R. W. Johnson talks about
Look Back in Laughter: Oxford’s Postwar Golden Age

To buy

Bill Johnson 1975 cover

Look Back in Laughter
Oxford’s Postwar Golden Age

Two of Bill’s early PPE students, now in their mid-sixties, who helped produce 'Look Back in Laughter' ask him about aspects of Oxford, PPE and the British class system. To skip to the latest extract, click here for Part Two

The interview Part one


JOHN  In your wonderful memoir you praise Harry Weldon who, although a philosopher, taught all three disciplines in the PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) school. Given your, at best, mixed relations with the contemporary Magdalen philosophers, was co-ordinating the PPE degree ever a problem?

BILL  Yes, there were problems co-ordinating PPE, usually due to the fact that the philosophers were always torn by their commitment to the Greats school and increasingly to Philosophy and Maths, Philosophy and Modern Languages etc. If you are hinting at temperamental difficulties; yes, those too. The Politics and Economics tutors were all the sort of people who read The Economist and doubtless exuded an air of that, which was not always congenial for philosophers with more ethereal concerns.

JOHN   When you were writing about the British political elite 40 years ago, did you anticipate that PPE could become the staff college or an MBA-equivalent for the political class?

BILLBill Johnson today No, I didn’t – though of course I was well aware of the role of Oxford. Magdalen has always been rather laid back and while it did produce people like Bill Rodgers, Giles Radice, David (Lord) Lipsey (a former pupil) most of the Tories it produced were knights of the shires – backbench fodder. This doubtless reflected the persistence in non-PPE schools of many well born ‘good college men’ into the 1930s. Being a good college man usually meant being a jolly nice chap from a jolly nice family and a jolly nice school, good at sports and not too dim.

You have to remember that in Oscar Wilde’s time at Magdalen (1874-78) he was absolutely unusual in even thinking about getting a First, let alone getting one. His peers would have been (usually Tory) MPs in the 1890-1930 period. What changed from the 1930s on was that the College became far more meritocratic and who were the MPs it produced: William Hague, Jeremy Hunt and Chris Huhne all got excellent Firsts.

JOHN  Could the recent election be the first and last ‘all-PPE’ one, with the PM and Ed Miliband respectively, in horse-racing parlance, ‘trained by’ Vernon Bogdanor and Andrew Glyn. Or will the next generation of political leaders have a DPhil in public policy from the new Blavatnik School of Government instead?

BILL  I rather doubt it. If that were the case one would have expected to see far more Nuffield and St Antony’s graduates in the current political elite. The truth is that you would see more of the more old fashioned Tory types from All Souls: Lord Hailsham, Robert Jackson, William Waldegrave. You have to remember the continued predominance of the first degree at Oxford. Colleges are still ranked by the Norrington, exclusively on the first-degree results. I have to say that Cameron probably didn’t take Vernon too seriously – few did – but I suspect Miliband took Andrew very seriously.

JOHN  You worked with both Steven Lukes and Frank Parkin: whatever happened to British sociology, which had such a rosy future in 1970?

BILL  I think that it all became rather unfashionable and that the best work was generally done in political sociology. It’s a pity. But many sociologists were their own worst enemy, striking radical poses and making extravagant claims for their subject. A. H. ‘Chelly’ Halsey, the head of Sociology in Oxford, could never disguise his contempt for Politics, for example.

JOHN  For a long time there was no Professor of Sociology in Oxford. Was there a struggle with the forces of reaction, or were the sociologists too split and ambivalent?

BILL  The real problem was that Sociology was essentially centred at Nuffield College where A. H. ‘Chelly’ Halsey was the leading figure. Its main organisational base was in Applied Social Studies (including Social Work) at Wellington Square, which was not held in high repute by the more academic and theoretical folk.

Chelly was a Mephistophelean figure, endlessly intriguing to expand his subject by means of bureaucratic and academic warfare. People became very wary of him and he was not trusted. Naturally, he worked by trying to push sociology papers into PPE, hoping this would force undergraduate colleges to appoint more sociologists.

The trouble was that in order to be useful in teaching terms such people had to be political sociologists, able to teach political science - and it also worked very badly to have a graduate college person without undergraduate teaching duties attempting to call the shots over undergraduate teaching areas. So there were peculiarly Oxford reasons why the subject didn't flourish there.

JOHN  You mention Paul Barker, who edited New Society from 1968 to 1986. Does it surprise you that New Society closed in 1988, but New Left Review goes on from strength to strength?

BILLNLR is a bit like The Economist in that it has always aimed at a high intelligence readership. This has worked for it, earning it a readership (including me) which expects to find interesting articles there even if one doesn’t always agree with their political slant.

The story of New Society is a tragedy. It was taken over by David Lipsey as editor and he pulled it round into profitability and generally licked it into shape. Then its owners had to decide what to do about the New Statesman which was very badly run and had lost all its zip and style. They decided to amalgamate the two, which destroyed all David’s good work and also destroyed New Society without really saving the New Statesman. It was exactly the wrong thing to do. Had they allowed the latter to sink or swim, it would have forced it to reform. New Society had its own niche and could still be there today.

Back to top

The interview Part Two


TIM  One surprise is the sheer grind of the 1:1 tutorials that were such an imposition for you and the other tutors. Does all that stuff about the Socratic dialectic belong to fantasy?

BILL  This is partly a matter of teaching style. I suspect that philosophers could still fruitfully use Socratic dialogue. But in the other two subjects real empirical knowledge is often of overwhelming importance and if a student is deficient in that there is just no point asking them Socratic questions. They just guess. If you think of it, that sort of dialogue works best between two intelligent people with quite a lot of background knowledge. So, better with older students.

PPE tutors

JOHN  Were your two predecessor Tutors in Politics Anthony King and David Marquand? What led to the swerve from Gaitskellite social democrats?

BILL  Tony King was a Junior Research Fellow, not a tutor. David Marquand was simply a very bright student. Tony went off to Essex because he was interested in elections and political sociology and at that point the Essex Politics department under Jean Blondel was quite a leader in that. Marquand became an MP. But you must realise that Magdalen tutors would never have been much interested in a candidate’s political views – their intellectual quality was all that mattered. That’s how the college could produce Chris Huhne and William Hague, George Osborne and Robin Blackburn.

JOHN  Is Stewart Wood, as Lord Wood a close adviser to Ed Miliband, one of your successors? Do your expect other Politics tutors to follow his lead and get close to the party leaderships?

BILL  It is a firm Magdalen tradition (sometimes broken by cads) that no Fellow should be involved in the choice of his successor. I managed that so successfully that I didn’t even know Stewart Wood’s name for about a year after I left. And I never really got to know him: he had an excellent reputation and seems to have managed all his politicking without letting it reduce his qualities as a tutor.

It can certainly be tempting for a political scientist to play the advisor role but few do it successfully. I suppose the most successful case is Kissinger. But Bernard Crick was more typical – always egomaniacally attempting to force himself on Labour politicians. In the end he got a peerage out of it but he was never influential.

What is strange is how politicians often fail to realise how much they could learn from a good political scientist. It amazes me that the Tories have hired Lynton Crosby from Australia and the Liberals Ryan Coetzee from South Africa. John Curtice (at Strathclyde, another Magdalen PPE man) knows far more than either of them.

Your development

JOHN  Can you tell us more about your involvement with dissident communism in South Africa? What form did Rowley Arenstein’s dissidence take?

BILL  Rowley was a remarkable man. I still think his analysis of South Africa in the post-war period was right. He differed from the official party in that he never thought the Afrikaner Nationalists were fascists. They were reactionary but legalistic and wanted to do everything by the book, which left considerable room for democratic politics. Rowley therefore believed that taking up armed struggle was quite wrong and would inevitably lead to disaster – which it did.

However, having become a dissident he was first a Maoist and then a supporter of Inkatha, Chief Buthelezi’s movement. I couldn’t follow him in either direction. I learned Marxism from Rowley – he was a good Marxist scholar – but my instincts always stayed liberal. In a strange way, I think his did too. He was too much of an individualist to be taking orders all the time.

Diversity at Magdalen

TIM  When I walk through the Bodleian I see hardly any black or Asian faces. The 21 Jan 2015 Gazette has an ethnic breakdown of degree results for 2014: there are only 147 Asian and 36 Black as against 2,406 White results. In 2013 the entrance success rate (acceptances as a percentage of applications) was much lower for Bangladeshi (6.7%), Pakistani (6.5%), Black British African (13%) and Black British Caribbean (14.3%) applicants than for Whites (25.4%). How do you explain the persistence of this ethnic imbalance?

BILL  I certainly don’t think there’s any racial prejudice. Except that many tutors are aware of the imbalance and will sometimes give the benefit of the doubt to a black or Asian candidate. What seemed to be happening in my time was that more Asians were coming. If I had to choose the three brightest PPE men at Magdalen in my epoch they would be Montek Singh, Hyun Shin and Harold Koh. Harold was the only man I ever saw whose eight Finals papers, when double-marked, produced 16 alphas. But one should expect a white predominance: Britain is still mainly white and so are the private schools which make such large and successful efforts to get their pupils into Oxbridge. The Rhodes Scholars from the USA and the old Commonwealth countries are also likely to be mainly white.

In my experience – which is considerable in this area – affirmative action admissions and appointments are seldom a success. It is ridiculous to make a fuss about the sociological nature of university admissions. If you want more working class or black students, focus on the other end of the sausage machine, the primary schools. And even the families. By the time students get to the age of 17–18 the die has been cast sociologically and it is absurd and unfair to expect universities to try to undo all that.

I came from a working-class family and for most of the time it was a single parent family – my father was away at sea for two years at a time. My mother had left school at 14 but she read and made us read. My father more so. And he infused me with the idea that you can get almost anything you want if you work hard enough. I was something of a sociological freak at Oxford but that was seldom a problem.

TIM  In 2014 31% of Finalists achieved a 1st and 61% a 2:1 — a far higher proportion than when I graduated in the early 1970s. 1990 PPE data show 14.85% getting a 1st, 53.8% a 2:1 and 24.75% a 2:2 compared with 2014 figures of 21%, 76% and 2%. How much does this have to do with more industrious or intelligent students and how much with a lowering of the bar?

BILL  The results you give depress me rather because there has undoubtedly been grade inflation. When the old Pass and Fourth class were abolished, the old hands all said, ‘Well, at the moment a Third is an acceptable, though not good, degree. If you do this, a Third will become a disgrace and everyone will get some sort of Second.’ Then they divided the Second class and it became a bit of a disgrace to get a 2.2 – which it hadn’t been before.

At the same time, though, ambitious colleges like Hertford became very Norrington–conscious and began to weed out Third class people and send them down, thus pushing up their overall results profile. There is a lot of hypocrisy about the Norrington: tutors love to say they pay no attention to it but this is roughly as sensible as a Premiership soccer player saying he isn’t bothered about what league position his club has. (And I do know about this: my father played for Liverpool.)

With all that said, I do think that standards have also risen and that students now work harder. People know that a good Oxbridge degree can be pretty career-defining and this has led to a much tougher-minded approach both to working at school to get in and then working hard to get a good degree. The sort of upper-class old lags content with a Third, who were still around when I started as a tutor, have vanished now, certainly from PPE.

TIM  In 2000 the Laura Spence controversy (in which Magdalen was accused of rejecting an applicant for Medicine on account of her Tyneside state-school background) focused the media spotlight on Oxford entrance procedures. The averaged 2011–13 figures show that Magdalen did a little better on state-school acceptances (60.4%) than the college average (57.3%). What was your own experience of the state-versus-independent school balance during your 26 years as a Fellow?

BILL  In PPE, we always approached Admissions hoping to get good state-school people and for many years we also took a student from Ruskin. I also pushed in one or two black South Africans on anti-apartheid grounds. However, we usually ended up with a private-school predominance because, whatever our prejudices, we simply had to pick the best wherever they came from. There is simply no sense in being a university and doing anything else. As I said before, our experience with affirmative action admissions was usually bad.

What we did do was to regard AAB from a state school as being probably better than AAA from a private school. Better in that the state school pupil probably had a higher potential – and this was quite often true. It was very rewarding when that was the case. You could see that being accepted by Oxford was a huge reinforcement for such a person’s self-confidence and that often helped them a lot. But there was still temperament to deal with. Some like that would then rest on their oars while others would work like crazy to make the most of their chance. It was wonderful when that happened.

But all sorts of other factors go into the mix including the death of a parent, a parental divorce, an unhappy love affair etc. – all of which could throw a student horribly off balance. And one can never forget that one is dealing with young adults at a psychologically and emotionally challenging time in their lives. Most students were far more mature intellectually than they were emotionally.

Older tutors never ceased to praise the ex-servicemen they’d taught after the War – hard-working, tough-minded, more mature men. They often felt it would be better if all students were a few years older than they actually were.

Back to top

There's a recent interview with Bill on South Africa's Biznews.com website looking at his current interests here.

to read an extract, choose a link below

Preface: Oxford Days
Entering the Secret Garden
2  Escape and Arrival
Happy Days
Exploring The Secret Garden
5  Becoming a Don
6  The Mysterious Business of Learning
7  … and Teaching
8  The Thatcher Honorary Degree Debacle
9  The Old Boy Network
10  The Oxford Spies
11  The Autumn of the Patriarch
12  Cleaning Up
13  Rhodes and ‘the World’s fight’
14  Leaving

Important points

  1. Controversialist and reviewer Bill Johnson celebrates the glory years of C20th Oxford with a political analyst’s eye on the modernisation of an almost feudal Oxford college, where he had a leading role.
  2. Not since the best of C P Snow’s novels or Ved Mehta’s Fly in a Fly Bottle have the intricacies of Oxford life and the workings of an academic community been so lovingly anatomised.
  3. A jolly sunny book, with better jokes and stories than John Carey’s 2014 surprise bestseller The Unexpected Professor and without his guilt or gloom.

Back to top

Read the early reviews here

John Lanchester, recalling Karl Miller’s editorship of the London Review of Books, wrote:

❛ …R. W. Johnson was in those days writing a series of super-forthright, abrasive pieces that often featured glancing dismissals of all sorts of senior Labour Party figures. One of these pieces had come in and been edited … and Karl was reading it in proof.

‘Johnson is like some beast from the pampas,’ Karl said, admiringly and amusedly, ‘who’s brought in, and immediately rushes around butting everybody.’

No such animal is known to zoology, and Bill Johnson has no known connection with Argentina, but more than a quarter of a century later, whenever I read a piece in that combative vein, I still think of the beast from the pampas.❜

£14.50 (paper) May 2015
Paperback 272 pp format 234x136 mm 14 black & white and colour plates
ISBN 978-1-903152-35-5

Back to top

Threshold logo Site Map | Advertising | Contact us
©2015–16 Threshold Press Ltd, Newbury UK - All Rights Reserved