Saturday, 18 July 2009

The Battle of the Baked Potato

I've been meaning to post on this for a while, in fact since its subject died in June. Ralf Dahrendorf was a remarkable man reaching the peaks of achievement in the fields of both politics and academia, and what's more in two countries, West Germany and the UK. His obituary, impressive by any standards, is here.

My contribution to his memory is of little consequence really but I still think it worth sharing. It's not meant disrespectfully; rather, I proffer it as illustrative of how people of his generation and background were sometimes caught in the crossfire of clashes between the post-war consensus and the Thatcherite revolution. It also shows how academic life can bring to bear very big brains, wielding very big concepts, on the most footling of issues.

He was Warden of St Antony's College, Oxford when I studied there in the early 1990s. At this time, one of the fiercest disputes between the College's Governing Body (composed of senior academics and College administrators) and the students was what I shall sensationally call The Battle of the Baked Potato. I had a junior role in the affair as Treasurer of the JCR (effectively the College's student union).

The dispute centred on whether cheap but nutritious baked potatoes should be introduced to what was quite a superior lunch menu in the College hall. In favour were the massed ranks of mostly impoverished and hungry students. Against were what I gather were a minority of the Governing Body and the more militant representatives of the College's semi-organised labour, the chefs.

The chefs took the view that it was beneath their dignity to provide baked potatoes, they being a highly trained, elite brigade. I suspect that behind them were one or two powerful but shadowy college administrators who believed selling low margin foodstuffs might result in the creation of a black hole in the already precarious finances of the College kitchen.

Anyway, in the middle of the warring parties stood the Warden, sensitive to the Solomon-like burden of his responsibilities. After due deliberation he initially sided with the College servants (as, until fairly recently they would have been described) on the grounds that the College owed a duty to all its stakeholders, the interests of chefs weighing as much in the balance as those of students.

We, as representatives of the student body and, more tellingly, as the recently-fledged children of Thatcher fought back, arguing vehemently that the College and its employees, in this case the chefs, should meet the reasonable demands of its paying customers, the students. (By the way, are students the customers of a university or its product? It affects the basis of negotiation.)

In the end the College caved in to the demands of the revolting students, possibly having cut some deal to pacify the chefs. There may also have been talk of a student boycott of College lunches, which if the kitchen's finances were an issue could have been taken as a serious threat. Or was it simply a recognition of the way the wind was blowing?

The reason I relate this little story is that it shows how the old liberal pluralist approach, with its desire to reconcile all parties, clashed with the newly rampant demands of the market. The Warden's approach was consistent with his philosophy that institutions had a primary duty to manage and reconcile the conflicting interests of all stakeholders. But I can still only speculate as to why his judgement, having first sided with one party to the dispute, ended up being made in favour of the other.

As I say, a pretty negligible incident and one that I don't believe shows Sir Ralf (as he was then) in a bad light. I believe he was a kind man and in this instance he was trying to be fair-minded and do right according to his own lights. But the world was changing.


Anonymous said...

I have often reflected on those long Wednesday afternoons spent around the governing body table with some of the world's greatest minds trying to resolve the great baked potato conundrum. I think a few college fellows saw the potato as some kind of metaphor in a higher philosophical struggle of ideas. Ralf Dahrendorf seemed wary of taking sides. In fact, as I recall, he was prone to long silences as the battle raged around him. I thought then that this was the liberal democrat in him. Now I'm not so sure. To be honest I'm not entirely certain he knew what a jacket potato was. Why would he? You just don't come across them when you're as clever and accomplished as he was. As you say, he was kind and fair man and will be sorely missed. Anyway I have to dash now and get some cheese and beans to put on my supper.

Gaw said...

He may have heard that the English gentleman doesn't refer to the jacket, he talks rather of the coat, and so decided it was all probably beneath him.

I guess we'll always be teasing out the deeper meanings, rather like the incident with Wittgenstein and the poker.

Anonymous said...

were these abomination of the potato served at the last supper? i think not.