Graduation address – Professor Andrew Williams

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen.

When I was accorded the honour of giving this graduation address my first thought was that many of the more mature (I will not say ‘older’) people in the audience might well think they were about to get a rendition of ‘Moon River’. Never fear, my namesake Andy Williams has the copyright on that! You will be further delighted to know that I am not going to try the Gangnam Style version, which my internet trawl turned up. Let’s just say that my knees would not be up to it, especially wearing this outfit…

But there are some quite interesting ideas in this song that you might want to think about as you go off on the ‘Moon River’ of life after four years at St Andrews. You are ‘crossing the river of life’ in some style today, and you are ‘off to see the world’ and ‘there’s such a lot of world to see’.

For what a university education is supposed to do is to prepare you for that river of life, to give you a few tools that might help you to think of your present and future role in society. So what are you leaving behind and what are you taking with you as supports in that big swim?

In past times people giving graduation addresses would have had a slightly easier time of it than anyone does today. Past ones would have urged you to listen intently to the words of the Gaudeamus Igitur, the Latin hymn with which generations of St Andrews students and staff have been greeted in this and other halls. They might have been great humanitarians, like the man named on the front of this building, Fridtjof Nansen, who memorably said in 1926, when explaining his philosophy to the students at St Andrews in his rectorial address, that “I have always thought that the much praised ‘line of retreat’ is a snare for people who wish to reach their goal.” He went on to offer further advice that one should burn his boats behind him so that there is no choice but to go forward. He was referring to his being the first man to walk across Greenland at temperatures of minus 45°C.

The other name juxtaposed with Nansen’s in stone is that of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, also a Rector and indeed Chancellor of this university in the 1920s.

As a historian I have long been intrigued by the juxtaposition of these names, Haig and Nansen, but this juxtaposition does illustrate one of the truths that a great university hopefully inculcates. And that is that there are no easy answers to the questions that the river of life poses. In 1926 when this building was inaugurated, no one thought it strange that Haig and Nansen should figure on the same wall; Haig was a great Scot and a great general, Nansen a great Norwegian and all round good egg. If anything, Nansen was probably the least popular in that his achievements had overshadowed those of a very British hero, Captain Scott of the Antarctic. But by the 1960s one of them was almost unmentionable, and it was not the Norwegian. The Field Marshall was by then, quite simply, ‘Butcher Haig’. Now subtle and knowledgeable historians like Gary Sheffield and Walter Reid have done much to rehabilitate Haig as the man who made victory possible in 1918. On the National Army Museum website Haig is now ‘runner up’ as ‘Britain’s Greatest General’, but the bloggers who have joined in are far from agreed.

So after the tricky gifts of learning about the problems of ‘ambiguity’ and ‘uncertainty’, what else might you have learned here? Another important lesson should have been about the nature of institutions, of which this is a venerable one.

What makes an institution have ‘meaning’, and what makes it tick? Youth sees, quite naturally, the overwhelming urge to change everything. I fully remember condemning marriage as ‘bourgeois’, I who have been happily married for many years. I was also very critical of states, until I started to spend many a happy hour reading the letters and papers of statesmen and women. Then I yearned for a guru who could put me straight on why I felt so in conflict with myself about why I simultaneously admired and detested many of the things that states and people, like Nansen and Haig, had done or said.

Of course there can be no one guru, indeed I have learned to never trust anyone who claims such levels of insight. There is nothing more dangerous than an unfulfilled idealist, and idealism is doomed to failure. But we all need inspiration.

Never before, in my lifetime at least, have institutions been under such threat and such a feeling of precariousness been abroad. We all have our favourite culprits – globalisation, venal politicians, that old chestnut ‘human nature’. But the enemy I have learned to fear most is the idea of rigidity. So my institutional inspiration is a man who generally everyone in this room will have some reason to cheer. That is Edmund Burke. He supported the American Revolution in the British House of Commons, he defended the rights of Catholics in Ireland, he stood up to the King in an era of great royal power, and he took on the power of the emerging British Empire, denouncing the East India Company as corrupt and barbaric. He was indeed a very brave and truly radical fellow.

A new biography has been published about Burke, by an MP, Jesse Norman.[1] Norman claims him for conservatism, but many of the book’s reviewers claim him for his radicalism, as would I. Burke had the rare gift, or curse, of being a guru for both the left and the right. He liked to defend practices and institutions just because they had survived a long time, so he would have liked us, 600 years and counting. But he also understood that institutions grow and change not through governments and rules but through practice, failure and success. You may remember that ‘12’ for your essay I ruthlessly gave you in one of my classes, but it taught you more than all the 17.5s you got subsequently. But for me Burke shows us that institutions have to be malleable, they have to move with the times, and it is ordinary intelligent people like yourselves who decide on how that happens. The reason there are rights, and you have them to exercise, is because individuals like Burke have shown us how to stand up to power. Traditions cannot be excuses for prejudice, they do not belong to anyone, they belong to all, and all must be included. Equally they cannot be rigid, their outputs cannot be measured. Otherwise institutions and traditions become cages and chains. They must be cherished but not preserved in aspic.

Before finishing I would like to ask you to thank a few people, without whom you would not be getting your degrees today. First and foremost of these are the members of your family. However that family has been formed and evolved over the years, it has been the key reason you are now here. Your parents have undoubtedly made sacrifices for you, even those of you who come from well-off backgrounds. Any parent knows what that means, from the sleepless nights, the endless feeding (and it gets worse once they can get into the fridge unaided) through the missed romantic weekends à deux and through all the moral dilemmas of adolescence. But they have been there for you, and you will discover as you get older that you have to be there for them. As the saying goes, ‘a parent is for life, not just for Christmas’.

You might also want to thank one or two of your lecturers for having had the occasional good idea. I had teachers at my various universities who changed the way I think forever and whom I often feel breathing over my shoulder in dismay or approbation, usually the former. But I think you should in particular thank the cleaners, the janitors, the gardeners, the administrative staff, and the librarians who hold the fort while people like me make great speeches in far off places. Without them there would have been no four years at St Andrews.

My last thought to you all as you sail off down your ‘Moon River’, is that you should try and think the impossible and achieve the miraculous. You should also thank whomever, or whatever, you like for your incredible good fortune thus far. And you should remember that you are forevermore a member of the family and institution that is the University of St Andrews and that the education you have had here is the gift that just keeps on giving.

Professor Andrew Williams
School of International Relations

[1] Jesse Norman, Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, London, HarperPress, 2013, and review by Philip Collins, ‘Tories should not be prisoners of tradition’, The Times, 24 May 2013

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