Despite the high-profile role played by Balliol alumni in the Imperial project, the College was by no means an uncritical institution. Balliol Fellows were in the lead in the campaign to deny Cecil Rhodes an honorary degree in 1899. Rhodes had been offered an honorary degree in 1892, but was unable to come over to receive it. When he signalled in 1899 that he was now able to do so, 88 dons, of which many were from Balliol, protested to the Vice-Chancellor, and the Proctors proposed to use their right of veto. In the face of protests from the future George V, who was due to attend the event, and from Lord Kitchener, who was himself receiving a degree, the Proctors backed down and the honorary degree was awarded.
One of Balliol’s prized possessions is the signature of Mahatma Gandhi in the Master’s Visitors’ Book. He stayed at Balliol twice in 1931, at the invitation of Alexander Lindsay (Master 1924–1949). Of his second visit, Richard Symonds (Oxford and Empire, p.116) writes, ‘the only time that India came into prominence in Oxford during this period was when Gandhi stayed with Lindsay during the Roundtable constitutional discussions in 1931. Lindsay organised informal weekend discussions for Gandhi with a group of Oxford men which included Lord Lothian, Under Secretary of State for India, Malcolm Macdonald, representing the Prime Minister who was his father, and Reginald Coupland. For an exciting 24 hours a formula seemed to have been found which could have led to a breakthrough in the Conference and to India’s progress to Dominion status by peaceful constitutional means, but the hope vanished in the formal atmosphere of London the next day.’ More recently, in October 2019, this episode formed the basis of a seminar organised to help mark the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.
After 1945, successive cohorts of Balliol graduates went on to hold positions of responsibility in the Civil Service, and indeed in the colonial service, where they often played an influential role in implementing decolonisation, and more broadly in contributing to the viability of post-colonial states. This is another area on which further research is merited. In more recent decades many Balliol alumni have been substantially engaged in governmental and activist organisations and NGOs working in the Global South.