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Last Updated: Friday, 15 July 2005, 06:19 GMT 07:19 UK
Brown's first taste of power

By Martin Rosenbaum
BBC News Freedom of Information Unit

What would life be like if Gordon Brown became prime minister?

Gordon Brown in his student days.
Mr Brown cut his campaigning teeth as a student.

Would he create extra bank holidays so that we could listen to his important speeches?

Would he spend his time examining the minutes of Number 10's Parking Sub-Committee?

Would Whitehall fail to meet his needs for extra filing cabinets?

All these things are possible, judging by newly-released documents covering his time as Rector of Edinburgh University in the 1970s.

Elected by the students, this had traditionally been an honorific post, often going to an entertainment celebrity who rarely visited the university.

Running battle

But it came with the rarely-exercised legal right to chair meetings of the Court, the university's governing body.

Mr Brown and fellow student activists realised they could use this to advance their campaigns. In 1972 he became the second student to be elected Rector.

For the next three years he fought a running battle with the university authorities, including a fierce legal dispute, which Mr Brown won, to confirm his right to chair meetings.

Now further light has been shed on Mr Brown's early activism, following the release of documents by Edinburgh University in response to a request from BBC News's Freedom of Information Unit.

The documents confirm Mr Brown's ferocious appetite for what others may regard as tedious detail.

One of his first actions as Rector was to write sternly to university officials, arguing that "I must have all the business of the Court on hand, in order to fulfil my function as Chairman", and so he had to receive the minutes of all Court committees.

Exhaustive scrutiny

He attached a list of 17 committees whose minutes he wanted.

In this time of economy I believe it is vital that the University's finances must not only be properly managed but be seen to be so
Gordon Brown

This included the Laboratory Technicians Committee, the Minor Buildings Sub-Committee and the Parking Sub-Committee.

The administrators were reluctant to let him have all he wanted.

The University Secretary, its top official, wrote: "What I want to avoid is the creation in the Rector's Office of another great accumulation of University papers which can be picked over by all sorts of other people as well as the Rector."

When Mr Brown did receive minutes his exhaustive scrutiny probably confirmed the fears of the administrators.


He denounced the minutes of one meeting as "inaccurate, biased and misleading", attaching "very substantial corrections" which found flaws in 13 separate sections.

Perhaps showing the frugal attitude required of a future chancellor, Mr Brown also pestered the university for financial information.

He demanded to see "a full list of expenses and entertainment allowances paid to members of the University administration".

He added: "In this time of economy I believe it is vital that the University's finances must not only be properly managed but be seen to be so."

He wanted all spending over 250 to be approved by the Court, which he chaired.

Brown for rector leaflet
In 1972 he became the second student to be elected Rector

Again, when he did get financial data, he pulled it apart, producing a comprehensive analysis of the "logical fallacies and omissions" he spotted in some figures he was given on building renovations, down to the cost of wallpaper at 15 per roll.

Naturally the papers he collected required somewhere to put them.

Mr Brown was soon asking the university for an extra filing cabinet.

The request was firmly turned down by the Secretary, who replied that his conception of the Rector's job did not "justify any elaborate provision for the furnishing or equipment of office premises."

Even if Mr Brown himself devoted his student days to carefully examining committee minutes and university accounts, he rose to the defence of his peers who may have been engaged in more traditional student pursuits.


When the Principal objected to a rise in student grants because of the amount he said students spent on alcohol, Brown wrote to him asking sarcastically "whether you have an equivalent figure for members of staff".

At this young age, Mr Brown seems to have been worried whether he was getting enough publicity.

In one internal memo the university's information officer wrote: "The Rector appears to be sensitive to the fact that the BBC did not contact him yesterday to appear on television.

"I told him this was a matter for the BBC to decide whether or not they should follow up any story. In confidence I have warned the BBC News Editor in Edinburgh about the Rector's attitude."

Mr Brown wanted to have a "formal installation ceremony" for himself as Rector, with the presence of the University's Chancellor, the Duke of Edinburgh.

The Duke's private secretary consulted the University Secretary, who warned him off, stating that "the intention is presumably to make use of the occasion and its attendant publicity for the delivery of an essentially political speech."

Academic holiday

When it came to the end of his three year term Brown clearly hoped to go out in style.

He planned to give a valedictory address and get the University authorities to declare the day a special academic holiday, with no lectures or classes.

This was derisively rejected. The Secretary wrote that Brown's suggested date was "singularly inappropriate", suggesting instead that he give his address on a Wednesday afternoon, a time normally free from classes anyway.

The university authorities must have been relieved to see the back of him, but even when Mr Brown's Rectorship ended, his legacy lived on to annoy them.

Mr Brown had set up an independent Commission to examine the university's relations with the local community, one of his pet subjects.

When this eventually reported, the university authorities were irritated with numerous requests for a copy from other interested higher education bodies both in Britain and overseas.

They made it clear that they did not want in any way to be associated with it, sending out dismissive letters along the following lines: "The so-called Commission was not set up by the University, but by a group originally under the Chairmanship of our former (student) rector", and the report "is in no way an official report by the University."



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