Something that seems to have been overlooked in all the fuss about who is and who isn’t going to succeed Christopher Ricks as the Oxford professor of poetry is the new benchmark that’s been set in voter apathy. After Derek Walcott pulled out of the race, Ruth Padel defeated Arvind Mehrotra by 297 votes to 129: that’s a decisive ratio of 7:3, the kind of winning margin that political leaders, apart from those with the power to fiddle the results, can only dream of. On the other hand, since all graduates of the university are enfranchised, and there must be, at a conservative estimate, at least 100,000 of them walking the earth, the turn-out of 426 amounts to less than 0.5 per cent, which hardly counts as an overwhelming mandate.
Now that Padel has stepped down after less than a week in the chair, admitting she played a ‘naive’ role in the smear campaign that led to Walcott’s withdrawal from the contest, Mehrotra’s supporters are running an email campaign insisting that he should be appointed by default: ‘he has received a significant number of votes, and emerged as a serious contender for the post, therefore, this should be the university’s next logical choice. At least this is how things happen in the democratic world.’ Or to put it another way, the farce has gone on long enough; why not appoint Mehrotra and be done with it?
The university however is planning to run the whole process over again from the beginning. Perhaps this time they should follow the example of such beacons of democracy as Britain’s Got Talent and make it possible for graduates to vote over the internet or by text message: candidates could even read their poems and essays live on ITV1 (oh all right, let’s be realistic, BBC4). That should boost the turn-out. Alternatively, they could simply scrap the whole sham business of ‘electing’ the professor, and leave it to the English faculty to make the appointment. After all, that’s more or less what happened when Joseph Trapp (what do you mean you’ve never heard of him?) got the job in the first place back in 1708.