Pat Stack Interview (3/2/18) Transcript

Pat Stack was a member of International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party. He studied at Highbury College in Portsmouth and later at Middlesex Polytechnic. He was the full-time student organiser for SWP in the 1980s. He was on the national executive for NUS 1979-80. He is no longer a member of the SWP. The audio file for the interview can be found here

(00:00) Carlus: This is an interview with Pat Stack, taking place on 3rd February 2018, and conducted by Carlus Hudson. Could you start by saying your name and date of birth?

Pat: My name’s Pat Stack and my date of birth is 12th August 1953.

(00:18) C: Where did you go to university and when did you study?

P: I studied, first of all at Highbury Technical College in Portsmouth from 1975 to 1978 and then I studied at Middlesex Polytechnic from 1980 to 1983 – actually ’79 to ’82, sorry.

C: What did you study?

P: I studied sociology.

(00:48) C: Could you tell me a bit about your early student activism?

P: Yeah, I was already politically active when I went to college. I had already been involved in some activities with the local Portsmouth Polytechnic’s student union. When I went to Highbury, I was very active in the students’ union there. I was elected sabbatical president for one year at the college. In my time at the college, we had two major occupations – one over overseas students’ fees and one over the closure of a library. I was also involved in NUS politics more generally and involved in a wide variety of campaigns that would have been around at that time. I was involved in anti-fascist work, involved with various solidarity work. For instance, Chile was a big issue when I first became involved. There was obviously the Irish situation [The Troubles] which, given I originally came from Ireland was always very important to me. So I was involved in Troops Out – that sort of stuff. And then – you want me to talk about Middlesex or do you want me to come onto that [later]?

(02:16) C: It’s up to you – you can talk about it now or we can come back to it later.

P: Well I was elected onto the NUS Executive for a year [1979-80]. The election was proportional representation and the far-left tended to have three or four people elected and I was one of those. And I had a variety of responsibilities in that period, but I spent an awful lot of that year touring colleges, going up and down the country involved in a – I would say – about a dozen different occupations in different colleges. Mainly around overseas student tuition fees which was a very big issue at the time. But there were other issues that came along as well. I then went to Middlesex Polytechnic where I was very involved in the students’ union again, and where in three years we had five occupations: two over overseas student fees, one over cuts, one over the closure of a department where – amazingly – we actually got business studies students to occupy. And the last one was over the disciplining of students. So I was involved in a lot of student activity. We also, again, were involved in a lot of solidarity work: anti-racist protests. By that stage the Anti-Nazi League was something that we would have been very, very involved in. In fact in the late period at Highbury as well. Again, Irish solidarity, activity around Palestine – solidarity with Palestinian students, and so on.

(03:55) C: It sounds like overseas student issues were a very important part of your activism. Would you like to tell me a bit more about that?

P: Yeah, I mean, it’s hard to imagine now because everybody pays fees. But when I went to college nobody paid fees. So, not only did nobody pay fees but we all got given grants. Not loans, we got given money to study. And whilst I was at college, the government at the time – I think it would have been the Thatcher government when it came in introduced overseas students’ tuition fees. Up to that point, overseas students didn’t pay fees either. They were now going to be charged fees. We had – whilst, obviously, there were some overseas students who came from quite privileged backgrounds and so on, there were an awful lot that didn’t. We had a number of Palestinian students. It’s really interesting that the General Union of Palestinian Students was a strong organisation at the time because there were a lot of Palestinian students because they could come and study, because they didn’t have to pay fees. There were also, similarly, African students from various parts of Africa in a similar situation. And anyway – whether you could or couldn’t afford to pay, we didn’t feel that overseas students should be treated any differently to any other students. So there was a big campaign of resistance to that which involved, often, the student unions, the left organisations of the student unions, and the various overseas students organisations, as well as anti-racist bodies, women’s groups, etc. coming together to fight around the question of overseas students not paying fees. And that struggle went on for about three years. I mean, it was increasingly becoming clear we weren’t going to win it – but nevertheless it was an important solidarity question being raised. And it was very important for what quite often turned out to be the last generation of students from Palestine and the last significant number of students that – they understood that there was solidarity and that, we wanted their younger brothers and sisters to be able to come and avail at the same things that they had. So it was a very, very big issue. For us there was – I think the official NUS position was no overseas student tuition fees but that often wasn’t matched by activity. So it was often left to the Left and to the overseas student groups, etc. to actually push for the activity to be taken forward, which is – quite often NUS would take good positions but actually would do little. It required activists in the college to turn good positions into activities.

(06:45) C: What was the internal politics of NUS like then?

P: In the period when I was at Highbury, which was when I first went to NUS Conference, and then when I got onto the NUS Executive, and all my way through – that period, the period we’re talking about [1970s] NUS had evolved from being quite a right-wing body with – apparently – CIA funding, MI5 funding, and all sorts of dubious stuff – into a much more left-wing organisation. For a period before I got involved, it actually had elected people to the Left of the mainstream Left into the leadership. But by the time I got there the dominant grouping within NUS was the Broad Left, which was a coalition of the Communist Party, who were Eurocommunists. They weren’t wholly enthusiastic for tanks rolling into places anymore [reference to Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968]. They were believers in what was called the ‘British Road to Socialism’, a sort of reformist change to society between them and the Labour Party, and usually the Left of the Labour Party more than the right-wing. They were the main body [in Broad Left] and they were elected to all the key positions. The next-biggest group was the far-left – so NUS was a very left-wing body at the time. In that sense, at it would have been viewed from the outside – not as it would have been viewed from those of us on the far-left. But the next group would have been the far-left. There were handfuls of individual independent leftists – quite often NUS Wales would elect an independent lefty or maybe a Plaid [Cymru] person to be their leader. There were Tories on the NUS Executive, but they mainly got there with the assistance of the Broad Left. The Broad Left thought it would be good for NUS’ image to put Tories on, including – in my time – Anna Soubry who now of course is now a very famous Remainer Tory was on the NUS Executive as a Tory at that time. And there were others, some of whom, it’s interesting, some of whom – the Communist Party and the Tories – left their parties and joined the SDP when that was set up. Eventually, it became clear that the Labour Left were to the Left of the Communist Party, and therefore [of] the Broad Left – it sounds strange but it was true. The Broad Left eventually broke apart. But in my time, it dominated everything. The formal policies of NUS – it’s interesting to note that the fight over no platform for racists and fascists – the Tories were against but they were a small minority. And the fight would have been between the Broad Left who held a no platform position, and far-left who held a no platform by any means necessary position. So it was what you would do to actually ensure that there was no platform as opposed to just saying it. But nevertheless the position, at that stage, was no platform. Later on the Communist Party abandoned that position.

(10:01) C: To what extent would you say the NUS was concerned with its public image? How important was it in its politics?

P: The NUS was very much. Two things were evolving. It was certainly aware of its image. They did really stupid things like there was a very right-wing Tory education minister called Keith Joseph, who you may have heard of. At various points he made comments that could be bordering on eugenicism, and so on. And they thought it was respectable to invite him to the [NUS] Conference. But of course the Left and the far-left in the Conference, as well as large numbers of independent students, gave him an absolutely terrible reception which embarrassed the NUS leadership. And that was the sort of problem they had. So they were trying to sell a certain respectability – they were trying to get the ear of government, particularly Labour governments. But even with Tory governments they were trying to look very respectable and that ‘we represent all students’ which in reality, even in those days, NUS was predominantly an activist body. Delegates were elected by student union meetings which were big, but nevertheless were still a minority of students. So activists determined what NUS did and the Broad Left tried in as many ways as possible to de-influence the activists’ role and to broaden it out. The other thing they did was to increasingly try and present NUS as a sort of supplier of services. So at the first NUS Conference I went to there was this thing called Endsleigh Insurance – there was Endsleigh Travel. And Endsleigh Insurance and Endsleigh Travel collapsed. So the NUS was running a commercial company that collapsed, with redundancies and debts and bankruptcies. So that was a big scandal. And those of us that had always opposed taking NUS in that direction fought really hard about removing the president for being responsible for this. He survived, just. The Tories voted for him to be sacked and so did the far-left, but the two wouldn’t vote on the same motion for him to be sacked because the motives of the two groups were very different.

(12:25) C: Which president was this?

P: Charles Clarke – who, again, became a Labour MP, quite a central MP who was, funnily enough, was always thought of as a bit of a buffoon. I suppose what you could say, the relationship before the left-right split, the Labour Party gave the Broad Left a respectable front. If you’d just gone in as the Communist Party, you wouldn’t have won. Because even back then the name ‘Communist’ was not entirely cool. But the Communist Party tended to provide a lot of the Broad Left with its theoretical framework and its ideas and so on. People like David Aaronovitch who of course now is an incredibly right-wing commentator and a woman called Sue Slipman were very central – and somebody, I recently saw, was in the SNP. Very central to pushing, shaping the Broad Left and determining what the Broad Left looked like. And [they] eventually became so confident that they ran their own people for president. So that was what they looked like. Their background. So there were a whole number of them who became MPs. Anybody who thinks MPs are special people, a little spell in NUS [would show otherwise]. You looked at these people and thought ‘you really were not very impressive.’ Some of them were, you didn’t have to agree with them, you could recognise they were impressive. But some of them genuinely were not that impressive at all at yet would later be constantly on our TV screens.

(14:10) C: Could you tell me a bit more about Keith Joseph’s invitation to NUS and the response to it?

P: Joseph had been a hugely controversial character. He was a sort of right-wing ideologue behind much of what became known as Thatcherism. He provided it with a lot of its intellectual stimuli, if you could call it that. But he’d also issued statements about poorer people not breeding and things like this – which he then tried to back out of. But very unpleasant ideas, he was very right-wing. He was made minister of education [in 1981]. The NUS Executive discussed – I wasn’t on it at that stage – but there were people I knew very well who were on it, who fought against this invitation, saying it would be completely wrong to invite this man to an NUS conference. He was anti-student, he was anti-working-class, he was thoroughly right-wing reactionary, he should have no place at NUS Conference. And the response [from others on the Executive] was ‘he’s the minister for education. We have to work with him. We have to work with this government, whether we like it or not. Therefore we’ll invite him.’ So there were two very different visions of how you responded to the Thatcher government. Between a sort of ‘we’ll resist certain things but we’ll capitulate, we’ll negotiate’ and the other position which is ‘this is a thoroughly horrible government that is out to destroy the student unions – we need to stand up to it.’ And therefore, Joseph was brought in but he was met by huge numbers of students who wouldn’t let him pass. They blocked his way, and he looked very frightened. They were, I think at one point, thinking of letting him speak but they realised that that would be a disaster. So they slipped him up to one of the balconies but people got to know, so people charged up there. And he eventually had to withdraw and, of course in the papers the next day, it was all about these ‘student militants’, ‘ruffians’, ‘thugs’, etc. I don’t think anybody physically harmed him in any way but made it clear that they weren’t going to let him pass. And that embarrassed the NUS leadership. But it was not that surprising that they would do that [invite Joseph] to be honest. Well that’s not fair – I think we were actually initially really shocked that they’d done that.  In retrospect it’s not that surprising since it was the direction they were going in. But at the time I think there was a mixture of outrage, but also bewilderment – ‘why would you do this? You must know what’s going to happen.’ And I think they somehow thought that what happened wouldn’t. But I don’t know how they thought that.

(17:12) C: You mentioned you were elected for the Left [to] NUS Exec. There was a group of three of you?

P: There was myself and three other people on the far-left. I was the only SWP but there were three other far-left Trotskyists.

C: Who were the others?

P: There was a group called the International Marxist Group, and one of them was a member of that. But they had set up the Socialist Students Alliance which drew in independent lefties. So it was a combination of an IMG member and two of these independent lefties – who would have generally seen themselves as on the far-left, the Trotskyist Left and so on. Their names, if you want their names, I’m trying to remember them – Alison Downey, Colin Campbell, Mick Archer. So they were the three that I was on with. And we very rarely voted differently – there was once a debate on human rights where we took a very different position on the Soviet Union. So that time I was in a minority of one but actually got a lot of votes from the floor. Most of the time the four of us went in together.

(18:38) C: What was the nature of that disagreement over the Soviet Union?

P: We’d moved a motion which said that questions of human rights weren’t just an abstract. That question of human rights denial wasn’t abstract. And the reason that the denial of human rights is written deeply into class society, and that Russia is a class society. I took the traditional SWP position – it was a state-capitalist country, and that’s what we argued in our motion, and that’s what we put forward. And in fairness, they [the others in the far-left caucus] weren’t going to vote for that because they had a different analysis of Russia. They believed it was a degenerated workers’ state. So I think we voted together on three motions but then on that one we didn’t vote together. But it was very rare that the four of us didn’t vote together. We tended to vote together.

(19:30) C: What were the main policy issues that came up when the group of you were on the NEC [National Executive]?

P: Well there would be lots of very specific student issues – so there was, for instance, over student grants, there was – I’m now trying to think of the year – ’72 I think – there was an argument that grants should be maintained at the ’72 level. In other words, they should have continued. They were not rising. It sounds really strange now but the grants were not rising as fast as inflation and the far-left would always argue that the ’72 levels should be met. Whereas the Broad Left would come up with a percentage proposal that they hoped the Government would meet. So there were things like that. There was the no platform debate which was very much a debate around what measures you took to prevent people speaking as opposed to whether the fascists and the racists should be allowed to speak [in the first place]. There were bitter disputes and debates over Israel – one of which was whether – which actually the far-left didn’t generally take the position – but there was a position which the far-left did take that Israel was a – and is, in my opinion – a racist state that discriminates against people on the grounds of their race and nationality. It’s an apartheid state. And therefore some people drew the conclusion from that that therefore there should be no platform for Zionists. That was a position that most of the far-left rightly rejected. There was a difference between the UJS [Union of Jewish Students] and the BNP [British National Party] – very significant differences. It was important to try and be able to gauge, although in fairness the UJS didn’t really want to engage in debate. But the terrain of the debate was very different than it is today. And partly that was because if you went to NUS Conference you would see large numbers of students who were clearly Palestinian. So the General Union of Palestinian Students would have a presence at the Conference – I don’t just mean in the fringes, they’d have a significant number of delegates and observers on the floor. As with the UJS, the UJS would probably have more – if you went now, it doesn’t look like that at all. Those Palestinian students, by-and-large, there’s only a tiny handful in the country now. And the debate shifted very much. The terrain of that debate has shifted a long, long way to things that were considered completely legitimate political debates in which, actually, the UJS would get up and participate – which they now denounce as anti-Semitism. So that ground’s shifted a long way, I think primarily has shifted at the expense of anyone trying to raise solidarity with the Palestinians. And that’s what’s happened. At the time, it was a real divide. You’d also see sections of the Left, you’d have leftists wearing Palestinian scarves in solidarity with the Palestinians and so on. I remember a guy called Mick Antoniw who was the president of NUS Wales who was an independent lefty but he always wore a Palestinian scarf. So that was a big, big issue at the time. There was also fights about whether the NUS should support the Anti-Nazi League or not. And the UJS were very active in opposing – even though the Anti-Nazi League [ANL] was by far the biggest, significant organisation in challenging the National Front at that time. And the National Front was the primary anti-Semite organisation in the country. The UJS didn’t want to work within the ANL because there were people in it who condemned Israel. And that gave sections of the Broad Left an excuse not to support the Anti-Nazi League. So that was always a fight as well – how you fought racism was a fight. What position you took on Palestine was a fight. What position you took on no platform was a fight. What position you took on student grants was a fight. What position you took on Ireland was a big fight. The National Union of Irish Students – that’s not what it was called but was a Northern Irish [national student union], tended to be dominated by a combination of Unionists and people who supported the Workers’ Party that had emerged out of the Official IRA. And their position was that the Provisional IRA were fascists and they should have no truck with or anything to do with Troops Out and that sort of thing. And the Left took a very different position. So Ireland was, again, a very hotly contested area of dispute. There were arguments about doing more than just paying lip service to defending overseas students. A whole number of colleges had shown what could be done but the NUS hadn’t led the fight. And that was often the complaint: that NUS would take good positions, local colleges would fight but NUS didn’t lead those fights.

(25:09) C: Could you tell me a bit more about the General Union of Palestinian Students?

P: They were, as I said at the beginning, much larger numbers of Palestinian students in Britain at the time. Britain was offering free education at the time. Palestinians frequently had next to no money so they would come to Britain, they had bases in a number of colleges. There were obvious places like SOAS where they were very strong, and so on. But they had groups up and down the country. When it came to things like – and they organised primarily around Palestinian solidarity. They would hold joint meetings with Left sympathisers, Palestine solidarity campaigners and so on, to raise the issues of what was happening in Palestine, to support the general resistance in Palestine. They, I suspect, came from a variety of backgrounds but probably in the main were supporters of the PLO – which was the main organisation of Palestinian resistance. By-and-large, they were leftist in orientation and at least politically secular. I’m not saying they didn’t have religious beliefs but they weren’t, at least at that stage, Islamic militancy wasn’t what was driving the movement. They were very careful to not, or very rarely, transgress any lines of confusing Jew with Zionist. It was something that they recognised was really important and would be used against them – even if in Palestine the terms might have been interchangeable in a way that wouldn’t suggest anti-Semitism but in Britain would have sounded very different. So they were very aware of that. And usually they would get – you know, when it would come to NUS elections the Left would put forward slates and they would add Palestinians onto those slates. So that as well as getting the Palestinian vote and maybe other overseas student votes they would get whatever vote the Left was getting as well. Which made sure that there was a good showing of Palestinian students. They would hold fringe meetings at the NUS Conferences. I think they did try to organise debates at times with the UJS, but the UJS weren’t going to play ball with that. They would occasionally debate with the Left but would never debate with the Palestinians – who they probably wouldn’t really recognise as a people, to be honest. So they were a vibrant group – I’m not saying that the Left didn’t have arguments with them, and so on. But they were a vibrant group – and I think helped create a much more inquiring atmosphere into the whole question of Israel than you’re allowed to have now in student politics.

(28:32) C: What were the main points of disagreement between the Left and GUPS?

P: Some of them would have been tactical, about the right way to go around building solidarity and so on. There would sometimes, I would have thought, been arguments about the nature of how you could actually win the fight. The Left tended to have the view that the key to winning the struggle in Palestine was the Arab working classes throughout the region, and their solidarity, and their intervention – much more than the individual heroics of the PLO and so on. And some people in GUPS would agree with that, but a lot would be much closer to the traditional Yasser Arafat position. So there’d be arguments about that – but they were, if you like, they were always conducted in a notion of two lots of people on the same side. The Left would probably take a different attitude to individual acts, and so on than probably GUPS would. Although quite often, as was the case with the Irish solidarity, quite often those most identified with the actual solidarity [campaigns] had to keep their heads down if something big had happened – if you know what I mean. The Left often then would step in to make the argument in those circumstances, because you were less vulnerable. So I remember at Portsmouth Polytechnic – although I wasn’t a student there but I went along to the student union meeting just after the Birmingham pub bombings. Which was huge – I mean it was massive. And it was massive because the revolutionary Left had put in a motion for Troops Out following the bombing. It’s hard now to recreate the atmosphere of the Birmingham bombing. The Birmingham bombing was the turning point, really, in Britain in terms of Irish solidarity. Up to that point the civil rights movement had gained lots of solidarity – the anti-internment movement had gained lots of solidarity. There was some solidarity around Troops Out – Birmingham changed that. It changed the whole atmosphere. And particularly, large sections of the Irish community withdrew – just stepped back, felt vulnerable, felt under attack. So to put in a motion the day after – two days after, saying Troops Out was an incredibly brave thing to do. And we ran that debate – we lost, but it was a huge debate and a very serious debate, and we got a lot of votes. Because of the debate, it sort of defused – you know, it made people think much more about what had happened and why it had happened, even though people didn’t vote with it. You could tell, there were occasions – following some big PLO activity where maybe lots of people had died. The reaction could be immediate – quite often the Left then had to play quite a significant role in support of GUPS. But GUPS was its own body with its own ideas. Not a significant player in the sense that it ran student unions, but it was significant. It had a significant input and impact on the general atmosphere in the colleges where it was based.

(32:07) C: Were any Palestinians elected to the NEC at this time?

P: The NUS Executive? No – no. I’m not sure any stood. Certainly, to my knowledge none ever approached the Left and said ‘can we be part of your slate’ to stand for NUS. I don’t think they were that interested in that, and there may even have been legal issues about them taking sabbatical years and so on. So I don’t know – but no, I don’t ever remember them standing. They tended to support the Left.

(32:39) C: Could you tell me a bit more about your Northern Ireland work?

P: I grew up in Southern Ireland. I left when I was 17, and therefore grew up – I mean I’m trying to think of it now – on my 15th birthday I had a big, big row with my dad because we watched the civil rights people get smashed off the streets by the RUC. My dad was a cop in the South, so although he wasn’t a Unionist he had sympathies for the cops whenever he saw them in action. We had a big fight and from that point, I mean I was already interested in Irish history. But I became very, very involved in solidarity with civil rights and so on, and in Portsmouth joined Troops Out – in fact was recruited to the International Socialists [IS] after a Troops Out demo in London. But I went on the coach. I knew various people at the Irish Club in Portsmouth – they had one or two in IS. And we went up to the Troops Out demo, and I joined IS shortly afterwards. And, throughout my period of involvement, I was involved in various campaigns around Ireland. There was a campaign called Time to Go, which was again about the withdrawal of Britain. There was a Troops Out movement. There was various solidarity movements around individual questions – and later, of course, the hunger strikes would come along. When I was on the NUS Executive I spoke at Queens University in solidarity with the hunger strikers. I remember a group of us went from Middlesex – we took a minibus over to the North of Ireland to show solidarity and support the struggle there. We helped set up meetings in the colleges around the issues, we toured various speakers from various Irish organisations. I observed at one or two Sinn Féin Ardfheis at that time – Ardfheis is their national conference. So [I was] involved in anything that moved over Ireland. A lot of – as I say – Birmingham had changed things. So you were frequently quite small minorities on the question, but it was really important to make the arguments and really important to draw people in. There were people who did see it and did think what’s happened there is totally wrong and did come towards the Left as a result of that as well. And there were obviously lots of second-generation Irish people around who’ve been brought up to believe certain basic tenets of Irish history. There was never mass movements of students on those questions but there was lots of smaller activities. We tended to throw ourselves into anything around that was viable and that perhaps could help spark an interest or build resistance.

(36:16) C: You’ve mentioned the importance of ‘making the argument’ about these campaigns. How central was that strategically to what you and comrades were doing?

P: I think it was very important that – I mean, student union meetings were – I think they hardly exist now – but at the time they were weekly or even fortnightly. They were big. I sort of remember on the cusp of suddenly people struggling to get quorums but in my day they were big meetings. And, for the Left, there would be the activities they wanted to organise but there would also be lots of motions that helped generate debates around political ideas. Around issues around the world. I remember sharing various platforms. Funnily enough, during the Lancaster House talks around Zimbabwe, one of the students at Middlesex was a first cousin of one of Nkomo’s men. Not Mugabe, Nkomo’s the other guy. And so they organised, they came to Middlesex Poly during their whole negotiations. Like three or four of their negotiators came and did a rally at Middlesex Poly to speak about what was happening and about what was happening in Zimbabwe. But even what was happening in the Lancaster House talks. And I was on that platform which, to this day, seems slightly bizarre that there I was with – I remember one of the guys saying to me ‘we’ll get you in the talks’. No you won’t. But I think that was just bravado. But it was really interesting – I always remember that one thing one of them said, he said ‘we’re negotiating now with the Tories’. He said, ‘when we were negotiating with the Labour Government, David Owen – who later formed the SDP – was the Home Secretary – he said, ‘you could tell he really wasn’t a man of power because he always had to say he’d get back to me, he’d get back to us. Lord Carrington, on the other hand, would just say yes or no to things’ ‘cause that’s where the real power lay, and they sort of got it. They sort of got that this Carrington represented the real establishment, and Owen represented Labour trying to be the real establishment. I found that fascinating. But that was fairly exceptional to [have] speakers from a major international talks process come and talk at your college. But we toured all sorts of people: South African, militants, I remember there was a miners’ leader, trade union leader, Moses Mayekiso, who [we] built huge solidarity for to get him out of jail. So there was lots – you’d get speakers that you could from the countries that were relevant. So even when Russia began to break up, we began to get dissident lefties to come and speak and so on – so they was a lot of that. There was a lot of trying to win both practical actions but also win people to a socialist view of the world. Unashamedly, we were doing that – not secretly. We would debate the class nature of the Soviet Union in front of 200 students – which today would just sound totally mad. But you’d hold the meeting – people would stay, they would listen. They would be interested. The atmosphere was such that you could have debates like that.  So yeah, it was an important part of it – was not just saying ‘let’s occupy’ although that was a big [part] but was also saying, ‘look, the world needs to be changed – these are the reasons why, and this is how we can do it. These are the terrible things that this system is doing around the world, that this system has done historically, that this system is doing to this group of people’, and so on and so forth. And of course there was also very vibrant and active women’s groups. And in the beginnings of the emergence of what at the time wouldn’t have been called LGBT, would have been called gay groups. I don’t mean the gay movement was beginning to emerge because it already had. But it was beginning to emerge as organised on the campuses. And again, both those groups in main would have been sympathetic and part of the milieu of the Left. I’m not saying there weren’t disagreements, there were quite often quite sharp disagreements – particularly with elements of the women’s movement. But you were generally on the same side on almost all questions.

(41:19) C: What were the disagreements mostly over?

P: With the women’s groups often there would be a disagreement about the nature of women’s oppression, where it was rooted, where it was rooted in patriarchy or individual men, was it rooted in class society and capitalism – so that was a big theoretical debate. But that could sometimes manifest itself in [questions of] should women meet separately, should there be women-only meetings, and so on and so forth around women’s issues. And that could be a debate. And I think initially the Left got it wrong – got it horribly wrong in saying there shouldn’t be – sections of the Left saying there shouldn’t be women-only meetings. There should and could, but that women’s issues shouldn’t only be discussed in women-only meetings. That was the point. There was a small section of the radical feminists who thought that men shouldn’t be involved in any of these questions at all, but generally that wasn’t the view of most women’s groups. I think they [the theoretical disagreements] got sharper later, to be honest – but at that time you were generally all on the same side. Would generally vote together [in student politics] on most things. There’d generally be solidarity between us all. There’d be arguments, a bit like the far-left itself, and was divided into various groups and there’d be lots of quite sharp arguments. But on the big questions you were on the same side.

(42:51) C: Could you tell me a bit about Chilean solidarity?

P: Yeah that very much – when I started, when I was involved in Left politics in Portsmouth even before I became a student and in the early period, there was still this massive hangover of the Pinochet coup. There were significant numbers of Chilean exiles in Portsmouth, I remember. Chile was, for the far-left, both an issue of outrage at what had happened, solidarity with the people who were now exiled, trying to build some sort of response. But also it was an important ideological debating ground between sections of the Left – between the far-left and, say, the Communist Party Left – as to whether Allende’s approach had been the right one and so on and so forth, and what the Chilean experience told you about the nature of the state. The argument from the far-left would have been Allende needed really to arm the workers to defend themselves against what was otherwise inevitable. And he played the game, if you like, and paid the price for playing the game. He was radical, made really significant changes, raised huge expectations, was a very honourable man. But he tried to work within the system and have good generals – and in the end they turned on him. And it was one of the most brutal and repressive and terrible regimes in the world at that time. And of course at that time – at a later stage there was the American ‘we’re all for human rights’ – at that stage America was supporting every – openly supporting every rat bat gangster regime in Central and South America, and beyond, and Britain wasn’t much better to be honest. And therefore there was, again there would be meetings explaining what had happened and what was happening now. There would also be solidarity meetings, fundraisers, lots and lots of Chilean folk evenings, some of which were brilliant and some of which were less so. But they were very much part of the political scene. And so there were a significant number and an awful lot of those exiles had suffered either terrible family losses and had loved ones had been, or themselves had been tortured. You knew that – you didn’t lecture these people or talked down to them. You knew they’d been through an experience that none of you had ever, ever been through, and that nobody should ever have to go through. So Chile was a huge cause for the Left.

(46:08) C: to what extent do you think it informed anti-fascist activism in the UK?

P: I’m not sure – because of the nature of the fascist movement in the UK – I think, because, the danger in the UK was not coming from a military junta – there was a period in the early seventies where that did seem as if it could be a danger. There were sorts of various, what would you call them, cavalier elements of the right-wing of the establishment messing around with that. But the fascist movement, the growth that we were seeing, was a popular movement in the streets, and was beginning to become a popular movement electorally. And therefore, I think, the comparison with Italy, Mussolini and Hitler was much more appropriate than the comparison with Allende because – then Pinochet, because Pinochet was a military coup and it’s not to say that it wasn’t attempted but it wasn’t a popular movement from below that drew in large numbers of peoples, distorting their view of the world, creating a hateful and terrifying atmosphere. And that’s what the National Front were trying to build – and that looked seriously, seriously worrying for a period. It did seem, not that they were about to become the government or anything like that, but that they were making significant breakthroughs. They were electorally way stronger than the far-left. They were growing, the were gaining publicity, they were gaining confidence, their street demonstrations were growing. There was various areas in the country, some of which already at that stage were suffering badly from industrial decline. Places like Blackburn where they were strong, bits of the old East London where they were strong, and so on and so forth. So they were a serious concern. I don’t remember Chile being the focus for that. Much more, the thirties was the focus for that. Also, you have to remember unemployment was charging up – lots of the things that, you’re talking about, after a prolonged period of economic boom with everybody’s lives generally getting better, for the first time really since the War people’s lives were getting worse – since the Second World War. Unemployment had grown to what at the time seemed incredibly large numbers – and so there was a real fear that they [fascists] could emerge as they had in the thirties.

(48:58) C: Could you tell me a bit about the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism?

P: It’s worth noting that prior to the Anti-Nazi League, the National Front was growing. I remember in Portsmouth, I remember we all got in vans – the students, the Left, and people not even on the far-left but sympathetic – anti-racists, and so on – had charged down to Southampton to bust up a meeting of the NF down there. There had been various resistances to wherever they raised their heads and it all came to a head at Lewisham. They marched through Lewisham, they were allowed to march through Lewisham. There was an official demonstration against them called by trade union leaders and the Communist Party and Sue Slipman who I mentioned earlier – well they were at the front of that. And that was a sort of – a march, a protest – that this march was taking place but it wasn’t a march to confront the demonstration. So the Left basically called a demonstration to stop the NF marching through Lewisham. And that demonstration gained lots and lots of local support – Lewisham was a very West Indian area at the same, there were lots of young black guys and women out in the streets. Huge confrontation – a real battle with the cops because the cops were defending the fascists. The fascists were prevented from marching, and then shortly after that there was the demonstration in Southall where Blair Peach, the school teacher, was murdered by the Special Patrol Group who were – funnily enough I was just thinking about them last night, I can’t remember why, but who were effectively thugs in uniform. They were cops but you could tell that they hated and despised the Left. And I’m not saying they were all Nazis but between the two groups [fascists and anti-fascists] you could tell which they preferred. And there was a recognition that although the Left had provided, and the atmosphere in Southall was very different, it was huge again, again lots of the local Asian population came out. But the cops were on the rampage. They were almost getting revenge for Lewisham I think. You just sensed – this is getting very, very serious and it’s not enough for the forces of the far-left to take this on. You need to build a bigger response, a wider response, to this. We need to draw in large numbers of people who would be disgusted by the National Front and will help stop it in a variety of ways. So that the Anti-Nazi League was formed, and drew on way beyond the SWP which had been, if you like, the inspiration for it had come from the SWP, but had people like Peter Hain who later was a government minister, who was then a Labour leftist activist, had been a Young Liberal activist, was very centrally involved in it. All sorts of famous personalities: the comedian Dave Allen, Brian Clough the legendary football manager, and so on, signed up to it. It got huge appeal and would mobilise very large numbers of people, some of whom would, large numbers, considerably more than before would physically confront the fascists. Others didn’t want to do that but wanted to make a show of strength against the fascists. And you combine those forces – you brought people in. The key thing is – are you willing to join an organisation that is against the National Front, that is prepared to stop the National Front, even if your role in stopping it is to go to a carnival, a march to show solidarity, there were stickers everywhere, there were posters everywhere, there was Skateboarders Against the Nazis, Spurs Against the Nazis – you know, just every area of life, it was a hugely, hugely effective campaign. I mean really, really significant. Two very big carnivals – which ties into Rock Against Racism which I’ll come onto. Two very big carnivals. I’m not saying it didn’t make any mistakes – the second carnival, I think, the National Front decided to march on the same day. And quite rightly the carnival wasn’t called off because we recognised very quickly that if we call a carnival, the National Front call a march, we call off the carnival because of a march, we’ll never be able to have a carnival because every time we do it, they’ll dictate what we do. So it was agreed that a certain number wouldn’t go to the carnival – they would confront the Nazis. But the numbers were wrong. Not enough people had taken off. And that was a mistake that was admitted at the time and learned from. But in general it was hugely effective and very, very successful. And Martin Webster the leader of NF when it collapsed – split, as they do – blamed the Anti-Nazi League in large part for what had taken place, what had happened to them. They lied – you know there are also pictures of these guys – because they’d been in the BUF – the British Union of Fascists – doing Nazi salutes and so on. It was quite easy to expose them, but it took a lot of work. And it created an atmosphere where people who might still have been sympathetic no longer felt comfortable or confident to be seen marching with them. So it just destroyed their base, if you like. Rock Against Racism interacted with that. It was created out of a horrendous drunken rant by Eric Clapton. You know who Eric Clapton is – and you know about the rant. Have you ever read it?

(55:13) C: No I haven’t.

P: It is not just, you know, ‘Vote Enoch’ – it is a foul, racist rant. And it goes on, and on. I mean truly horrible. And Clapton would have been something that, lots of leftists would have liked the various Blues bands, Cream, and so on – would have been someone they would have looked to, and so they were shocked. And he’d just had a big hit with Bob Marley – I Shot the Sheriff, ironically. So, there was a response – there was an open letter to him. I always remember the last line was ‘who shot the sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you.’ And Rock Against Racism was set up. And its significance in saying we want to create a musical response was brilliant. But it coincided with the emergence of punk. And that was very important. And that proved quite crucial. Punk – the purpose of punk, as with most of the young, new musical movements – being the Teddy Boys in the fifties or people wearing their hair, guys wearing their hair down to their waists in the sixties and so on. Punk is to shock everybody else and to piss them off and so on. And part of punk was that – and one of the ways that you could piss off an older generation, particularly that rambled on endlessly, it seemed, about the Second World War was to wear swastikas. And a number of punks wore swastikas as part of their whole regalia of safety pins and so on and so forth. And there was a real danger – and therefore you got elements of the far-right looking to various punk bands, particularly the Buzzcocks and Sham 69. But it was a movement, a musical movement that was hugely exciting youth. It was tearing away all the prog rock pretentiousness and just giving voice to anger and authenticity that seemed to have been lost in mainstream music. So for the younger generation – I mean I loved it but probably for people four, five to six or seven years younger than me it was even more important – you know what I mean. It was their moment of musical rebellion. It was hugely important and Rock Against Racism proved a fantastically effective means of getting those bands involved and behind it. And quickly, punk became overwhelmingly associated with anti-fascism, with being against the National Front. There were punk bands that had ‘No fun, no future, no freedom – NF NF NF’. It played a hugely significant role in helping to shape the politics of the punk movement, of the punk musicians which in turn helped shape the politics of the punk movement, and which meant that huge numbers of youth who might have been susceptible to [fascism] if the music had moved in a different direction. Most wouldn’t, but some might have [but] actually weren’t and ended up very firmly on the anti-fascist side. So Rock Against Racism was hugely important and it responded very brilliantly – I remember it had a fanzine called Temporary Hoarding which was very much designed in the style of the punk fanzines of the time. It spoke to its time. The carnivals – you had the Clash, Elvis Costello, Siouxsie and the Banshees, you had a whole variety of such bands along with Reggae bands and so on coming along to play, and play for free, at huge carnivals, I mean huge. And doing lots of benefits and so on and so forth. It was truly significant. Those two – the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism – they sort of complemented each other. There was crossover: SWP members were central to setting both up, but not just SWP members [were involved]. Particularly Rock Against Racism, and some people probably concentrated on one more than the other but there was a lot of crossover. And occasionally you’d go to an event and you weren’t sure whether you were going to an ANL event or a RAR event. Because it’ll have all the bands you’d associate with a RAR event but you’d see it was actually an ANL fundraiser. So there was a lot of crossover. But it was a fantastic response and something I look back on with great pride, actually. I think the people who were involved in that had every right to be proud of it. I mean, you know, there are always going to be critics. ‘It didn’t take a position on immigration controls’ or whatever it was, but that wasn’t the purpose of it. The purpose of it was to fight the NF and that it did very effectively.

(1:00:30) C: Was there much student involvement?

P: Yeah, huge. Going to the carnival, I remember there were coachloads of students from Portsmouth went up to the carnival in London, in East London. And from all over the country there were large numbers of student bodies. There were student gigs, Rock Against Racism gigs, ANL gigs – all the time. Yeah, it was huge in the student unions – really big amongst students. They were very, very involved. It was a young movement by-and-large. You had the sixties generation, of course were in it fighting the NF and so on – that generation of leftists whose lives had been really shaped by what had happened in the mid-to-late sixties. Many of them, no matter how inactive they became, their worldview was determined by those few years. They remained essentially socialist in their outlook on all questions – right into old age. Even if they’d long-stopped doing things, that’s their view of the world. But this was drawing the next generation in – their younger brothers or sisters were coming in. And they just, a bit younger than that, were now coming in as well around the ANL. It was hugely significant in the colleges.

(1:01:59) C: How important was 1968, the late sixties? Not just for the ANL and Rock Against Racism but student activism in general?

P: I have to be careful, because I was an observer of it rather than a participant. I was 15, 16 for some of the stuff I’m talking about. But growing up in that period, the sixties – and when you talk about the sixties actually you’re probably talking from about ’65 to ’75 more than ’60 to ’70, if you know what I mean. There was ’60 to ’63-4, there wasn’t a huge change. But then there was this considerable change suddenly. You found – it was really interesting – I remember in America there was a study of students. And I think in 1960, 90% of American college students, their ambition was to be essentially just like their parents. By ’68, 80% of college students’ ambition was to be nothing like their parents. That was the cultural change that happened in a relatively short space of time. And it was shaped by, initially, fear of the atomic bomb – which was huge. It was massive in America. I’ve talked to American friends who were terrified in school where they had to sit under desks. Imagined that they were about to be bombed and stuff. So there was a real movement against that. But that movement then began to spill over into struggles against Vietnam, in turn began to spill over into struggles in the colleges. And then you had the events of May ’68 in France which truly transformed the student movement worldwide. Because then it wasn’t just about – well I say just – it was about Vietnam, it was about all sorts of individual issues, but it was about the world itself. And it was about the nature of education and challenging it. I remember at the LSE, suddenly there were radical students doing reviews of lecturers just saying ‘don’t bother going to this guy’ – there’s a guy on the TV called Bob McKenzie who’d be on every – he’s American or Canadian I think – every election night with a swingometer, and he was a lecturer at the LSE. And this Left critique said ‘don’t go anywhere near this guy, he’s a right-wing idiot with no ideas whatsoever.’ So there was a whole – and academic freedom, desegregating the student accommodation, getting rid of rules that prevented people cohabitating – all of that. Sexual norms, how you looked, how you dressed – everything changed, I think dramatically. I think the gap between my parents’ generation and me, my generation, was bigger than any before or since. I mean just a complete dislocate. We didn’t understand each other – we sort of understood them because we’d grown up with it, they had no idea what we were talking about and why we were doing it. What was this strange music we were listening to. Nothing. In a way that I don’t think has been true of any generation since. I mean I’m not saying there’s not issues, but that radical break was phenomenal. It was the end of the post-war consensus, the end of the notion that we’re all doing a little bit better and we all end up with a nice partner, married, obviously in a church, in a nice suburban home and a nice job, and life will – everything will generally get better. Suddenly there’s this group of people saying this is shit. Not only is this boring but this isn’t how most people’s lives are going to be lived. This is an illusion. So therefore, there was that and that was combined with not just questioning the West but also questioning Stalinist Russia, and so on and so forth, and the Eastern Bloc. Well that isn’t it either – that’s not the sort of world anybody should want to live in. So I think that period was huge. And it created the student activists. Student activism doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense before the mid-sixties. Maybe a bit in the early [sixties], but in reality about the mid-sixties. If you look at the history of students involved in politics prior to the mid-sixties, you’ll find that in 1926 they scabbed during the General Strike. That’s about it – because of course they were the privileged elite. By the sixties, students were not the privileged elite. You were getting, as with me and my brother, you were getting a whole generation of people who were the first in their family ever to go to university or to college. And nobody in their family had ever done that before. That bit the parents loved – but they then probably thought ‘well what it’s such a good thing ‘cause our kids have become weird’. So yeah it was huge. And I think, as I said, I remember talking to someone who was around in that period. And much, much later – 40 years later – he went to somebody’s birthday party, and he said it was amazing, there were all these people there. And he said a lot of them had been in Left organisations, long dropped-out, but the sixties had shaped their view of the world. Their essential view of the world was no different – perhaps their view of how you could change it [was different], but their view of what was wrong with it and what it should look like was effectively the same as it had been then. So it had a profound impact on people, I think: the sixties. As I say, I missed it. I was looking at it from the outside, excited by it. I remember looking at France ’68 and thinking ‘wow, what I wouldn’t give to be there’ or looking at the civil rights stuff in the north of Ireland and thinking ‘I’m feeling outrage’. Looking at all those elements and feeling that this was something that was really exciting. And of course, I was then in Britain during the miners’ strikes in the early seventies. We haven’t talked about solidarity with industry – but there was solidarity with strikes. And there was of course large numbers of strikes and industrial actions, and so on. In a sense, bits of the Left, especially, in fairness, the SWP, really did play up that and say these are the people that hold economic muscle. Their struggles really matter and therefore we need to be involved in solidarity with those actions as well. So when you get to things like Grunwick’s, the Grunwick strike – I was arrested on that. Large numbers of my friends were arrested on that. They were all students. So of course the miners came. There were huge numbers of trade unionists from all over the place, but there were also large numbers of students going up and battling with the cops on the steps of Grunwick’s. So that was another element – and that, again, had been inspired by the sixties generation. No question – they had created the student activist.

(1:09:38) C: Could you tell me a bit more about Grunwick?

P: At the time there had been a huge miners’ strike in ’72, a huge miners’ strike in ’74, there’d been various dockers strikes, post strikes. And I remember reading an account – I think in the back of Socialist Worker about this strike. Some small factory that processed – such places don’t exist now, I don’t think – they developed photographs. Back in the day you took your photos, you then had to send your roll of film off to someone. You gave it in to someone, and they developed it – you got your photos sent back. It sounds as archaic as the penny farthing – if not more. But Grunwick’s was that. And it was a small business – a crappy little business that employed mainly Asian women, and that was a sweatshop, effectively. Didn’t really allow proper breaks, paid shit wages, awful conditions – wouldn’t allow a union in. And there was resistance and there was a number of people who – one woman particularly – became legendary. Mrs [Jayaben] Desai, she was this tiny little Asian woman. She was one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever seen in my life. She was fantastically courageous – I think she’s still around, I’m sure she’s still fantastically courageous. But she was in that instance fantastically courageous. But I remember reading it [Socialist Worker] and thinking that’s nice. And then it began to grow. And then we began to move motions in the student unions supporting it. And then the mass pickets began taking place so we moved motions saying the student union should send delegations. And we did, but the delegations then would have been four or five minibuses – so it was a whole bunch of pickets, effectively. And you would go up and try and block the gates, and often effectively block the gates. I suppose the real key was for a period the postal workers refused to handle the mail. And that smashed it. But then legal action was threatened against the postal workers’ union. And the postal workers’ leaders did what union leaders do all too often and caved in. In the end you couldn’t sustain it – do you know what I mean. So there were glorious days when the postal workers struck with the miners’. I was there. The cops were brutal. I mean the cops hated us – they were brutal. And they went to you, like, partly ‘what are you hairy bastards doing here? What business is this – yours?’ sort of thing. And then I remember the day the miners turned up – the cops went pale because suddenly there were these huge bodies of these people marching through. There were large-scale arrests – I always remember they sort of hemmed us in and told us to disperse. And I said to this cop, ‘how are we meant to fucking disperse if you’re hemming us in?’ ‘Oh I’m having you’ and just dragged me out. A woman tried to take my name because she was getting lawyers for people who were being arrested. And as I had very long hair, I was trying to tell them my name and the cop just wrenched my hair back. And then they kicked me on the ground and threw me onto the coach. And that was typical. That was how they treated people. But I remember when I got into the police station, they would sort of, you know they’d take people into the area where you charged them. 200 of us. In retrospect we could probably have rioted and got back out but, you know, you were just sort of like ‘ok I’m here now’. And the only thing I really remember about it was there was a young guy I’d known in Portsmouth who was on the Left who I think briefly had been in the IS. I remember him telling me he was going to leave to join the Metropolitan Police. And I was like ‘why?’ And he said ‘I want to get in the drug squad for the drugs’. So I said ‘rubbish – you’ll end up being thoroughly reactionary.’ And as I was stood amongst all these people he suddenly – this guy suddenly appeared in uniform and went ‘Pat Stack!’ And you could see everybody looking at me like I was some sort of police spy or something. So I remember that. But Grunwick’s was a really significant dispute. In a sense it was the last great battle of a period where – actually, we didn’t realise it – but strikes were winding down. And the victories of the late sixties and early seventies were being reversed. So that was really significant. The other things that were really important that you raised solidarity with, sending delegations to, was the Portuguese Revolution which was really significant in the period where I became active. So again, international solidarity was really important. Class solidarity was really important, as well as fighting around these issues that were key if you were a student at this time.

(1:15:02) C: Could you tell me a bit more about what solidarity means to you?

P: Well, solidarity, I think, means a number of things. I think, first of all, it means giving voice to the people who were involved – that they are not isolated, that they are supported elsewhere. It can mean a variety of things. At its best it means taking actions that can effectively alter the course of the action that you’re supporting. So if we look at the example of, that I just gave you, of Grunwick’s – the instinctive solidarity of the postal workers in that instance could have won that dispute. The failure by the leaders to uphold that instinct of solidarity meant that that chance was gone. And there was at one point in the – later on – the last miners’ strike [1984-5] – where it looked like the dockers would come out. And had the dockers come out at that point in solidarity, we could be living in a very different world today and it just didn’t happen. So solidarity at its best point can mean actually taking actions that will effectively transform the situation. And that solidarity can help change things. I think there’s no question that Vietnam War, it was won by the Vietnamese, but it was won by the Vietnamese with the enormous assistance of an American anti-war movement. I mean an international anti-war movement, but most particularly an anti-war movement in America. That’s solidarity. And it’s interesting with that – when we talked earlier about ideas. The anti-war movement, as far as I can grasp, in America started off with a ‘hell no, we won’t go, we don’t want to die, what are we going over there for?’ And ended up with ‘why are we killing these people?’ It starts off with ‘I don’t want to be shot’ and ended up with ‘we shouldn’t be shooting any other people’. In other words, it was a transformation of that movement, of how it viewed the world. That – at its highest and best rate – is solidarity. Solidarity can mean when, at Middlesex we had students victimised so the rest of us occupy, and then get victimised ourselves but nevertheless we occupied to show solidarity and say we won’t accept this happening. But solidarity can mean, at the lowest level, just saying ‘we’re a voice – you’re not alone. We’re aware and we’re making others aware of what’s happening’. It can be practical – you’re on strike, we may not be able to stop the post but we can join your picket lines. Or we can give you money during a miners’ strike. Because in ’74 solidarity had actually meant actively [supporting] other workers striking, and other workers forming picket lines, initially in the last miners’ strike it wasn’t giving people baked beans. There was a feeling of ‘that’s not real solidarity’ but it became clear that this was a war of attrition. And therefore solidarity did mean the sorts of things, I’m sure you’ve seen the film Pride. The sorts of things that the gay activists did there of taking [raising] funds, donating minibus[es], doing all sorts of things that helped those communities fight and survive. That’s showing solidarity.  And I think that it’s a broad spectrum and it can often be determined by what’s possible, what you can do. It may just be wearing a #MeToo badge – and ‘just’ is not what I mean – I remember during the struggles in Zimbabwe and Angola, they were all wearing MPLA badges, and it was a way of saying ‘we’re with you’. A way of saying, to actually engage other people, why you should support the struggle in Angola and try and build on that and so on – with FRELIMO, and so on, in Mozambique. So it was really important that it could be that, and it could be anything from wearing a badge all the way up to taking the sorts of action that transforms an entire situation. So I think solidarity, and I think the importance of it, is – whether it be the tiniest little action or the most spectacular big [action] – is a recognition of who your allies are and who your enemies are in the world, in a class society and in a capitalist society. That’s the key to it really. You’re making that statement. How well you can make that statement is determined by lots of other things. But that’s the statement you’re making – so what’s what I see as solidarity.

(1:19:48) C: One final question – what does socialism mean to you?

P: Socialism – first of all – socialism means doing away with a world in which – what capitalism gave us was the ability to create a huge amount, I mean, you know, unprecedented amounts of wealth. Unprecedented amounts of production. We live in a world unlike, say, in a feudal society where one or two bad harvests and it’s nobody’s fault if everybody dies. We live in a world [now] where nobody should have to die of starvation. We live in a world where nobody need go homeless. We live in a world where, I think I saw, where the forty richest people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the 21% of the world or even higher. That’s ludicrous. And if you lived in a world where nobody needs to go hungry – we live in a world now where nobody needs to go hungry and nobody needs to go homeless. And people don’t need to die of the various diseases that in parts of the world have been completely wiped out. And even the various diseases that if they were a priority could be wiped out in other parts of the world – that we haven’t got to grips with yet. And therefore, for me, socialism means doing away with the profit motive, doing away with the notion that small numbers of people should be entitled to very large amounts of money while large numbers of people die or suffer. Socialism means creating a world, for me, where if you remove those horrors you remove much of the alienation that causes much of the misery between human beings be it domestic violence, be it racism, homophobia, transphobia, whatever it is, all of those things I think are products of the way in which we are divided and ruled. The way in which we are set against each other. And we’re more susceptible to that because for many our lives are difficult and miserable. And if you’ve got nothing, it’s often easier and simpler to blame the person next door to you who probably has got even less – than it is to blame the person who actually is responsible for you having nothing. Lastly, for me, socialism itself – you know, Marx’s ‘the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself’. I don’t believe in something that will be bestowed from above by well-minded people who have nice thoughts. I think it can only come out of the huge popular movements from below. Partly because if you look at, let’s say you look at something like the Russians in Afghanistan. Now, I don’t believe that was socialism but if you look at some of the programmes they were trying to introduce for literacy, modernisation and so on – on the face of it they looked like good things – actually what they were was incredibly oppressive things. Because that population itself has to develop the desire and need to want to change things and transform them. People when they begin to fight to transform the world transform themselves. Our ideas – we’re brought up with all sorts of muck. I mean that’s the truth. And some of it, you know, many of us managed to overcome it or overcome much of it. I don’t think any of us overcome all of it. It’s there. But the way in which large numbers of people overcome it is by their own involvement in fighting to change things. And so there, for me, socialism is something that is created by people from below not something that’s gifted from above. But we have lessons from history that we can help give when that movement emerges from below, to say these are the things you need to avoid, this is what happened to Allende, this is why the Russian Revolution decayed, do you know what I mean, this is what fascism did, and so on.

(1:24:01) C: I said that was my last question – one more has come to mind. Is there anything that as we’ve been talking that I’ve not asked about but you think you’d like to tell me?

P: I don’t know because I’ve thrown in a few things as I’ve gone along like the Portuguese Revolution that suddenly popped into my head.

C: Would you like to talk a bit more about Portugal and maybe a bit about Spain and Greece as well?

P: I was very involved in – fairly new to revolutionary politics, relatively, when Portugal broke out. Portugal was huge because it felt for a moment like there was going to be some really radical transformation. And what was really interesting is you had large unions of soldiers – rank-and-file soldiers on the side of the revolution, and so on. It felt very, very exciting – very, very promising. And sadly, eventually, that didn’t happen. Nevertheless, a fascist regime was removed. But it was replaced by a moderate, socialist government that introduced capitalism, and so on. Spain was different, really. Spain was something I was much more aware of before because [I was] aware of the Spanish Civil War and Ireland. There were, I don’t know if you know this, there were Irish forces [that] went to both sides of the Spanish Civil War. The Republican movement tended to send to the Republican side, funnily enough. And there was an organisation of Irish Blueshirts, who were fascists, who sent people to fight on the side of Franco. So I was always aware of that and always aware that the Blueshirts were thoroughly evil bastards. And I remember when Franco was dying, one of my favourite memories was that the workers at Waterford Glass, Waterford Glass, you know – don’t know if you know what Waterford Glass is, it’s sort of this crystal glass for vases and things, it’s quite famous. But they were an incredibly well-organised and militant workforce – had been for years and not now. But they had been for years really well-organised and militant. And Franco took a while to die – he was dying and dying and dying and eventually they sent a telegram to the Spanish embassy addressed to General Franco. And it just said ‘die, you bastard, die’. And when he did die though they had a day’s strike to celebrate. In a sense, Spain was wonderful because Franco had gone. Franco – the transition was very smooth and didn’t really involve the mass of people. And there are still questions, I think, in Spain today that are left unanswered as a result of that transition. You’ve seen some of them recently around the revolt in Catalunya and the sort of quite reactionary Spanish nationalism which has developed in response to that. And Greece, of course there was the coups – the colonels. I remember there were some Greek students at college at the point at which those regimes were dismantled, and so on. And that was something that was hugely popular. There were quite a number of Iranian students. I haven’t talked about Iran. Iran was a big thing. When the Shah was in, I mean now you’re almost sold the Shah like he was a decent guy. The Shah was one evil bastard. And the SAVAK secret police sent students to Britain to spy on Iranian students. So you had phony students – you had to be really careful when you dealt with Iranian leftists. You tended to speak to them individually or in groups of two at most. You tended to speak to them quietly, do you know what I mean, you met them in places you couldn’t be easily observed because you were talking about life and death. And then the Revolution came along and suddenly all these people –  you quickly worked out that all the genuine ones were out speaking and speaking very publicly. They didn’t tend to be Khomeini supporters and I think there was a real disappointment that that’s where the Revolution ended up. But nevertheless there was an absolute joy at the overthrow of the Shah. And it felt great to be part of that joy, to be honest. Events in the world were always important – we were narrowly focused on Britain – we were focused on Britain in the sense that most of our activities were in Britain. And we had to look at what we did with our own situation, our own ruling class. We weren’t revolutionary tourists in that sense or thinking ‘it’s alright, the Libyans will do it for us’ which I think elements of the Left, particularly around the time of Che, thought ‘Che’s going to liberate the world for us’. We didn’t go that route but we recognised the importance of what was happening elsewhere, [of] international solidarity. The right-wing in student politics would always [ask] ‘why are we discussing Iran? Why are we discussing da-da? We should be discussing cheaper beer in the student union bar’. It was a crap argument then, it’s still a crap argument now. By-and-large it was an argument that was defeated then.

(1:29:40) C: By the Right in this context, does that include the apolitical-identifying sabbs?

P: Yes – the Right was often – yes I have to be careful – I don’t mean the far-right. I mean Tories. And I mean people that were sort of – when I was at Highbury, the marine engineers were notoriously right-wing and anti-student-union, and would come and vote en bloc. They would be given time off to come and vote en bloc. Occasionally – there were one or two of them who were secretly quite left-wing but they were almost as scared as the Iranians, to be honest, because they didn’t want their fellow marine engineers to know. But there was one lad in particular who was very brave and would always vote with the Left. They’d vote en bloc, so to win things like occupations you had to get big student union meetings ‘cause you had to have enough people in the room to outvote the marine engineers. So they would – and they would take that sort of, ‘why can’t we vote on the price of beer, that’s what we should be voting about, why can’t we have a strippers night?’ Things like that. And you get rugby clubs. I remember one of my friends, actually, the guy up there on the right [photo on the wall], Kevin Murphy, who’d been with his girlfriend for a number of years and they’d broken up. And he came out, and he came out in a student meeting – student union meeting. He was well known – he was a really prominent activist and a mouthy little git, you know he was really – and he’d just come out and said that he was gay. And I remember members of the rugby club putting up graffiti all over the place about him. So there was that sort of stuff. So they weren’t the Right in the sense that they were the fascists or that they were coherent Tories – they were just right-wing, apolitical, antagonistic to the Left, didn’t like gays, had shocking attitudes towards women, and so on and so forth. You got them even in – I mean I think you’ve got a lot more of them in the posh colleges but even in Portsmouth and Middlesex, you got them. They were there – you were aware of them. And they would give voice to ‘why is the students’ union wasting its money sending students to Belfast when we could use it to subsidise something or other awful.’ And that was very much a debate about what should a student union be. A debate which at the time we won, but I think significant numbers we lost later.

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NUS at the World Festival of Youth and Students, 1973

The National Union of Students had a major part in the setting up of the International Union of Students (IUS) in 1946. But its participation in IUS was short-lived as the Cold War began, and NUS was also involved in setting up the rival International Student Conference (ISC). NUS committed itself in 1965 not to join either organisation, then rejoined ISC in 1966. ISC dissolved itself at the end of the decade in the aftermath of allegations about CIA funding. NUS’ relationships to the two international student bodies is discussed in: Burkett, J. “The National Union of Students and Transnational Solidarity, 1958-1968.” European Review of History: Revue europeenne d’historie 21, no. 4 (2014): 539-55.

NUS’ internal politics moved Left in 1969. Even though identifying the real extent of the leftward shift was ambiguous and highly contested, NUS’ “foreign policy” moved back towards a pro-IUS position under the national presidency of Digby Jacks.

The World Festival of Youth of Students was an event co-organised by the IUS and World Federation of Democratic Youth. Its 10th conference, held in East Germany in 1973, was attended by a delegation from NUS. NUS produced a document introducing NUS and its work for the benefit of other delegations to the World Festival. An opening statement for it, found on the inside of the front cover, was written by Digby Jacks and is reproduced below.

The National Union of Students of the United Kingdom (NUSUK) extends greetings to all participants in the 10th World Youth Festival. We regard this event being held in the capital of the German Democratic Republic as an unequalled opportunity for establishing links of friendship, understanding, solidarity and common purpose in anti-imperialist struggle. This is the first time for many years that our union has participated in the Festival movement. For too many years our activities were held in the narrow, conservative clamp of the Cold War which divided Europe, weakened the effectiveness of our own student movement and prevented us finding a relationship of solidarity with national liberation struggles. With the weakening of the aggressive imperialist forces that generated the cold war, the increasing strength of the national liberation movements and the many objective and subjective changes within our own student movement – in particular its intention to fight more vigorously for its rights and demands in the colleges and universities – great opportunities for international solidarity and friendship are created.

For us this must not be based on misguided “moral” considerations, that we must “help” those not as “fortunate” as ourselves. Rather it must rest on our internationalist duty to assist those engaged in struggle and to receive support ourselves in turn. British students face exactly the same Tory Government that challenges the British working class, that perpetuates the division of Ireland and connives with and appeases racialism, colonialism and fascism in Southern Africa. Solidarity benefits all and strengthens our joint struggle.

Particularly important for us is our relationship with the labour and working class movement in Britain. The socio-economic position of students has changed such that their objective interests as students and potential employees are now best served by unity and joint action with the working class movement. This is concretely expressed in the composition of the British delegation – delegates from student and trade union organisations forming a central part. We welcome the opportunity of jointly participating in the activities of the Festival with young British trade unionists.

The heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people and our principled support for it must be one of the central features of this Festival. Their struggle for independence in peace as in war must receive our concrete and resolute action.

For us in Britain there is a special internationalist duty in relation to Southern Africa. Britain’s historic role as the major imperialist power in the area still continues with British capital providing the majority of the dominating overseas investment – supporting apartheid and Portuguese colonialism. The British student movement has a particular role to perform by boycotting apartheid and undertaking demonstrative actions against the manifold links binding Britain to the white Rhodesian settler regime, Apartheid South Africa and the Portuguese (the oldest ally of Britain) colonies of Guine, Mozambique, and Angola.

The Festival provides us with opportunities to meet you and discuss with you both yours and our problems. We welcome the greater understanding this will engender. This document I hope will assist you to understand our problems, policies and activities a little better. It covers the major issues of an educational nature which confront British students and the various international policies and activities of NUSUK.’

Fraternal greetings from the National Union of Students of the United Kingdom.

Digby Jacks
NUSUK 1972-3

This document is held by the NUS Scotland office in their ‘NUS History Documents 1970-1979’ box.

Posted in 1970s, Cold War, International Solidarity, National Union of Students (NUS) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Jack Straw and Black Dwarf

Jack Straw was elected NUS President in 1969 as part of the organisation’s political turn. NUS changed its constitution to be able to debate and pass policy on political issues, and Straw was part of a new left-wing national leadership.

His presidency soon ran into difficulties. Criticism of his response to the Warwick Files and accusations of political opportunism were made in Black Dwarf . This was a newspaper edited and published at the time by Tariq Ali from the International Marxist Group. However it included socialists from a number of different tendencies alongside the IMG until the IMG members left to start another publication Red Mole. The IMG and the group around Black Dwarf took leading roles in mobilising students against the Vietnam War, especially through the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC)

Red Mole Rising is an excellent online archive resource for the IMG and it includes back-issues of their publications that are publicly available. Volume 14, no. 33 (10 May 1970) has on pages 6-7 a special report on Jack Straw. It reveals the deep tensions within NUS and disillusionment by a number of activists in the new post-69 leadership.

jack strawFirst page of the article – see the link to the article above to read it in full.

Posted in 1970s, National Union of Students (NUS), University of Warwick | 1 Comment

CALL FOR PAPERS – The 1970s: The High Tide of British Anti-Racist Activism?

The 1970s: The High Tide of British Anti-Racist Activism?

Call for Papers: Day-long Symposium, 22 September 2017, Edge Hill University’s Ethnicity, ‘Race’ and Racism Seminar 5th Annual Symposium.

2017 will mark the fortieth anniversary of two seminal events in the history of anti-racism in Britain: the Battle of Lewisham on 13 August 1977 and the subsequent founding of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL). The 1970s was a period of popular and co-ordinated anti-racist/anti-fascist resistance against the far-right and institutional racism within British society. Anti-racism at this time mushroomed into a diverse movement, appealing to a mass audience through its synthesis of music, ideological politics and youth culture. Events such as the Grunwick Dispute of 1976-78 and the foundation of the Southall Black Sisters in 1979 revealed the increasing involvement of ethnic minority groups and organizations in political and anti-racist activism.

We invite papers from across disciplinary boundaries to discuss the nature of anti-racist activism during this period. We also welcome speakers who wish to talk and reminisce about their personal experiences of activism in historical perspective. Given London’s significance as a hub of organisation during the 1970s there can be a tendency to overlook anti-racist activism elsewhere. We therefore welcome papers on the North-West of England or other regions of Britain as well as papers on London.

In recognition of the ‘borderless’ nature of social movements in solidarity, we also invite papers or proposals on anti-racism in European perspective. In keeping with the theme of the ‘Ethnicity, ‘Race’ and Racism Seminar’ (ERRS) series of Spring 2017, ‘Lived Experiences of Anti-Racist Activism in Europe’, we would be pleased to accept papers on parallels or intersections between British anti-racism and anti-racism elsewhere in Europe in the 1970s.

Paper proposals should consist of a paper title and 300 word abstract. Please send these to Patrick Soulsby at by 21 July 2017.

This symposium is not organised by the Student Movement Research Project – however we are eager to support events and projects such as these.


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“Warwick management’s plot to dismiss politically-active staff stopped by statute in the 1960s”

Connor Woodman is the Warwick Globalist’s World of Warwick Editor and former Editor-in-Chief. He is in his fifth year at Warwick, currently undertaking an MA in Modern History. This article is reposted from the Warwick Globalist and offers historical context on the ongoing Statute 24 dispute at the University of Warwick. More information on this dispute can be found in this article.

Academic freedom is rightly prized but I would have thought that the good name of the University would override other considerations.

– Lawyer for Warwick’s first Vice Chancellor, Jack Butterworth c.1969 [1]

The year is 1968. Warwick is entering its fourth year, with its first demonstration – against the presence of the U.S. ambassador in 1967 – behind it, and growing agitation on campus around Vietnam, South Africa and the poor state of social facilities for students.

From a newspaper report on the words of the first Vice Chancellor, Jack Butterworth, who rejected an applicant to Warwick for political reasons.

From a newspaper report on the words of the first Vice Chancellor, Jack Butterworth, who rejected an applicant to Warwick for political reasons.

Unbeknownst to the rest of its small population, Warwick’s paranoid management are privately discussing the political activity of its staff and students. Management, local councilors and police keep in close contact regarding the presence of Warwick students distributing an anti-authoritarian leaflet outside a local school. A headmaster sends Warwick a warning that one of his pupils – who has applied for a place at the University – is worryingly politically active. Warwick management thank him for the information, and promptly reject the student at the personal request of the Vice Chancellor.

Firing “difficult” staff

All this, and much more, was uncovered by students occupying the administrative building on February 11, 1970. [2] They found systematic evidence of political spying by Warwick’s management, in collusion with business owners who sat on Warwick’s Council. Such collusion went as far as discussing possibilities for removing politically-active academics.

Students, who were described as a “growing menace” in the documents, were not considered the fundamental issue by Warwick’s management. “The real difficulty,” one member of management – almost certainly VC Jack Butterworth – wrote to a professor at All Souls College in Oxford in 1968, “ is not the students, but the staff, who assist, advise and indeed sometimes direct the activities of the extreme student group”.[3]

David Montgomery, a visiting American academic who was spied on at the bequest of members of Warwick's Council.

David Montgomery, a visiting American academic who was spied on at the bequest of members of Warwick’s Council.

Such “difficult” staff included David Montgomery, a radical American academic visiting Warwick in the 1970s. He was spied on by a corporate mole whilst addressing local trade unionists in Coventry. The report on the meeting was circulated around Warwick’s senior management, and the University’s legal advisor commented on whether Montgomery might be deported under the Alien Restrictions Act, an obscure WW1-era anti-espionage law.

As the Warwick manager goes on, “We are taking legal advice about tenure of staff under the university statutes. In most universities a member of staff can only be dismissed for ‘good cause’, which is tightly defined. Moreover, even if conduct of a member of staff can be deemed ‘good cause’, removal must secure in Council a majority of not less than two-thirds of those present and voting. On most Councils … I suspect it will be difficult in any particular instance to get the necessary two third majority”.[4]

The author was explicit about the fact that the University’s statutory employment protections – like Statute 24 today – were holding Warwick back from firing these academics. “The real problem”, the author states, “is that vice-chancellors have responsibility without authority. Under the Charter and Statutes the decisions are taken by Senates and Councils, and the vice-chancellor who wants to be tough will never get the support he need.”

In short: radical academics were causing Warwick’s management a severe headache, and the protections laid down in the University’s statutes – such as Statute 24 – were holding management back from firing these pesky staff members.

Statute 24

Today, for the first time in Warwick’s history, the University is removing these employment protections from statute. The ‘good cause’ protection which management mentioned in the 1968 letter is currently in Statute 24. Under the recently proposed reforms, such protections will be removed from Statute 24 – and moved to low-level policy, which can be subsequently changed at any point by management with no oversight or resistance.

This sordid history of political maneuvering by Warwick’s management – and the clear statement from the upper echelons of the University that the only thing holding them back from untrammeled political dismissals was statutory employment protections like Statute 24 – should make it obvious why management are trying to remove these protections today. If they succeed, we can expect a range of dubious dismissals in the coming years.

Warwick UCU, the academic staff union, have launched a campaign to stop the reforms to Statute 24.

Warwick UCU, the academic staff union, have launched a campaign to stop the reforms to Statute 24.

Indeed, Thomas Docherty, the English professor and outspoken critic of the neo-liberal university who was suspended for nine months in 2014 for “projecting negative body language, making ‘ironic’ comments and sighing during interviews”, told the Warwick Globalist that he would have lost his job permanently if the current changes to Statute 24 had been in place.

These historical revelations make the bitter, desperate warnings of a range of departments in recent weeks regarding the reforms sound all the more chilling. The History Department have described the changes as a “severe curtailment of our academic freedom”. The Institute for Employment Research have argued that the reforms “will result in a curtailment of academic freedom and [are] likely to lead to short term thinking and groupthink.” Warwick Law School declared that the gutting of Statute 24 “infringes upon academic freedom and the intellectual independence of our profession”.

Such warnings are prescient. Salford University, which underwent a similar statutory reform around 2006, was subsequently hit by 13 waves of job cuts. Warwick’s history of political surveillance adds even more weight to the growing chorus of voices urging management to stop the reforms – or for students and staff to force them to stop.

The question remains whether these warnings will be viewed by the eye of history as prophetic but futile attempts to raise the alarm as Warwick plunges into the abyss; or whether they will be seen as the rallying calls of the campaign which saved academic freedom at Warwick. What the eye of history will see, is still up for us to decide.

You can find a full analysis of the proposed Statute 24 reforms at Warwick here. You can find out more about how to get involved with the campaign to save Statute 24 here.

[1] Socialist Worker (undated), ‘Workers Back Warwick Students’, 985/2/1, Modern Records Centre.

[2] To read the full tale of the 1970 ‘Files Affair’, as it became known, see Thompson, E. P. (2014 [1970]), Warwick University Ltd., Spokesman Books: Nottingham.

[3] Quoted in ibid, pp.121.

[4] Ibid.

Posted in 1960s, 1968, Academic Freedom, Connor Woodman, Industrial Disputes & Strikes, University of Warwick | 1 Comment

Workshop, 17th June: Radical Student Activism – A History

ncafc banner june 17

The UK Student Movement Research Project has been invited to the summer conference hosted by the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts. This is the first opportunity for those interested in research on the student movement in the UK – and especially its more radical sections that came into being as a result of the 1968 revolt – to meet face-to-face as part of this research project.

It will be a chance to set out priorities for the research project and volunteer to take an active part in it.

It will be taking place at the University of Arts London (272 High Holborn WC1V 7EY London, UK). The whole summer conference runs 17-18 June, and the workshop will take place Saturday 11.30-12.45pm.

You can register for the conference here.

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NUS & Palestinian Solidarity (Part 1 of 2)

Carlus Hudson – PhD Student at University of Portsmouth, researching student anti-racist activism in the ‘long seventies’.

As of 2012, the National Union of Students (NUS) has supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign regarding Israel. The original policy was directed at mineral water company Mey Eden for ‘their bottling plant in the Golan Heights’. This policy was built on in 2014 to take a broader BDS position including calling for an arms embargo against Israel. There is an expectation that NUS and especially its ‘foreign policy’ positions have little impact or significance, yet its BDS policies have attracted outcry from the Israeli government. Furthermore, an NUS officer was recently ‘caught in an undercover sting offering to help oust the organisation’s president’.

The collective memory of student politics, its organisations and the student movement, is very short. Knowledge of what happens in any event tends to disappear soon after the students involved in it have graduated or finished their terms of office in NUS. Much of what has happened recently in NUS on BDS and the organisation’s wider position on Israel and Palestine may soon have the same fate. This is distressing, considering that it concerns NUS’ response to an occupation and innumerate human rights violations (but obviously nowhere near as distressing as the occupation and violations themselves).

Examining the history of NUS can address this problem, and add an extra layer of context to the organisation’s positions today. The purpose of this post is not to provide in-depth analysis of the historical and contemporary oppression of Palestinians – this has been done already by those far more qualified to speak on it. This post will present several primary sources on NUS’ engagement with the issue with light commentary, to demonstrate the value of further and deeper research.

NUS only began to take official political positions at all from 1969, where its national conference voted through a constitutional change to do exactly that. This shift resulted from the frustrations of students at the inaction of NUS, especially its lack of support for the wider student movement’s protests against the Vietnam War. The Radical Students Alliance (RSA) and Vietnam Solidarity Campaign were the main organisations that students chose to work through instead. In turn influenced NUS: RSA leader Jack Straw being elected NUS President in 1969. While NUS then took several more years to adopt a full position on the Vietnam War, by which time the war was over, this constitutional change opened the door for numerous other campaigns such as Anti-Apartheid and – later in the 1970s – the struggle against the National Front.

One of the issues that took a long time to be addressed by NUS was Israel and Palestine. The National Executive’s report to 1970 Conference in Margate included the first mention of Palestine by NUS.

Kate Hoey represented NUS in Tunis for a four-day seminar entitled “The Struggle Against Colonialism in Palestine and Africa.” This was opened by Mr. Mohamed Masmoudi, the Tunisian Foreign Minister who, in a long speech, outlined the favourable response from his Government to the Rogers Plan. He attacked some Arab countries for not being realistic about the situation in the Middle East. He opposed ideas which divided the Arabs when they should be united, and spoke of “colonialism” in Palestine as part of a wider problem in the whole of Africa. The problems of Palestine could be solved only by the Palestinian people themselves, he said.

This speech caused the first rift of the meeting. The spokesman for the General Union of Palestinian Students was emphatic in his rejection of the Peace Plan, but in the Press and radio coverage that day his attitude was not mentioned, and great emphasis was placed on the Tunisian Government’s attitude to it. The Palestinians felt that they were being used as a political pawn by the Tunisian Government. They were also angry that no students from any of the Arab countries who were against the plan had been asked. The following morning they decided to leave the seminar in protest and were supported in this by UNEF  and the German tricontinental unions.

Kate Koey outlined how NUS decided policy – and added that we had no policy on Palestine. She said that on the other aspect of the seminar – Apartheid in South Africa – did have a policy and mentioned some of the things NUS had been doing in the past year on the issue. She also said that perhaps in the future NUS might have a policy on the very complex problem of Palestine. [1]

The experience of Kate Hoey – then a member of NUS’ national executive and now a Labour MP – at  this seminar did not lead quickly to the formulation of a policy. At an NUS conference the following April, there was a contentious debate spread across a number of procedural motions about whether or not to invite a member of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) speak. Arguing against inviting a GUPS speaker, a member of the NUS National Executive,

… felt that to invite a speaker from one of the parties before they had had a chance to use the machinery of Conference, to get a motion and amendments together, would be wrong. Such a contribution would, it would seem, almost inevitably lead to confusion and, perhaps, bitterness on the part of those who were not given adequate opportunity to speak. This bitterness, they felt, would only impede the development of a rational policy by the Union in regard to the Middle East. Therefore he asked Conference to rescind the decision that a member of GUPS be allowed to speak tonight and that they explain carefully to him this decision and how they hoped that, perhaps, at next Conference, there could be a debate about the Middle East crisis. [2]

Kate Hoey, breaking ranks with others on the Executive, argued that the conference should:

…reconsider decision and allow the GUPS representative to speak, followed by someone from the Israeli side. If they did not, not only were they going against a fair representation of national delegations but it would be an insult to a visitor. [3]

Delegates then voted in favour of Jack Straw’s suggestion to ‘return to this issue’ later in the conference. By the time delegates did come back to it, the issue was dropped due to time constraints. [4]

Procedural and bureaucratic wrangling was a huge problem even when it came to inviting a single particular speaker to address a conference – and even when it was done by student activists who, a few years earlier, would have faced this exact challenge from the previous ‘apolitical’ leadership of NUS before 1969.

It was not until 1974 that GUPS had the opportunity to address NUS conference. A statement by the president of GUPS’ UK branch was read out:

Friends and comrades: The General Union of Palestinian Students thanks the NUS for inviting us to attend your conference. We take this opportunity to express our utmost support and solidarity with the cause of students in Britain in their struggle for higher grants, better housing, social facilities and the democratisation of education. Your demands, just as they are, hard to obtain without a persistent struggle, these demands when compared with the struggle that Palestine students are engaged in look remote and distant. The Palestine students, comrades and brothers, are fighting for no less a cause than the very existence of their people, the people of Palestine. We will not here attempt to go through the history of the conflict in the Middle East. It is our belief that the great wall of lies, deception and falsehood built by Zionism and Imperialism about the nature of the conflict and the cause of our people, this great wall has crumbled. But what we want to explain to this conference is what the Palestine people and their revolution mean when they put forward the slogan of a united, secular, democratic Palestine as a final and only solution to the conflict (a boo). Today there is Israel and over one and a half million under its occupation and over 1 ½ million as refugees. We say that this status quo is the source of all the wars of the past and the source of any future war. The Palestine people, the victims of the status quo, have not and will not accept this status quo. Zionism, as a racialist and reactionary ideology, wants to see every Jew in the world to go to Palestine and in the process disposes the local population. The Palestine people see very clearly that it is not the Jews who are their enemy but the Zionist racialist ideology. The Jews have become the pawns and the cannon fodder of Zionism and US imperialism. Based on this fact, the Palestine revolution proposes the establishment of a united, secular democratic state in Palestine in which all the Jews presently living in the area can live on equal basis with the rest of the Palestinian people, whether Moslems [sic] or Christians. Some people condemn this proposal as Utopia that cannot possibly be practical or can be implemented. We recognise that this solution will not become a reality overnight. There will be a long and practical struggle in which an increasing number of Jews will take part against Zionist and imperialist domination of the area. But hard as this struggle may be and long as it will take, it remains the only possible and permanent solution given the impossibility of co-existence between expansionist and sectarian Zionism backed by imperialism and the interest of the people of Palestine of any religion, colour or creed. The people of Palestine will continue their struggle to achieve this aim. We are not alone – the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America and progressive movements in Europe and America are with us. Our people will continue the struggle until final victory. We thank you again for your invitation and wish you every success in your conference and your just struggle. [5]

There are two things that are most striking about this statement: firstly the embarrassingly long period of time between the Struggle Against Colonialism seminar in Tunis in 1970 and GUPS being allowed to contribute to an NUS conference five years later; secondly the unconditional solidarity shown to British students by GUPS in spite of that.

NUS documents from this period show numerous problems with the organisation’s decision-making process, problems which persist in NUS today. They also emphasise the role of NUS in the wider international student movement – the problems with NUS here have nothing to do with the organisation being too internationally-focused, as has been argued in the most recent NUS disaffiliation campaigns. Rather the problem is that NUS has not been internationally-focused enough.

This article is the first of two, the second of which will cover the development of actual NUS policy on Israel and Palestine and be posted in the coming months.



[1] NUS, “Executive Report for Presentation to November Conference, Margate 1970”, p. 104. Document held at NUS Scotland office, Edinburgh.

[2] NUS, “Minutes and Summary of Proceedings, April Conference held at Lancaster University,” 1971, p. 103. Document held at NUS Scotland office, Edinburgh.

[3] NUS, “April Conference,” 1971, p. 112.

[4] NUS, “April Conference, 1971, p. 113 + p. 123.

[5] NUS, “Minutes and Summary of Proceedings, Annual Conference held at Margate,” November-December 1974, pp. 29-30. Document held at NUS Scotland office, Edinburgh.

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