A few weeks ago, I returned to Oxford to address the Oxford University Conservative Association. This is an organisation which, nearly fifty years ago, I helped run and to which I am invited to return at approximately ten yearly intervals. The last time I went, I am afraid there was civil disorder.
The Department of which I was then Secretary of State had signed the contract to build the Newbury Bypass. There were many opponents of this important civil engineering project, and their leader, Swampy, was a better known public figure than I was. He had an army of supporters whose objective was to make my life uncomfortable, and many of them lived in Oxford.
My address to the junior members of my Party at the Oxford Union took place without disturbance – possibly because the protestors did not want to be seen at a right-of-centre gathering. But when I left to go home, I found myself surrounded by friendly, earthy people. As my mission to Oxford was party political, my Ministerial driver was not available, and my wife picked me up in our car. Once I was inside, the Swampers lay down in front of it and behind it, rendering us stationary.
This attracted a far larger crowd than the one I had just addressed in the Oxford Union. American tourists took pictures of a traditional English protest; a hamburger van pulled up to do some trade. There was musical accompaniment to the scene as the motorists behind me, inconvenienced by the delay whose provenance they could not see, lent on their horns.
I rang the Oxfordshire constabulary, an organisation I had managed to steer clear of during my three years as an undergraduate. We exchanged courtesies and got down to business “ I see. You are the Secretary of State for Transport and you are unable to move. A veritable paradox”
How many protesters were there? – “About 20 on the ground, but the numbers are growing all the time. And we have several hundred spectators.”
“I am afraid we don’t have enough officers on duty to deal with this. Is there any risk of violence?”
I had to confess that I was dealing with people deeply committed to peace – peace in particular in Penwood, south of Newbury, where I was hoping to build my road. The constabulary suggested I opened negotiations with the protesters but, as they were essentially anarchic, no spokesman was forthcoming.
I settled down to tackle a couple of red boxes, while my wife read the Times. A local news channel photographed this domestic scene.
Whether the protestors got bored, or whether the pubs opened I know not. But after about 30 minutes, the people who had been lying down got up and went. And so we went on our way.