Peter Mandelson and the student lambs of Manchester

By Richard Heller

I cannot understand today's students, at least not the ones at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). They have been back for over a week and I have yet to detect a whisper of protest against the appointment of Peter Mandelson as the University's new chancellor.

In my college days, in the giddy Sixties, such an appointment would have generated weeks of revolt. Action committees would have sprung up like dandelions, pamphlets would have flown off the duplicators (a primitive technology of the pre-internet past), buildings would have been at least blockaded, savage caricatures and lampoons would have been circulated in magazines or performed by street theatre groups. Many of these activities would be supported by radical faculty members. Whatever their private feelings, student representatives would have been forced by the weight of student opinion to challenge such an appointment and confront the authorities who made it.

But there has been a week of silence from the student lambs at Manchester Metropolitan. Do all 37,000 of them share the view of the university's Vanda Murray, that Peter Mandelson is "a world-class statesman"? Did none feel tempted to substitute some other epithet for "statesman"? The MMU student union website reveals no reaction against the appointment. Its president, Jordan Stephenson, gave it a resounding endorsement – not surprisingly since he was one of the governors who made it. He claimed bizarrely that "Lord Mandelson has demonstrated that he understands the particular challenges Manchester Metropolitan University students face". It is hard to think of anyone with less personal knowledge of the current lives of British students than Peter Mandelson, with his multi-million pound London house, his holidays with Russian oligarchs and his life in a multi-national bubble of money and power.

A university is a place for discovering the truth. Peter Mandelson, as the ultimate spin doctor, has a long record of suppressing the truth. Students – and faculty members – should ask themselves whether he represents the values they see, or want to see, in their university.

Last summer he sought to become chancellor of the rival Manchester University. Unfortunately for him, this entailed a ballot of university staff, registered alumni and a small number of students in representative positions. Mandelson came third in a field of three, trailing the winner, the poet Lemn Sissay, by a margin of over ten per cent. (The last time Mandelson won an election of any kind was in 2001). There were no democratic worries for him at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he was chosen by its twenty governors, of whom only the two student representatives are elected.

One may assume that the wise twenty made a thorough review of Peter Mandelson's variegated career, and rejected all of the criticisms which have been levelled at him. Some aspects of this remain obscure, despite over 25 years of media investigation and scrutiny by both Houses of Parliament and the European Union. The governors should be congratulated if they have discovered the facts.

The governors must have revisited the narrative of Mandelson's house purchase in 1996 with a massive loan from his fellow MP Geoffrey Robinson, which led to his first exit from government. They clearly believe it perfectly reasonable for Mandelson not to have disclosed this loan to his party leader and prime minister, or to the House of Commons, or to his then constituents in Hartlepool, or indeed his building society.

The governors have obviously examined his stewardship of the expensive year-long celebration of year 2000 in the Millennium Dome (long since renamed by its new owners, O2). They will have detected some lasting cultural legacy from his efforts, to match that of the Festival of Britain in 1951, supervised by his grandfather, Herbert Morrison. The governors will have assessed the honesty of Mandelson's promises about the Christian content of the Millennium Dome (which was tiny) and about an attraction called "Surfball, the sport of the 21st century" (which never existed).

The governors will have read the sycophantic article in the Independent by Mandelson on the Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad ("a decent man doing a difficult job"). They will have decided that it was quite reasonable for Mandelson to have expressed this view although the article offered no supporting evidence for it and was published in November 2001. This was after the end of the short-lived 'Damascus spring' but coincided with Tony Blair's visit to Damascus in an ill-judged attempt to win over Assad. The governors would have rejected the wicked suggestion that the article was an attempt to crawl back into favour with Blair.

The governors will have assessed Mandelson's record as EU commissioner. They will have rebutted all the criticisms he received over his record towards third world countries and over his relations with lobbyists for big business.

The governors will have decided that it was entirely reasonable for Peter Mandelson to withhold from the House of Lords register of interests the clients of his shadowy consultancy, Global Counsel. The House asks only for the names of the clients, and it is hard to see how they could be harmed by disclosure: a few have already been revealed in the media. Peter Mandelson's motives for concealing them can only be imagined, but the governors will have made certain that there are none which might embarrass the university by association.

The governors will have examined Peter Mandelson’s relationship, since 2004, with the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and with the Putin regime generally. They will have reviewed his work as a non-executive director for the Russian conglomerate Sistema, which includes tech and defence contractors RTI.

The governors will have deliberated all of these issues and reached the same conclusion as the police chief in South Park: nothing to see here, move on.

However, there is the worrying possibility that the governors did not look at any of them. Perhaps all that mattered to them was Mandelson's access to money and power. All the university spin on his appointment dwelt on his ability to improve its appeal to businesses and official policymakers.

Depressingly, the governors' choice was unanimous. No-one put forward a different name: a scholar, an artist, a writer, an inventor, a business leader of probity, or someone who might provide some moral inspiration.

Compared to those giddy Sixties, there is massive financial pressure on all academic institutions. One can only hope that those who buckle to these sorts of commercial imperatives have done their homework on the people they appoint to beg for them from big business.

Richard Heller is an author and journalist and was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey. His latest book is The Importance Of Not Being Earnest, a study of the life and work of the lost literary genius, Luke Upward.

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