Richard Heller—journalist, author, and former Chief of Staff to Denis Healey when he was leader of the Labour Party—on the questionable ‘qualities’ of MMU’s new chancellor, the ‘Prince of Darkness’, Peter Mandelson
Last summer the General Assembly of Manchester University was offered three candidates for the post of Chancellor: a distinguished poet, a distinguished conductor, and Lord Mandelson. Over 17,000 members voted, placing the poet first, the conductor second and Lord Mandelson third. Although Lord Mandelson has enjoyed over a decade of political power and influence in the United Kingdom and the European Union, he has not won an election since 2001.
Very few students were eligible to vote in the General Assembly, but the ballot nonetheless gave the student body some opportunity to say what they expected from the figure who acts as the ceremonial figurehead of their University and the emblem and custodian of its values. They had the chance to campaign for a candidate and try to influence the University staff and alumni who comprised nearly all the electorate.
In spite of his rebuff, Lord Mandelson just cannot keep away from Manchester. A week before Christmas it was announced that he would become Chancellor of the city’s other university, Manchester Metropolitan. No democratic hazards for him this time, no pesky poets or meddlesome musicians in the field… he was chosen by just twenty governors of the university, and he was the only candidate.
The appointment was accompanied by an outpouring of official spin. Some of this was frankly hilarious. The University’s pro-chancellor, Vanda Murray, called Mandelson a “world-class statesman”. Many alternative epithets to “statesman” leap lightly to the lips. The Students’ Union President, Jordan Stephenson, one of the governors who chose him, said that Mandelson “has demonstrated that he understands the particular challenges MMU students face”. Indeed, Lord Mandelson does have a unique understanding of the problems of students who live in £11-million houses and spend vacations on oligarchs’ yachts.
But beneath the accidental comedy were clear indications of why Mandelson had been chosen—to build relationships with business and policymakers. To help Mandelson in this role, the University has appointed an experienced journalist, Michael Taylor, who had earlier assisted his unsuccessful campaign to become Manchester University Chancellor. Mr Taylor has promised “to embed MMU in every conversation where it would be useful”, which gives fair warning to the rest of us. If I ever encounter Mr Taylor at a Wedding Feast, I will rush to the nearest Ancient Mariner.
Now, if all you want from your university Chancellor is to procure money and influence, you could not choose a better procurer than Peter Mandelson.
But if you also want some commitment to the basic values of your university, particularly a commitment to truth, his appointment might raise a few questions or even protests. Apart from a few rude comments in social media, I have seen no reaction against him from MMU students or faculty since term began. As a veteran of the dizzy Sixties, I find this disappointing. Lord Mandelson may be disappointed himself and worried that he no longer has the power to excite controversy. A few years ago he posed as a pantomime villain to promote his unmemorable memoirs. It is a terrible experience for a pantomime villain when no one goes “Boo! Hiss!” at his appearance.
The students and faculty at MMU can make up their own minds about their new Chancellor. They are perfectly entitled to share the glowing views of the university governors and spinners. But before they do this, I would urge them, politely, to make some study and assessment of the following issues.
One: Peter Mandelson’s conduct in 1996 over his huge undisclosed loan from his fellow MP, Geoffrey Robinson, to buy a house, which ultimately led to his first enforced exit from government. They do not have to accept the mild judgement on this by the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee. What do they think about it now? They might take the time to compare the account he gave to that Committee with the one given years later in his memoirs. Are these two compatible? Can both of them be true?
Two: his stewardship of the “Millennium Experience”, the expensive year-long celebration of year 2000. Did this show any intellect and imagination, and create any lasting cultural legacy to match the Festival of Britain in 1951, under the supervision of his grandfather, Herbert Morrison? They might study in particular Mandelson’s promises about the Christian content of the “Experience” (minimal) and about an attraction called “Surfball, the sport of the 21st century”(non-existent) and decide whether these promises were honestly given.
Three: the admiring article he published on the Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad, “a decent man doing a difficult job”. Was this a reasonable view to take when the article was published, in November 2001, to coincide with a meeting between Assad and Tony Blair?
Four: Mandelson’s record towards the Third World as an EU Commissioner and his relationships with lobbyists for big business.
Five: Mandelson’s relationship with the toxic American financier Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted paedophile.
Six: Mandelson’s openness over the sources of his personal wealth, which cannot be accounted for from his political and public career. Why has he been so eager to withhold the names of clients of his opaque consultancy, Global Counsel, from public view in the House of Lords Register of Interests? The bare mention of their names could not possibly damage the clients, so one can only assume it would embarrass him. His declarations may satisfy the House authorities—but are they good enough for MMU? Students and faculty deserve to know more about who is paying their new Chancellor—and how much and what for.
Seven, and most important: Mandelson’s relationship with the Putin regime and with at least two oligarchs who support it. What do they make of his regular visits to Putin’s annual economic “vanity summit” in St Petersburg, his association since 2004 with Oleg Deripaska, the aluminium magnate, and his service since 2013 to Sistema, a Russian group which includes one of Putin’s top defence contractors, RTI?
MMU is a busy place and both students and faculty may well think that they have many other things to worry about. However, a study of all these issues in their Chancellor’s career would make an excellent contribution to many academic programmes, including politics, international affairs, media studies, economics, business, accountancy, law, language and logic, and, above all, ethics.
Richard Heller is an author, journalist and speechwriter. His most recent book, The Importance of Not Being Earnest, is available to buy now.