Not since the year of someone else’s lord 1847 has there been a contested election for Chancellor of Cambridge University. That year Prince Albert, winner of Britain’s Got Moustache and celebrity Saxon, beat off god-bothering fusspot the Earl of Powis by about 120 votes. The last time a vote of any kind took place for the position was in 1950, when Indian fashion icon Jawaharlal Nehru withdrew from the contest at the last moment to leave pipe-smoking chocks-awayer Lord Tedder as the unopposed winner. Just 200 people bothered to vote, despite Neighbours not being on telly then.
From 1976 to 2011 the university’s Chancellor was the Duke of Edinburgh. This year he decided that, aged 90, he’d take early retirement, and subsequently the university’s Nomination Board – a cross between Hogwarts’ Sorting Hat and a Ouija Board – settled on Lord Sainsbury as its preferred candidate to replace him. The Board was not, apparently, expecting a contest; but a contest there has been.
The candidates: Lord Sainsbury of Bagging Area (the Chequebook party); Abdul Arain, Mill Road shopkeeper (the Stop Sainsbury party); Michael Mansfield QC (the Establishment Law-Snore party); and Brian Blessed (the Energetic, Loud, Peri-Marrying, Bonkers party).
The election took place yesterday and today and the turnout was tremendous, well into the thousands. As the holder of a Cambridge MA I was entitled to a vote and today I gladly scaled the ivory tower for an hour or so. The voting was scandalously well-organised: marquees, chairs for the doddery, free alumni pins with the university crest, porters in top hats hustling you everywhere, and huge piles of gowns to borrow since you can’t scratch your bum in the university without spending at least half an hour in Ede and Ravenscroft.
I haven’t worn a gown in anger for several years. I still haven’t even returned to college for the termly free nosh, and the undergraduate gown I bought for a tenner on my first day in nineteen-umpty-ump now serves only as an emergency fancy dress cape, dusted off for Darth Vader impersonations and little else.
Today I slipped on the borrowed robes and briefly rejoined the tribe. I thanked the porters, because I know my place; they, meanwhile, gossiped like old queens about toffs in top hats. I queued dutifully at the side door of the Senate House waiting for the appropriate desk to clear; immediately behind me was former Labour MP and cabinet minister Chris Smith, now Baron Smith of Finsbury Park.
What do you call two gay Smiths in the Senate House? Punchlines to the usual address.
At the desk they looked up my details using an app on university-issued iPads and— no, don’t be silly. They looked up my name in the Cambridge University Big Book of Names, no doubt printed specially for the occasion. I was then given a ballot paper and directed to a polling booth. This election uses the Single Transferable Vote system; oddly, rather than print the candidates’ names on the ballot paper and ask you to number them in order, they printed the numbers one to four and asked you to write in the names.
I voted, thanked the closest porter, shrugged off my gown into grateful hands for recycling into the queue, and escaped the Senate House bubble back into the real world.
Then I went to The Anchor, where Brian Blessed held court for a couple of hours and was kind enough to pose for photographs. Nice man. Totally bonkers, obviously.
Yes, of course I voted for him.
Update: Lord Sainsbury won in the first round of voting, meaning he had more than 50% of the first preferences of those who voted.