Election of Gordon Brown as Rector, 1972

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Front Page of The Student during Brown's Rectorial campaign

In 1972, Gordon Brown, postgraduate student and future Prime Minister, was elected Rector of Edinburgh University.

Student Militancy

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a period of intense student militancy at Edinburgh University, centring on two causes: the demand that the university cut all financial ties with the Apartheid regime of South Africa and a call for greater student participation in university governance. These issues first came to prominence during the Rectorship of Kenneth Allsop (1968-1971) who was broadly supportive of student aspirations. Students demonstrated against the touring South African rugby team at Murrayfield Stadium in 1970, persuaded the University to sell its shares in South African companies, and urged it to cease investing in companies that did business in South Africa. At the same time, the Student Rector Campaign gained momentum, arguing that the only way for students to gain a voice on the University Court was to elect one of its own number as Rector. The Campaign triumphed with the election of student Jonathan Wills in 1971.

Jonathan Wills

As Rector and ex officio Chair of the University Court, Wills clashed repeatedly with Principal Sir Michael Swann (1920-1990), University Secretary Charles H. Stewart (1910-1981), and Chancellor's Assessor John Cameron (1900-1996). Points of controversy included Wills's requests that student observers be present at Court meetings, that Court Minutes no longer be confidential, that he be permitted to access politically sensitive files on university finance, and that the university sell shares in companies that continued to maintain business links with South Africa. He also protested the Court's decision to ban Allan Drummond, President of the Students' Representative Council, from attending Court meetings after he had participated in a sit-in at the university's administrative offices.

Brown's Election

Wills held office for one year only (as promised in his campaign), resigning to complete his Ph.D. in Geography. His successor was another postgraduate student, Gordon Brown, who was working on a thesis in Scottish History. Brown easily defeated the only other Rectorial Candidate, Sir Fred Catherwood, former Director-General of the National Economic Development Council. Almost 200 students (5.6% of the electorate), however, deliberately spoilt their ballot papers, to protest a perceived lack of transparency in the nomination of Brown as the 'student rector' candidate.

Brown's Rectorship

Brown's Rectorship was perhaps the most eventful in the University's history. He came into conflict with the University Court on the following issues:

  • Confidentiality: Brown repeatedly used Court Minutes to reveal more about the deliberations that lay behind Court decisions than the Court desired. In April 1973, the Court determined that the Minutes should record only decisions reached and votes cast.
  • Choice of Rector's Assessor: In 1973, Brown chose as his Assessor Allan Drummond, who had previously been banned from attending Court meetings due to his participation in a sit-in. Seeing Brown's choice as a deliberate challenge, the Court voted to reject Drummond. Drummond took his case to the Court of Session who ruled in his favour but laid down the conditions that Drummond refrain from disruptive activities or from inciting other to participate in them and that he maintain strict confidentiality on University Court proceedings.
  • Congress of the Association of Commonwealth Universities: This five-yearly event was to be held in Edinburgh in 1973. Brown protested against the participation of scholars from South Africa and Rhodesia. The Court ultimately decided that it could not dictate to the Association of Commonwealth Universities.
  • Investment in South Africa: Brown revealed that the University still had investments in sixteen companies blacklisted by the Anti-Apartheid Movement, leading the Students' Representative Council to organize picketing of University Court meetings.
  • University Court Membership: When the University Court proposed the re-appointment of two co-opted members, Brown put forward two candidates of his own, who were, he argued, more representative of the wider community in Edinburgh. The co-opted members were Robert Pringle of Nuclear Electronics and Sir Roger Young, headmaster of George Watson's College. Brown proposed instead Helen Crummy (1920-2011), community activist and founder of the Craigmillar Festival Society, and Ray Wolff (1924-2002), President of the Edinburgh Trades' Council. Brown's candidates were defeated in a secret ballot, leading Brown to declare that the Court was unable and unwilling to reform itself on a more representative basis.
  • Academic Expenses: Brown opposed the payment of academics' expenses when they attended conferences, arguing that these should be paid by the conference organizers.
  • Election of the the University Principal: When Sir Michael Swann resigned as Principal in 1973, Brown demanded a student veto on the selection of a successor. He and his Assessor issued a paper arguing that the Principal should be elected jointly by staff and students of the university and hold the post for a fixed term of five or seven years. In the end, Swann's successor Sir Hugh Norwood Robson (1917-1977) was chosen by the Curators of Patronage, albeit after extensively canvassing opinion throughout the country.

Shortly after Brown's election, the University Court carried a motion demanding that the Rector no longer have the right to chair meetings of the Court. Several attempts were then made to oust Brown from the chair, the most serious, in 1973, proposing that the chairperson be elected annually by the Court itself. This was successfully resisted by a student petition that was backed by the General Council, the newly formed Edinburgh University Students' Association, the university's non-academic staff, the Edinburgh Section of the Association of University Teachers, and the Town Council.


Brown was the last of the student rectors. The 1975 election brought a return to celebrity rectors, with the choice of television personality and journalist Magnus Magnusson (1929-2007). During Magnusson's tenure, an agreement was reached between the Students' Representative Council and the University Court. The Court agreed to keeping the Rector as its Chair, and, in return, the SRC agreed to ban students from standing for the post. Two other major changes were made:

  • The vote in rectorial elections was extended to all of the university's staff, academic and non-academic.
  • Two students, the President of the SRC and the President of Edinburgh University Union (later the Vice-President of the SRC) were to be allowed seats on the Court, and a third would attend without voting rights.

Related Pages


University Secretary's files:

  • IN1/ADS/SEC/B/M/REC/3: Rector (communications between the offices of the University Secretary and the Rector, during Brown's tenure)


  • Donald Wintersgill, The Rectors of the University of Edinburgh 1859-2000 (Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2005)