Something to be Proud of: The Rectorial Election Campaigns since the 1870s, part 2

By Fraser McGowan, University of Glasgow Club 21 student.

Find part 1 covering 1870s-1905 here.


Conservative Club poster attacking Kier Hardie (ref DC180/5/60)

Following on from the previous post, we now move on to the 1908 campaign which was the first in which a Labour candidate for the Rectorship was nominated. The Socialist hero and founder of the Labour Party Keir Hardie was to take on a future Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George and the Conservative Lord Curzon. For the first time, the Conservatives produced a magazine called Lord Rector that included lengthy polemics and satirical short stories. The quality was impressive by any standard and political engagement at Glasgow University was at an all-time high. The Liberal Club produced a pamphlet in which they claimed:

‘For, as a man, Lloyd George towers above his two rivals. He shames the mincing snobbery of the aristocrat no less than the malevolence of the demagogue. Unlike the former, he had neither rank nor fortune to give him a start; unlike the latter he did not spend his time whining against circumstance. He fought his way to the top by sheer ability and force of character, and now holds the second office under the Crown, and a record which the most brilliant among his brilliant colleagues may well envy. Surely an irresistible appeal to the Old Scots spirit!’

As the Liberal Club pointed out, two of the three candidates were not aristocrats. This marked the beginning of a change in political culture at Glasgow University. Candidates were no long to be judged on the basis of what they were, but on what they had achieved. Lloyd George was a reforming Chancellor of the Exchequer insofar as he had laid the foundations of the Welfare State. Hardie, for his part, was nothing short of a revolutionary as he favoured the overthrow of the Capitalist-Imperialist system altogether. Curzon, on the other hand, represented the status quo: he won the election with the help of the Conservative Club. Despite his success, this was the first Rectorial election in which significant ideological differences between the candidates could be clearly identified; it was not merely a clash of personalities, but a battle of Ideas.


Conservative Club poster relating to the ‘shop battles’ (ref DC180/5/61)

The 1908 campaign also saw the first of many ‘Shop Battles’ involving the Conservative and the Liberal Clubs. The Liberals went to collect their election literature from printers called Hodge & Co. The Conservatives barricaded the shop, the police were sent for, and the Conservatives accused the Liberals of cowardice for not ‘fighting their own battles.’ The incident provoked a furious war of words between the two parties. The Conservative Club distributed a poster which said:

‘The points to bear in mind are these: Mr. Hodge admitted calling the police, subsequently he arranged with the Liberals to have the items ready for removal by motor car. The Liberals knew of the police interference. The Liberal officials were cowards not to call the police off and fight for themselves. The Liberals are a losing party, and all Doubtfuls should throw in their lot with the supporters of Lord Curzon.’

The Liberals distributed their own poster, angrily refuting the accusation:

‘It must be distinctly understood that neither the Glasgow University Liberal Club, nor Messrs William Hodge & Co. to summon those policemen. There is no disguising that we were beaten, but that we are guilty of cowardice is a libel’

If the Liberals were cowards, then the Conservatives were certainly guilty of violent hooliganism. It goes to show how passionately the students at Glasgow University felt about the Rectorial elections. Students on all sides of the political divide clearly felt that it was a battle worth winning, even at the expense of their dignity.

Material relating to the Butler campaign (ref DC180/5/74)

Material relating to the Butler campaign (ref DC180/5/74)

The 1956 Rectorial election campaign was remembered as being one of the most vitriolic in living memory. The candidates were the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Rab Butler, the former Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee, Lord Robert Gibson, the English socialite Norah Docker, and the novelist Ernest Hemingway. The Conservatives produced a publication called ‘R.A.B’ in support of their candidate, in which they humorously denigrated the other candidates. Writing of Lord Gibson, the question was asked:

‘Do you want a distinguished Scot; a Glasgow graduate? No man has had such public humiliation in his profession as Lord Gibson this year. There are about a thousand graduates annually: almost any of them would be better than Gibson. If he were to manage the University Court as well as he managed his Land Court, student affairs would soon be in a chaotic mess.

At the prospect of electing Ernest Hemingway as an absentee Rector, they wrote:

‘One man’s campaign should stir us to anger. A vote for Hemingway is as good as saying ‘We don’t want a Rector’. There is no place in Glasgow for a dissolute absentee. Elect him and we have voted for the last time.’

It had become a Conservative tradition by 1956 to produce a songbook in support of their candidate. As always, the quality was not consistent, but one of the wittier songs was simply called R.A.B.:

‘We’ve once more come round to Rectorial Year,
The speeches are flowing, and so is the beer.
But of those who are standing, we think you’ll agree,
RAB BUTLER’s the Rector for You and for Me.

Lady Docker’s not sure if she’s standing or not,
For no one seems likely to purchase her yacht,
And the money Sir Bernard gets out of the Broo’,
Wouldn’t pay for the drink that her sponsors go through.

Clem Atlee’s one man who we don’t fear a bit
We really don’t think he’s sufficiently fit,
Which is clearly a view that the Socialists share,
For they got him a coronet to hide his grey hair.’

We hear that poor Hemingway cannot be found ,
The Old Man of the Sea must’ve gone underground,

But even if Ernest it there are the polls,
He won’t be the Rector for Whom the Bell Tolls!

Though Gibson was once of our own SRC,
He lived all that down and became a QC,
But he still wants to be Rector because Clyde has found out,
That he doesn’t know what he is talking about!

Well, those are folk that are standing this year,
And you’ll possibly think that they’re all rather queer,
So if you’ve got sense then we’re sure you’ll agree,

Butler was elected Rector in 1956. The Conservatives fought a well organised campaign which proved to be hugely effective even in the face of considerable opposition. It was unfortunate that Butler did not put as much effort into his Rectorship as the Conservative Club put into getting him elected. In subsequent campaigns, he was to be remembered as a Rector who achieved nothing for the students of Glasgow University– an accusation that the Conservative Club struggled to abnegate.

dc180-5 selection3

‘The Viscount’ and ‘The Working Rector’ (ref DC180/5/75)

 In the Rectorial election of 1959, the Conservative candidate was Lord Hailsham. Because Butler had acquired a reputation as an absentee Rector, Hailsham had to work hard to prove that he was worthy of the office. The other candidates were the businessman Billy Butlin and Guthrie Scott. If it had not been for the fact that the other candidates were so lacking in stature, Hailsham would probably have lost the election. In a leaflet entitled Who’s Who, Billy Butlin was described as having ‘joined the army as a bugle boy. Learned to blow own trumpet. Has never forgotten’.  There were two substantial publications in the 1959 campaign: The Viscount and The Working Rector, both of which included impassioned pleas for meaningful change at the top of the University.

The Rector has an important role within the University of Glasgow, but the history of how we have elected our Rectors has been poorly documented. We all remember the big names: Benjamin Disraeli, William Ewart Gladstone, Jimmy Reid, Winnie Mandela, Mordechai Vanunu, and now, Edward Snowden. However, the time and effort that students put into electing their Rector is all too easily forgotten. The records of the Conservative Club show that from the 1870s onwards the student community was actively engaged in national politics and strived to elect a Rector that actually stood for something. Whether it was the British Empire, Socialism or Liberal reform, the office of Rector began to mean something different to the students of Glasgow University. Electing the Rector became more than just pinning a badge of honour onto a politician whose career was in decline; it became a statement of what we, collectively, believed to be right and true.

In 2014, the election of Edward Snowden was a perfect example of that. His election was not without controversy, as students asked themselves whether an absentee Rector could really be an engaged Rector, and whether or not electing an absentee was a price worth paying for acquiring a potent political symbol to call our own. Too often the question is asked ‘What is the Rector for?’ A look through the archives answers that question only too well.

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