Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday 2 March 2014

Kevin Rudd at the Oxford Union

Early yesterday evening I went to hear the Rt.Hon.Kevin Rudd speak at the Oxford Union. He was Prime Minister of Australia from 2002-10 and again, briefly when he deposed his surplanter Julia Gillard as Labor leader on the eve of last year's General Election which returned the Liberal - National Country Party coalition to power in Canberra. There is a biography of him here.

He clearly has a skill of working an audience of young people with a lightness of touch using wit and humour - quite often self deprecating with his misadventure as a translator whilst working at the Australian embassy in Beijing, or the story of his ancestor Thomas Rudd, who had the distinction of being transported twice to Australia in the 1790s - and a lightness of touch which was accessible and certainly suggested a humane and liberal mind. Quite removed from the famous likening of him to someone's dentist made back in 2007...

A friend who was also in the audience said subsequently that was part of the Rudd success. This I was assured was indeed an ability to engage the electorate with the big picture combined with a lightness of touch, but that was not joined to a mastery of detail. I am not sufficiently au fait with Australian politics to know the full facts, but that seems a reasonable interpretation What one saw last night was the newly retired former Prime Minister successfully engaging in the role of global statesman with an internationalist outlook, and he did that well.

His main subject was Politics with purpose. He argued that there are five main challenges facing young people such as those who formed the bulk of his audience - people who with their Oxford education were likely to shape opinion in the future.  These are preserving world peace, maintaining the freedoms we accept as normative, establishing the success of an ethical capitalism that can bring prosperity to all, accomodating the rise of China to being once again the world's largest economy (he is a China specialist), and dealing with climate and environmental change.

During the question and answer session he spoke about various topics, but especially the first, formal Apology he had made to the native population of Australia for their treatment since 1788, and saw its acceptance as the real wonder, He spoke also of the programme to raise living standards for the aborigines and the means to monitor it and establish progress in this matter.

His last point, to an Austrlian student who  clearly felt the country was less liberal than she would wish, was to get involved in the public and political life of the nation. 

In recent years in the UK we have had rather a lot of thoughts and reflections from former PMs and politicians of the centre-left on the way the world is going and what should be done, and why they were right to do what they did when they were in power - and that they, of course, were always in the right. What was quite striking about Kevin Rudd was that coming from that same centre-left political world was that one did not feel that he lacked personal integrity or principle. You might not agree with his policies or their implementation but he appeared genuine and possessed of a broad perspective. Of course that may be one of the hallmarks of a skilled political operator, and no more or less than that, but he cut a more impressive figure than the dentist jibe might suggest - mind you I've never been to an Australian dentist...


Mike Cliffson said...

No axe to grind , just wondering: Was he at all like the aussie dentist in cartoon film "looking for nemo"(most characters are Aussies, sharks included.)(Hero a clown-fish loosely modelled on ..¿woody allen?)

Once I Was A Clever Boy said...

It is a while since I saw the film, and my memory is a bit hazy as to details, but Mr Rudd's manner would be quite acceptable in a dentist - and I am not dentist-phobic!