Michael Pinto-Duchinsky (Class of 1960)

Michael came to England as a child in 1948, a Holocaust survivor and an escapee from Stalin’s invasion of Hungary. After leaving CLS in 1960, he achieved a first in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. Michael has gone on to a long career as an academic and political consultant and analyst, working in both the UK and internationally and specialising in human rights, the promotion of democracy and constitutional reform.

 

How did you come to be a pupil at the school?

It's an unusual story. I arrived in England aged four in 1948 escaping from the Stalinist takeover in Hungary and speaking not a word of English.

In 1944, I owed my life to several pieces of unusual good fortune. First I was smuggled out of the Jewish ghetto in Munkacs from which most of my mother's family were deported to Auschwitz within the following three weeks. In July 1944, a controversial ransom deal between [senior Nazi] Adolf Eichmann and a Jewish rescue committee resulted in my being one of less than a hundred persons [out of thousands gathered in a brickyard north of Budapest] exempted from the journey to Auschwitz.

In London, I was brought up by my great uncle's widow, soon to become my much-loved Aunt Brenda. She belonged to a family of Sephardi Jews long established in London. Since she spoke no Hungarian, I totally forgot that language within months.

Aunt Brenda's brothers had attended the City of London School in the 1890s. In fact, her connection with the school went back to 1837. Her great uncle, Abraham de Sola had been one of the very first class when the school opened. De Sola's father was the minister at Bevis Marks synagogue, the oldest in the country. His confidence in sending his son to the new school doubtless resulted from its openness to all faiths, something very unusual at the time and one of the determining features of CLS to this day.

My first memory involving CLS is of being taken to 4 Hare Court in the Middle Temple to see Neville Laski QC at his chambers. He acted as a surrogate father and was asked to expedite my admission through a member of the Court of Common Council of the City of London Corporation.

Another early memory is of the devastation of the City of London following the bombing during the Second World War. The ruins of buildings stretched hundreds of yards behind St Paul's Cathedral. Very close to the school, where the Mermaid Theatre was later built, there was the empty Thames at Puddle Dock. Dusty Miller, whose father worked at the British Museum, would find pieces of eighteenth century clay pipes there. They had been used by dockers of the time.

Which teachers made the biggest impression on you?

The senior history master J W Hunt had an exceptional intellect. Le Mansois Field, who had been a teacher since 1918 used pronunciation boards surrounding the walls of his classroom to stretch our mouths so that we pretty well imitated French natives.

The most important for me was the headmaster A.W.Barton. Doc Barton was rather humourless and unpopular among boys and staff, but he did a great deal for me in helping to resolve family problems and in guiding me toward scholarship competitions. Being raised by an elderly single aunt, relief of fees became important. After gaining a Sassoon Scholarship and then a Corporation Exhibition [providing half of the fees], it was a huge relief to receive most of the fees through a new scholarship, the Elliott Scholarship, provided by a couple living in Rhodesia.

It's hard to overstate the human value to financially stretched families of bequests such as the Elliotts'.

My other special memory of Doc Barton was of his calling me as head Jewish boy to discuss which lines of the school song "Jerusalem" were or were not acceptable to the Jewish contingent. We discussed whether "the lamb of God" was a Christian reference.

Which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy?

Along with my friend Tony Rudolf, I was a member of the school's second pair in Eton Fives - a great game.

Then there was School Society, the debating club which held its meetings under the portrait of HH Asquith, the Old Citizen who became prime minister.

The highlight of the School Society's year was the impromptu speaking competition. I remember, in the sixth form, being disqualified from a debate because I accidentally gave a speech in favour of a motion I was meant to be opposing! The next time I was in a debate, mid speech, I realised that I'd done exactly the same thing. How to recover? "That, gentlemen, is the argument in favour of the motion," I said and then reversed the arguments with no preparation. Winging it and winning the title "Mr School Society" was my triumph.

In my early years at the school, a special pleasure was attending debates on a Wednesday afternoon [the half day for sports] at the House of Commons. The MP for the City of London was the Speaker of the House, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller. If the gallery places reserved for VIPs were not taken, we were allowed to take the seats and - the special thrill - to put our school caps on hooks marked "For ambassadors and high commissioners only".

What impact did the school have on your later life?

Lifelong close friends. A grandstand view of the great public institutions of our country, especially the Houses of Parliament and the nearby law courts. A mix of religions. Intellectual rigour. The grounding in debate at the School Society.

What was your first experience of work (either paid or unpaid)?

I'm afraid I can't really recall starting "work". What happened was a seamless and rather thoughtless procession from an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, to post-graduate degrees in the United States and then back in Oxford followed by Oxford fellowships and election to the Oxford City Council.

I regret that I didn't give enough thought to whether the academic path was best. I recall being told at the time that a good Oxbridge degree would have the world queuing at one's door. That's a half-truth.

How would you describe your current career and areas of interest to a stranger?

The university teaching parts of my career are in the past. The research, writing and advising parts continue. The common thread in my work is involvement in elections and democratic processes. My doctoral thesis was on the organisation of political parties.

When my doctoral supervisor at Nuffield College asked me to co-author his next general election study, we held interviews with at least half of the cabinet and most of the other leading political figures of the day. What was most striking was the brutal majesty of the democratic process as it operated in the UK.

A month before the 1970 election, we spoke with the supremely confident premier, Harold Wilson, in his study in Downing Street. So confident was he of victory and smoking a cigar - not the more proletarian pipe he smoked in public - that he had nowhere to live in the event the removal vans came to take his possession in the event of his defeat.

Two months later, when we conducted a post-election interview, we found him camping out in a colleague's home while he and his wife looked for a place to live. This made me a believer in "removal van government" and the first-past-the-post electoral system which most allows the voters to oust an unpopular government. This is not a popular view among my fellow political scientists many of whom prefer proportional representation.

While certainly not the most lucrative of callings, scholarly life has given fascinating opportunities to test theories in the real world of politics. In two general election campaigns in the 80s, I entered one of the party headquarters to advise on private opinion polls. I discovered a world of high level nerves, personal rivalries, and dysfunctional secrets held by one department from another and, in particular, from the party leader.

In the week when the Berlin Wall was breached [in November 1989] and the Soviet empire began to crumble, I found myself working for the policy planning staff of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in Bonn - then the capital of West Germany - on plans for promoting multi-party democracy in the Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and in dictatorships in Africa and elsewhere. This led to the creation of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Unfortunately, "democracy promotion" has proved very difficult as I was to find when asked to advise governments and international organisations in many countries.

Through my career, I have tried to give particular attention to human rights, something that stemmed from the intellectual knowledge of my early life during the Holocaust.

In 1967, as a temporary reporter for The Times employed to cover the presidential election in war-torn South Vietnam, I found it far more important to spread the word on the ill-treatment of prisoners. I had encountered strong evidence of this. Unfortunately, my report was quashed just before it was due to be published. In the 1990s, it was a privilege to act as honorary academic advisor to the London-based Campaign for Jewish Slave Labour Compensation. There were extensive negotiations with German ambassadors in London and at the State Department in Washington. I felt that the Auschwitz survivors, who became close friends, were let down by their lawyers, by mainstream Jewish organisations as well as the German Government.

In 2011, I found myself serving alongside Lord Anthony Lester QC, who many years earlier had been a CLS prefect while I was in the Junior School, on the UK Government's Commission on a Bill of Rights. During an exceptionally important legal career, Anthony had been largely responsible for the passage of the Human Rights Act, 1998. We shared common convictions and I fully supported the rights embodied in the 1998 Act. Where we constantly disagreed was on the question of whether the international court in Strasbourg should be allowed unfettered jurisdiction over British cases including the right to declare laws enacted by the UK Parliament invalid. This brought up basic constitutional issues of Parliamentary Sovereignty which the Commission was unable to resolve.

So, my career as an academic scholar of elections, election funding, democratic theory and practice has not only provided the chance to teach university students who have reached the political heights in several countries, it also made it possible to engage in vital policies and events. Many of the objectives have not yet been achieved. The debates held at the School Society under the gaze of Prime Minister H. H. Asquith started arguments and quests which continue.

When did you decide to embark on your particular career path? Were you always interested in these particular areas or was there also an element of chance?

As I've already mentioned, I wish I'd thought more carefully about next steps. Thinking about career choices does benefit from careful enquiry, advice and brief internships. I hope that is something that CLS staff as well as the network of Old Citizens can do ever more to provide.

What lessons from your career could you share with current pupils at the school? Which personal qualities would be useful to them if they wanted to be successful in your field?

Sorry, it's too easy to give general advice. Cliches such as "Don't be afraid to take risks" and "Don't let failures get you down" and "Try to be a good listener" are all true but can't really be learned.