Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A Blessed Plot


Unlike at Oxford, where the chancellorship is always a matter of lively contention (and the prize typically goes to a retired politician) at Cambridge the process is traditionally a stitch-up. Prince Philip, not unexpectedly, was unopposed when he was elected in 1976. But it is a surprise to learn that the chancellorship has not been properly contested since 1847. Instead, a committee of acadamics and bureaucrats nominates an official candidate, who then becomes chancellor by default unless something unexpected happens.

Why this should be so isn't entirely clear. Perhaps the dons think that a democratic process would smack too much of Oxford-style politicking. It does, however, mean that the chancellor is less a representative of the university as a whole, including its alumni, than his opposite number at Oxford - and probably has less influence as a result. On this occasion, the anointed candidate is Lord Sainsbury of Turville, a failed grocer and a science minister in the last government. Perhaps he's not the most distinguished candidate who could be discovered - if they insist on selecting someone by committee, could it not be one of the great scientists who have helped make Cambridge (according to one recent survey) the world's leading university? Some might think the honour an appropriate reward for someone who has, over the years, given the university tens of millions of pounds. Others may suppose that he effectively bought it.

Bizarrely, it appears that there's only going to be an election this time round because a local shopkeeper who objects to a new branch of Sainsbury's opening up and taking away his business, managed to raise the fifty signatures needed to stand. Next, Brian Blessed accepted a somewhat quixotic approach from some dissident graduates. Blessed never actually attended Cambridge - or indeed any other university - and he rambles on a bit in his campaign video (which you can view here). On the other hand, he promises to campaign for fairer access to education; he would look better in the robes than Sainsbury; and he could undoubtedly be relied upon to declaim Latin with authority on ceremonial occasions. He has attracted support from actual Cambridge graduates in the acting profession, such as Derek Jacobi and Stephen Fry.

Fry would have been an even better candidate, wouldn't he?

Michael Mansfield QC, Britain's second most self-righteous human rights lawyer, has also thrown his hat into the ring. He promises "to defend the principles of Higher Education and critical thinking in particular, which have been steadily eroded by successive governments wedded to market forces". He would make an interesting choice; but while a fairly distinguished barrister he's not quite on the same intellectual level as Lord Bingham, who was beaten by Chris Patten in the Oxford race in 2003 (wild-card entrant Sandi Toksvig came a close fourth). Indeed, it's a distinctly under-strength line-up all-round compared with the choice offered to Oxford graduates after the death of Roy Jenkins. But still, it's an election, which is a good thing in itself.

Mary Beard is planning to "toe the management line" and vote for Sainsbury. Barring an unexpectedly massive turn-out from graduates, most of the voters are likely to be serving academics and others professionally active in the university. Sainsbury should walk it. He may not be an inspiring prospect, but he has entered into the spirit of things with his own campaign website and has agreed to take part in hustings organised by the Cambridge Union.

I attended Oxford, so I don't have a vote; but I'd urge anyone who does (that is, any not-too-recent graduate who has taken the trouble to upgrade to an MA) to drop by and support Brian Blessed. Or Mansfield, if you must. You have to vote on Friday 14 October and Saturday 15 October, in person and in academic dress, which they'll be handing out at the Senate House; this may or may not be an incentive.