Something to be Proud of: The Rectorial Election Campaigns since the 1870s, part 1

By Fraser McGowan, University of Glasgow Club 21 student

As part of a Club 21 placement I have been researching the history of student political societies at the University of Glasgow.Following on from researching the Glasgow University Distributist Club, I am been looking into the history of the Rectorial Elections from the 1870s until the present day using the records of the Conservative Club, held by Glasgow University Archive Services.  This blog post, part 1 of 2, will focus on the elections between 1870s-1905.


Rectorial election literature concerning the candidature of William Gladstone, 1877 (ref DC180/5/1)

Anybody who has followed the events of Scottish politics in the last three years knows that political campaigning can be a prolonged and arduous business. But even by those exacting standards, the most striking thing about the Rectorial election campaigns of the past is the sheer amount of mental effort that went into them. The records of the Glasgow University Conservative Club are a testament to the strength of political sentiment on campus from the 1870s until the present day. The Rector became a political symbol as well as a student representative, and not surprisingly, the major political parties on campus began to nominate candidates who shared their political outlook. The party political nature of the campaigns meant that the election of Rector marked a momentous victory for some students and an ignominious defeat for others. The commitment of student, and the genuinely impressive level of creativity, made the Rectorial election campaigns one of the most distinctive features of student life at Glasgow University.

As one would expect, the Conservative Club of the late nineteenth century was the principle proponent of Imperialism on campus. In their attempt to get the diplomat, poet and former Viceroy of India Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton elected, the Club distributed a poster in which they unashamedly invoked the Imperial ‘achievements’ of their candidate and the ‘glory’ of the Empire he had worked so hard to preserve:

‘So far as the election will be decided on political grounds, the question of the Union or the Disruption of the Empire must be permanently before you. At the present day, when the spirit of disunion if rife, it is your duty as representative of the intelligence of the country to honour one who has consistently maintained the Unity of the British Empire.’


Rectorial election voting procedure, 1890 (ref DC180/5/6)

This emotively imperialistic tone is a recurring one in Conservative literature of the time. The implicit message is absolutely clear: to vote for anybody other than Earl Lytton would be a dereliction of duty to Queen and Country. A shameful tactic, perhaps, but one which proved to be overwhelmingly effective as Earl Lytton was elected Rector in 1887.

For their part, the Liberal Club played to their strengths in the 1893 Rectorial election campaign. Their man was Herbert Asquith, a future Liberal Prime Minister. Therefore, few could have been better in offering their support than the former Rector and Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. In an election pamphlet, Mr Gladstone declared:

‘I heartily desire the election of Mr Asquith to the Lord Rectorship of Glasgow University and this desire I could not for a moment permit myself to indulge, unless I was thoroughly assured of my knowledge of him that he would do honour to the office, as well as to receive honour from being appointed to it.’

Gladstone was the Liberal heavyweight of his generation. He was a distinguished Chancellor of the Exchequer, an accomplished Prime Minister and a formidable orator and intellect. His support would have been invaluable to Asquith in his effort to get elected. Unfortunately for him, the students elected the Conservative candidate John Eldon Gorst. The campaign became bitter: the Liberal Club had their campaign headquarters raided and a number of their belongings were destroyed. They, naturally, accused the Conservative Club which provoked an angry response in the form of a poster:

‘It has been attempted, in the usual Gladstonian fashion, to fix upon the officials of the Conservative Club the responsibility for the inception and carrying out of the raid on the Liberal Rooms on Wednesday evening. It is sufficient for us to deny all knowledge of the design, and to disclaim all responsibility for the result. It is absolutely false that two members of the Conservative Executive were present or in any way connived at the assault. An apology has been demanded from us, but we have no cause to apologise for a matter with which we have no connection. We sympathise with the Liberal Club in the loss of many effects which, to them at least, were valuable, but we can accept no responsibility for their destruction.’

It is impossible to say with any certainty whether or not the Conservative Club were responsible, but this type of incident is indicative of the way in which the whole campaign descended into a festering unpleasantness between the parties. It goes to show just how seriously students took the Rectorial election.

In the 1902 campaign, the Conservatives nominated George Wyndham to take on the Liberal’s John Morley. Both men had distinguished political careers, but a hard-fought battle was to follow. The Conservatives produced a songbook intended to undermine the Morley campaign and promote their own candidate. The Lad Who Wears Blue, You are my Gilmorehill, and I am your pro-Boer, The Liberal Dicky Bird, and A Hot Time at the Varsity are a few examples. One verse reads:

‘Morley was an MP who
Was the Liberal Club’s Selection
To fight George Wyndham – good true blue in the forthcoming election
He begged & borrowed, and he puffed and tried,
The Rector’s robes to get inside.
But hardly a student voted for one who was

This accusation had a fatal impact on the Morley campaign. The British army were engaged in a war against the Boers in southern Africa at the time, and any suggestion of disloyalty was enough to cost him the election. The quality of the songs varies, but the effort that went into them is an indication of the Conservative Club’s determination to elect a ‘soldier, author, statesman and one who has consistently and strenuously upheld the true Imperialism.’


GU Conservative Club rectorial election literature, 1905 (ref DC180/5/42)

It may come as a surprise to learn that the 1905 campaign saw the Conservative Club adopting a nationalistic tone of a rather different kind in their election literature. The Club nominated the Marquess of Linlithgow and the terms of the campaign went from being Imperialist versus anti-Imperialist, to Scotsman versus Englishman:

‘It is for us to appeal to the students of a Scottish University on behalf of a countryman. The Marquess of Linlithgow is a Scotsman, and we contend that this alone is sufficient reason for his election. Mr Asquith may be a mighty man of State that the Liberal magazine names him; he may have served the country well, and have won fame as a speaker and statesman – but he is not a Scotsman. Should we under any circumstances reject our own countrymen?’

 This desperate appeal to Scottish identity as an election tactic ultimately failed. The former 1893 candidate Herbert Asquith was elected Rector in 1905, but it is remarkable that the leading Unionist party on campus should have produced an election poster that appealed directly to Scottish nationalist sentiment on campus.


Check back next week for part 2, where we focus on Rectorial elections from 1908 to the present day. If you want to learn more about the Conservative Club, Liberal Club and other GU student societies whose records we hold please see our source guide:

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  1. Something to be Proud of: The Rectorial Election Campaigns since the 1870s, part 2 | University of Glasgow Library

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