Presentation of the new Chancellor, the Right Honourable Lord Grocott of Telford

Thursday 24 January 2013, 4pm

The tradition of world-class universities in this country is centuries old, and the terminology of universities is one of the features that reflects their antiquity. In the Middle Ages the head of a university was the chancellor, and as he spent his time at the royal court in Westminster, he left the university in charge of a deputy, who was called the vice-chancellor. The titles have lived on, and in the twenty-first century the person who is the working head of the University is the vice-chancellor, in our case Professor Sir Robert Burgess. Like other universities, we retain the tradition of a chancellor who is the nominal head of the University, and today we are installing our new chancellor, the Right Honourable Lord Grocott of Telford.

Lord Grocott is the sixth chancellor in the history of this university. His five predecessors were all scientists of great distinction. All were Fellows of the Royal Society, four were members of the Order of Merit, and three won Nobel Prizes. Lord Grocott marks a break with the tradition of electing scientists. His subject at university and his profession thereafter was politics, and the closest he came to science was a period as PPS to the Minister of Agriculture. This post, and others in government, including chief whip in the House of Lords, mean that more than any of his distinguished predecessors, Lord Grocott will fulfil the traditional role of the chancellor as the person who represents us in the corridors of power, which are still in Westminster, but are now to be found in Parliament rather than the royal court. 

Lord Grocott is unique amongst our chancellors in another respect that makes him an ideal advocate for this University: he is one of us, and long ago, five chancellors ago, he walked across this stage to receive his degree from the University of Leicester. He was not then the noble Lord Grocott, but simply Bruce Grocott, the son of a railwayman. When he came here, Leicester was not the world-class university that it is now, because it had just become a university, and had not yet earned its place at the top table. A-levels had recently been introduced, and Bruce had secured high marks that gave him a wide choice of universities. He could afford to go to university because he had won a prestigious state scholarship. He chose Leicester because, uniquely among universities, we offered exactly what he wanted, which was a single-subject honours degree in Politics.

The Department of Politics, which is now the Department of Politics and International Relations, has had a distinguished history, and one of the reasons for its standing is that from its inception in 1955, it has had distinguished professors at the helm. The founding professor, who was in post when Bruce entered the University, was J.D.B. Miller, an Australian political scientist who while Bruce was a student here wrote an important book called The Nature of Politics, which among other issues debated the proposition that politics was an unstable and contingent activity, a voyage with neither harbour nor journey’s end. One cannot help but observe that Bruce Grocott chose to embark on just such a voyage, and has remained on the ship of politics throughout his life.  This university was, as it is now, a friendly place, and one of the friends that Bruce made when he moved on to a PGCE at Leicester was a young woman called Sally; they have now been married for almost half a century.

After leaving Leicester, Bruce taught Politics, initially at Manchester University and then at the institution that is now Birmingham City University. In Birmingham he stood for election at parish and county council level, and after several attempts he was elected to the Bromsgrove Urban District Council. He aspired to enter Parliament, and on his third attempt -- politics is a bruising game -- he was in October 1974 elected as MP for Lichfield and Tamworth. This was his first entry to the Palace of Westminster and to what he describes as ‘the best job in the world’. In 1979 he lost his seat in the Conservative avalanche, and for the next eight years he worked as a political commentator on what is now Central Television. When the political tide began to turn, he was elected as MP for Wrekin, where he was to serve for fourteen years. He worked for Neil Kinnock and John Smith, and in 1994 became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Tony Blair, whom he was to serve for seven years. He retired as an MP in 2001, and migrated to the red end of the Palace of Westminster as Lord Grocott of Telford. There he became Chief Whip, and was appointed as a member  of the Privy Council. As chief whip he became a member of the Cabinet, and served in this capacity under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, until his retirement in 2008. At that point he effected the transition from party politician to statesman, but he remains deeply committed to politics, and still attends the House regularly. He retains great influence in the political arena, and will no doubt find occasion to support the University of which he is now Chancellor.

I am honoured, sir, to present to you and to those present today the Right Honourable Lord Grocott, who has graciously acceded to our enthusiastic request that he be installed as Chancellor of the University of Leicester.  Mr Vice-Chancellor, on the recommendation of the University Court, I present Bruce Grocott, that you may install him as Chancellor of the University.

Written and delivered by Professor Gordon Campbell

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