Published on: Monday, October 11, 2021
The Batten Lecture series is named after a previous, hugely influential Headmaster of the school, James Batten, who served as Head from 1969 to 1988. James Batten sadly died earlier this year. The lectures are intended as opportunities to ask the bigger questions, and in the past have featured a Vice President of Deutsche Bank and an Oxford professor of Nanotechnology, amongst others.
Sir Geoffrey Cox was a pupil at King’s from 1973 to 1977 before reading Law and Classics at Cambridge. He was called to the bar in 1983, and appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2003. He was elected to parliament in 2005, representing Torridge and West Devon, a constituency he still represents, having won by a large majority in the 2019 election. In 2018 Sir Geoffrey was appointed Attorney General by Theresa May, in which position he was closely involved in offering legal advice to the government on aspects of the Brexit negotiations with the EU. He was knighted in this year’s New Years’ Honours List.
Sir Geoffrey was asked to address the topic: Given the political upheavals of the last five years, and the sense of unease about the political scene, is the current party political system fit for purpose? He began by giving a fascinating, detailed, insider’s account of the “upheavals” themselves – the Brexit referendum, the subsequent negotiations with the EU and the involvement, often fractious, of Parliament in scrutinising (and usually rejecting) any proposals that came out of those negotiations. He gave a frank account of the impasse of 2019, the change of leadership and the resulting General Election, which gave Boris Johnson the majority he needed to push a final deal through. He then went on to claim that the success, in the end, of the process of withdrawing from the EU showed the strength, not the weakness, of our political systems. It is rare, he claimed, that such revolutions are achieved peacefully. Parliament had been stretched and challenged as seldom before, but had remained strong. The will of the people of the UK had been achieved.
Sir Geoffrey spoke for well over an hour in his distinctively rich voice, in exactly the same spot – the school’s theatre – where, many years before, he had performed the lead role in the school production of Coriolanus. An audience of pupils, staff, parents, past teachers (a small handful of Sir Geoffrey’s old teachers were in the audience) and alumni were held spellbound by the lecture, relishing both the style of the delivery and its content: here was a picture of a turbulent and important moment in British history, painted in vivid tones by a man who had been at the heart of it all. The questions from the audience afterwards touched, amongst other matters, on the character of Mr Johnson and his cabinet, and on the complex legal and political manoeuvres behind the brief prorogation of Parliament in September 2019.
In his vote of thanks, the School’s Head Boy, Louis Benneyworth, himself a successful debater of some note, commented that he clearly still had a great deal to learn about the art of oratory to achieve the heights that had been reached by Sir Geoffrey that evening.
This was a special and memorable evening for the school; a rare opportunity to hear a first-hand account, from one if its own community, of turbulent times, and a reassuring message that our systems of governance might be more robust and effective than we had feared.