Where Cambridge leads Britain should follow

The quaint university town is where ancient heritage meets the future.

An illustration of King's College banks from the Valentines postcard series.
An illustration of King's College banks from the Valentines postcard series. Credit: The Print Collector / Getty Images.

If you went to the centre of Cambridge, England, just after dawn on a summer morning, you might think that you had journeyed back several centuries in time. You might encounter the occasional undergraduate reveller, but the traffic and the tourists would still be asleep. Your stroll could take you past ancient colleges, containing great libraries, glorious chapels and venerable courts, all with the patina of learning down the ages. 

In ‘Essays in Criticism’, Matthew Arnold wrote that  Oxford, Cambridge’s academic rival, still conveyed ‘the last enchantments of the Middle Age.’ Cambridge could make the same claim. It has one of the finest centri storici in the world. This has occasionally aroused criticism from the rootless radicals of the Correlli Barnett school, who think Britain can only progress to the future by repudiating its past. They would prefer the UK to have become more Prussian, which raises one obvious question. How much do they know about Prussia? 

Moreover, those who only see Cambridge’s heritage are ignoring one crucial aspect; missing half the current picture. Cambridge has always been renowned for science. Trinity, Newton’s College, has produced half as many Nobel laureates as France, which has a rather larger population, and Cambridge’s intellectual inheritance is constantly being renewed. This ancient city is now the foremost scientific hub in Europe and one of the best in the world. In response, Cambridge has acquired a new nickname  ‘Silicon Fen.’ It has scientists who are equally good at the enthusiastic propagation of knowledge on the far frontiers of discovery – and at galvanising hedge funds and venture capitalists.

This new scientific and financial penumbra employs 60,000 people in 5,000 companies. Obviously, most of them are small, but Microsoft, AstraZeneca, Apple and Amazon all have a significant presence in Cambridge, as do a number of less well-known high-tech companies. Able scientists from all over the world want to come to Cambridge, and Brexit has had no effect on its popularity. There is a constant supply of new research programmes, some of which will become well-known names. In 2016/17, £35 billion was invested in the Cambridge hub.

A few yards from King’s Chapel, that icon of Cantabrigian beauty, you will find the dining hall. At breakfast time, on High Table, you might spot Professor George Malliaras. King’s is only a quarter of an hour from the laboratory where he holds the Prince Philip Professorship of Technology. The name is a fitting tribute to the late prince’s breadth of intellectual interests. Even so, it conveys only a partial account of Professor Malliaras’s work. He specialises in neuroscience, biotechology and regenerative medicine. While discussing Cartesian mind-body dualism, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the phrase, ‘the ghost in the machine.’ Today, it could be said that George Malliaras has inverted the idea. His work opens up the possibilities of using technology – bioelectronics – to enhance mental performance: the machine in the ghost, as it were. Apart from scientific issues, this raises philosophical and ethical questions, including on the nature of identity and the possibilities of eugenics. How far could we proceed down the latter route before it would forfeit the ‘eu?’ But in the short run, the professor and his team, whose work has applications in neurological disorders and brain cancer, will save lives and improve the quality of life for many.

Bill Gates is a regular visitor to team Malliaras, and has contributed to its endowments. He gives the impression he would like to scoop up the whole lot and take everything – and everyone – back to California. There is an obvious alternative, following the old military adage, ‘reinforce success.’ Cambridge ought to expand, as should Oxford. So what about Gates College? Let Mr Gates hold a competition. Let the world’s finest architects submit their plans. Aim for buildings worthy to rank with Cambridge’s finest. Obviously, Gates College would not neglect the sciences, but it should not abstain from the humanities. It ought also to be equipped with all the appurtenances of traditional college life including an excellent kitchen, and a sound wine cellar.

For Cambridge, though, read Britain. Although Cambridge may have taken the lead, Oxford, Imperial College, and Manchester University’s Institute of Science and Technology are in hot pursuit. So they should be. So should other universities, and so should new foundations. If Britain is to have an economic future, it must constantly enhance the knowledge economy. Other billionaires in search of a monumentum aere perennius could be encouraged to found their own university in the UK. With the exception of military matters, knowledge should be cosmopolitan and any great university will reach out to the world. Let Cambridge take the lead and let the rest of the country follow. 

Britain is an old country, which is constantly being reborn. In Cambridge and elsewhere, there ought to be a Burkean coalition between the dead, the living and the yet unborn. The past and the present, marching together, will take Britain forward to the future.


Bruce Anderson