Some light reading today, after a heavy week.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the political divide between those with higher education and those without. But I want to take you back to a time, where that political divide was made real. A time when universities actually had their own seats in Parliament, non-physical constituencies where the electors were made up entirely of alumni.
The practice of granting universities representation in Parliament seems to originate in Scotland sometime in the late 15th or early 16th centuries; certainly by the time James VI of Scotland took the Crown of England in 1603, it was well established. Upon James’ accession to the throne in London, he created Parliamentary constituencies for both Oxford and Cambridge, and gave each two seats (i.e. they were multi-member constituencies and the top two vote-getters won seats). Oxford’s church connections meant that it reliably delivered Royalist or Tory MPs, and some of the greatest names of the age represented it in Parliament, including Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon. Cambridge, on the other hand, was a hotbed of revolutionary activity and was represented at various points by two of Oliver Cromwell’s sons. Briefly, this system spread to the colonies: in the late seventeenth century William & Mary had a seat in the Virginia legislature.
As university education expanded in the UK, so too did the number of university seats. The University Dublin received a seat at Westminster in 1801 (having previously had a seat in the Irish Parliament). The Scottish universities were not given Westminster seats after the act of union but did receive seats (2 to split between the four of them) in 1868; the University of London was given a seat at the same time. Belfast and the University of Wales were given seats in 1918 as was – very temporarily as it turned out – the National University of Ireland. More interestingly, also in 1918, graduates of all other universities in England were given a combined 3 seats, meaning that in the election of that year, there were a total of 14 seats out of the 707 up for grabs (2% of the total) which were elected solely by university graduates.
There were echoes of this approach outside the UK as well. In Sweden and Finland, for instance, where “estate”-style Parliaments existed well into the nineteenth century, universities received positions in Parliament by virtue of their membership in the clerical estate. Within the British Empire, an attempt to imitate this system died a quick death in Australia (the University of Sydney had a seat in the New South Wales Parliament in one election in the 1870s), but lasted somewhat longer in India.
Elections to these seats were somewhat odd affairs. All alumni of an institution could vote in these elections, and this vote was in addition to their vote as a resident of a particular constituency (readers from British Columbia may remember something similar in that until 1993 business owners could get a second vote in municipal elections if their business was in a different district that their residence). However, to exercise the franchise, voters actually had to come to the university to vote (at some point – I can’t work out when – a postal vote option was added). To accommodate electors, polls were held over several days – usually after the general election. Campaigning was not really “done” and in fact during the voting period candidates were required to stay at least 10 miles away from the university. Of interest to Canadian electoral nerds: voting in multi-member constituencies was done by Single Transferable Vote. Civilization does not appear to have collapsed as a result.
By the twentieth century, these seats still often elected Tories, but it became the custom to elect established academic celebrities or public intellectuals as independents. But their days were numbered: when Labour finally won a majority government in 1945, it abolished all forms of plural representation, and so the last university members of Parliament exited the chamber in 1950.
Curiously, the practice still exists today in the unlikeliest of places. Ireland, which split from the UK in 1922, retained the concept of university constituencies in its Parliament (Dáil) until 1937. Under the new constitution of that year, the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland each received 3 seats in a 60-seat Senate, which they retain to this day. This makes more sense if you understand that the Senate of Ireland is one of the world’s most deeply bizarre legislative bodies, where 100% of the membership is indirectly elected through various corporatist bodies.