I can’t remember a time when I didn’t dream of winning a place at Oxford University. Both my father and my elder brother had been at what I imagined was the world’s greatest seat of learning, a modern-day wine-blushed Greek symposium encouraging the dual pillars of civilisation, free thinking and tolerance.
Yet, within two weeks of taking up my place at Worcester College in the late Eighties to read history, I’d packed my bags, precipitating the first scandal of my life. My father broke down and cried. Friends were baffled. The Evening Standard diary claimed I’d quit because I objected to fellow undergraduates having sex in the room next to mine. The writer A?N Wilson announced waggishly that I’d departed because I was forced to drink out of chipped mugs.
The truth was less droll. I ran away. Yes, ran, because I had been subject to systematic bullying and intimidation. Not on account of my rather outré name, or the fact that I came from a private school. I was persecuted for one reason only, and in this cradle of supposed enlightenment it was both bigoted and barbaric: my father, the late Woodrow Wyatt, was a high-profile adviser to Margaret Thatcher and I was a Conservative supporter.
Why bring this up now, you might ask. Well, recent reports suggest that a new generation of Right-of-centre students are suffering a similar persecution. Such is the institutionalised and increasing hatred of Tory students at Oxford that last week a group of them demanded the same equal-rights protection as gays, disabled people and ethnic minorities.
I was in a minority of one during my first few weeks at Oxford. I had gone up in September 1986, a cripplingly shy 18-year-old. Hatred of the Conservative Party was at its most febrile. The year before, the university had voted to refuse Margaret Thatcher – a former student – an honorary degree, because of cuts in higher education funding. The atmosphere would have made a Stalinist shudder with apprehension.
During the first few days of freshers’ week, when new students socialise with each other and the dons, I had a taste of the wormwood that was to come. I was to find that the dons not only connived in the taunting of Tory undergraduates but took part with relish.
The politics of the miners’ strike, privatisation and the government’s opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa were brought into the wood-panelled rooms of the tutorial. My first one involved translating 18th-century French texts into English, and I was unprepared for what followed.
“Miss Wyatt,” said the don, Harry Pitt (now deceased), “please translate the first paragraph.” I stumbled over it. A small man with a face like cake batter, Pitt was big on bile.
“Do Thatcherites refuse to learn French or are they just stupid?” he demanded. The other undergraduates giggled. Tears pricked the back of my eyes. “I suggest you take some basic French lessons in your spare time – that is, if you’re not too busy socialising,” Pitt snarled.
I walked back to my rooms a disconsolate figure. At dinner in college that evening I sat by myself; then I felt a light tap on my shoulder. It was a second-year English student named James who introduced himself as a member of the OUCA. “I know who you are,” he said kindly. “I’m afraid it’s like that. Anyone suspected of being a Tory is picked on. It’s bad enough for me, but they know your father is close to Margaret Thatcher, so it will be worse for you. Most Tory freshers pretend they’re Labour.”
Later, at a local pub, I cravenly attempted to dissimulate. I insisted that I didn’t agree with everything Mrs Thatcher said. This ploy proved unsuccessful. A first year PPE student, who, ironically, had been to Eton, said: “You’re the daughter of a fascist pig. You’re contaminated.” Other students took up the refrain. I was perverted, dirty. “How do Tories have sex?” one asked. “They beat each other, don’t they?”
I felt the way homosexuals must have felt before the liberal legislation of the Sixties. Would I ever be able to lead a normal life at Oxford? Would I be forced to meet like-minded people only after dark? Would I have to turn to Labour and suppress my natural inclinations? The three years before me stretched out as a purgatory of ostracism and isolation.
The only openly Tory don was Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, who was based at my college. He was hated for being not only a Conservative but a foreign policy adviser to Thatcher and one of her speech writers. He was hardly ever there. He loathed the place as provincial and petty, and for its adherence to the Marxist-determinist view of history. (In 1997 he took up a professorship at the University of Bilkent, in Ankara, Turkey.)
“You won’t be happy here,” he told me. “I get out as much as possible to escape these -----.”
I began commuting from Oxford to my parents’ house in London, finding refuge with my more open-minded metropolitan friends and family. I told my father I hated Oxford and why. He was incredulous. During his time there in the Forties, all political views had been accepted. “But it’s the best place in the world,” he said pathetically. “They wouldn’t do that, not among my dreaming spires. Even my Communist friends always had impeccable manners.” His rheumy eyes began to cloud. “Give it a chance. I’m sure it’s all just a tease. It would break my heart if you left.”
Exhausted by my frequent trips to London, my emotional resistance was deteriorating. A male friend of mine, also a Tory supporter, had succumbed to pressure and renounced his creed. During a tutorial the following week, when another history don had suggested, in complete seriousness, that I was an “enemy of the people”, I decided to do the same. Inwardly blushing with shame, I admitted to being “brainwashed by my parents” and called them “old fools”.
The respite was short. It was my father who drove the nail into the coffin of my Oxford career. At the time, he wrote two columns in the Murdoch press each week. Early one morning a group of undergraduates began banging on my door. I heard vicious shouts. My father had written a piece supporting Margaret Thatcher’s stance against South African sanctions. “Let’s lynch her dad. I bet he’d like to lynch coloured people. Does he call them n*****s? Let’s lynch you. Like father like daughter.”
My door was locked. I cowered inside, and after five minutes, my pursuers gave up. When they left, I packed a suitcase and caught the first train to London. I never went back.
You may call me a snivelling wimp. But no 18-year-old should be subject to such intimidation and vitriol in an educational institution. Even more tragic is that it was Oxford, which not only produced 14 Tory prime ministers, but, to this day, hides behind an ill-deserved reputation for equality and freedom of thought.
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Posted By: oOSmilesOo |
1/09/13 2:34 PM
That really stinks to want somethig so bad your whole life and once you get it then have it destroyed by senseless bullies. Expecting it from classmates is one thing but to be bullied by a teacher in front of the class is just wrong. He is setting an example that bullying this girl is okay and that just ethically against anything a teacher should stand for. Thank goodness she still had a successful career among all the bullies she had to deal with.
Posted By: BonitaAna |
1/10/13 1:45 PM
She had no control over what her father was doing and its a shame for adults to sink so low to bully a student like that