To my surprise, and the even greater surprise of those who know me, I have been awarded, and have gratefully accepted, honorary doctorates from a number of universities. The most recent was from my undergraduate alma mater Southampton.
As it’s Christmas I have self-indulgently decided to share my speech (after one recipient last year spoke for over half an hour, my hosts were keen to emphasise that any comments I made – ‘and feel free to say nothing’ - should be short). But I also want cheekily to pitch into an internal debate at the University.
It is not easy processing thousands of graduates every year. Although the ceremonies are great fun, the format is usually for the student’s name to be called out and for them to walk briskly across a stage in which are sitting assorted robed University dignitaries, receive their certificate, shake hands and walk off. Relatives and friends whoop enthusiastically but blink and you could miss it.
At the ceremony in Southampton every student (most of them postgraduates) paused as they received their award and had a short whispered conversation with the very personable deputy vice chancellor. Sitting next to him I was able to eavesdrop on each one.
All the students reported they had a great time at the university and many were intending to continue their studies on the south coast. My favourite response was from the mature English masters student who replied to the question ‘what did you enjoy most about the course?’ by saying; ‘thinking about poetry in a completely different way and not thinking about business at all’.
Anyway, I understand there is debate at Southampton about speeding up the process and dropping the conversations. It’s none of my business but as a Southampton graduate and honorary doctorate holder (oh yes) I say ‘don’t do it’. Those few seconds and that short exchange in the silence of the hall make all the difference, turning what can feel like a conveyor belt into a very personal moment.
Anyway, here’s my speech. I know it’s soppy and trite but, hey, it’s nearly Christmas!
I am honoured to receive this doctorate. But more honoured still to share this day with all of you, to be able to congratulate you on your achievements and wish you well as you set out on the next stage of your studies or careers.
I would like to share with you just one thought, relevant I hope to your future lives but resonant too with the coming season of goodwill.
I have had the privilege of living my adult working life in the world of research and ideas. Not that I have always been seen as an ideas person: When I ran ippr I was once introduced by a senior politician as ‘Matthew Taylor, Director of the think tank ippr, but generally more tank than think’.
I can trace the moment when I got excited about ideas, and the subsequent process through which I came to think I could perhaps make my own contribution, to one man; Dr Jon Clark, my sociology lecturer at Southampton. Jon fascinated me with his insights, challenged me to have my own ideas and inspired me to make the best of myself.He was a straightforward, modest man. By doing his job well he changed my life.
Many years later – when I was working in Downing Street – I heard that Jon had died. With a jolt I realised – too late of course - that I had never properly thanked him for the impact he had had on me. This is something I dearly wish I could change.
In belated honour of Jon, the one piece of advice I want to give you is this: never spurn, never even delay, the opportunity to express gratitude to someone who has made a positive difference to your life. And never underestimate the power that receiving sincere gratitude can have in making someone feel appreciated and valued.
So, on this special day, whether it is a lecturer, a supervisor, a friend, a member of your family who has helped you to be where you are now, take them by the hand, look them in the eye and say – as I do to Southampton University and to you who have let me share your celebration – a heartfelt THANK YOU !