4 March 2016

Edward Snowden, Winnie Mandela, Ross Kemp: all the greats have been Rector of Glasgow University


This is the second post of mine rescued from the closure of Telegraph blogs. It was first published in February 2014.

What were Glasgow’s students thinking when earlier this week they elected Edward Snowden as Rector of that ancient and great institution? In Scottish universities the office of Rector is an important role. Not only is it his or her job to represent the interests of undergraduates. A good Rector can also play a key role in the development of the university.

Snowden cannot possibly do the job, because he is in hiding or on the run. Perhaps, from a top secret location, he could be “Skyped” in virtually to chair the university court, one of the functions of he is supposed to fulfill at the University of Glasgow. The moment I suggested that there I regretted it. That’s what they’re going to do, isn’t it? The designer protest Rector of the tech generation, who is at war with the US government over internet spying, can be beamed in remotely, thus “sticking it to the man”.

In truth, much of the outraged reaction from traditionalists over Snowden’s election is hugely overdone. The whistleblower Snowden is merely the latest in a long and quixotic line of choices. All the greats have been Glasgow Rector. Winnie Mandela did the gig, although it was never clear whether she actually knew she had been elected. Questions were asked about the validity of her nomination papers and the authenticity of her signature. Her supporters in the Labour Club always insisted she had signed up.

Then there was the Think of a Number TV presenter Johnny Ball. Then TV hardman Ross Kemp, following in the footsteps of Disraeli, Palmerston, Gladstone, Asquith, Bonar Law and Baldwin.

But Pat Kane is the one I remember most clearly. I was there when the lead singer of Hue and Cry (1980s band, Labour of Love, Looking for Linda and so on) was elected as Rector. That year I was the editor of the Glasgow University Guardian, the lively student paper. From the moment of his election Kane was, to his credit, a very diligent Rector. He took it (and himself, it was said by some critics) extremely seriously.

One of his first acts was to offer the student paper a column for each edition, so he could talk direct to undergraduates. Our hearts sank at the suggestion. Kane then was a pop heart-throb who fancied himself a postmodern cultural critic. He is now a campaigner for Scottish independence, and if anything his political and cultural musings have become even more impenetrable. When he insults you, you probably have to look the word up. I know I did.

Our gloom deepened on the editorial board of the student paper when Kane filed his first column, which I think was in the form of a letter to students. I don’t want to knock another writer’s work. But the columns were terribly pretentious, involving as they did references to assorted sociologists and Marxist theorists. What could we on the Glasgow University Guardian do to make Kane stop?

It was then that the sports editor came up with an intriguing idea. What if we just changed one key word in every column Kane filed? That way he would be furious at being made to look foolish. Surely he would flounce off after withdrawing his column, blaming poor editing by student journalists or youthful high spirits. In mitigation we could offer our incompetence or blame the typesetters. (Note to anyone born after 1990: Typesetters were the people who put together a newspaper or magazine once you had typed out the words on a typewriter and handed said typesetters some scribbled designs and manually cropped pictures, taken with a camera as there were no smartphones. A typewriter was like the keyboard on your contemporary laptop but without the screen, and with no delete button either, although you could put a line through any words you misspelt, or you could use Tippex to cover your mistake. Tippex is … oh, never mind: just Google it.)

Kane’s next column contained a reference to the leading Orwell scholar Raymond Williams. It was a simple matter to replace Raymond with Kenneth. I am ashamed to admit that I sanctioned the change. This was the pre-Leveson era.

When the paper hit the streets, Kane was furious. We promised not to do it again. But we were young, and we were performing a public service.

The next column from Pat Kane involved a reference to the leading sociologist Alvin Toffler. Again, the sports editor – who went on to edit Smash Hits – had an idea. It was obvious, but like many brilliant ideas all the better for being simple. In the next edition, in Kane’s column, Alvin Toffler became Alvin Stardust.

On the day of publication, when Kane came looking for me at the office of the student paper, I had to be hidden upstairs, while the sports editor tried to assure him that I wasn’t in the building. The sports editor claimed, I think, that I was at a lecture, which was the most improbable lie ever.

I am not proud of what I did. But there were – as far as I remember – no more Pat Kane columns under my editorship.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.