Learning to Blag: What is “fiduciary responsibility”?

Rejoining the LSE Governors (see my last blog) has reminded me of a funny, old, true story I hope you’ll enjoy; it’s perhaps the best blag I’ve ever pulled off (thankfully not a skill I need much in my current work).

The Late Sir Peter Parker’s version

It was retold to me a number of years after the event by the late Sir Peter Parker, the Chair of LSE Governors when I was a student Governor. He’s a man I admired greatly, and had the enviable skill of telling you to shut up, yet leaving you feeling it’d been a compliment.

Let me try and tell it from both my recall and his version:

Setting the scene

In 1995 as Student Union General Secretary (President) I was automatically on the Uni’s Court of Governors. For my last meeting I’d decided (like most Gen Secs for 20 years before me) to try for student representation on the ‘Court Standing Committee’, where the real decisions were made.

My tack was simple, play it low key and argue the case quietly rather than rabble rousing. The hope being that the thing the Governors were most scared of – “revolting students on the committee” – would not be what they saw.

You need to understand this is a serious, old-fashioned committee meeting. Many of the governors attending are cabinet ministers, chief execs of FTSE companies, ambassadors and such like. It takes place in a debating room that has a parliamentary feel to it, with the sixty odd governors (and five student governors) facing forward to the ‘standing committee’ who are at the front facing back.

The Start…

I stood up and made my points. Sir Peter told me I had done it “wonderfully”, and then swiftly pushed the meeting forward to start debating another topic, effectively curtailing the discussion and meaning no success for yet another year. At this point I stood up and asked for a vote…

Now the thing is, the Governors don’t vote they discuss, and thus they looked perplexed at my request. Luckily my nerdiness, which has stood me in good stead ever since, was onto it. In preparation, I’d read the turgid and detailed Court of Governors historic constitution and seen a facility for a vote, so I quoted the clause.

Sir Peter looked at the School’s official in charge of protocol, who nodded and said “yes there is a vote facility but it’s not been done since the 70s”. He asked if there was someone to second it, and a lovely man called David Kingsley, who’d been President of the Students Union in the early 50s backed me up with a twinkle in his eye – he always liked a bit of mischief…

The Battle…

At this point, the debate started in earnest. Sir Peter, as chair, of course had to remain impartial. So voicing the main opposition was Sir Anthony Grabiner QC, the vice-chair (and later chair) of the court; a very eminent corporate lawyer. Up against him was me, age 21, in a woolly jumper, trying to hold my own…

After a few minutes he said something akin to “the real problem here is the standing committee have a fiduciary responsibility for the school, and I do not believe students are capable of holding such a responsibility.”

I argued back ferociously saying something to the tune of, “of course students are capable of taking fiduciary responsibility, we are adults all over the age of majority, what’s the inherent difference?”

This went on for five minutes, him continuing to press the point about the dangers of students accepting fiduciary responsibility, and me doing my best to counter and rebut every point he came up with.

After a few minutes, one of the Governors (I had no idea who he was) spoke up and said, to paraphrase, “I’m listening and really can’t see anything wrong with the General Secretary’s argument. The students are stakeholders in the University and they can take such responsibility.”

There were shocked looks around the court, and murmuring. I found out years later that this was one of the Treasury’s most senior civil servants and not a man to be taken lightly on these issues.

Soon after, the vote was taken and students were admitted to the standing committee. Sadly for me it started the next year and my successor was the first to sit; as has every General Secretary since, as far as I’m aware.

The Blag…

After the meeting, all the Governors, including Sir Anthony, were very gracious and congratulated me.

In fact, so much so I was staggered to be offered six or seven jobs of various kinds for when the post finished. The one I took was via Sir Peter who recommending me to his son Alan, whose financial PR company Brunswick is where I got to see ‘communicating money’ from the other side.

When I went to speak to Sir Peter he said to me, “fascinating, a vote on the court, a rarity, you acquitted yourself very well.”

I replied, “can I ask you one thing?”, he said “of course”.

So I simply and honestly said “just what is fiduciary responsibility, I’ve never heard of it?”

He burst out laughing, said, “unbelievable” and all those years later when I bumped into him again told me how it’d become one of his favourite LSE stories to tell.

Comment and discuss

PS: Sorry for any inaccuracies to anyone present.