My revolting past

August 27, 2004

Rightwing commentator Lincoln Allison made the most of his time at Oxford, from political heckling to stealing girlfriends.

Lincoln Allison does not have terribly precise memories of the night in 1964 that Harold Wilson was elected Prime Minister, but he knows exactly where he was. "Friends have told me often enough that I stood on the front steps of University College, Oxford, haranguing passers-by about what a disaster this was - and my view remains unchanged after 40 years," he says.

Allison, who has just retired as reader in politics at Warwick University, retains the Lancastrian tones in which those Oxford pedestrians were heckled and a marked taste for speaking his mind. He caused a stir earlier this month with an article advocating the free use of drugs in sport.

Unlike most of his academic contemporaries, he has always been a Conservative: "I'm not sure quite how and why since I've always been pretty rebellious," he says. Nor could the robustly rightwing views he expressed as a youthful undergraduate at Wilson's old college - he was only 17 when he went up a few weeks before that election in 1964 - be put down to rebellion against student radicalism since he mixed mostly with people who shared his views.

While he was always interested in politics and read politics, philosophy and economics, he certainly could not have been described as an activist.

"I regarded people who spent their time in political meetings and sitting on committees as wasting the opportunities Oxford had to offer." Instead, he recalls: "I acted, played rugby, rowed and joined the Officer Training Corps. I was elected Pleb of the Year by two aristocratic clubs and had a wonderful time. Gatecrashing college balls was a speciality - you went without a girlfriend but did your best to pick up somebody else's once you were in."

Academic work, though, was not neglected. The early talent that led to him bypassing standard admissions procedures - a teacher at his school, Lancaster Royal Grammar, organised his place using his University College connections - was fulfilled with a first-class degree. He believes he was fortunate in his tutors and fellow students. "I was taught by people such as Sir Peter Strawson, Herbert Hart and Alastair McIntyre, and inspired by a particularly brilliant contemporary, Gareth Evans, who died when he was only 33 but still has two pages in Routledge's Encyclopedia of Philosophy .

He could look at ideas and take them apart with extraordinary skill. I don't think I'd have been any sort of intellectual but for them."

Nor was he wholly impervious to the political atmosphere of the time. He was still too young to vote in 1966 but admits he might have favoured Labour. "At the time, a mix of the planned economy and legalising homosexuality seemed quite attractive." A confirmed social libertarian, he still favours one of the two: "I'll leave you to guess which."

Postgraduate studies at Nuffield College were less successful, although his never-completed thesis on the environment and local government in time generated a book and a course module that served for 32 years at Warwick.

He retains his dislike of the routines of conventional politics - "I'd much rather be playing cricket" - as well as of that Tory anarchism more appreciated by academic colleagues than administrators - he notes wryly that a senior manager who rebuked him for expressing views seen as unhelpful to the university's image had 30 years earlier tried to prevent him from going to work in the name of international revolution.

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