Monday 20 December 2004
Public Orator, Professor
Ruth Lister presented the Honorary Graduand at the Degree Ceremony
held on Monday 20 December 2004 at 3.00pm.
Lord Lieutenant, High Sheriff, Honorary Graduands, Ladies and
Gentlemen and Graduands
The late Edward Said
wrote that ‘in education, politics, history and culture
there is…a role to be played by secular intellectuals, call
them a class of informed and effective wet blankets, who…compassionately
press the interests of the unheard, the unrepresented, the comparatively
powerless’. I’m not sure Polly Toynbee would want
to be described as a ‘wet blanket’, even an informed
and effective one - more a thorn in the side of politicians she
considers wrong or unduly timid. But she certainly uses her position
in public life to ‘press the interests of the unheard’,
in particular those living in poverty.
Educated at Oxford,
Polly Toynbee began her career as a reporter with The Observer.
She moved to The Guardian in 1977 and after 11 years
as a columnist became the BBC’s Social Affairs Editor until
1995. She then joined The Independent as columnist and
associate editor before returning to The Guardian as
columnist in 1997.
Over the years she
has published a number of books, starting with what she describes
as ‘a very bad novel! Best forgotten!’ If fiction
was not her métier, social commentary most certainly is.
She has written a study of adoption and an analysis, with David
Walker, of the Labour Government’s first term (with a follow-up
due in the New Year). She has published a number of books of ‘reportage’,
the most recent being Hard Work – Life in Low Pay Britain.
This was an account
of the time she spent trying to live on the minimum wage and on
a deprived estate, only ten minutes ‘but a world away’
from her own comfortable home in South London. It is an honest,
insightful and passionately committed account of what it means
to live in poverty. A columnist on a rival paper chose it as his
book of the year. He commended Polly’s ‘outstanding
reporting skills’ and her contribution as one of ‘the
most important social democratic thinkers of her generation’.
This contribution has
been recognised in a number of awards: British Press Awards Columnist
of the Year, George Orwell Prize, Magazine Writer of the Year,
What the Papers Say Commentator of the Year, Political Journalist
of the Year.
Polly Toynbee has also
contributed to public life through her membership of a number
of bodies including the NHS National Screening Committee and the
Fabian Commission on Life Chances and Child Poverty. She is currently
president of the Social Policy Association, the first non-academic
to hold this position. This is in recognition of the significant
contribution she has made to social policy, in particular through
her writings on poverty, inequality and childcare.
I would like to give
the last word to one of Polly’s colleagues on The Guardian:
‘a great reporter’, ‘ a great writer’
and ‘a great person’.
I have the honour to present to you, and to the whole University,
Polly Toynbee for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.