First 'Non-Political' Rectorial Election, 1932

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The Rectorial Election of 1932 was the first in which the principal candidates were not career politicians backed by the University's Conservative and Liberal Clubs.

After falling into disuse, the office of Rector was reconstituted by the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858. The Rector would chair the University Council and be elected by the matriculated students of the University. The first Rectorial Election on 12 November 1859 established a pattern that would hold for over 70 years. The victorious candidate, backed by the University's Liberal Club, was William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), former Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister. His Conservative rival was Charles Neaves, Lord Neaves (1800–1876), a former Solicitor General of Scotland. With the exception of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) who defeated Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) in 1865, all of Gladstone's successors were fellow politicians. This party political model was temporarily suspended during the First World War when students united to elect two unopposed military figures, Lord Kitchener (1914-16) and Admiral Sir David Richard Beatty (1917-20). When war ended, however, political elections resumed, and three of the next four Rectors were present or future Prime Ministers: David Lloyd George (1920-23), Stanley Baldwin (1923-26), and Winston Churchill (1929-32).

Such figures, however, were almost inevitably absentee Rectors, occupying a largely symbolic post. Their lack of real engagement with University life led to a steep fall of interest in Rectorial Elections. When Churchill was elected in 1929, only 44% of students voted. When he stood down in 1932, there was a widespread feeling among all sections of the student electorate that the University required a working Rector, unattached to any political party, and with the necessary time to perform Rectorial duties. The University's political clubs signed a declaration that they would not put forward candidates. Instead any group of twenty or more students were able to propose a candidate of their own. As a result, students were able to choose between five candidates:

Turnout was far greater than in the preceding election, and campaigning at times became violent. A serious fight broke out between supporters of Hamilton and Colquhoun, and plaster casts in the Fine Art Department were vandalized in order to obtain supplies of ammunition. The Scotsman newspaper observed that the old party political system had at least ensured that the leaders of the University's political clubs could be held responsible for the behaviour of a candidate's supporters.

In the election Hamilton beat Schlapp by 1448 votes to 978. The Scotsman expressed concerns that the students had not fully realized the potential of the new system, rejecting the one candidate with a real knowledge of Edinburgh University in favour of a national figure whom it feared would occupy a largely ceremonial role. In the event, Sir Ian Hamilton proved to be one of the University's most committed and hard-working Rectors. There would be no return to the party-political elections of the past.

Related Events

Other University Events in 1932


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