Interview with Lord Waldegrave

The former Cabinet minister on listening to jazz pianist Art Tatum, ambitions to be Stirling Moss, and how we shouldn’t view all politicians as crooks

April 28, 2016
Lord William Waldegrave, University of Reading
Source: Joshua Tucker

Lord Waldegrave was elected to Parliament in 1979, entering Margaret Thatcher’s government as parliamentary undersecretary with responsibility for universities and science in the Department of Education and Science. He went on to serve in a number of Cabinet positions in the governments of Mrs Thatcher and her successor John Major. In March, he was announced as the next chancellor of the University of Reading.

Where were you born?
Chewton Mendip, in the Mendip Hills in Somerset.

How has this shaped you?
I still have a farmhouse there and help to run a family tenanted dairy farm, so it gives me a strong sense of roots.

What role did higher education play in bringing you to this point in your career?
Philosophy and classical studies at the University of Oxford were, and remain, central to my intellectual landscape. The Harvard Kennedy School hugely widened my horizons. The turbulent politics at both universities between 1965 and 1970 were also dramatic and formative.

You’re taking over from Sir John Madejski, how do you hope to emulate his tenure?
Sir John’s shoes are very big ones to fill. I cannot hope to compete with all he has done for the community of Reading, the town and for the university. I will need to find a different kind of voice.

Chancellors sometimes have a tendency to be a bit removed from the student body, how actively involved do you want to be at Reading?
The chancellor must not try to interfere in the established decision-taking structures of the university, but can listen and sometimes perhaps advise – a little like [Walter] Bagehot’s idea of how a constitutional monarch in a democracy should behave. But it is difficult in a big and expanding university not to be a little remote.

Expenses, sleaze, tax avoidance. Is politics more toxic nowadays?
Those are issues that are perennial in any free society...human nature never changes: what matters is how determined we are at tackling whatever is wrong at any given time. But we should not make the mistake of being so cynical about politics that we ensure that only crooks go in for it: the UK is still an exceptionally well-governed country in terms of fair international comparisons.

David Cameron has been compared – unfavourably – to Margaret Thatcher. Do you see similar political traits/views in him to her?
I think they are quite different sorts of politicians. Cameron is more like [Harold] Macmillan, whom I admired greatly, than he is like Thatcher.

Baroness Thatcher was a divisive figure. Is the opprobrium towards her, even now, justified?
No. I think much of the opprobrium derives from the fact that she is a convenient mythic figure on which can be focused dislike of a whole range of societal changes which were inevitable and too often more painful in the UK because [they were] delayed so long. For instance, deep-mined coal industries have ended in many other European countries. But the rhetoric she sometimes favoured made it easy to dislike her – particularly at a distance.

You were minister for science under John Major. Do you think we compete as well in academic research as other global higher education powers?
Yes – it is one of the UK's outstanding achievements that we punch far above our economic weight in science and academic research generally. Our universities must take huge credit for this. So must our historic capacity to welcome academics from all over the world to work here, which must continue.

What keeps you awake at night?
The kinds of things that my friend and mentor Martin Rees described in his book Our Final Century?: the risks to the planet from man-made global warming, from nuclear or more likely biological terrorism or accident, and from social fracture driven by extreme demographic pressures.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Be Stirling Moss, but if not Stirling Moss then prime minister.

What do you do for fun?
Ski, play not very good tennis and bridge, drive my 1949 Bristol car, listen to Art Tatum.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not taking enough risks when I was younger.

Have you ever had a eureka moment?
Yes – if realising how the world is quite different after you have a child is a eureka moment.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Fairly outgoing – I rowed for my Oxford college and did lots of student politics but I loved my course and was kept sane by a wonderful girlfriend who was not part of the university and kept its prizes and upsets in perspective.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
See above. Go for it. Why didn’t I go to Afghanistan when I could have done in 1975? Why didn’t I go and live in France or Germany and learn another language properly? Why did I never try to start a business?

What advice would you give to students?
Learn another language. It’s not true that everyone speaks English and you can’t see your own culture clearly unless you can understand another one to compare it with. Try to be resilient: luck is a huge part of life, and when things go wrong (or right) it is often not down to you.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
Our universities are among the best in the world because of their historic independence from government. I would find whatever was the latest centralising policy planned and stop it, and then roll back its half-dozen predecessors.


Claire Taylor has been appointed the new deputy vice-chancellor of Glyndwr University. Dr Taylor, who is currently pro vice-chancellor (academic strategy) at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, will take up her role in the summer. Dr Taylor is a principal fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a life fellow of Bishop Grosseteste University and a member of the Higher Education Public Information Steering Group. “The role of deputy vice-chancellor presents a tremendous opportunity to serve a university whose ambitions accord with the values that I hold dear, and in particular I am deeply impressed by its student-centred approach and commitment to partnership working,” she said.

Corinna Hawkes has taken up her new role as director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University London. Professor Hawkes, a leading food policy expert, joined City in January this year and took up the directorship at the beginning of April. She will combine her duties alongside her position as co-chair of the Global Nutrition Report. “This is an exciting and challenging time to be working in food policy,” she said. “I will be working to make the centre a go-to place for the decision-makers of today looking for policy-relevant analysis while providing education for the decision-makers of tomorrow.”

The University of Oxford has announced two new appointments across the institution. Diwakar Nath Acharya has been appointed to the Spalding professorship of Eastern religions and ethics in the Faculty of Oriental Studies. He took up his position at the beginning of April. Pedro Carvalho will become EP Abraham professor of cell biology on 1 August.

University Partnerships Programme, the campus student accommodation infrastructure and support services provider, has announced two new appointments. Kelly Stafford has joined as human resources director, while Mike Eady arrives as health and safety director.

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