Badges, ballots, biscuits and binghamists

March 21, 2003

No wonder the tourists were confused.

Outside Oxford's Divinity School they had passed a group of students lolling in the sun against anti-war placards, while among them entertainers capered in red noses.

A little further on, a polite elderly woman had inquired: "A badge for Bingham? In English or in Latin?" (The English ones declared "I'm a Binghamist").

A group of women thrust out yellow Sandi Toksvig leaflets while a man pushed closely typewritten papers promoting Chris Patten.

Meanwhile, a queue of mainly - but not all - elderly men was trickling past, necks craned to see if they recognised each other.

It was clear something was going on, but what? And was it serious or an example of that famous British sense of humour?

The voters did not appear entirely sure. Ashley Cooper, 63, a Brasenose graduate, was voting "because I was ordered to at home", but now felt very strongly for Lord Bingham "because he was the tennis partner of my best friend who was up at Oxford".

Elizabeth Kennet, a writer on arms control who was at Somerville "sometime in the 1940s", felt it was always a good idea to vote but was undecided whom to vote for. Toksvig was tempting because "I don't want two elderly judges, that's for sure".

Of course, just as they had when studying, they were all taking it a lot more seriously than they pretended.

It was only after they had voted and were directed through a gift shop that was doing a roaring trade that voters got a clue as to what the chancellorship is really all about these days - not entertainment or Latin, but cash.

As another voter, Balliol graduate and solicitor Richard Stones, put it, he would probably vote for Patten because he was a big political figure who would "represent the university best in a difficult time for universities".

Just how difficult was brought home in Balliol itself - alma mater of two of the four candidates. Whereas last time, when Roy Jenkins was up for election, the champagne had flowed, this time it was tea and biscuits - at £1.50 a head.

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