The reluctant rebel

January 20, 1995

Pollster David Butler (below) has spent a lifetime collating the opinions of the partisan in the most unpartisan of ways. But the refusal of the Oxford and Cambridge Club to admit women has driven him to uncharacteristic rebellion.

Maybe there are revolutionaries more unlikely than David Butler, but it is hard to imagine. This should not be taken to imply conservatism. Rather, that one reason for his success as an academic studying politicians and their activities (if he did not quite invent British electoral studies he certainly led research and development from a very early stage) has been utter discretion about his own opinions.

As editor since 1951 of the Nuffield election studies he has been privy not only to politicians' opinions after the polls, but to their thoughts and potential strategies beforehand. Any suggestion that he tilted in the slightest to left or right would immediately have halted the flow of vital information from the other side.

And he admits to considerable surprise that his resignation from the Oxford and Cambridge Club after 42 years of membership (in his own view "an essentially trivial matter") should have caused such a furore -- leading in the first 48 hours after the story broke to extensive broadsheet coverage and several radio interviews, including an appearance on the Today programme.

But if the tabloid media twitches convulsively every time Princess Di scratches her nose, their more heavyweight counterparts have a fascination with the arcana of Oxford and Cambridge, confident that their middle-class readers will react with the same interest that in the fictional sphere made Inspector Morse a cult television series and leads one literary agent to assert that the word "Oxford" in a crime novel title will boost sales by 40 per cent.

If surprised, Butler is at least equipped to cope with the deluge, having had an academic career punctuated by becoming the most recognisable academic in the country for about three days every five years -- his appearances as a television analyst on General Election nights as invariable a feature of the coverage as the announcement that Labour has held Barnsley.

At 70, the role of rebel has come late in life, and rather reluctantly. "I have no wish to become any more of a campaigner than I have had to be," he says. Anyone hoping to see him chain himself to the Pall Mall railings will be sorely disappointed. But some highly effective campaigns have had as their starting points essentially moderate figures who decided that enough was enough.

That was Dr Butler's starting point. Having spent his whole academic career in a mixed institution, Nuffield College, Oxford, he is mystified that admitting women to the Oxford and Cambridge Club should even be an issue: "It is so silly. I can't see what the problem is. I was dean and senior tutor at Nuffield and we never had a single problem related to being a mixed college. It is ludicrous that a club bearing the names of the two universities should exclude 40 per cent of its potential clientele." He points out that the Reform Club, which went mixed in the 1980s, has subsequently prospered.

While the decision is entirely his own he does not deny that being married to Marilyn, a Cambridge professor of English and head of an Oxford college (Exeter), who is yet not eligible for membership of a club open to any man who has entered, never mind graduated from Oxbridge has sharpened his view of the idiocy of the rule.

Nor is it possible to imagine any news story concerning Dr Butler that has not got a ballot of some sort somewhere in the plot. That role was fulfilled by the Oxford and Cambridge Club's 1993 poll on the admission of women. This actually produced a resounding vote -- better than three to one -- in favour, but not the 50 per cent of total membership demanded. "I rang the Electoral Reform Society beforehand and they told me that ballots of dispersed memberships almost never produce a 50 per cent turnout, so we could be very proud of the 62 per cent who voted. But we fell around 70 votes short of an overall majority."

There are of course more serious electoral precedents for this -- it is perhaps appropriate that this row should have flared in the week when devolution again became a major party political issue. But for Dr George Cunningham's ingenious invention -- the West Lothian Question -- which demanded that 40 per cent of the whole electorate as well as a simple majority should vote for a Scottish Assembly, that issue might largely have been resolved in 1978. And Dr Butler points also to Weimar Germany ballots in which not voting at all counted as a vote against.

But he feels the result was so overwhelmingly for the admission of women that the club is splitting hairs in refusing to act on it. "Various friends have gone quietly by simply not renewing their membership, but I always warned that if I went it would be with a bang rather than a whimper."

He emphasises that there is no personal animus in his decision: "I don't know anybody who is opposed to admitting women to the club and haven't known any of the one or two who have been quoted when the issue was in the public eye before."

His family has long been connected with the club -- his great-grandfather was among the founders of the United Universities Club (one of two clubs merged in 1972 to form the present institution) in 1817. A fourth generation academic, his ancestors also include the economist David Edgeworth and the economic historian A. F. Pollard.

But it will not leave an immense gap in his life. While references to the West End clubs summon up images somewhere between P. G. Wodehouse and Dornford Yates, with elderly plotters of the affairs of state ducking as high-spirited youths throw boiled eggs at the electric fan, modern reality is rather more prosaic. He says: "Living out of London, but spending a lot of time there for work, it is extremely convenient to have a base in the centre of town -- rather like a hotel where you have special rights, but no more than that. How far it continues to have an inner life of its own, I do not know and certainly I have played very little part in it."

He proposes leaving further action to others -- there have been hints both of action from within the two universities and of resort to law. Whether the club is subject to sex discrimination legislation is a matter of interpretation -- that Oxford and Cambridge universities are subject to it is not in doubt.

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