A Tale of Politics, Policy and Nerves

Walking in to the Babbage Lecture Theatre in the centre of Cambridge last week took me straight back to what I suspect was the first lecture I ever attended (or should that be endured?) in Cambridge as an undergraduate. I’m sure I must have been back in this particular lecture theatre since that time when I was a timid fresher, but I can’t remember when. Then the lecturer was bizarrely attired in a see-through black shirt with a bootlace – apparently – for a tie, tight trousers and sandals. The topic was mathematics, as designed for natural scientists, probably something about vectors. The lecture theatre was huge. The size was what struck me first as I entered it again this week: it appeared to have shrunk! Maybe this was something to do with the reupholstering of the seats into a tasteful blue plush, something that looked far more comfortable and less drab than I recalled. But it no longer looked so impersonal and large, even though it undoubtedly was the same size.

Was I as daunted this week as I was in 1971? Hard to tell, but I certainly did not feel at ease as I entered this week to chair a couple of talks followed by half an hour’s Q+A. The occasion? A visit by the EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation Carlos Moedas accompanied by the UK’s Science and Universities’ Minister Jo Johnson, to talk collectively on the subject of Reinventing European Research and Innovation for the Information Age. Jo Johnson had chosen that morning to pun on his brother’s name Boris, conflating that with our VC Sir Leszek Borysiewicz (always known as Borys) in an article in the Financial Times ‘Want to know what Brexit would mean? Ask Boris’. The Boris in question was of course actually Borys, who has spoken up frequently in favour of the EU, in stark contrast to Boris Johnson the London Mayor and MP who has come out for Out. Most recently Borys had made a passionate speech the day before Moedas and Johnson (J)’s Cambridge visit at the International Higher Education Forum and this speech provided the jumping off point for what Johnson (J) had written that morning and then said in person on the platform – in front of the VC .

Personally I am, as perhaps my membership of the ERC Scientific Council hints at, a staunch believer in the value of staying in the EU. Indeed my guess is that Cambridge collectively is pretty enthusiastic. In the 1975 referendum Cambridge apparently came out as the constituency with the highest overall pro-vote and there are probably those here who expect the same outcome this time around. Time will tell, but in the meantime I am more than happy to chair an event with committed pro-European speakers. Additionally Carlos Moedas is a strong supporter of science and innovation and is wishing to see the creation of a pan-European Innovation Council to mimic the success he undoubtedly sees in the ERC, something he stressed in his Cambridge speech.

However, my nerves as I stood on the platform welcoming these two politicians were not just down to being overawed by the company I found myself in but because 25-30 minutes of Q+A has the potential for disaster if everyone else decides to be overawed too. You stand there waiting for the hands to shoot up and panic courses through you when they don’t. We kicked off with one long-winded question and then nothing. I was reduced to stalling for time by saying that everyone must be feeling stunned and trying to frame my own question (of course I should have done that in advance! I’d expected there to be no shortage and so hadn’t) – and then suddenly there was a sea of hands and the time sped by. In the end I had to cut off a number of people because of the need to keep to a precise schedule (otherwise known as the press wanting to get their time with the politicians). I stepped off the platform with a sense of relief.

That was not the end of my high level company of the day. The evening saw the Biennial Roskill Lecture in Churchill College. Originally this was intended to be given by John Major about his time in office and the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 made in conjunction with the Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. However in the end he had to have a hip operation a few weeks ago and he kindly nominated the diplomat Sir Roderick Lyne, who had worked closely with Major at the time, as his substitute. And what a substitute he was! We had a fascinating lecture about all the groundwork that was done in securing peace in Northern Ireland and why the time was ripe (and the key individuals of Albert Reynolds and John Major the right people with a good working relationship and mutual trust) to move things forward. Over dinner we also had a shorter talk from the Irish Ambassador in London Daniel Mulhall, who put the Irish take on the events back then as well as the current state of play. He also spoke up strongly about his hopes that the UK would stay in after the referendum – and his fears if we did not.

One of the wonderful things about being Head of a Cambridge college is that one gets exposed to events like this lecture and dinner. I may have enjoyed history at school (I did); I may increasingly be involved with politicians (as per the morning’s event) but I probably would not find time to head off to a lecture about recent history without a prompt. But when one gets to such an event it is brilliant. And then to have the opportunity to talk over dinner to Lyne and Mulhall, to quiz them privately and ask the dumb questions that are on the tip of one’s tongue is also a privilege. Even if it also highlights one’s shortcomings in politics, policy and history.

If you don’t know whether I’m trying to talk about impostor syndrome, my amazement at and interest in the company I find myself in, or the importance I personally attach to staying in the EU that is because the three strands seem so intimately linked this week. When presented with ambassadorial company you can be sure that your ignorance will be treated kindly. This is not something you can count on when faced with fellow academics or politicians! However losing one’s nerve when dealing with any of them in a public situation is not to be recommended. Perhaps that is the advice I would have given my 18 year old self walking into the Babbage Lecture Theatre all those years ago – had that self had any idea of what life might throw up so far ahead. Added to which I would say, note the feelings of being out of one’s depth and stamp on them.

Perhaps most importantly, the comparison of my role in the lecture theatre then and now reminds me that you never know what is just around the corner (as my husband once said shrewdly said to me after I was nursing feelings of failure following an apparently major setback in my career). It is impossible to predict how things will turn out. All you can do is seize the next opportunity, make the most of what does come your way and not run away from challenges just because they feel challenging. Life can be interesting and exciting in all kinds of ways the teenage self cannot possibly imagine.


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