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September 29th, 2006
Fri, Sep. 29th, 2006 10:06 am

Unless something really unexpected happens, Gordon Brown is going to be Britain's next prime minister. For the last decade he's been the second most powerful man in Britain, a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer. But somehow I have no sense of what he's really like, what his priorities are. What would he be like as prime minister?

If "the child is father to the man", perhaps the student is father to the prime minister. Between 1972 and 1975 Gordon Brown was rector of Edinburgh University. This BBC article documents some of the highlights of his three year rectorship, but if you want more detail you have to go to Edinburgh University Library's Special Collections website, where 179 pages of Brown's reports, press releases and correspondence with university officials has been placed on display. (You have to read it backwards, so skip to the end for the beginning.)

It's all in the typewriter faces of the day, on headed paper. It's particularly interesting for me because it's close to home, a soap opera whose players and locations I know well. My family returned from Montreal to Edinburgh in 1975, and soon my mother was working in Edinburgh University Library's Special Collections department. I took summer jobs with my dad's college, The Edinburgh Language Foundation, which saw me messengering on my bike around many of the locations mentioned in these letters: Lauriston Place, George Square, the Pollock Halls of Residence. It's fascinating to see these Edinburgh locations as "Brown's Britain writ small" -- the past of a town as the future of a nation.

Things we learn about Gordon Brown from his correspondence:

* He wants all the minutes of all the committees, no matter how boring.
* He tends to keep invitations from Europe to attend conferences, mistakenly addressed to the rector.
* He challenges the secrecy of the university court, which he chairs as only the second student rector ever appointed.
* He wonders why the information officer should be responsible to the Secretary (chief official of the university) rather than the court.
* He wonders what funds are available to help overseas students in financial distress.
* He wants a secretary / typist, paid for by the university, new office furniture, and an electric typewriter. (He gets the secretary, but nothing else.)
* He's wounded when an attack on his Assessor (student assistant) is launched in the court without warning.
* He questions questionable money transfers relating to the building of Pollock Halls, querying every expense.
* He requests -- and gets -- £20 for a lunch with other Scottish rectors, and an airport car service for them.
* He's big on inclusiveness, the town / gown issue.
* He wants Edinburgh to become "the first genuine community university".
* He's very down on ivory tower researchers, "the Edinburgh Establishment" and power elites when their needs conflict with the community's.
* He's keen on being seen to be keen on inclusiveness.
* He will exclude those who exclude inclusiveness.
* He wants to bar apartheid state delegates from a commonwealth conference.
* His official tone leads to the university telling third parties that Brown does not, in fact, speak for them.
* He releases populist messages to the local press to leverage power with the university secretary and court.
* He seems genuinely concerned that university development should be in the interest of ordinary people who live in the city.

Brown the student rector, like Brown the Labour Party politician, wants (and gets) more working class students in the university. His reports are full of sentences like "In our own generation we need a special commitment to studying and to resolving the central problems of poverty, war and the dehumanisation of man in relation to the machine bureaucracy, colonialism and exploitation" and "Elites have generally failed to solve the problems confronting society: the scientist is impotent in face of nuclear warfare, the expert technologist cannot solve malnutrition and hunger, the most talented artist cannot find a language to give life to our culture and the expert on political strategy cannot find a solution to nuclear escalation".

I obviously disagree with that bit about "the most talented artist". Brown can be a bit harsh on elites and academics. When the university Secretary finds Brown's stance on excluding all Rhodesians -- blaming liberal academics for their government's racialist stance -- a bit unfair, Brown replies:

"The argument for the continued contacts between South African and Rhodesian "liberals" and ourselves is based on the assumption that efforts of these University liberals will help the fight against apartheid, which seems to us dubious... Isolation -- rather than contact -- will stimulate fundamental change. The liberal dialogue... has failed."

Brown tries constantly to get ordinary people -- students, outsiders and non-academics -- onto the university court. In February 1973 he suggests a trade union leader and one of the organisers of the Craigmillar Festival Society for the Court. The Secretary refuses to issue Brown's press release, citing confidentiality concerns.

Brown's other concerns include democratisation of the university's information services, ensuring that the university pulls out of all its South African investments, getting the university involved in a less commercial commercial radio station, informing citizens of university building and development plans, and giving all of Edinburgh's ten colleges a common student accommodation service.

As a long-haired student rector, at least, Gordon Brown seems to be a thorn in all the right sides. He's also conscientious, ambitious and thorough. Based on this stuff, I think he'd make a good UK prime minister, a "policy wonk" (in the best sense) with a strong concern for social justice. Perhaps better than Britain deserves; it seems the English plan to throw him out at the next election and elect a Tory modelled on Tony.

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