Journalist Turned Politician Turned Academic

Newly arrived Professor of Government Roderick L. MacFarquhar denies it, but his Harvard tenure was really a fall-back job.

"Fall-back is the wrong word. I was a politician," he comments, and "all politicians have other careers, which some have to return to more abruptly than they would like."

In fact, the former MP from Meriden, England (just east of Birmingham) has only one semester of teaching experience under big belt. For the last 30 years, he's been spending his time in academic research, journalism, and Parliament, moving from one to the next.

"It may sound cold-blooded," he says, but he chose China as an academic specialty to break into journalism to break into politics.

"I said to myself, 'What could I know about that 500 other journalists don't already know?"' he recalls. "The only place that taught not just the language but the government was Harvard."

So MacFarquhar got his Master's at Harvard, wrote for the London Daily Telegraph, founded The China Quarterly, worked for BBC-TV, won a series of research fellowships, and gained a seat in Parliament in 1974.

Easy as one, two, three.

There's no telling where MacFarquhar's political career would have gone, but two factors landed him at Harvard.

The first was his abandonment of the Labour Party. In the United States, he points out, politicians can switch parties and still run on personal charm. But in Britain, the populace votes for a party, he says, not a person.

So when MacFarquhar signed on in 1979 with the Social Democrats, a centrist spin-off group, he took quite a political risk. But he says he had to. "The Labour Party had a great tradition of reform in Britain, and now they're destroying themselves.... They're going very far to the left in manner which the British people, who are very sensible and moderate, will not tolerate."

"What we [Social Democrats] were trying to do was appeal to national unity against the increasing polarization between Left and Right," says MacFarquhar, who had served on several prestigious panels under Labour governments in the 1970s.

The gamble would have paid off, he continues, were it not for the Falkland Islands War of 1982. "Instead of taking votes from all parties, we were only able to take them from one [Labour]," he remarks. "We succeeded in getting almost as many votes as the Left."

Experience Pays

"When he's studying Chinese politics, which is organized in factions, he can use his experience with factions in British politics," says John K. Fairbank, Higginson Professor of History, Emeritus, who taught MacFarquhar in the early 1950s.

In the spring of 1982, MacFarquhar had already spent a semester as a visiting lecturer at Harvard, testing the waters in case of political defeat.