Selling a soul
With the news in of Lord Sainsbury’s election as chancellor of my Alma Mater, the phrase Faustian Pact sprung to mind. But only fleetingly: Faust sold his soul not for gold but for (according to variants of the legend) knowledge, experience, youth, and a bit of totty. Sainsbury is unambiguous: £127 million so far to the University (Wikipedia), and many eyes doubtless focussed whence that came.
The Chancellor is a purely ceremonial role, with the chief executive post being that of Vice Chancellor. So it is, one might reasonably argue, well-suited to a man born to the highest privilege with the effortless self-assurance that brings, and accustomed to habitual ceremony. Sainsbury’s predecessor (who was Chancellor in my time there) was the very embodiment of that role: he is of course married to the Queen. But whereas the Duke of Edinburgh was a neutral/inoffensive choice for the post, Sainsbury is anything but neutral. He is famous for having bankrolled the most blatantly corrupt UK government in modern history, which awarded him a peerage and a post as Science Minister. Before that, his chairmanship of Sainsbury’s supermarkets saw its decline from our undisputed biggest and most successful grocer to a shrinking third place.
Call me a sentimental old fool, but I still care enough about the old place to find this mildly upsetting.
What was, in a sense, more interesting about this event is that it was a contested election. The story is that a local grocer popular among some university folks was first nominated to stand against Sainsbury: I can only presume that his supporters feel as I do about ones soul. I know nothing about Abdul Arain, though the quotes from him that have appeared in the national press sound like a splendid fellow! His left-field candidacy drew in two other high-profile candidates, both of them well-qualified for a top ceremonial role by virtue of their careers in public performance: Brian Blessed as a splendid actor, and Michael Mansfield as a top QC. If Arain was no more than a stalking-horse then Blessed was surely the most acceptable candidate.