14 February 2010

Thinking about Rectors and institutional psephology...

I’m rather keen on the position and tradition of electing a Rector at Scotland’s four ancient Scottish UniversitiesAberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews – and Dundee. Dundee is included in this list by dint of its history. Many of you may not know that the University of Dundee began its corporate life as a constituent college of St Andrews University, and so inherits many of the ancient lineaments and styles despite its formal foundation in 1881. It is curious to reflect on the shifting history of these institutions in the life of the country. Of interest, for instance, is the fact that most of these haunts of old books and new thoughts owe their corporate life to papal bulls. Although nowadays, profane lawgivers furnish legal routes to abstract legal personality, it was not ever thus. St Andrews was ‘bulled’ into life in 1410, Glasgow in 1451, Aberdeen in 1494. Even the High Court of Justiciary owes its first institution to Papal authority, during the reign of James V. Later, royal powers superseded sacral incorporation. The Catholic Encyclopaedia has an interesting entry on the history of Universities in Europe which goes some way to explaining the confused tangle of exalted sounding offices – chancellor, principal, rector.

As you may have read this week, Dundonian actor Brian Cox succeeded active blogger and Dundee alumnus Craig Murray in the role. Voted in by popular student acclamation, Cox defeated the honorary consul for Bulgaria in Scotland, Professor Nikolai Zhelev, and a totemic scarf wearer and Lothians eccentric who (perhaps accidentally) got lost and found himself by the banks of the silvery Tay. (Please do correct me on this one, but I think that Robin Harper might also occupy some sort of minor political position in the Holyrood hierarchy. All I know is, the Dr Who scarf is his main thing). Cox will now join the Scottish Rectors Group – who maintain a wee website – consisting of Stephen Robertson from Aberdeen, Edinburgh’s Iain Macwhirter, Charles Kennedy representing Glasgow and information commissioner Kevin Dunion from the Kingdom of Fife’s premier educational institution. Screening the list of candidates appointed to three-year Rectorships in the last five decades and more, it is clear that the elections have been used creatively to express a number of interests, changing in changing times.

Firstly, we have audacious attempts to coax illiterate or semi-literate celebrities into the students' midst, who generally shove off, content to regard the office as merely an honorary title. Glasgow University, in particular, seems to have become flushed with admiration for public numpties in the 1990s, in a spasm to be repented, first elevating the talentless gonad Johnny Ball and fellow testicle, Ross Kemp. Admittedly, with Kemp the student body saw the error of its ways, booting him out the year after they installed him. In Dundee, they’ve had Peter Ustinov, Clement Freud, Stephen Fry, Tony Slatery and Fred MacAulay. Alternatively, in its moments of more expressive and symbolic choices, Glasgow has also voted for Morechai Vanunu and Winnie Mandela. Aberdeen have had blogging QC Ian Hamilton and Clarissa Dickson Wright (who, unbeknownst to many, was one of the first thrusting female barristers of her generation. In her excellent book Eve Was Framed (1993), another splendid legal lady, Helena Kennedy (who I’ve always thought was a terrible loss to Scotland), relates how Dickson Wright once gatecrashed a hideously smug gathering of gentlemen of the English bar, dressed up in a bear suit. They were, to put it mildly, not amused. I’m not sure if I can forgive my own undergraduate alma mater, the University of Edinburgh, for installing the egregious Malcolm Muggeridge in the 1960s.

Since this is a political blog, it is of interest to note how the rectorships have been recognised as a site for – particularly greenie – political achievement. Green MSPs have done well out of it since 2000, university-based student activists making strategic use of popular scholarly emancipation to get their candidates glad-handing the educated youth and participating in one of the powerful institutions of Scots civil society. Robin Harper (who bears a strange resemblance to scarf-man above, the cosiest superhero this side of the Tweed...) served as Rector of Aberdeen from 2005 – 2008, while his very double – also called Robin Harper – gave Edinburgh’s facilities a try between 2000 and 2003. All of this is of interest, in part because it shows you how amenable formal roles can be to different and contested interpretations – waging war in the public space. The 2006 Rectorial election in Edinburgh is an interesting study in how these elements combine and how different plausible accounts of what the rector could be and should be jabbed and parried each other. (Over the most recent election, where Iain McWhirter mercilessly crushed Lord George Foulkes, I draw a discreet veil. Lucky I didn’t mention it...)

Should the Rector be a political symbol, a material expression of outrage against war and death in a faraway land? Alternatively, should we prefer a public character, a functionally meaningless figure and hence, invest in a soul as jazzy and high-end as we can afford? Alternatively, should they be a representative of the local or should the frontiers of representation stretch into the far distance? Perhaps most fundamentally, is it worth contriving to install a “working rector” who might take a brave stab at representing student interests? On one level, as a mere institutional plebiscite, rectorial elections are of limited wider significance. That said, they can be neat microcosms in which particular themes at work in our wider electoral politics might be located, emphasising just how complicated and several our electoral motives can prove, even in small imagined communities like universities.

Back to Edinburgh, 2006. Mark Ballard (then an MSP) faced off agin arch-English Tory Not-Yet-Mayor, Boris Johnson MP. Representing the tradition of having a local worthy aboard, Magnus Linklater was also nominated, as was John Pilger, a consciously politically expressive choice. Much to choose from here – a psephologist’s idle dream to try to tease out the constitutive reasons which might provoke your average student or staff member to choose one man or another. Given Boris’ razzmatazz and Ballard’s bright but not always charismatic delivery, it is significant that of the some 8,000 votes cast, Boris came a measly third, the final runoff between Ballard and Linklater, with the baldy Greenie emerging triumphant. Ballard’s primary prize was his chairing around Old College’s grey stone quadrangle (above, left). (Also noteworthy that his beefy hoisters are kitted out in Scottish red undergraduate robes. These are now rarely seen due to the pervasive gown hostility at work in Scottish universities - saving graduations – where such undergrad things are dispensed with and replaced by the sweeping, corvine dignities of black MA gowns.) Incidentally, having recovered from the groundfrost of the 2007 Holyrood election, when their green shoots got shrivelled and Ballard was booted out of office, I notice that Mark is now alfalpha male in-chief behind the verdant Bright Green Scotland blog. My congratulations to Brian Cox and may I wish him joy of the day at his installation.


In other matters, I don't intend to keep inhuman silence too much longer on the Nicola Sturgeon situation. My initial sense persists that it is important for people to read Nicola's words for themselves and make up their own mind. Parsing is not an innocent activity, however fairly-intentioned. I must also mention, in case you missed it, Scottish Labour's latest skulduggerous wheeze, which involves gouging at Jeff Breslin for being a septic degenerate (I paraphrase Margie Curran, but only a touch). You'd think she'd have better things to be doing with her Valentine's weekend - but ho hum.


  1. Don't forget that most radical of young left wing Scots who became the first student rector of Edinburgh from 1972-75, one J Gordon Brown who has remained er... none of the above

  2. Gadzooks, however could I have left him out? He is a sympathetic chap. No doubt he'll forgive my oversight!