15 MARCH 1975, Page 10

The Bhutto degree

A shameful public affront

Hugh Trevor-Roper

On February 25 the Congregation, or Parliament, of Oxford University, by a majority vote, enforced the withdrawal of the honorary doctorate already offered to, and accepted by, Mr Bhiitto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. This elaborate incivility was achieved after five weeks of agitation and three meetings of the assembly. Now it is over and we can look back on the whole discreditable affair.

The first meeting was on January 21, when Mr Richard Gombrich, lecturer in Sanskrit, declared his opposition. Had a vote been taken then, his party would have been defeated, since they did not constitute a quorum. However, by a procedural device, they stopped the debate after his speech, and secured its adjournment. On February 11 the debate was resumed and carried to a vote. Had this vote been correctly recorded, the opposition would again have been defeated, though very narrowly, by the Vice-chancellor's casting vote. However, it took three days to discover that two of their votes were invalid, and by that time the Vice-chancellor had lost his right to a casting vote. This entailed a third meeting and a second vote. It was this second vote which at last gave Mr Gombrich his victory and denied Mr Bhutto his degree.

I regard this whole affair as shameful: a public affront, and a personal injustice, to 'a distinguished Oxford graduate whom the Hebdomadal Council had wished to honour. However, I am not here concerned with the consequences of the action: I am concerned with its motives. Those motives, I believe, have very little to do with the arguments in which they were expressed.

Ostensibly the opponents of Mr Bhutto voted against him because they held him responsible for the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan in March 1971. Mr Bhutto was out of office at that time and no evidence has ever been offered of his complicity. On the contrary, evidence and probability are against it. However, the charge itself, though undocumented, played an important part in the Oxford battle. Asserted with confidence, it bowled over the uninformed. Without its emotive force, the machinery of opposition' could never have been mounted, or kept going; and even when it had been exploded, it continued to provide the necessary, momentum. Technically, it was a smear; but it was also a myth, and, like all powerful myths, it retained its potency even when its credibility had gone.

In the debate itself, none of the speakers attempted to defend the charge of atrocity. Those who had been mobilised by it now merely complained that Mr Bhutto's regime was not to their taste, and that he had imprisoned his opponents-as he indeed had, only a day before. No doubt, for our parochial purposes, that was ill-timed. The Awami leaders had been imprisoned after one of Mr Bhutto's most important ministers in the North West Frontier Province had been assassinated by a bomb in a university where he was speaking. We have had such incidents in our own North West Frontier Province, where we also imprison the leaders of Opposition. But it soon became clear that even these charges were not the real motives of the opposition. No such charges had been brought against Mrs Gandhi when she was given an honorary degree a few years ago. But then Mrs Gandhi is Indian.

We turn from the alleged motives to the real political alignment. This was curious, even paradoxical. Those who voted for the radical socialist Mr Bhutto were, on the whole, the conservatives, Those who voted against him were the left. Academic socialists who have never left their armchairs to serve the cause at home, trooped to the Sheldonian to vote against the real socialist who, against formidable obstacles, is transforming an inveterate feudal society abroad. To them can be added the Jews. In a moment of rash accuracy I mentioned this fact, and was surprised by the outcry. Mr Gombrich, who counts it virtue to smear a man as a mass-murderer, protested against this "racialist slur"; and a party of "concerned" students, egged on by concerned dons, tried to picket my lectures. They failed because once again they got their facts wrong: they marched to battle on the wrong day..

Some of these paradoxical loyalties can be explained. It can be said that conservatives voted for Mr Bhutto regardless of his politics: that they were voting for the university establishment, just as professional dissenters used him as a handy stick with which to beat that establishment. As an obscure young tutor was heard to say, Mr Bhutto must be humiliated in order to teach our Hebdomadal Council a lesson: in future it must consult him, Master Trendy, before offering honours to statesmen. The Jewish vote can also be explained. To the Jews, understandably, the word 'atrocity' is charged with meaning. It rouses associations stronger than reason. Some of them, begging the main question, implicitly identified Mr Bhutto with Hitler. I appreciate their emotions, but not such blind conclusions.

The main problem is the reaction of the academic left. Why was it so solidly opposed to a socialist politician? Of the fact there can be no doubt: to vote against Mr Bhutto was a badge of. left-wing virtue. I suppose it is because Pakistan is not India. India, as I once heard a socialist peer repeatedly intone, is "the moral conscience of Asia." Consequently the Indian government can get away with murder: aggressive wars, massive corruption, political imprisonment, extermination of Nagas and Naxalites, atom bombs. Pakistan refused to be part of India. It has been governed for thirteen years by reactionary generals. It has witnessed atrocities. Consequently someone must take the blame. It is ironical that the scapegoat should be Mr Bhutto, who has made peace with India, who opposed the generals, who introduced civilian government and whom. not even his open political enemies in the sub-continent have accused of personal responsibility for atrocities.

However, it would be wrong to look for reason in such matters. The most striking feature of the attack was not reason, it was sanctimony: an almost paranoiac sanctimony which overwhelmed evidence and defied sense. When evidence failed, emotions were whipped up. The old cry of atrocity was revived. Hysterical accusations were made. The claims of civility were forgotten. Mr Bhutto becanle not a statesman whom Council had wished to honour but a substitute victim, a necessary sacrifice, a scapegoat.

Sanctimony which demands a victim, an exemplary sinner, also requires a prophet, a saint. The saint, in this case, was Mr Gombrich. He had launched the great orgy of self-righteousness, and he was also lucky enough to acquire, from the faithful, the status of martyr. He had originally declared his charges on January 21. Since the debate had then been stopped before they could be answered, he had enjoyed a fortnight's start, during which they were broadcast unchallenged by press and radio and distributed as a flysheet to all voters. This, one would have thought, was enough. But when the same rules which had given him this advantage were applied to prevent him (or anyone else) from speaking twice, what cries of persecution went up! He issued a second document beginning: "Since I am informed that I may not speak . . ." At the door of the Sheldonian we were handed a third, beginning, "As I may not speak . . ." This, I thought, was the last testament of the blessed martyr. But no: at the foot of the cross, one of the disciples had collected a yet later message which he delivered in devout tones ("His words, but not,. alas, His eloquence") to the assembly.

When the vote was first announced, the opposition appeared to have won, by two votes. But later, when the discovery of two invalid votes put all in doubt, academic paranoia found a new vent. The fact of the two votes was established by unimpeachable witnesses. The voters themselves confessed. It had been a mistake, and none of Mr Bhutto's supporters suggested that anyone was at fault. But on the .other side the wildest accusations were uttered. The two unqualified voters, it was said, were. not real: the vice-chancellor had invented then) to cheat the faithful of their victory; or, if real, they had been secretly introduced by me, as Trojan horses. Circumstantial corroboration for these fantasies was easily imagined. Evidently it did not occur to their authors that, if we had been machiavellian enough to discover two false voters, and so cause a tie, we could have discovered three, and so won. So busily were these absurd charges circulated and believed that the Vice-chancellor felt obliged publicly to clear himself, just before the final poll, by naming his witnesses. By then, it was too late,. The fiery cross had gone out. The tom-toms hao echoed through the scrub. The army was there.

Macaulay once wrote that he knew n° spectacle so ridiculous as the British people 10 one of its periodical fits of morality. Academic moralists, of course, being. more pretentious, can be even more ridiculous. But ridicule is not enough. The subject is one which calls for anthropological analysis. Every society which is capable of exalted self-righteousness occasionally seeks a scapegoat, and the significance. of the scapegoat is not in the sins of the unfortunate goat but in the guilt feelings of the society, its psychological need to discharge them, and the tribal ritual by which they are discharged on a particular victim. I wish that some anthropologist would turn from the Pondo, the Trobriand Islanders and the NuPe and study our own academic Left. It might provide the key to several current probleins. But of course it would have to be made hY someone outside that particular tribe.

Hugh-Trevor-Roper has been Regius Profess° of Modern History in Oxford University sin" 1957