An election happened this weekend which resembled the Roman Saecular Games, in being an event which nobody now alive had ever seen, and nobody now alive would ever (perhaps, but who knows if contested elections will become the norm?) see again. We in Cambridge (some of us, anyway) trotted along to the Senate-House to vote for a new Chancellor.
The last time the election of a Chancellor was contested (apart from a strange incident in 1950 when Jawaharlal Nehru was proposed (against his will) to stand against the University’s nominee, Lord Tedder) was in 1847. The Master of Trinity, William Whewell, was the leader of a party who thought that Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, would be just the thing to replace the Duke of Northumberland (a Johnian), who had held the Chancellorship from 1840 until his death in February 1847. St John’s College thought differently, and proposed the Earl of Powis, also a Johnian, the grandson of Clive of India, and (until he succeeded to the earldom), a Tory M.P.
Since the University has had as Chancellor since 1976 the ‘foreign’ consort of the reigning queen, it is perhaps difficult to imagine that Whewell’s proposal of Prince Albert, serious-minded, hard-working, intellectual, soon-to-be begetter of the Crystal Palace, and above party politics, was at the time highly controversial. Actually getting him to agree to accept the nomination involved Dr Whewell in a lot of letter-writing and a trip down to Buckingham Palace; eventually, having consulted Baron Stockmar and various others, the Prince agreed to be nominated provided he was unopposed – any contest would inevitably become politicised, and one of the Prince’s guiding principles was to keep the Crown out of politics.
The nomination of Powis instantly changed the situation. He was a Conservative with a very capital C – as an M.P. he had opposed the Reform Act (!) and in the House of Lords he had taken the lead in opposing the dangerously radical proposal that the two existing bishoprics of St Asaph and Bangor (joint pop. 3 men and a sheep) should be merged to create a new bishopric of Manchester (pop. 150,000 and rising rapidly). The proposal was withdrawn, and Powis became very popular among clergymen (the largest professional group among Cambridge M.A.s) as a result (!!). Manchester did not have to wait very long for its own bishopric, which was in fact established in 1847, but leaving Bangor and St Asaph’s both unscathed.
There then followed even more to-ing and fro-ing. Powis had accepted the nomination without being aware of the Prince’s position, and would have preferred to withdraw once he knew of it, but his candidacy had already been announced in the press, and he was reluctant to let down his supporters. Whewell was dismayed, but confident in the support of the Vice-Chancellor and of a number of Heads of Houses and Professors, including Adam Sedgwick. A petition signed by all of these was taken to London by Whewell, who was to send a one-letter telegram back to Cambridge indicating the Prince’s acceptance or refusal – this scheme, predictably, went wrong, and led to the mistaken conclusion that Albert would not accept, whereas what he had in fact decided was that he would not allow himself to be nominated, but would not refuse office if they went ahead and nominated him anyway.
Committees were formed to support both candidates, and Powis’ team stole a march on the opposition by chartering special trains to get Londoners up for the vote – then as now, it had to be done by attendance in person, in a gown, at the Senate-House. (This weekend’s excitements were preceded by claims that the Brian Blessed campaign (for details of our candidates, see the University website) had stolen a march on Lord Sainsbury of Turville by having a better online presence. Plus ça change . . . ) Public opinion was very much in favour of Powis, who (a) was British; (b) could support the University in Parliament; and (c) was unlikely to upset Cambridge by the introduction of Germanic intellectual rigour or any other similarly alien notions.
The 1847 ballot, held between 25 and 27 February, and enlivened by undergraduates shouting rude remarks and throwing peas and ha’pennies from the galleries of the Senate-House, was not a secret one: in fact, the University Press published the names of the voters and how they voted, as compiled by Henry Gunning, then Senior Esquire Bedell. All the colleges except three had majorities (some slim) in favour of the Prince: St Catharine’s Hall voted 23–22 in favour of Powis (his own college let the Vice-Chancellor down!), and St John’s 318–15; at Emmanuel the Earl won 40–32. (Lord Palmerston bucked the Johnian trend by voting for the Prince, as did Sir John Herschel, but predictably various Clives voted for the Earl; meanwhile at Trinity a scattering of Wellesleys were among the overwhelming majority who did the right thing.) Earl Fitzwilliam’s was one of the four votes not counted because the voter was ineligible – he had never taken his M.A. All this and more (especially on the complex political background) can be found in D.A. Winstanley’s Early Victorian Cambridge; while Stokes in his Ceremonies of the University of Cambridge describes the junketings attached to the installation of the Chancellor, and Wall (ed. Gunning) gives an account of the election of the Duke of Gloucester in 1811 (the process is based on a Statute of Elizabeth I), together with a list of the customary fees paid by the successful candidate to the various University officers.
In 1847 the total number of voters – 1,791 – was extraordinarily high, given that a contemporary estimate of those eligible was about 3,500, of whom only 300 were resident in Cambridge. This time round, according to a ‘University spokesman’, ‘The university has 150,000 members of the Senate who are eligible to vote although some may be living abroad.’ (I like the ‘some may’. . .) A turn-out of between 8,000 and 10,000 was predicted, but in the event only 5,558 votes were cast, more than half of them for Lord Sainsbury. The same ‘analyst’ who predicted the turn-out also predicted that Blessed had the edge because of his website; and that the whole process would reduce the town to gridlock, which it didn’t – or not more than usual, anyway. (I think the number of non-resident M.A.s who believe that you can drive to anywhere near the Senate-House these days is probably fewer than those who would ask ‘What is a website?’)
The University spokesman continued, toe-curlingly, ‘We have not been told of any celebrities who are coming but many of our members are celebrities.’ I didn’t see any celebrities in the queue – I was immediately behind a rather well known journalist, but I’m sure he would hate to be considered a celebrity, so he doesn’t really count. And as a reward for turning up, we were all given a rather nice pin with the University arms on it. Tea and cakes were also available in the University Combination Room, but Him Indoors was due for cocktails and Hall with the Master of his college. My personalised invitation from the Head of my House had clearly gone missing in the post, so I sloped off down the pub (not, sadly, the one where, as I later discovered, Mr Blessed was meeting and greeting his supporters), to find to my deep shock that at least one of my eligible friends had not voted, along with approximately 97% of the rest of the membership of the Senate (though one heroic M.A. was planning to fly in especially from the United States).
Lord Sainsbury has a hard act to follow, given that his predecessor has held the office with appropriate (and non-political) gravitas while managing to add to the general gaiety of the nation with fairly regular faux pas (not so accidental sometimes, perhaps, as they are claimed to be?). Good luck, Dignissime Domine, Domine Cancellarie!