Brown ruled uneasy court

February 17, 2006

As Chancellor Gordon Brown boosted his credentials as prime minister-in-waiting by taking centre stage in Government this week, newly released archive records revealed how his 1970s move to centre stage at Edinburgh University prompted an angry establishment backlash.

In 1972, Mr Brown became only the second student to be elected rector of Edinburgh University, which in Scotland's four ancient universities includes the automatic right to chair the university's governing court.

But in 1974, according to government archives, a Scottish civil servant recorded that senior university managers wanted urgent legal powers to strip Mr Brown of his chairmanship.

They emphasised "a very strongly held view on the court that the conduct of university business would be endangered if the present arrangements continued, since the presence of a politically active and intelligent student as chairman of court meant that the court's priorities were distorted and important matters frequently had to be disposed of briefly for lack of time".

The court had already been horrified by the conduct of the first student rector, Jonathan Wills, who had asked to see two dozen administrative files.

While court had the legal right to examine all files, it said, it would never ask to, "being of the firm opinion that to do so would be the grossest breach of mutual trust and confidence between itself, its staff and its students".

The Scottish Office seemed to take a similarly dim view of increased student representation.

A newspaper cutting in the files states: "It had been proved that a student as rector had not ground the university to a halt," but an unknown civil servant has scribbled beside it: "Not for want of trying!"

The university's management warned the Scottish Office that court could not wait for the matter to be dealt with by the lengthy and bureaucratic process of changing governing charters, and wanted to get rid of Mr Brown as quickly as possible.

But pressure from the Town Council, the Association of University Teachers and others led to a special meeting of court at which it was agreed that the rector should continue as its chair.

The university appears to have escaped such problems this year. In the race to succeed former Labour MP Tam Dalyell as rector were Boris Johnson, Shadow Higher Education Spokesman; Mark Ballard, MSP; John Pilger, the campaigning journalist; and Magnus Linklater, former chairman of the Scottish Arts Council.

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