In fairness to Professor Grayling, this post could be written about most British academics. I only single him out because I have been reading one of his books, “The Meaning of Things.” I read it in response to his rebuke that I had judged him harshly on too little data. He is, alas, neither better nor worse than the average British academic.
By 1971, when I moved from Cambridge to a permanent lectureship at Birkbeck College, London, I had become a conservative. So far as I could discover there was only one other conservative at Birkbeck, and that was Nunzia—Maria Annunziata—the Neapolitan lady who served meals in the Senior Common Room and who cocked a snook at the lecturers by plastering her counter with kitschy photos of the Pope.
One of those lecturers, towards whom Nunzia conceived a particular antipathy, was Eric Hobsbawm, the lionized historian of the Industrial Revolution, whose Marxist vision of our country is now the orthodoxy taught in British schools. Hobsbawm came as a refugee to Britain, bringing with him the Marxist commitment and Communist Party membership that he retained until he could retain it no longer—the Party, to his chagrin, having dissolved itself in embarrassment at the lies that could no longer be repeated. No doubt in recognition of this heroic career, Hobsbawm was rewarded, at Mr. Blair’s behest , with the second highest award that the Queen can bestow—that of “Companion of Honour.” This little story is of enormous significance to a British conservative. For it is a symptom and a symbol of what has happened to our intellectual life since the Sixties. We should ponder the extraordinary fact that Oxford University, which granted an honorary degree to Bill Clinton on the grounds that he had once hung around its precincts, refused the same honour to Margaret Thatcher, its most distinguished post-war graduate and Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. We should ponder some of the other recipients of honorary degrees from British academic institutions—Robert Mugabe, for example, or the late Mrs. Ceausescu—or count (on the fingers of one hand) the number of conservatives who are elected to the British Academy.
While Grayling is intelligent and articulate the abiding impression left by his book is that he is unremarkable in his thinking. His opinions are as groomed as his flowing locks. There is no cliché out of place. Had he spent his life shaping his views to qualify as one of “the Great and the Good” of our Establishment, this is precisely where he would have arrived. One can predict his view on almost any given subject without effort.