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  1. Diary
12 June 2024

Opening the gates of Oxbridge

Also this week: the plundering of the NHS, and a joyous arrival.

By Sarah Harkness

It’s been a busy few weeks. Literature for the People, my biography of the Macmillan brothers who founded the world-famous publishing company, was published in May and it’s been a delightful round of festivals and parties since (thank you to Fowey, Burford and Hatchards Piccadilly!). Daniel and Alexander Macmillan were pioneers who brought us the giants of Victorian literature: Kingsley, Carroll, Tennyson, Arnold and Rossetti; they launched Nature magazine and created the Golden Treasury poetry anthology and the Globe edition of Shakespeare. As Christian socialists they believed publishing had a social purpose, because access to good and affordable literature would bring the classes together and enable democracy to flourish.

Educational privilege

The brothers believed in education for all, whatever their gender or class. The universities of Cambridge and Oxford that they knew in Victorian times, and from where they mostly recruited their authors, were bastions of public school privilege – they would be surprised how little has changed. But they would heartily have approved of my Oxford college: Mansfield prides itself on its inclusivity. Our latest admission statistics show that 93 per cent of Mansfield’s UK undergraduates come from state schools; one in four come from the most disadvantaged areas of the UK; and 25 per cent are the first in their family to go into higher education.

I am delighted to be an honorary fellow of such a progressive institution, which is consistently in the top third of colleges in the university’s Norrington Table. On 31 May Lord Woolley, principal of Homerton College, Cambridge, giving a lecture at Mansfield, described how he felt when he entered higher education via an access course: “The desire to drink from the well of knowledge was something very special.” This is what the Macmillan brothers knew, and it helped them build a powerhouse.

Wilson’s women

Another general election, another depressing leaders’ debate. I’m reminded of 1964: after 13 years in power, a Tory government had run out of steam, was mired in scandal and factionalism, and was devoid of ideas in a changing world in which the economy was faltering and international tensions were rising. The country went to the polls and voted for change: the Labour Party.

A new breed of politicians entered the corridors of power, mostly men from working-class backgrounds, a brotherhood forged in trade unionism and the ideals of socialism, and on the battlefields of Europe. Behind them stood their wives: women of a very particular generation, with markedly different life expectations from those who came before. They grew up in the 1930s with the right to vote, and knowing that education, for a bright girl of any class, could extend beyond school into vocational training or even university. Thereafter, professional careers would open up to them.

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The wives of the Wilson cabinet – women such as Mary Wilson, Edna Healey, Jennifer Jenkins and Audrey Callaghan  – modelled a new way of living: just because their husbands were career politicians, they did not feel the need to stop working or pursuing their own literary or political ambitions. They were not content to stand in their husbands’ shadows: I want to bring them into the sunlight. A new book project?

NHS decline

This summer marks the end of 25 years of my non-executive involvement in the NHS – starting at a mental health trust in Rotherham in 1996, through to the national level of NHS Improvement, and six years as a trustee of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. Sadly, every year since 2010, when the Lansley reforms were announced, I have witnessed a catastrophic deterioration in the funding of health and social care, with consequences for safety and workforce morale. My respect for NHS managers, so despised by the likes of the Daily Mail, remains high, and my admiration for front-line workers is immense. But the lack of funding and the meddling of successive governments has driven staff to breaking point. I can only pray that the next health secretary will take heed of the work being undertaken by the Academy – which brings together the wisdom of 24 Medical Royal Colleges representing more than 220,000 doctors across the UK and Ireland – to cool tempers and look for creative solutions.

Cradle song

For all its difficulties, we can still be thankful when the NHS gets it right. The wonderful staff at the John Radcliffe safely delivered my first grandchild, Daisy Rae, this week. I couldn’t be more grateful or besotted!

Sarah Harkness is the author of “Literature for the People: How the Pioneering Macmillan Brothers Built a Publishing Powerhouse” (Macmillan)

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency