Tony Baldry, MP for Banbury, yesterday spoke out in the House of Commons about Oxford’s lack of official recognition, in the form of an honorary degree, for the now deceased Baroness Thatcher.
During tributes to the former Prime Minister, Baldry commented: “as an Oxfordshire MP I always thought it reflected badly on the image and reputation of Oxford University that they have not been able to recognise Margaret’s unquestionable and outstanding achievements in politics and public life.”
He highlighted “how sad [Thatcher] was that she was never awarded an honorary degree by Oxford.”
Baroness Thatcher has been made an honorary fellow by Somerville College, which she attended as an undergraduate, but the University has, until now, stopped short of extending the official recognition afforded by an honorary degree.
Thatcher enjoyed a good relationship with her former college, according to Dr Alice Prochaska, Somerville’s Principal, who said in her tribute to the alumna: “Since her graduation in 1947, Somerville continued to enjoy a warm relationship with Baroness Thatcher, awarding her with an Honorary Fellowship of the college in 1970.” She highlighted the honours the College has awarded to Baroness Thatcher, including a conference centre and a fund named after her. Despite this, the University has never extended such warm recognition.
A vote in the Congregation, the University’s main governing body, in 1985, yielded a landslide against awarding her an honorary degree. She is the only postwar Prime Minister who studied at Oxford to be refused the honour. The vote took place against a backdrop of cuts to higher education funding by the Thatcher government.
A controversy also broke out early last year when Wafic Saïd, the main donor to the Saïd Business School, revealed his desire to name one of its buildings after Thatcher.
The Vice-Chancellor of the University alluded to the Baroness’s divisive legacy in his official tribute to her: “One of the foremost politicians of her age, historians will debate her legacy for decades to come,” but avoided the question of an honorary degree, saying only that “today we remember a graduate of the University who reached the highest public office and had a lasting impact on British politics and society.”
He did, however, applaud Baroness Thatcher’s acheivements: “As Britain’s first female prime minister, and one of its longest serving, Baroness Thatcher ranks among the most prominent of Oxford’s alumni.”
The University declined to comment specifically on the topic of the honorary degree.