Revealing light shed on the Bhuttos and Oxford

First published in Gray Matter by

At a time when relations between Britain and Pakistan are high on the political agenda, it is instructive to recall an earlier occasion when these were potentially compromised. The episode concerns the honorary degree that was offered by Oxford University to Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1973. Embarrassingly, the offer had to be withdrawn following a vote against the award in Congregation.

The whole story in told in detail in Adam Sisman’s splendid new biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25) of Hugh Trevor-Roper, the man behind the offer. The historian had taught Bhutto at Christ Church in the early 1950s. The two kept in touch as Bhutto climbed the political ladder at home. The politician’s desire for an honorary degree was “explained frankly” to T-R by the Pakistani High Commissioner in London.

The matter was taken up in earnest after Trevor-Roper and his wife, Lady Alexandra, were entertained as honoured guests in Pakistan. The Vice-Chancellor John Habbakkuk accepted T-R’s proposal and it was agreed by the Hebdomadal Council.

Then came unexpected opposition led by Wolfson College lecturer Richard Gombrich, who declared that Bhutto was guilty of atrocities. He successfully urged Congregation to veto the award.

While T-R courted controversy by blaming defeat “on the left and the Jews”, as Christopher Hitchens reported in the New Statesman, Bhutto himself was able to joke about it: “If I’d sat for the damned thing, I’d have got it easier.” He added that “the bizarre happening in Oxford” would not, “even in the slightest, influence my attitude towards the British people”.

Sisman’s book throws interesting light on relations between the Bhuttos and Oxford. In 1961, T-R explained to an incoming Dean that Bhutto had “greatly enjoyed being at Christ Church, is devoted to it, and, he having broken the ice, has been followed here by a swarm of other Bhuttos” [note the mixed metaphor].

Recently his grandson Bilawal Zardari Bhutto was at the college. He, of course, is the son of the late Benazir Bhutto, about whose admission to Lady Margaret Hall in the 1970s Sisman has something interesting to say. In 1973, Bhutto “thanked Hugh for ‘all the assistance that made it possible for my daughter Benazir to gain admission’”.

Now what does that mean? Does it suggest, bearing in mind T-R’s reputation as a fixer, a spot of wangling?

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