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Anthony Smith

In conversation with Theodore Zeldin


Anthony Smith is President of Magdalen College, Oxford and one of the founders of Channel Four Television

I have had four or five quite different jobs in the course of my life, so people think I am rather dilettante, even though I have been in this one for sixteen years; but my life, examined from inside as it were, feels as if it based upon an unrelenting consistency.

I adore institutions. All kinds of institutions, academic, business, cultural, professional.

I liked my school, though I didn’t like my first Oxford college as much as I had wanted to, because I couldn’t see how the moving parts worked, it was full of anxieties and composed of unexplained motivations. When I could create my own institution it was some years later and in the medium of television; that experience taught me the joys of presiding over a group of people and seeing the intermingling of their energies, personalities and private lives; we all had to spend sixteen hours a day together to produce a daily live programme. I had learned something about the ways in which occupations can turn into moral causes from being a member of the ‘Tonight’ team, which pioneered most of the forms of modern television in the early 1960s. Then in four wonderful years at St Antony’s College I saw something of the same phenomenon though in a different milieu and learned a little more about the life-shaping role of institutions. I came to realise the importance to human society of having institutions that endure – there is intrinsic value in continuity.

Before I went into television, I had been rather active in a constituency Labour Party in London, where there was the same interaction of private lives with a social organisation. It had people of many kinds, and this local political organisation had come to represent a principal part of the emotional lives of many of the people involved, including me. Much later when I became Director of the British Film Institute I found another example of a committed cultural institution, which was even more important to some of its people than their private lives. It is very important that you witness the continuity of an institution to which you belong through the course of decades. The BFI is now 75 years old. In each phase of its existence, the external pressures of the age caused it to evolve into new versions of itself, without ever quite jettisoning the older ones. You can see the same processes in the BBC, as it has lived to cope with new communication technologies, changing political circumstances, different cultural situations. The institution is as much the message as the medium is.

The culmination has been Magdalen, an institution over 500 years old. Coming in as President, I felt the necessity to identify with every era of its past. I try to think what my predecessors would have done as issue after issue crops up. One’s predecessors in a job are all somehow present inside one. The whole institution influences the attitudes of the people who pass through it, even those who spend only their three student years here, but much more for those who spend decades of professional life. I came gradually to notice that it was institutions as such that were providing the principle of continuity in my own life.

Some institutions are structured as formal hierarchies, others (Oxford college Fellowships are supreme examples) are pure democracies in form. But in practice the differences are not as great as the formal structures suggest. All institutions have informal hierarchies, sometimes several different ones running in parallel; some of the most top-down ones in fact contain informal internal democracies without which they would not function.

Institutions are the receptacles of our freedoms. Society in a formal legal sense is concerned with the freedom of the individual, but in practice an individual can exercise that freedom only inside institutions and organisations, which, if they are successful, do not constrain but enhance the ability of individuals to fulfil themselves.

I read about the past Presidents of Magdalen, look at their portraits, think about what people say about them and whether it is true. For example, Sir Herbert Warren who was president for 38 years was known as the greatest snob in England. But I wonder whether he really was that. He tried to modernise Magdalen at the turn of the century and in fact emphasised the equality of people within his College, but evidently enjoyed bringing princes and noblemen into it. I have his Visitors’ Book for the Lodgings between 1890 and 1928 and I realise that my own visitors’ book, a century later, contains far more illustrious people than his, though I am probably rather more committed to social equality than he was. He was probably, despite his soubriquet, only trying to do what I am trying to do, and all the other Magdalen Presidents between us, which is to make this institution admired in the world by people who are themselves admired. I think I have discovered the unspoken ambition of Warren. I think he was trying to get all the three emperors of his day before World War I - India, Japan and China - into Magdalen, possibly for his own social amusement. He was successful with the first, managed to get the sibling of the second and in respect of China he got a Magdalen man into the Forbidden City as tutor to the Emperor and there are rumours that Pu-Yi harboured the ambition to come on to Oxford.

When the Labour Party was my key institution I used to believe that all good social intentions could only be carried out by the state: the state was the guarantor of a good society, which cared for all its members. But gradually I lost that belief, particularly in the Thatcher years when I was running a small state institution and saw that all encounters with the state are bruising and that we have as a society to find the way to other forms of collective enterprise to serve beneficial social purposes. I do not think that the market, which addresses only individuals, can do much good at all, though it can indeed release energies. We are wrong if we think that the quality of enterprise is released only through individual aggrandizement. My experience of Oxford colleges, for example, has shown me that groups of people, self-marshalled into a sense of collective purpose, and armed by a belief in their own necessary continuity, can be as enterprising and as risk-taking as any individual entrepreneur.

I don’t know of a society in which some people are not in charge. Some people serve by holding authority; it is a need of human society – and people can be leaders and followers simultaneously in different institutions. Sometimes I am a plain member of a committee or a society, where I receive the orders of others, and sometimes I’m at the top of the table where my contribution is to understand the need of the moment and push some activity forwards. I was very impressed by the experience of being on a jury which was chaired, expertly, by the youngest and least ‘leaderly’ of the twelve members. People have lost the ability to be contented followers and disciples (George Steiner calls it the come-off-it culture). Good democrats are good followers as well as good leaders.

My current job is to help encourage young people to do what they need to do to be successful. I think that most of what I know about doing this has been derived from Alasdair Milne, former Director General of the BBC, who ran the TV programme on which I worked in the 1960s. He showed his followers how to lead and be liked, how to turn an activity into a moral cause, how to make a hierarchical but collective enterprise supremely important in the lives of the people who work in it. It was there I also learned that the sense of success is a necessary ingredient in human life; once young people get it they are driven to want to deserve more of it.

There is another principle which I gradually came to learn from my experiences of life. I woke up to the fact that the world had been organised distortedly to enable people to take things from one another, to establish entitlements. Economics is a kind of falsification of the world. I came to realise that you could also see the world as a series of gifts, as a series of duties. This feeling became more intense as my various institutions involved me in the business of fundraising. I noticed that giving money can be as much an addiction as making money. The addiction to generosity has been largely bred out of our culture though it remains strong in the United States. We need somehow to create a new image of the economy, one which somehow takes into account all the things that are done for nothing, from giving birth to mourning, from giving presents to paying attention to people in trouble. Most of the real value we create in the world is given without hope of recompense. Unfortunately, the economics we learn about totally represses the world of gifts, which exists, like the dark matter of modern physics, invisible but omnipresent.

Let me provide an extreme case history. I was exceedingly fortunate to become a friend of the late Sir Paul Getty who was addicted to generosity while of course abundantly possessing the necessary means to indulge this passion, which he did in a responsible way, always wanting to understand and enjoy the things he was helping to bring about. I find I miss his company terribly. His generosity was many times greater than anyone believed. But I think that no money he gave away was ever wasted; his gifts all achieved their objectives because he gave adequately and without strings. I think he felt that he was simply the temporary steward of the resources at his command. Compare that with the money spent by the state, often on the same causes, but wasted, rarely actually giving the satisfaction intended. Paul’s buildings all got built. He was a professional benefactor, pre-bureaucratic in style. Of course not many of us can commit largesse on that scale but there is something none the less to be learned from the spectacle of so much generosity – that its psychological wellspring exists naturally within us all - if we can only overcome the obstacles erected by society’s structures.

The real hope invested in my work at Magdalen has been to make it the most wonderful educational and personal experience possible for its student and teaching members. I enjoy our constant quest to increase the details of its extreme beautifulness. Student life should be a chance to live for a time protected against the world, while closely observing it; it is possible, temporarily at least, to live by the values which the world squeezes out. I do agree with the government that at least fifty per cent of the population should get the chance of having this experience. In presiding over the College I cannot really see the immediate effect of what I do, but only begin in the very long term to sense its moral effectiveness.

I like the sense of continuity provided by symbols and symbolic celebrations and commemorations. Symbols and traditions play very useful tricks upon us by enabling us to change courses while ostensibly and comfortingly clinging to eroded practices. They enable us to look ancient while being modern. The House of Lords has long been the bastion of no longer acceptable privilege but has pioneered most of the new social freedoms. At Magdalen every October 25th we celebrate the downfall of James II who for nearly a year in 1687 expelled all the Fellows of the College for refusing to accept his nominee as President and was then forced to abdicate, while his successors brought in this country’s first Bill of Rights. The sense of having pulled down an entire regime some time in the past, and a whole dynasty with it, is an extremely valuable possession for any institution and Magdalen benefits greatly from having this tradition to celebrate and being able to tell cohort after cohort of students all about it. The annual dinner reveals none of the Catholic/Protestant rancour which gave rise to it. Its deeper structure of meaning suggests a quasi-Biblical delivery from past bondage, of self-delivery from the interference of an exploitative and uncomprehending government. In other words, you can conjure out of the practice all manner of useful and enduring meanings. In every century – and I am sure the tradition will continue for many centuries to come – people will see the moral/political needs of their own time reflected in it. Symbols continue, while their referents shift. In that sense I am an extreme traditionalist and have had the good fortune to work and live in an institution where our lives are closely bound by countless carefully preserved acts of ritual behaviour.