The Spectator's Notes

The legacy of Stephen Toope

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, has begun this academic year by announcing it will be his last in the post. Professor Toope says, no doubt truthfully, that he wants to see more of his Canadian family, dissevered from him by Covid. But I think it reasonable to relate his departure to wider issues. When he arrived in 2017, the ‘Golden Era’ of UK/Chinese relations still, in theory, existed. Cambridge uncritically welcomed Chinese government and business participation. In 2019, speaking in China, Professor Toope hailed the China Development Forum’s ‘Greater Opening Up for Win-Win Cooperation’ and praised President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. A preface composed in his name for a document praising Huawei — and paid for by Huawei — was published by Jesus College’s China/UK Global Issues Dialogue Centre. As Chinese policies began literally to make the world ill, Cambridge’s approach came under scrutiny. Investigating the college’s China Centre, I found that it steadfastly failed to hold any meeting critical of the policies of the Chinese Communist party towards the Uighurs, Hong Kong and so on. Work by Sam Dunning and others, published in the Times this month, has exposed that, even now, three out of the four directors of the Cambridge Centre for Chinese Management have ties to Huawei. There is more to come.

At the same time as it indulged a totalitarian regime, Cambridge became harshly censorious of long-dead benefactors if even faintly linked to the slave trade. Various curriculums are being ‘decolonised’. A definition of freedom of speech was proposed by the university hierarchy which would have abridged that right by insisting that people must ‘respect’ all opinions with which they differed. It was heavily defeated by the dons. A scheme called Report + Support designed to help the anonymous denunciation of alleged sexual predators and racists published a series of preposterous definitions of ‘micro-aggressions’. Professor Toope had not been consulted or even informed about these definitions, but the fact that they went online nonetheless was evidence of disarray and woke takeover. The programme was withdrawn. My sense is that Professor Toope has learnt belatedly that an ancient institution of liberal learning needs to cherish its traditions and is hard to herd. If so, good.


Will Knowland is the Eton master who was dismissed last year for disobeying an instruction from the headmaster, Simon Henderson, not to put his controversial talk to boys about masculinity online unedited. At the time, I argued here that this was not, as many of my fellow anti-wokeists claimed, a free speech issue. Mr Henderson might have been exaggerated in his concerns (the Knowland talk was not disgraceful), but he was entirely within his rights to control what his employees said publicly in their capacity as schoolmasters. Now a reader has drawn my attention to this month’s ‘Knowland Knows’, the sacked master’s online educational video series for school-age pupils. Under the title ‘Porn as Cultural Warfare’, Mr Knowland interviews an American called Dr E. Michael Jones. It does not take long for this seemingly legitimate cultural discussion from an apparently Roman Catholic perspective to turn into a full-blown conspiracy theory. ‘The Jews,’ says Dr Jones, ‘were always behind pornography.’ They used it as ‘a form of control’ to destroy the Church and western civilisation. In his view, the Anti-Defamation League, founded more than a century ago to defend Jews against anti-Semitism, is ‘the SS of the Jewish Gestapo’. In the interview, Mr Knowland never raises, let alone challenges, Dr Jones’s crazy anti-Jew talk. He seems to exercise no judgment whatever. Eton is surely better off without him.

Theresa May introduced the energy price cap in 2017 to help compensate consumers for prices which were rising too fast — in part because of her government’s determination to reduce the production of carbon dioxide. As was predicted then, this has forced small energy suppliers out of business because they cannot pass on costs. One side-effect is that there is now too little carbon dioxide to sustain important parts of the food industry. The government has stepped in to subsidise the production of carbon dioxide. Isn’t there a moral here somewhere?

We have just spent a short holiday in North Wales, part of it at Portmeirion. That strange village is, justly, the most famous creation of Clough Williams-Ellis. But I’d not realised how many other things he did in the district, such as the gardens of his own family house, Plas Brondanw, and the grave of David Lloyd George which overlooks the river Dwyfor. At the latter’s centre is the actual rock upon which the infant future prime minister and his brother used to sit when tired of playing. Williams-Ellis himself never tired of playing. In his book about Portmeirion, he writes about ‘my wilful pleasantries, the calculated naïvetés, eye-traps, forced and faked perspectives, historical constructions, unorthodox colour mixtures’ and ‘general architectural levity’. This approach caused Clough to be disregarded by mainstream architects and town-planners, but in fact, as Portmeirion shows, he was a master-planner — the difference being that what he planned was deliberately not uniform. You could call it seriously playful. Clough’s constructions are sometimes accused of being jerry-built but, in general, they work. That is to say, they produce delight, so people want them and therefore — as accountants put it — they wash their face. There is much to learn from his example. (PS: Clough got going because he won a Spectator architectural competition in 1913: see Notes, 25 April 2020.)

Entering Wales, we noticed that our satnav cannot pronounce Welsh correctly. It does not understand the Welsh double ‘l’ or the language’s unique vowel noises. Thus Llangollen becomes ‘Langolin’, rhyming with ‘pangolin’, and Dolgellau becomes ‘Doljelor’. Isn’t such an attitude borderline racist?

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