects, and he must relish the opportunity to give his opinion on current affairs at any opportunity, to a wide audience. So perhaps, I don’t know, he is content to limp along as an unelectable leader, preserving his ideological purity and avoiding those messy compromises that successful politicians have to make.

In any event, the next couple of months will be interesting. It all starts tomorrow, on the floor of the House of Commons, and the story will end there when the new Parliament is sworn in. My former colleagues in the Journal Office will get to sit at the Table and scribble down the names of new and returning Members of Parliament. The question now is, how many will be on each side?

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Bohemian life

Well, dear readers, another reimmersion in academia at a seminar at St John's House, home of the University of St Andrews Reformation Studies Institute. The speaker was Dr Phillip Haberkern of Boston University, and his subject, or rather his question, was "Was the Bohemian Reformation a failure?" Now, I freely confess that my knowledge of Czech history in this period is severely limited, essentially to naughty Jan Hus and his downfall after the Council of Constance, but Dr Haberkern took in nearly three centuries of history over his 45 minutes, and rather wittily and, as it turned out, insightfully, presented the sweep in five acts, as a tragedy.

You are probably wondering, if you are wondering anything at all, what his answer to the question was. Well, he didn't really give one, nor, I think, was that his intention. The question was to provoke debate. It is interesting (to me anyway) that a modern single-volume history of the Reformation in Bohemia does not exist, not even in Czech, though there is apparently a five-volume history. This is odd, as Bohemia and the Czech lands were so obviously key to the development of religious radicalism from as far back as the 14th century. Dr Haberkern hopes to plug this gap in the historiography over the next two years.

I recognised some landmarks in his tour d'horizon: Hus, as I say; Matthias Corvinus; Ferdinand II; the Battle of White Mountain. But there was a vast amount of material which was new to me, which I suppose was why I went along, as well as to see some old faces. The idea that leapt out of the talk for me was the idea Haberkern presented of looking at the Czech lands as a laboratory for evangelical ideas, a testing ground for how, in late mediaeval and early modern Europe, you create a non-Catholic church. Clearly, the reformers of the 16th century, with whom I am more familiar, were acutely aware of what had happened in Bohemia from the first appearances of Wycliffite influences in the University of Prague in the 1390s through to the political struggles of the 1520s.

We (I say "we"; as an interloper, I kept my trap shut) talked about concepts of success and failure, and of how they can be measured. One interesting approach was looking at the influences of Czech reformism on the rest of Europe, what Haberkern called Reformation genealogy. In an absolutist sense, clearly the Bohemian Reformation was a failure; after the Battle of White Mountain, the Habsburgs unleashed an extraordinarily thorough campaign of re-Catholicisation, which, by the time of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, had largely succeeded. Think about that; changing hearts and minds in the space of a generation. Of course it was underpinned by coercion, and the Czech clergy in particular were faced with the harsh choice between conversion or exile. Many chose the latter.

The reformers themselves certainly saw it as a failure. Jan Komensky (or John Amos Comenius, as the West better knows him), the greatest historiographer of the Bohemian Reformation, in his numerous works over a long life, painted a picture of not only disaster but, in a sense, inevitable disaster: for him, as Haberkern argued very persuasively, the best of times was necessarily the worst of times, because as soon as the reformed church gained any kind of established status, its eye was off the ball, and it became concerned with politics rather than the maintenance of discipline and doctrinal purity.

I am an historian of the English church if I am anything, so this was an interesting parallel (especially given, as I mentioned above, one of the driving forces behind the Bohemian Reformation was the influence of John Wycliffe). I am particularly fascinated by the idea of re-Catholicisation, as it was exactly that project which my beloved Queen Mary was pursuing in the 1550s, with some of the same motive forces which were seen in the Czech lands after White Mountain (with the notable exception of the Jesuits, who established only a toehold in England, if that, before Mary's death in 1558). Speaking almost counter-factually, which I know is anathema to many proper historians, what happened in Bohemia demonstrates that pushing back the Protestant tide was perfectly possible, and it is tempting to wonder what would have happened in England if Mary had had the longevity of her half-sister. My old history master from school will curl his lip at this, but I look forward to reading Eamon Duffy's new book, Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England; Dr Brian Mains, my most formative influence and a great scholar, converted me to Tudor history, a genuinely life-changing experience, but he admits to an almost visceral aversion to Duffy.

Another observation, if I may. The Reformation Studies Institute holds seminars like this on a more-or-less weekly basis (I think), sometimes with guest speakers, and sometimes with research students giving the talk. Certainly that was the case in my day, more than a decade ago now. They are a great thing, because they mix accomplished academics, like Dr Haberkern, for example, with the slightly-less-formed ideas of young researchers (I can't now remember what I gave my talk on, and shudder to think). What heartened me today, as an observer slouching at the back and feeling slightly fraudulent, was the bright interest of the students, and their engagement with the subject, even if it was slightly outwith their own field. I was particularly interested by the idea that a student (I'm afraid I don't know her name) raised that the Habsburgs had developed a playbook, if you will, of re-Catholicisation which they has used in the Netherlands, and which was replicated in Bohemia. Haberkern seemed intrigued by that notion, and that's everything that these seminars, and academia in general, should be.

My tiny patch of scholarly endeavour is Catholic England, and I am sure I have not tilled it very diligently or well. I confess (and I hope my supervisor, Professor Andrew Pettegree, a man with the patience of a saint, will forgive me for saying this) that I always felt a bit of an outlier in the Reformation Studies Institute, among a group of scholars of the Protestant Reformation. My colleagues knew all that there is to know about Calvin's Geneva, or books in Lyon, or the reformed church of the Low Countries, and I battled away with my English monks. But, and it is a very big but, I learned so much from the community at St John's House, and relished my time there. As I have written before, 2017 is the year of finishing the thesis. I was delighted today to see that the flame still burns, safe in the hands of the very gracious Dr Bridget Heal, who allowed me to sit it for today's seminar.

I would not claim that there are any life lessons to be learned from my afternoon. What I will say is that it was lovely to be back in the company of fellow Reformation historians. Some waypoints, if that is the word I want, were familiar, and some were new. That is, surely, the stuff of history, and of learning in a more general sense. I now know about the Letter of Majesty, for example. (Such a great phrase.) What do all these musings mean? Everything and nothing, I suppose. I have two more conferences this summer for which I must start preparing papers, both in London. But I suppose it comes down to this.

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with the aforementioned Dr Mains, my history master at RGS. I hadn't seen him in 20 years, but it didn't seem to matter. The years rolled back. We talked of everything, almost of cabbages and kings (and his hatred of Eamon Duffy), but one of the things I said to him, based on my experience of teaching in St Andrews back in the early 2000s, was that my motive force as a tutor, the thing which brought me joy and fulfilment (and a tiny amount of money), was getting students who had no real knowledge of the early modern period to engage with the times, and, ideally, to understand the 16th century. I wasn't universally successful, but I didn't expect to be. But if I had two or three students per seminar group who lit up and got it, and I flatter myself that I did, I think my work was done.

What do I mean by that? I suppose what I mean is that there were a precious few students whom I persuaded to understand that the average Joe of the 16th century was just a person, like you or me, but was also fundamentally different. The religious furies of the Reformation were not, I would argue, a cover for socio-economic disputes or a way of playing out political controversies under another guise. These things mattered, to a degree we have to struggle to understand. It was real. The idea that the body of Christ was or was not literally and actually present in the Eucharist was a huge matter.

Anyway. That was long-winded and self-referential. What I meant to say was that I had a great day re-engaging with the Reformation part of my brain. Nostalgia and intellectual stimulation: what more can you ask for?

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Et in Arcadia ego

And so, dear readers, to my alma mater, the University of St Andrews (actually the University of St Andrew among the Scots, if you want to read the papal bull). It is now more than 20 years since I first matriculated as a student here – my adventures at Oxford must wait for another day – and 12 years since I ceased to live here full-time. The occasion of my return is twofold; to re-establish contact with my old colleagues at the excellent Reformation Studies Institute (http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/reformation/) at a seminar tomorrow on the Reformation in Bohemia; and to attend a debate on Thursday on the motion that “This House believes Israel is a force for good in the Middle East”. As an occasional blogger for the Times of Israel, I couldn’t miss this one.

Going back to your university town is always, I suppose, a bouquet of mixed emotions. All the more so, I think, in St Andrews, which is a tiny town of 18,500 people, a huge number of them students and academics. This really is a place which exists on golf and academia. (I suppose my Catholic friends would also point to the bones of St Andrew, brought here by St Regulus in the mid-8th century AD.) The university – Scotland’s oldest, and the third-oldest in the English-speaking world – really does dominate the town, at least in term time, and in my eight years here I experienced virtually no town-gown tension, because the town realised how much it needed the gown.

Students are everywhere. Like a lot of old universities, we speak in code. First-years are bejants (or bejantines – we began admitting women very late in the 19th century); second-years are semi-bejants; third-years are tertians; and final-year students (we have the civilisation of a four-year degree course) are magistrands. Speaking from the venerable age of 39, they all seem very young now, though I’m sure that magistrands look down in a benevolently patronising way on bejants. I certainly did, and I was probably more insufferable still as a postgraduate, swishing around town in my black gown.

Ah, yes. Gowns. They’re a big thing here. St Andrews is (I think) the only one of the ancient Scottish universities to preserve in any meaningful way the tradition of undergraduate gowns, which are bright red, and – code again – worn according to your year. Bejants wear the gowns as one would expect. Semi-bejants wear them slightly pushed back off the shoulders. Tertiands wear them off the left or the right shoulder, according to whether they are arts or science students. Magistrands wear them halfway down the back, which feels weird at first but you get used to it. (I haven’t touched on St Mary’s College, the divinity school, where students wear black gowns with a purple saltire on the chest.) Anyway, gowns are worn frequently in St Andrews, more or less according to your taste. The opportunities are endless: debates, formal hall dinners, chapel services. None of this is compulsory, unlike at Oxford and Cambridge, but it is one of the quirks of the place which some (many) St Andrews students enjoy. Some wear them recreationally; when I was an undergrad, there was a man called Richard Urquhart who wore his red gown pretty much all the time, and was known as “Gown Man” as a result. I am not immune. Once I had graduated and got my beloved black Master of Arts’ gown, I often used to slip it on and parade around town, because I could.

I touched earlier on debating. St Andrews has a strong debating tradition, and, these days, are doing very well in national and international competitions. There are claims that some kind of forerunner of the Debating Society (http://www.stadebates.org) was founded in the late 18th century, and it likes to claim that it is “the oldest and, some say, the finest of its kind in the world”. Oxford and Trinity College, Dublin, might have something to say about that. But it was, for eight years, my spiritual home, redolent with tradition and formality. I enjoyed debating; the thrust and parry of intellectual argument, but also the cheap gag and the roar of the crowd. It was also a weekly opportunity to throw on black tie and gown, and stroll through the balmy seaside air. And it was a community. The Debating Society technically includes every matriculated student, which I think is a very good thing, but in reality there was a small coterie of regular attenders who were of similar tastes and similar mindsets.

I suspect that at times we were too cliquey. There could be too many in-jokes, too much self-reference, too much flummery that outsiders would have found baffling. I never headed the Society – I tried three times but was defeated each time, as I have previously written; I’m not bitter (yes I am) – but I held positions of authority, and I hope I always tried my best to widen the audience and encourage those who would not otherwise have come in to a debate to give it a try. The baby was not thrown out with the bathwater; when I was in charge of publicity, the phrase “Gowns encouraged” appeared on our posters, and I almost always wore black tie to attend debates. And I daresay I was as savage in howling down weak arguments as any backbencher at PMQs. Attendance could be sparse, or we could be full to the rafters. One of the best-attended debates I can remember was on the motion “This House would undress”, the proposition fronted (if I can use that word) by a man called Vincent Bethell, a militant nudist and head of the “Freedom to be Yourself” campaign (I’m not making this up, check Wikipedia). The local police insisted that we black out the windows of the debating chamber, lest passing burghers see something untoward. And the room was full. Several students supported by the motion by taking off their clothes. None of the attractive ones was near me, unfortunately. I was too close for comfort to a lanky, long-haired Old Etonian who decided to shed his scruffy garb.

The long and short of it was that I adored, and adore, the Debating Society. My ambitions were thwarted, and I never wrested control of it, but I did chair many a debate, and I loved it. I loved the formality, I loved the exaggerated courtesy, I loved the conviviality, and I loved the social side of things. I missed a golden age; it was not long before I arrived in 1996 that the Society had been banned from many restaurants in St Andrews either for unruly behaviour or for unpaid debts. We were not quite as Bullingdon in my time. We observed the usual traditions, of course: port before debates; a dinner afterwards (often a curry in the great Balaka, https://www.balaka.com) and the hallowed after-dinner debate, on the motion “This House believes the sun will never set on the British Empire”.

It was an odd custom, this after-dinner debate. Sometimes, it could seem jingoistic, especially when carried out in a Bangladeshi curry house, but it was meant in a spirit of affection and usually, I would say, self-mockery. Occasionally, it was pompous; occasionally, its pomposity was punctured, as brilliantly by Andrew Neil, Rector of the University, who stood up, declared “The British Empire has ended, as has this dinner”, threw down his napkin and left.

So that was (some of) how I spent my time. It was a blast. But for me, university was about the people. I was married in the University Chapel (lightning didn’t strike), and I remember looking around at my fellow St Andreans and thinking just how lucky I was to have met and befriended so many interesting and quirky people, who had in the most part come back to St Andrews from all points south to celebrate the day. If the marriage didn’t last, the memories have. Don’t get me wrong, many, if not most, of my friends are mad as ship’s cat, but I am still in touch with them after all these years. Often we need not communicate for days, weeks, months, years. But the bonds forged in this strange little coastal town in Fife run strong and deep as the cables of the Forth Bridge.

It is invidious to choose individuals, but I will do so anyway.

Barry Joss (now Tobias Joss, after his conversion to Judaism). He was already a St Andrews legend when I arrived, a magistrand (fourth-year, remember) and a slightly vulpine figure who was well known in the student community; Treasurer of the Debating Society and later of the Students’ Association; later still Rector’s Assessor for Andrew Neil; always seen in a waistcoat and tie, and connected, it seemed to me, to everyone in town. I discovered later that he didn’t like me at first (well, I was a little odd), but we later fell into a great friendship and spent a madly licentious year sharing a flat together. He then decided that 10 years in St Andrews was enough, and moved to Glasgow, his hometown, where he has remained since, though he is returning to St Andrews on Thursday and we shall sit like Statler and Waldorf in the debate and reassure ourselves that it was much better in our day. (It was.)

Hugh Martin. Hugh was a postgraduate when I met him, having pursued his undergraduacy at New College, Oxford, before a stint working for WH Smith before he returned to academia. He and Tobias were great friends, having been in hall together, and it was in that connection that I met him. I had been warned that he was an irascible old bugger who rarely socialised, but for whatever reason he took to my company, sharing a taste for air hockey, garlic and the odd ale or two. He is now madly successful in university governance, but we see each other regularly and the years fall away. Later on at night we will tend to sing.

And, finally, the man and the mystery which is Peter Murray. I first met him entirely coincidentally, as he was then sharing a flat with a girl in whom I had an interest, and he was on crutches. He answered the door cursing me under his breath as I had roused him from his sick bed, but the casual offer of a can of lager proved the starting point for a friendship which has lasted 18 years and is still going. He is a very senior PR guru now but I can occasionally remind him that I know where the bodies are buried. He was an avid debater too, in charge of the schools debating competition for two years, and if I may be permitted one recollection it would be this: we were sitting in the chamber, all in black tie and gowns, and he looked down contemplatively, then looked up in consternation and mouthed at me “These aren’t my trousers!”

So the good side of returning to St Andrews is the recollection of friendships made and strengthened. There were so many good times. However, walking through the streets this evening, there was an element of tristesse. I miss my youth, like lots of people. I was carefree, and in those days there were no tuition fees, so I didn’t have the burden of debt hanging over my head. There was academic work, of course there was, but, freakishly, I rather enjoyed it, having hit upon a course which suited me. And so I look at the young people today, and hope they are enjoying themselves as much as I did. I will see a sample at Thursday’s debate. If they’re not, they’re missing out.