Watergate? 'Not a problem for Nixon'

January 2, 2004

Documents released this week by the National Archives under the 30-year rule offer a characteristic mixture of the eerily contemporary, the hilarious in hindsight and echoes of a completely different world.

There were discussions about extending London's airports then as well, but the name in the frame was Maplin Sands rather than eventual winner (or loser according to perspective) Stansted.

The index to the Cabinet minutes from May 1973 contains insights into the UK view of US politics. The Cabinet's verdict on the Watergate scandal was that it was "unlikely to inflict damage to President Nixon".

A similar myopia dogged the debates surrounding the need to buy a computer for Scottish universities. The issue was significant enough to command the attention of not only the secretary of state for Scotland, Gordon Campbell, but also education secretary Margaret Thatcher and prime minister Edward Heath.

These were the days when discussions of how many computers Britain would need had an angels-on-a-pinhead quality. The government was trying to build British company ICL as a rival to the US's IBM, and hoped to persuade German and French companies to link up to create a single European computer-maker.

It was felt that one computer would be sufficient for the needs of all Scottish universities. But who to buy it from? The government's computer board wanted an IBM and Mrs Thatcher was minded to agree when the issue was raised in July 1972.

Mr Heath, however, had other ideas, writing: "I don't see why. What is the purpose of putting money into ICL if we are not buying its products?" The Department for Trade and Industry supported Mr Heath, saying that it would look bad for ICL if the order went outside Britain.

Mrs Thatcher, arguing that ICL could not as yet guarantee a suitable computer, suggested renting an IBM machine that could be replaced when ICL had an appropriate product. But Mr Heath was immovable.

This was a comparatively rare incursion by higher education into the Cabinet politics in 1972-73, which was inevitably dominated by the more pressing concerns of galloping inflation, industrial unrest, Northern Ireland and the Cod and Yom Kippur wars.

Mr Heath, however, still found time to entertain a delegation of vice-chancellors and poly-technic directors at a dinner and discussion in March 1973.

The content of the debate was unexceptional, but the civil servant who briefed Mr Heath offered some fine pen pictures of leading figures of the time.

They included Oxford University vice-chancellor Alan Bullock, who was styled as "very much the Oxford Yorkshireman, plain-speaking, witty and humane".

Albert Sloman, then vice-chancellor of Essex University, was deemed to conceal "considerable toughness beneath a charming and agreeable manner".

Meanwhile, Arthur Armitage, vice-chancellor of Manchester University, appeared as an ageless academic archetype being described as "a very resourceful man with excellent judgement, which he chooses to conceal behind a bumbling manner".

Academic men of resource were in demand for public appointments, with the government marking Britain's entry to what was then the European Economic Community by running a succession of candidates for the rectorship of the new European University Institute in Florence.

Historian Asa Briggs was the third Brit to be put forward for the post before the UK government conceded to the unstoppable political momentum built behind Dutch academic Max Kohnstamm.

The Cabinet papers report that Professor Briggs received the news well but "wanted it placed on record that he did not think Mr Kohnstamm, at 63, would be the right person to run the institute".

The government also failed to persuade Swansea historian Glanmor Williams, who felt he had enough public appointments, to take on the chairmanship of the Welsh Language Council.

Although Mr Heath approved the initial approach made to Professor Williams, he was sceptical about the value of the new body.

Noting secretary of state Peter Thomas' reports of the decline in the number of Welsh speakers, Mr Heath wrote: "The more we do for Welsh, the quicker it disappears. By 2030 it will have disappeared entirely!"

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