In praise of independence of thought

The National Archives continually releases items of interest which the press keep an eye on. This week the Times has reported on the 1982/84 correspondence which reveals that Margaret Thatcher’s government put pressure on the University of Lancaster not to award an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela. The Independent repeated the story and I have linked to them because you don’t need a subscription to read it

Mrs Thatcher had previously dismissed the African National Congress (ANC) as “a typical terrorist organisation” and refused to back sanctions against the South African government which operated the brutal separatist policy of apartheid. Everything changed of course in 1990 when apartheid fell apart and Mandela was released from prison.  No-one as far as we know ever accused Mrs Thatcher in person of being two-faced but the lady who famously said “you turn if you want to, this lady is not for turning” (another issue at another time it is true) delivered a beaming smile for the No10 doorstep handshakes when Mandela came to the UK.

However the University of Lancaster stuck to its guns. Government pressure had no effect. Although he could not be present Princess Alexandra, the University Chancellor, awarded an honorary LLD to Nelson Mandela in 1984. At that time it must have been like a small light in the dark, a symbol of hope that honesty and justice would eventually prevail.

This where I declare an interest. The University of Lancaster awarded me an honorary LLD in 2012. When I saw the list of those who had preceded me I was blown away by one name above all others, Nelson Mandela. I was privileged to be awarded the honour of the degree but to be in his company made it extra special.  When Sir Chris Bonnington, the University Chancellor, shook my hand I was thinking of my inspirational predecessor who did not have to face this grand (and slightly ludicrous) ceremony because he was behind bars.

Let us give thanks for independence of thought. It is one of our treasured freedoms and we should never be scared of using it.