‘To whom it may concern’

On Snowden’s election as Rector and its consequences

Fraser McGowan

When I heard that the Very Reverend Kelvin Holdsworth was standing as a candidate in this year’s Rectorial Election, I was slightly suspicious. “Why is this gay, LibDem, Episcopalian Reverend standing to be our representative-in-chief,” I asked myself. “What’s his interest in our grand old University, other than the fact he preaches in the church around the corner?” I read his campaign literature with interest, met him a few times when he was campaigning on campus, and even subscribed to his blog. My initial cynicism proved to be unjustified: Reverend Holdsworth wanted to help make our university a better place for all of us.

Holdsworth’s impressive performance at the hustings confirmed me in my belief that he was, by far, the best person to be our Rector.  Alan Bissett and Graeme Obree were serious contenders, but it was difficult to see beyond Bissett’s lack of relevant experience, and Obree’s command of detail left a lot to be desired. The final candidate was represented by a postgraduate student called Lubna Nowak who could not even confirm whether or not she had ever spoken to the man she was representing. The answers she gave on his behalf were inadequate and her oratory was painfully uninspiring.  At this late stage in the campaign, it seemed to me that the election of Holdsworth was a shoo-in. How wrong I was.

The hype that surrounded Edward Snowden’s candidacy made his election a realistic possibility from the beginning. I felt certain, however, that as the campaign progressed, his unsuitability for the role would become clear to any sensible voter. The question that the Snowden campaign repeatedly failed to answer was how can somebody, who cannot even enter the country for fear of arrest and deportation, effectively represent the students of Glasgow University. Snowden won 3347 votes – 1784 more than Kelvin Holdsworth – but we are still waiting for an answer to that question.

Nobody can doubt that Snowden has done society a great service by exposing the chilling extent to which Western governments monitor our online activities. Together with the journalist Glenn Greenwald and the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, he has challenged one of the most pervasive abuses of state power against the citizenry and has championed the individual’s right to privacy. We all owe Snowden an enormous debt of gratitude, but his status as a fugitive renders him unable to do the most important thing that the Rector should do: represent our interests.

What we, collectively, have done is elect a highly ineffective symbol.  We have wasted the opportunity to elect a Rector who could have fought for meaningful and lasting change for future Glasgow students, in order to make an uncontroversial statement: spying on innocent people is wrong.  Time and again, his representatives referred to the vague notion of ‘solidarity’, which was to be expected given that Snowden had nothing substantial to offer the voters. It has already become clear, now that the media attention has waned, that we could have registered our support for Snowden without simultaneously shooting ourselves in the foot.

As much as I was bitterly disappointed by the election of an absentee Rector, I was somewhat encouraged to read the letter that the SRC Executive sent to Edward Snowden recently. It is reassuring to see the other main source of student representation trying to minimise the effects of electing somebody who is unlikely to ever visit the University, however much he might wish to do so. They have invited him to give the traditional Freshers’ address, as well as to be as ‘active and engaged’ as the circumstances will allow. Despite their best efforts, it is difficult to see how Snowden could achieve this given the difficulties he currently faces. Being an active and engaged Rector is not an easy thing to be when you are on the run from the US government. The campus redevelopment, the ongoing threat of staff strikes, and the temperamental nature of MyCampus are issues which are not likely to be at the top of Mr Snowden’s list of priorities.

The letter is well intentioned, but it raises more questions than it answers, frankly. Some relate to practicality. It would be interesting to know, for example, what form his engagement with students would take, and whether or not he can vote at meetings of the University Court. There is also a broader question of accountability: if Snowden never has to face us, how can we be sure that his conduct as Rector is appropriate and effective? Most importantly, we need to know if by electing an absentee who does not have voting rights at the University Court, we have diminished our ability to prevent things from happening to which we object. Are we, as students of the University, less influential than we were before? The SRC need to answer these questions as a matter of urgency.

All three of the other candidates would have been a better choice than Edward Snowden. Electing him was a gesture which lacked any impact in the wider world. In doing so, we achieved nothing for anybody, least of all ourselves. The SRC Executive probably knows that too, and their letter to Snowden is a welcome attempt to mitigate the consequences of ludicrous grandstanding. Snowden’s speech will be interesting to hear, but the long summer is over and the time has come for some serious answers from the SRC, and from Snowden himself.


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