Patrick Rolfe and the 2010 Leeds Student Occupation

This is a short commentary on ‘Reflections on the Student Movement in Leeds: October-December 2010’. [1] It was written by Patrick Rolfe, a student activist in the late 2000s and early 2010s – he studied at Cambridge, Sussex and then started a PhD at Leeds University. He wrote it for The Great Unrest which contains his other writing for the blog in a Patrick Rolfe Archive. This has been added to the Useful Links section of this website.

Pat passed away from stomach cancer in 2011, aged 24. This commentary focuses on ‘Reflections’ as a historical source but care needs to be taken in writing about an activist I have never met and whose death was relatively recent. This starts with the obituary written for him by his sister Ella who imparts what Pat meant to the people in his life:

… Patrick left a mark on many people. His presence will be felt for many years through the writing and ideas he left behind, but memories of his sense of humour will also comfort us. He is survived by his parents, Helen and Andy, me, and his girlfriend, Lily. In his final week, he told us he wished to be remembered as ‘a person of strong beliefs’. [2]

Pat was a founding member of the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts who published their own obituary for him. [3] He took part in the 2009 occupation of the Vestas wind turbine factory when it faced ‘imminent closure’. [4] Pat was one of the Sussex Six suspended from their courses in 2010 for their involvement in an occupation for the anti-cuts Defend Sussex campaign. [5] He occupied Cambridge’s law department in support of Gaza. [6]

‘Reflections’ is about the Leeds University occupation – one of many across the UK that took place and Pat’s article gives an insight into many of the issues activists grappled with at a local level. Matt Myers discusses a number of the campus occupations in a chapter of Student Revolt, providing the wider context that the Leeds occupation fit into from the perspectives of its participants. [7]

This commentary firstly gives the political background to the Leeds occupation and where Pat fit into it. It then goes through ‘Reflections’ to summarise and provide context to what he had to say about the occupation; analysis of points Pat made is generally restricted to helping to provide that context. This is not exhaustive of everything in ‘Reflections’ but hopefully serves as an introduction to it and the Patrick Rolfe Archive.

In 2010 The Conservative-Liberal Democrat government tripled the cap on tuition fees to £9000 per year for university students (to start from 2012). The Browne Review – set up by the previous Labour government – did not recommend capping them but assumed that what universities charged would be regulated. [8] The National Union of Students gave evidence to the Browne Review:

Throughout the range of submissions that we have received, there is broad agreement among groups with an interest in higher education that those who benefit directly from higher education as graduates ought to make a contribution to the costs. Employers and HEIs -Higher Education Institutions] support this principle, as does the National Union of Students. [9]

When tuition fees were introduced and increased under the Blair-Brown governments, NUS were ‘unwilling to articulate a political alternative’ to these policies. Pressure against free education came especially from Labour Students. [10] Pat Rolfe was among the students frustrated with NUS leadership’s lack of opposition to the tripling of tuition fees in 2010. [11]

The student revolt in Leeds began on 24th November 2010, as part of a ‘day of mass action around the country’. 3000 people protested in Leeds, including school students who had walked out of their classes, followed by an occupation of the Michael Sadler building on campus. It lasted two weeks until the occupiers were evicted on 8th December. [12]

In ‘Reflections’, Pat wrote that ‘FE students and school students [were] far more militant’ and protested ‘in greater numbers’ than university students. This, he argued, was because of current university students ‘not paying the higher tuition fees’ which many further education (FE) and school students would later have to. [13]

The 2010 Spending Review included educational maintenance allowance being scrapped in England and cuts to further education. [14] University teaching budgets were being cut and tuition fees were increased, but these had less effect on university than the Spending Review had on FE students. School budgets were protected but pupils took part in protests against tuition fees and EMA cuts. [15]

Pat saw mobilising university students as vital, especially to provide support for FE and school student protesters. He said university students should be appealed to on an ‘altruistic, political, citizenly, or humanistic basis of some sort.’ He didn’t consider the tuition fees argument to have the same resonance with university students’ economic conditions that it had with FE and school students. [16] University students dominate popular memory of the student revolt and Patrick’s article runs against this. For him, FE and school students were not auxiliaries to university students: it was the other way around.

The most salient point raised in ‘Reflections’ drew attention to ‘aggressive political activity’ including ‘insults threats and bullying’ that had alienated university students. [17] The problem of bullying in political spaces is extremely important and one that activists have addressed in numerous ways (with varying levels of success). To the best of my knowledge, bullying in this context is under-researched.

Another key barrier Pat perceived was ‘outdated/boring/wrong mode[s] of organisation’, fractured, tired and ‘sectarian’ divisions between Trotskyists, autonomists, anarchists, liberals and ‘people coming from participatory approaches’.  [18] Pat was a former member of the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), who wrote their own obituary for him which said he continued to cooperate with the organisation while at Leeds. [19] It is likely that Pat’s experience of membership in AWL influenced the conclusions he came to about off-putting ways of political organising that he saw at Leeds. However, he saw this problem as larger than any one of the organisations and ideologies present there.

Patrick saw a lack of strategic clarity in the Leeds movement, embodied in the ‘vague’ arguments and terminology he encountered. One involved ‘making links’ with the trade union movement and Pat was unconvinced by how this would ‘enable a general strike’. [20]  For the Socialist Party-affiliated Socialist Students group at Leeds, the occupation was a springboard for orientating students towards the labour movement. They organised an event within the occupation, inviting a Unison shop steward to speak. [21] Their bulletin produced just under a year later stressed the need for linking student and worker struggles towards a ‘potential 24 hour public sector general strike.’ [22] Another participant in the Leeds occupation, Natalie Graham, felt that there was a lack of involvement from university staff. [23] There was agreement across several sections of the occupation of the need for cooperation between student activists and the trade unions, and the extent of this in practice was seen by them as insufficient.

According to Pat, liberal activists overestimated the strength of the student movement to make the coalition government ‘listen to us’. Students and young people who had supported the Liberal Democrats in the general election based on the tuition fee pledge or who were otherwise uncommitted to a more radical politics were part of the 2010 movement. He referred to ‘social liberals emerging from the environmental movement’. Two of his obituaries indicate that this was his political background before becoming a socialist. [24]

Pat also saw a kind of politics at work that was ‘so implicitly argued as to have no discernible logic’: the idea of ‘a space, in and around the occupation, where we can be truly free’ and ‘that demonstrates that democracy works.’ [25] There were more theorised formulations of a politics based on space, but it is uncertain how representative these were of everyone who adhered to some form of it. [26] Leeds Student quoted an English Literature student Lorna Gledhill in their coverage of the occupation:

We’re trying to make a bit more of a point than a normal march, we’re demonstrating how involved students should be in their own education and how it really is just as much our space as it is the government’s space. [27]

These ideas had at least some currency in the occupation, but Pat certainly did not find these arguments convincing. He was more concerned with developing ‘aims and intentions’ more concretely, to have a ‘movement that [could] win’ the anti-fees struggle. [28]

Patrick Rolfe has left behind an invaluable collection of his writing that can help to understand the struggles he was involved in. Much more research is needed than this commentary on one of Pat’s articles. If you were involved in the Leeds occupation and have your own experiences and reflections you would like to share, please feel free to comment them below. If you have source material (e.g. posters, leaflets, URLs) that you would like to share and have uploaded on this site, get in touch at ukstudentmovement@gmail.com

[1] https://thegreatunrest.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/reflections-on-the-student-movement-in-leeds-october-december-2010/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/jul/21/patrick-rolfe-obituary

[3] www.anticuts.com/2011/06/14/patrick-rolfe-1987-2011/

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/jul/21/wind-turbine-factory-occupation

[5] https://conventionagainstfeesandcuts.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/sussex-occupiers-suspended-help-needed-urgently/

[6] https://cambridgegazasolidarity.blogspot.com/2009/01/cambridge-occupation-of-law-faculty.html

[7] Matt Myers, Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation (London: Pluto Press, 2017), pp. 107-36.

[8] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/422565/bis-10-1208-securing-sustainable-higher-education-browne-report.pdf – p. 37

[9] Ibid., p. 20

[10] Myers, Student Revolt, pp. 14-5.

[11] https://thegreatunrest.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/why-is-the-nus-to-useless/

[12] https://explore.library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/26166/leeds_student_volume_41_issue_8, p. 7; the day of action was called by the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts; https://occupiedleeds.wordpress.com/2010/12/07/eviction-notice-given/

[13] https://thegreatunrest.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/reflections-on-the-student-movement-in-leeds-october-december-2010/

[14] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11569160

[15] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11829102; Myers, Student Revolt, p. 79.

[16] https://thegreatunrest.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/reflections-on-the-student-movement-in-leeds-october-december-2010/

[17] https://thegreatunrest.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/reflections-on-the-student-movement-in-leeds-october-december-2010/

[18] https://thegreatunrest.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/reflections-on-the-student-movement-in-leeds-october-december-2010/

[19] https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/06/13/patrick-rolfe-1987-2011

[20] https://thegreatunrest.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/reflections-on-the-student-movement-in-leeds-october-december-2010/

[21] https://leedssocialiststudents.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/report-days-3-and-4-of-leeds-occupation/

[22] https://www.scribd.com/document/70948710/Leeds-Anticuts-Bulletin-7

[23] Natalie Graham, interviewed by Matt Myers – see, Myers, Student Revolt, p. 163.

[24] https://thegreatunrest.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/reflections-on-the-student-movement-in-leeds-october-december-2010/; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/jul/21/patrick-rolfe-obituary; https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/06/13/patrick-rolfe-1987-2011

;

[25] https://thegreatunrest.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/reflections-on-the-student-movement-in-leeds-october-december-2010/

[26] Andre Pusey and Leon Sealey-Huggins, “Transforming the University: Beyond Students and Cuts”, ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 12, no. 3 (2013); in this article they discuss their participation in Really Open University, based at Leeds – https://reallyopenuniversity.wordpress.com/

[27] https://explore.library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/26166/leeds_student_volume_41_issue_8, p. 7.

[28] https://thegreatunrest.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/reflections-on-the-student-movement-in-leeds-october-december-2010/

(Written by Carlus Hudson – PhD student researching student anti-racist activism in 70s Britain, University of Portsmouth)

 

 

 

 

 

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Mark Winter & Ric Cole Interview Transcript

Mark Winter and Ric Cole were members of the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party. Mark studied at Liverpool University and Ric studied at Bedford College. Ric later became a full-time student organiser for the SWP. They are no longer members of the SWP. The audio file for their interview can be found here.

Mark provided more information in advance of the interview about the Southern Africa Solidarity Campaign

The Southern Africa Solidarity Campaign (SASC) was launched in 1976 in response to the Soweto uprising. SASC supported all movements fighting against apartheid and for liberation in Southern Africa, whether these operated inside the various countries or in exile, and no matter the form of their action.
Why SASC?
The Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) had been operating for many years, and had organised very successful actions in the UK in support of liberation. It was a movement heavily influenced by the politics of the Communist Party (and the South African ANC), however. What this meant for the revolutionary left was a focus by the AAM on the humanitarian objections to apartheid as a system, and the mobilisation of respectable groups such as faith organisations, the trade union leadership and representatives of bourgeois democracy in local councils and the GLC. For us, this meant the AAM created popular fronts and emphasised the moral as well as the political objections to apartheid.
SASC supported campaigns and mobilisations organised by the Anti Apartheid Movement, such as the demand on campus to boycott Barclays Bank, but aimed to mobilise more militant support, in part summarised by our statement that we would raise funds to buy ‘bullets and guns for the freedom fighters’.
According to Pete Alexander, the only local group was the one I set up at Liverpool University in 1977, so its reach was somewhat limited. A small group of us in the far left leafletted the LU halls of residence, with a leaflet which declared strong support for the liberation struggle in southern Africa, and made clear this meant supporting the freedom fighters who were waging an armed campaign against the apartheid regime. Possibly for this and other reasons, my bid for funds to pay for visiting speakers was declared ultra vires by the Student Union.
A strike movement began to emerge at this time, beginning in the early 1970s with the copper and uranium miners in Namibia (or SWA as it was then known), and gradually sweeping down to the industrial heartlands of South Africa. For the revolutionary left, this was a tangible movement for change, and one with the potential muscle to defeat apartheid (we were doubtful the guerrilla struggle had the means to bring down an industrialised economy). For this reason, SASC also identified with the emerging trade unions in South Africa, and stated clearly its commitment to the struggle of black workers.
Interview

(00:00) Carlus: This is an interview with Mark Winter and Ric Cole, taking place on 18th February 2018, conducted by Carlus Hudson. Could you confirm your names and dates of birth?

Ric: My name is Ric Cole. My date of birth is 4.5.57.

Mark: I’m Mark Winter. 31.12.56.

C: Where did you study and when?

R: I studied at Bedford College, which is part of the University of London, between 1975 and 1978.

M: Mark here – I studied at University of Liverpool from 1976 to 1979.

C: And what did you study?

R: As little as humanly possible. I studied social science and administration.

M: And I did combined honours – that was, in the first year, English and then linguistics and communications studies – which is cultural studies now.

(01:00) C: How did you get involved in student activism?

R: For me I think, actually, it was a fairly quick process. I think I just met some people in the bar. Actually it may even have been during the freshers’ week. It was from the Socialist Workers Student Society – actually it wasn’t called that then, it was called NOISS [National Organisation of International Socialist Students]. And that’s kind of where it started, almost from the word go, during the freshers’ week.

M: Similar story – there was a group of IS students – a motley collection. And there were speeches, campaigns and so on that were happening at the time from freshers’ onwards. So I gravitated from the Broad Left – which was Labour Party, Communist Party – gradually to them [International Socialists] through the campaigns that were being raised at the time.

(01:53) C: What were the first campaigns you were involved in?

R: It’s probably true to say that it was a hotbed from the word go, so it’s hard to say what would be the first. Certainly 1976 with the anti-racism, at some points it would be South Africa. But I can’t actually remember precisely when that kicked in. But I think anti-racism was the first thing – but also there was stuff to do with tuition fees for overseas students which, again, might have been in ’76.

M: Yeah there was a whole collection of campaigns. So there were campaigns on Palestine, campaigns on Iran [around] the time of the revolution and so on then. There was a local campaign against imposing nursery fees – so not so much on racism. There was a campaign to boycott Barclays Bank on campus and lots of other ones I can’t remember here.

R: There were industrial disputes as well. I remember the fire[fighters’] strike which may have been ’76 again. I think before that there were disputes over the bins. And also, the general context of the time with trade union struggle generally. Things like Grunwick came into this which we spent a lot of time campaigning around. So I think really from the word go for the three years I was at college it was basically non-stop. We had a student occupation, we had other societies involved in struggles for women’s rights, against the attacks on abortion rights and so on.

(03:49) C: Could you tell me a bit more about Grunwick?

R: Grunwick was a factory in the north of London, not actually that far from the college I was at. And it was a struggle for trade union recognition and decent pay, and basically led by Asian women. As far as I remember we got involved straight away, which involved me and one or two other people trying to get people to go to the picket line. And there were pickets every day. And we must have gone for quite some time because we used to go to the pickets very early in the morning and then we’d go to college. So it became a daily routine. A bunch of us would go take part. There were some days there were mass pickets. There were fights with the police – all kinds of things used to go on. I seem to remember we tried collecting money for Grunwick, we had benefit gigs. But mostly it was to do with going to the mass pickets.

(04:50) C: Could you tell me a bit more about the Barclays Bank boycott?

M: I was part of a national campaign that sparked in various universities at different times. So it wasn’t necessarily that every uni boycott would [happen] at the same time. So part of the Anti-Apartheid [Movement’s] move against South Africa, part of the general boycott. We had a march to the bank, we occupied the Senate House to try and force their [Liverpool University’s] hand. That occupation was quite short-lived: about half an hour to an hour. We were evicted. There were counter-arguments from the University about Barclays [being] no different. They were very different – they had huge investments in South Africa. I don’t think we won overnight but it was part of the sort of drip-drip campaign of sanctions against South Africa. In the long run Barclays suffered massively but I can’t claim in the short term we won a big victory. It was an important part of Anti-Apartheid’s campaigning, I guess, before we started boycotting food and things like that. That was a big target really, the Bank. And people had their accounts and stuff. We had grants then with Barclays so the idea was to get them to withdraw.

(06:13) C: Could either of you tell me a bit more about the overseas student fees struggle?

R: That’s what we had our occupation over, and it was the first occupation at Bedford College for decades I think – two or three decades. So it was a big deal in the College. And because there were a lot of overseas students at Bedford College and in London – particularly in the centre of London – generally. And the occupations were in not just in one college – they were all in lots of different places. So it became a kind of domino effect: one college occupied, then another one. And then we had a mass meeting and voted to occupy the administrative section of the College and we did that for three or four days and then I think we were kicked out in the end. But it involved lots of different people and it was a pretty big deal really. And there were lots of demonstrations and people were very angry because, I think, it was seen as a racist thing to do. I’m not sure what the authorities actually thought they were trying to achieve, particularly. But basically I think it most of it was a way for them to get a lot of money and they were picking on the most vulnerable people who they could find, really. And it was an easy way for them to get cash. There were big demonstrations, lots of involvement. I think it brought together people from all the different student societies in the college. So if it was a black students’ society or Iranian students or whoever they happened to be, you’d get this coalescing together of different forces of people which was a very positive thing to be involved in.

(07:59) C: What were your campuses like, at this point? Were students especially political?

R: Well Bedford College was a funny place because it used to be an all-women, female college. And then it changed at some point and allowed men. But it still had a lot of that feel from when it was that type of college. I’d say it was partly political – it was a bit of a struggle to get people to do things. Most people had an opinion about the world. You’d often have big union meetings – but then you’d often have union meetings where people weren’t really listening to what was going on. So it kind of came and went depending on the general feel at the time.

M: Liverpool was notorious as a right-wing university. It had a students’ guild – the student union was called a guild, still. And there were quite severe restrictions on what you could or couldn’t do. Lots of medics and so on and so on were traditionally right wing. But – alongside that you had a big left group as well. So it was a mix of the two, really – a strange mix. Some of the Tory grandees were invited to speak, cabinet ministers and so on, by the Conservative society. At the same time you had us chipping away from the left as well. So a mix of the two I guess.

(09:20) R: I think the difference in Bedford College was that the organised left, really, was the International Socialists. There was a small Maoist group, but the College wasn’t particularly big. I think generally in the centre of London, there were all different types of political groups. There were the dying remnants of the Communist Party; bits of the Labour Party, which were quite well-organised; and really, NOISS, the International Socialist Student section was probably quite a big force in central London. So in many of the colleges we’d have branches, effectively. So we used to meet up quite regularly and have committee meetings or general meetings and discuss what was going on – which was a way of spreading whatever struggles there were that were going on.

M: Whereas in Liverpool there was a big Labour Party set up there which later became the Militant and the whole thing around Labour councils in Liverpool. And the attitude of the Militant/Socialist Party was not really to get involved in what they saw as student politics ‘cause that wasn’t proper [politics]. So they got involved in working-class struggle which meant taking them [students] out from the campus. They would be organised there in terms of meetings but they wouldn’t really get actively involved in [student] campaigns, in general.

(10:48) C: What were the IS student meetings like?

R: In the College they were pretty good. We’d have between 15 and 20 people, I suppose. Some people came and went. We were very democratic, we tried to discuss what the issues were, what we could do to build any particular campaign, who else we could work with in the College. We had a very open outlook – we looked out rather than inwards, and so we saw the struggle in the campuses as a pretty important thing, really. It’s completely different from the Militant or Socialist Party. We didn’t go for this idea of colleges as Red Bases which was an earlier idea of the International Marxist Group. But we could see that there were things that could be done. But we did always try to bring in from the outside world other things that were going on like the firefighters’ strike. Actually, we brought a couple of firemen in, they spoke at the union meeting, we had collections for them. I think we organised a couple of concerts to raise money. And that was very good, actually, because that broke down some of the snotty attitudes that people had towards students I think. You’ve got to remember, at that time, only – I think – one in ten over-18-year-olds went to universities. Or maybe it’s even less than that, actually. Maybe one in fifteen. So it was a fairly small section of society from which students were drawn [who were] in higher education. Not in the FE sector but in higher education.

M: Meetings at Liverpool – similarly diverse. We’d discuss Portugal, Iran, Palestine, women’s rights – partly through the nursery campaigns but also developing women’s movements – apartheid, racism, and then campaigns such as to support workers on strike. Quite libertarian politics, really. We were known as the Trots but there was a diverse range of views and if you looked at the members it’d be hard to call us a group other than the fact that we went to the same meetings at times. Because there was a fair range, a fair scope if you like, of opinion on how to organise, and what you felt and believed and so on. I think it’s fair to say.

R: If anything defined those kind of groups it was the idea of Socialism from Below. That was the big thing. That was the big break with Stalinist politics. That was the important thing, and that’s what got me involved, really – the idea of not imposing things on people, of having discussions, of having votes and deciding on something and that’s what we’re going to do. Rather than someone saying ‘this is what you’re going to do’.

(14:08) C: Was there much difference between different campaigns that students were receptive to?

R: What do you mean?

C: Were there some campaigns that got more-

R: Traction?

C: Yes.

R: Yeah – I mean for example there’s tuition fees. That was a big thing – in my college that was a big thing, actually. Abortion rights – that was particularly big. I think, actually, the struggle around Barclays Bank was not particularly big. Because, I think it’s true to say, this was part of a developing change – because it was presented by the NUS, really, the Boycott Barclays Bank thing. But it was a very formalistic thing so you’d have a notice board and there’d be something on there saying ‘Boycott Barclays Bank’. But that was the end of it, really. It didn’t really go much beyond that. It was really passive. Whereas I think our aim was to try and make things exactly the opposite. I don’t know why we didn’t have a Boycott Barclays Bank campaign but we certainly got involved in anti-Apartheid politics in the College but not really about that bit.

M: I think it’s similar, actually, the campaign to support free nursery places. Liverpool had quite a high percentage of local mature students who attended even then. And pulled them – not surprisingly – on board. So you had the locals plus us young’uns involved. And that probably had more traction than many of the other, if you like, more political campaigns of Iran, Portugal, etc. etc. Yeah definitely.

R: I think what was interesting was if we did have a conversation about Iran, for example, the Iranian students in the College were just thrilled that actually someone was interested. Or wherever the country was that we were having a conversation about. We’d have joint meetings which were kind of, basically, debates, about what was the way forward for the struggle. And it was a positive experience, really.

(16:21) C: Were either of you involved in NUS?

R: I went to quite a few NUS conferences – ‘cause you get elected as a delegate or an observer. From our college I think we were allowed four or five people. So I went a good half a dozen times. You wouldn’t really be involved in NUS in much or any other way unless you were elected onto the Executive of NUS. And I know you’ve spoken to Pat Stack and he was on the Executive. So we always, as NOISS, tried to get one person elected onto the Executive. Just to have a voice on it. And also a public face, not that we expected the Executive of NUS to do a great deal because their role in life appeared to be to do as little as possible.

M: None.

(17:20) C: Alright, could you tell me a bit about the Southern Africa Solidarity Campaign (SASC)?

R: We had a branch of the Southern Africa Solidarity Campaign [at Bedford College]. I don’t remember too much about the beginnings of all of this. But what I do remember is that I used to go to the Anti-Apartheid [Movement] version of the Executive Committee. It was kind of a fairly open thing you could go to and it was in the headquarters in Covent Garden, where you would discuss what was going on with the Anti-Apartheid Movement. And we as the International Socialists would put forward certain things that we thought should be raised. And I think it was quite a frustrating process because the campaign seemed to me to be stuck in ever-diminishing circles. Basically, it was a kind of information campaign. If we ever tried to propose any kind of action it didn’t seem to go anywhere, particularly. So I think the frustration with the politics of the Anti-Apartheid Movement led to the growth of the Southern Africa Solidarity Campaign. And I think the one thing is you shouldn’t get the impression it was particularly significant. I think it would be wrong to say that. But we did certain things which I think were part of the general process of trying to raise the arguments about what was the way forward for South Africa, how was liberation going to happen. And if Apartheid was to be overthrown, what was going to replace it. So I think that was the context of the situation. And so, we basically, in our little group – which was kind of led by the IS – we, one, wanted to raise the issues about South Africa but also we wanted to raise money. What was the money for? Basically, the money was for the armed struggle. I do remember actually, being a little bit surprised – in fact we got a pretty good reception to this, which told you really about how out of step the Anti-Apartheid Movement really was with younger people. I thought we’d have terrible arguments about this but we didn’t. We organised a number of fundraising events and we actually raised quite a bit of money because, my recollection is that SASC wanted to raise money to get a Land Rover to drive to South Africa. And I’m not sure what we were going to deliver, precisely-

M: Bullets and guns [laughs]

R: Yeah well whether it was going to get to that point- it was more to do with raising the issues. And so it got quite a good response. And I – at one of the NUS conferences – was the person who raised and had to make a speech proposing this. Support for the armed struggle, basically. And this was an amendment to one of the policy motions about South Africa. And again I was surprised at how much support we got. So I think we got about a third of the conference – which was quite a high proportion, considering what we were saying: support for the armed struggle. Which wouldn’t be, necessarily, that easy to raise. You wouldn’t have thought, given the history of the IRA in Britain and all sorts of things like that. So there was a certain audience, actually, for things that happened a bit later with South Africa. And I think it was the murmurings, really.

(21:08) C: Which conference was this?

R: An NUS conference in – I couldn’t tell you what year it was in but it would be-

M: ‘77/’78?

R: Yeah, ‘77 I think. Not sure exactly – I think it was Easter conference but I don’t remember when. And I remember being quite sort of trepidatious, a bit frightened to make this speech because it was a bit full on. But actually, it was alright. And good that we got so much support. We were never going to get this thing passed – it was more to do with raising the issues and trying to say maybe there’s another way this struggle could go.

C: What sort of stuff happened in the debate around that?

R: Well I think, at the conference, I don’t remember precisely but we would have been slammed by the NUS Executive. Essentially – you know, they would have said we were being ultra-left which was basically just a term of abuse, really, because they didn’t actually explain what you’d mean by that. It doesn’t mean anything. And that we were basically upsetting the kind of cosy world that the anti-Apartheid struggle – which was vicars and tea parties and bits of information and how terrible it was. And all that stuff is absolutely fine, but unless you went into it with a bit more detail and actually discuss how there may be change in Southern Africa, that was the whole point of this exercise. Another thing I do remember is that the IS actually had a Southern Africa group which we used to meet. So we would talk about the politics of Southern Africa. And there’s actually quite a few people involved in this – not just people who were in IS. And there were a lot of people who knew a lot about Southern Africa, who could see what was going on, and could see how the campaign was basically – they wouldn’t say it was dead but it was just dull.

(23:19) C: How well did IS do out of NUS conferences in terms of, say, recruitment and getting word out about [its] campaigns?

R: Generally? Well actually we often did very well. I should explain – after I [graduated] I became the new student organiser for NOISS for two years. And then it became the SWP after a certain point. So it wasn’t the be all and end all – going to NUS conference – but it was an important part of trying to ensure that people got delegated and that they were open about who [they were] – because people actually used to hide their politics in the student world sometimes. So our aim was to be very open about everything and to say who you were, what you stood for – so that when you went to NUS conference you could actually say what you believed in. So we’d have a substantial grouping of people at the conference. And we’d caucus every day and we’d decide how we were going to intervene. And there’s a whole process of – each policy debate would have a kind of written – conference arrangements committee would decide how the thing was going to be structured and who was going to propose what amendments. So you’d have to take part in some of the structure of the conference but the aim was really to raise the politics and obviously to try win some of the policies. And occasionally we would do. But you have to understand that the machine of NUS was quite sophisticated at a certain level. And it was a breeding ground for future Labour politicians: Jack Straw for one-

M & R: Charles Clarke

R: Trevor Philips, David Aaronovitch – these are all people who knew what they were doing. And they were very experienced in deflecting the notion of struggle.

(25:18) C: Do you want to tell me a bit more about the Southern Africa Solidarity Campaign at Liverpool? Was it active there?

M: Yeah. If I say something about my background, because I was brought up in Southern Africa. My dad was deported for his part in the campaign against Apartheid. So when I arrived at university, you could say I was an African Nationalist. We had a refugee centre where some of the people who were fighting against South Africa, members of SWAPO [South West African People’s Organisation] were staying with us, one of them being a military commander of SWAPO. So I had direct contact with people we were later supporting in SASC. So that was my impetus, if you like, when I arrived at Liverpool: African Nationalism. And then through contact with IS, as it was then, I shifted my politics to a broader view about the role of class, and so on and so on, and a view about what was called terror – the armed struggle. So SASC was a campaign which was relatively short-lived, as Ric said – I don’t think we should inflate its impact. But what we did – we had meetings, we had discussions, I organised with people to leaflet halls of residence. But with a very right-wing student union which was strangled by conservatives, we never got to NUS because their [the right wing] delegates did. Anything we tried to organise was declared “ultra vires” – which was beyond the scope of what students should be doing and a “guild” – not a student union – should be involved in. So for example the idea of getting money from the student body itself was completely out of the question. So we would raise money by going round halls of residence. Small group of us, really – not that many involved. Half a dozen, probably, at best. Plus the meetings, plus interventions on a much more public platform i.e. meetings of 100-200 to debate questions like that, which again, as Ric pointed out, would be really contentious. There’d be massive rows when you went round halls of residence, knocking on doors – “how dare you support terrorism – you’re supporting killing, murder” and so on. And I’m not sure we got the most nuanced discussions from knocking on doors but the idea was to get a handful of other people, which we did, more involved. And it wasn’t as contentious as you’d expect because there were – it was a small number of people, it was small – who were receptive to those ideas and ideas of – if you like – what was called third worldism at the time. The armed struggle in various countries around the world. Not just Southern Africa. So that formed part of that. On the other hand, the Tories were full of “this is undemocratic, you’re talking about death squads – how dare you” and so on. Moral outrage. And there were a lot of them. So we were really talking to a small minority of people outside our own small group, really, but that was the point of it. Did it gain traction? Yes – with a slogan like “we are raising money for bullets and guns for the armed struggle” you would expect it to be noticed and we certainly were. It was relatively short-lived – we can talk later about why that was, with the Anti-Nazi League. And also, I mention it because it wasn’t immediately clear but things shifted. And I might be wrong but from what I understand, the start of what became a mass movement by workers in Southern Africa began in Namibia, which is why I ended up by the copper miners and, I think, uranium miners against South African control. And that spread throughout the industrial heartlands of South Africa. And so from a campaign we were looking at what was a fairly moribund Anti-Apartheid Movement which involved broad campaigns, respectable campaigns – we were much more involved in [questions of] how do we actually achieve change. And at that time it seemed like armed struggle was the only answer – and relatively quickly it became clear that there was a different answer from the miners, particularly in South Africa. But many hundreds of thousands of other workers gradually became more and more involved. I think later on in the seventies. So there was a shift there – it was still important to talk about armed struggle, but it became less of a priority for us, politically.

(30:10) R: Certain things happened like Soweto – the Soweto Uprising.

M: Yeah, ’76.

R: So [those were] fractures, really, in the political arguments and the possibilities. That changed the perception. So I think that’s one of the reasons we would have got, you know, not a bad reception when we were making these points, because people could see the logic of what we needed to do. I think Mark is right – the industrial change in Southern Africa and the struggles that developed, again that changed it. And that meant, really, that the old way of the Anti-Apartheid Movement – it was pushed to one side. And I think they realised, actually, they had to reinvent themselves a bit as well. They’re not stupid, they’re not going to ignore everything. But they would reinvent it only up to a certain point.

(31:04) C: Could you tell me a bit more about the miners’ struggle in Namibia?

M: I’m relying on my father’s book about this because I was fifteen at the time. But I can give you some references. So the workers were in compounds – most of the population lives in the far north of the country and the mines were in the centre or the south. The diamond mines were right on the border with South Africa. So they were migrant workers displaced from their own land. They were [paid] poverty wages at the time – and the workers organised against all odds and declared a strike. They were then asked “who are your leaders”, they said “we have no leaders”. Who are your leaders – eventually it became clear [who] the leaders were and they were then put on trial, facing death sentences in many cases, on the grounds of treason and so on and so on. So there was a campaign organised in their defence which my dad was involved in – which involved getting people, observers like black congressmen out to the court proceedings so, if you like, the eyes of the wider world were on that. So those struggles were in the face of massive adversity and it would be similar in South Africa where workers talked about when you went on strike, you went on strike knowing that you faced possible starvation, execution, and so on and so on, or life imprisonment. Those were the terms on which you struck – you know, it was serious. So, as I said, the strike movement, I don’t know how it shifted and what the pattern of movement was – but it certainly moved in a kind of arc, if you like, from there [Namibia] to South Africa, and became a hugely significant part of the downfall of Apartheid.

(33:11) C: Could you tell me a bit more about your family background and how it fed into your activism?

M: My dad went out as a missionary to South Africa, to Simon’s Town, which was still part of the Commonwealth at the time. And there was a big Royal Navy port based there. And his brief was to integrate what had been a Church only for white people, just before Apartheid kicked in. So for the first few years [he was] in Simon’s Town and he integrated the Church. There were what they called Cape Coloureds, mostly the population there that joined the Church. And then he moved to Namibia – just before the Group Areas Act and South African independence kicked in, which meant that most of that congregation were moved out into townships outside. So, if you like, there was a golden period, strange to say, even though it was under the Empire and Commonwealth for that part of Southern Africa. So we then moved to Namibia and he eventually became the bishop of the Church of the province there which was C of E. And it became more and more politicised because most of the population was starving or on wages that you couldn’t survive on. And bit by bit became more and more involved in things like workers’ coops, very small-scale, involved black and white people working together on building works and things like that. And then the strike movement kicked off. And I didn’t know at the time that would lead to his – he was deported because he was a British citizen. If you were South African and black or Namibian black then you possibly were murdered. And some of the priests that [were prominent] were, or disappeared. If you were South African white you’d be put under house arrest. That would mean five or ten years where you were not allowed out of your house. And you were allowed visitors but you knew every conversation was being eavesdropped and was under strict control. So it was like a prison of your own making, if you like. Being British, he was deported and became a sort of cause celébre for a while, there in South Africa and in Britain. Not popular with the C of E. They offered him – I’m not making this up – the Bishopric of the Outer Hebrides. And, you know, he didn’t really fit in with the profile of the Church of England.

(35:40) R: Could have gone a bit further.

M: Well it’s about as far as you can go.

R: Seagulls a bit further north.

M: So through my family we were in contact with anti-Apartheid campaigners – many of them Church leaders like Desmond Tutu but not just that. Many of the leaders of tribal groups in Namibia and so on and so on.

(36:10) C: Were either of you involved much in the Anti-Nazi League or Rock Against Racism?

M & R: Yeah.

R: I was involved in Students Against the Nazis. I helped to design and collate a lot of the initial information to do with publicity – which was very interesting for me. But generally, I was involved in the Anti-Nazi League in Camden, which included the College. So it depends what you want to know, really – ‘cause I could talk to you for hours about the Anti-Nazi League.

C: What would you say were the most significant parts of it?

R: Its ability to bring together people from all sorts of different backgrounds with a determination that we weren’t going to let this situation get any worse – I think. And it was a very, sometimes quite dangerous thing to be involved in, because the National Front were very active and they meant business. And these people were street thugs and they had an ideology – fascism. And I was at Southall when Blair Peach was killed. And I remember, with a friend of mine, being chased by the Special Patrol group which was a kind of paramilitary police, half the night hiding in gardens and, basically, terrified. And it was a serious thing. I wasn’t at Lewisham but I was also at Wood Green when we confronted the National Front. And again, that was pretty terrifying. But that wasn’t the be all and end all of the Anti-Nazi League. That was the, kind of, the confrontation was part of what went on but it was a lot to do with bringing people together and setting up different aspects of the Anti-Nazi League. So whatever it was you were involved in there was a branch of the Anti-Nazi League for you. And also, attached to that was, really, Rock Against Racism. So I went to a lot of their gigs. Actually, with it being in Camden, it was the time of punk as well. So seeing the Clash and seeing reggae bands playing alongside white punk groups was quite amazing really. Seeing X-Ray Spex, Generation X, Aswad, Steel Pulse – all these names that people know about, but at the time as a quite young person it was an amazing thing to see. Thousands of people culminating in the Anti-Nazi League carnival in Hackney, having to march through bits of Hoxton with people chucking things at you.

M: Brick Lane

R: Yeah, defending Brick Lane. Fighting the fascists in Brick Lane. Occupying bits of Brick Lane. Seeing the Asian youths get organised which was pretty fantastic. So seeing all these things come together, it was quite something.

M: So at Liverpool – well to say something about the IS/SWP’s organisation. It’s been painted as a Leninist group, because we didn’t actually know it was an IS initiative. My dad actually asked me: “I’ve been approached by this group called the Anti-Nazi League – do you think I should sign up as a signatory?” And I didn’t know what to say. I mention this because it kicked off at Liverpool as a very broad campaign of the Left – which is exactly what it was designed to be, with us trying to run to catch up, to be honest, because we were a bit late starting. So I went to Lewisham with my dad, in his bishop’s outfit, at the time, and he spoke on the platform and so on. And then when things kicked off we politely moved to the back of things – because I wasn’t part of the group that was chucking bricks and so on. But it’s around Brick Lane – my dad was living in the East End in Stepney at the time in the mid-seventies. If you wore the badges around Brick Lane then that was a very dangerous thing to do. So when Ric talks about the kind of – Vicky Park, that was a massive thing that we brought coaches down to from many student bodies including Liverpool. And to see fascists outside the Blade Bone doing Sieg Heils – but in front of a hundred thousand people the Sieg Heils became – I’m not making this up, lower and lower and more and more desultory – because they were just swamped by us. And that was the most important part of it. You had to confront them because Altab Ali Park in the East End is named after a young Asian who was murdered by them. And there were fire bombings. There was a family my dad adopted whose father had died as a result of a heart attack from being fire-bombed in their own home in London at the time. It was a dangerous time so it was critical to get a broad mass of people involved. And comparing with the anti-Apartheid movement I think it drew on – Peter Hain was involved – it drew on the best of that movement because it was very active at the time. And they confronted the police, and so on – at their height. And we knew we would have to do that. But it was a tiny group – crazy and we knew how that would end – it had to be a mass movement. And from the word go it was. So at Liverpool, people couldn’t wait. They wanted to know “where’s the coach, when do we go?” and so on. Because they wanted to be part of this movement because you could see how dangerous things were – you know, the turn things were taking at the time.

(41:52) R: It was something to do with when the National Front got so many hundred thousand votes in the local elections in London. I don’t remember the date precisely but that kind of almost kickstarting this whole thing. And so it was an idea whose time had come, and I think the positive role that revolutionaries played in this was from this idea of “from below”, changing things from below. And harnessing people’s creativity. So if you look at the images from the time, they’re quite striking, a lot of them, because it really did bring together all sorts of different people. So for example, there was a graphic artist David King, I don’t know if you know who he is but he’s dead now, but he’s just had an exhibition at the Tate. And he did a huge amount of work around Russia – Revolutionary Russia – collecting images over the years. But he did a lot of the artwork for the Anti-Nazi League. He was an absolute genius. And it wasn’t just people like him – there were all kinds of people that fed into this. Rock Against Racism, Red Saunders, there’s all different types of people. The punk movement fed into this – the idea of self-activity. But the – I think what the revolutionary Left, the SWP were able to do at the time was feed into this idea that we have to confront. We can’t just do this, we can’t just have nice posters, gigs, raise money – we have to defend people. But we also have to stop these people. We had to understand their ideology to know that we had to confront them on the streets. As Mark said it was just an easy thing to do, and a lot of people didn’t want to do it. A lot of people did it despite themselves, as it were. Because they had the solidarity with other people. Our argument was that basically if there’s a hundred thousand of us, it will stop them. It’s not that we have to physically – five of us versus five of them in a punch up, because we’d probably lose. We had to actually take the ground, take the space, stop them from marching, like they did in the thirties in Cable Street.

M: We gained a reputation as a result of it. And it’s only an anecdote but Tom Robinson turned up in Liverpool and asked the IS student group to be his bodyguards when he went to the gig over in the Wirral because it was notorious for being a fascist stronghold. If you’d take a look at us we were the most unlikely bodyguards you could choose. But it was the reputation because – I was always the one in the back on these things. We knew that the mass was the critical thing. We weren’t actually fighters but we got kind of an unwarranted reputation as that.

(44:55) C: How important was memory of the nineteen-thirties and the Second World War to anti-fascism in the seventies?

R: I think for the young people the memories of the Second World War wasn’t necessarily that important. I think – once you started talking about the thirties, people kind of got it. They could see an economic crisis. They could see the signs of the thirties, so the whole thing kind of fitted together. I don’t think the Second World War per-se, but these arguments about fascism involved all sorts of things: to do with the Holocaust, for example. The Nazis were denying the Holocaust – or they were sidelining it. So exposing them for the kinds of things they’d said about the Holocaust was quite a big part of this as well. That again drew more people into the struggle because of their desire to do something – but also the fear that if this thing gets any worse.

M: And I think also, this is not to criticise Jewish groups but the Anti-Nazi League was vilified in the right-wing press for terror tactics, if you like. So many conventional, mainstream Jewish groups wouldn’t get involved with us. So it fell to us on the Left, really, to raise those arguments about the Holocaust. When tombstones were defaced by fascists, it was us that did that because for fully understandable reasons, conventional figures in the Jewish community wouldn’t stand up and argue against that. Or certainly wouldn’t support our actions. So it felt at times like you were fighting on your own but it became something where we managed, actually, to shift, if you like, the conversation. Because from an argument about “how dare you” and about rights to free speech and so on, it became more about the methods that you used. Again, not uncritical because you can imagine the Daily Mail weighing into us and monstering individuals and so on. That was very much part of the mood at the time. So it was highly contentious to get involved but we had many, many hundreds of thousands. And people got involved through the student movement and through workplaces and so on and so on. The number of [groups] that sprang up and began: Students Against the Nazis, Teachers Against, Social Workers and so on and so on. It became, pretty much, “I am against the Nazis”.

(47:37) R: There was also an argument about no platform as well: no platform for Nazis. And that kind of divided a lot of people – the revolutionary Left plus colleagues and friends – as opposed to the CP [Communist Party] line: not in favour of no platform. And it was quite a big deal, actually. And it was something which we won in a lot of colleges, workplaces. Because a lot of people thought “don’t be ridiculous, there’s no platform for these people, they don’t believe in free speech, they’d put you up against the wall given half a chance, so of course we don’t give them a platform”. It was only the kind of CP element and the Labour element which would introduce arguments which would confuse the situation. ‘Cause generally most people – at my college – it was never a problem.

M: Yeah.

R: People just voted for it en masse.

M: But the Labour bureaucracy were reluctant – let’s put it politely – to get involved.

R: Yeah.

M: It was very difficult to get them on board.

R: Yeah. I think the thing about the Anti-Nazi League – the Anti-Nazi League was not really about no platform.

M: No.

R: That was really the other part of the argument. The Anti-Nazi League was bringing people together to expose – to confront, not peacefully necessarily, but en masse, Nazi ideas. And it worked. Its time had come, that particular campaign. But I think it’s arguable, without the influence of the IS/SWP, that it wouldn’t have worked actually as well as it did – which is something to remember, actually.

(49:33) C: Would you be able to tell me a bit more about no platform?

R: In what way?

C: A bit about some of the arguments you came across when that was being debated.

R: Do you want to go Mark, I mean I can do it?

M: Alright [though] yeah you’ll probably do better than me. Well the argument you still hear, which is that “we believe in free speech, we’re a democratic country”. These people – well the National Front didn’t portray themselves as fascists, they argued they were nationalists, so therefore they should have the right to appear on TV programmes, they should have the right to march in the streets. And from the Communist Party and Labour supporters, the argument would be that “we have a popular front against that”, including people like my dad the bishops and so on and the vicars and so on. Not violent confrontation: a community campaign, that involved peace, love and understanding, which is a very good thing. However in the period we were in we were talking about violence – and what you could see was a deliberate plan by the fascists the occupy the streets. – copying directly what had happened with Mosley, the Blackshirts and the fascists in Germany. So when you asked about the precedents, that was clear in our minds. And it was clear in their minds as well – the fascists. So no platform sprang from that. And in student unions and so on it was debated because, not surprisingly many people would struggle, initially at least, with that notion that you deny people a platform. And they did – it was a difficult argument to win over.

(51:16) R: You often actually had – when you were having this argument you had to keep going with the argument. Because people shouted at you.

M: Yeah.

R: You had to know what you were talking about – so you had to have studied and understood the history of all of this. Which is if you can get through to the end of what you were saying, you’d actually often win. And that was the point, really. Wherever it happened to be – at college, work, you name it, really. Because for a lot of people it was quite an emotional process, to think that you would deny someone else the right to have a platform, given that you spend half your time trying to have a platform for all sorts of different things, that you wanted to deny some other people. But actually it was part of a process where – I think, for lots of people it opened their whole minds to what, really, this kind of society we live in and what is really going on.

M: I agree – I don’t think it was an argument you’d win with a majority of the Soft Left, if you like.

R: No.

M: And it wasn’t necessary, I guess, to win that argument, to get people involved on the streets, for example. So people would still turn up and sign up to the idea of confronting on the streets. Because that wasn’t the same – that was saying “we own these streets”. So it was a kind of no platform but not in the same form.

R: If you look at the photos of Lewisham – well I wasn’t at Lewisham but I looked at the photos recently, ‘cause it was forty years ago – who was actually on the march against the fascists, fighting the fascists, were lots of kids, actually. Local kids, local Black West Indian kids. So for them this argument was just irrelevant – about no platform. “Of course you’re not going to give them a platform. You’re mad giving these people a platform.” It was the kind of – so your aim really was to attract as many of these people as possible, essentially. Because once you had the numbers the Soft Left became – not exactly irrelevant but they were pushed to one side. So at Lewisham they tried to divert, as far as I know, divert the march down off to the church or something. And that was just ignored. And so the Anti-Nazi League which organised the demo – well I can’t remember who exactly organised the demonstration, but whoever it was just ignored that and said “no, we are going to stop them.” And that had the mass of people – so, as they say, let the people decide – and that’s what they decided, that this was not going to pass. And it was the same in Cable Street, actually. The CP, nationally, were not in favour of stopping the fascists.

(54:03) M: In fact, the opposite. They barred their members from getting involved.

R: Yeah.

M: So Communist Party members had to defy their leadership.

R: But lots of local CP, where they were strong, they were strong in the East End – they just weren’t having this.

(54:19) C: Was Palestinian Solidarity a big part of your activism during this period?

M: We were involved in joint-meetings and campaigns with Palestine Solidarity.

R: Yeah.

M: And from Liverpool we joined a coach that they’d paid for – the Arab Society, rather, paid for [us] to come down to London when there was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, operating at the time there. But it was a very small group that we were happy to support. But it didn’t have a lot of traction, broadly, on campus.

R: I don’t think you’re right, actually.

M: Alright go on.

R: I think it’s true actually, I think it was a little bit later, I think maybe when I was a student organiser [full-time position in the SWP] it was a lot more pertinent, really. There was a lot more going on. But I do remember when we were at college, there’s again another one of those things, if you showed any interest in Palestine, you’d meet people. Palestinian students or students from wherever, Egypt, or wherever. And you’d have good conversations and they welcomed you, even though a lot of their politics were fairly mixed up or they were all sorts of variations of all sorts of different things. But that wasn’t really the issue – the point was, you were willing to talk about it. And where you did talk about it you’d often come up against these sort of Union of Jewish Students would try to stop any kind of debate. Or you’d be labelled anti-Semitic. But I think that labelling of people who [were] trying to discuss this issue came a lot later really. I think it was just even being able to discuss it, at that point, was a bit more relevant. Are we right to think-

M: I think it was-

R: I obviously don’t really remember it, actually.

M: No. I mean, we would organise Jewish socialist speakers from IS to speak because it was actually a very emotionally charged atmosphere. I’m not saying it was the same as now, but it was a difficult one to confront.

R: Yeah.

M:  And you would be charged with anti-Semitism: immediately, as soon as you started challenging the right of Israel to exist. But then you would see Palestinian students, I did, talking to their Jewish counterparts in a common language – ‘cause they said they could understand each other, after these very fierce, heated debates – which at times you felt would actually become violent. The Jewish students were very emotionally charged. Really, it was an act of faith for most of them that you supported Israel. And they couldn’t discuss. Which became difficult because – if you’re not going to discuss, then you’d want to use force, which is often – I think – the way they tended to-

R: That’s why I think it was just a big thing to actually discuss the subject. If you could make that little breakthrough – then the thing tended to open out a bit.

M: I think, because for us it occurred at the same time as the Anti-Nazi League, we were the ones – not the Jewish students – who were pushing arguments to support Jews against attacks – because Jews were being attacked, and synagogues, and cemeteries and so on were as well. So, if you like, we could stand tall and say, well, hang on, we’ve done all of this stuff, how dare you.

R: And that’s actually happened quite often I think. Especially the how dare you bit. And it cut through – because you had your kind of badge of honour, really, you’d actually done something.

(57:55) C: What does 1968 mean to you?

R: Personally? Well I was at school, actually. I was at boarding school and in Germany. My dad was in the army. All I remember of ’68 was the Olympics – watching the Black Power salute in our little dorm on the TV, thinking “blimey what’s all this about?” And that’s kind of what it meant to me at the time. Later, obviously it means a lot really – because I think it’s when the world turned in all its different ways.

M: Do you mean what it’d mean at the time in terms of student politics?

R: Or now

C: If you like, yeah.

R: I think at the time, for me personally, I don’t think it meant a lot, actually. Because I think when you’re 18, 19, your head is in the moment. I do remember actually, things which were more relevant were Chile, actually.

C: Would you like to talk a bit about that?

R: Well I remember one of the first demos I went to was a Chile Solidarity campaign demonstration. And I think I went with the IS group. And I think the Communist Party stewards tried to stop us from going on the demonstration. That’s what I remember – and thinking, not understanding why [you would] do that – ‘cause we weren’t doing anything, particularly – we were just on the demonstration, we had newspapers and leaflets and we were just raising questions about the nature of the struggle for socialism, and obviously the tragedy of Chile. But let’s look at this in a bit more detail. And at that time it was something you couldn’t – it’s not like we were criticising so much we were just again raising issues of difference in tactics that one would have. If you were in that situation in Britain, if Labour was elected with a radical government what would we do? How would we defend it? What would be the tactics? And it was kind of, you know, because it’s part of the CP trying to stop that – so that’s what I remember about Chile. I think Portugal would be another one, really. Portugal was different because it was a sign in Europe that something could have happened really. Workers’ revolution in Chile – it was a big deal and that was seventy-

M: Portugal, you’re talking about? ’74?

R: -four, yeah so – that was the year before I went to college, but a lot of people had been to Portugal, and they’d seen what was going on. And it was actually something that people talked about.

(1:00:40) M: I think, going back to Chile then, it was a point of difference for, if you like, the far Left because there was tremendous support for Chileans who were then in exile. And living in Oxford we took over a refugee centre from Chilean exiles. And I remember there was a professor of music who was cleaning the toilets at Oxford University. Many of them were living in dire straits at the time. But when you got to university the Communist Party wasn’t active but, if you like, there was a resonance and a kind of emotional support for Chileans in exile and for the Popular Unity government of the time. So it was a difficult discussion to have with mainstream students because, if you like, on an emotional level why wouldn’t you support a government that had been gunned down and, you know, when things hadn’t ended well. So for the far Left it was a point of difference because we stood for a different way. And there were small Left groups – the MIR [Revolutionary Left Movement] for example, in Chile – that were sympathetic to that, and probably in MAPU [Lautaro Youth Movement], I think, as well – who you would encounter on campus. So there would be those, fraternal if you like, discussions about that. But they weren’t part of the mainstream.

R: But I think, generally [returning to the earlier question], ’68, for me personally, became something I became interested in the longer I was involved in politics. Because I guess what you do is you start reading. So you read more and more – and you start getting “oh, Vietnam” – because at some point or other you’ve got the tragedy of Vietnam, the boat people [refugees from the Vietnam War] and all sorts of terrible things that went on in Cambodia. And you have to have an understanding so let’s go backwards – and let’s read backwards, let’s read backwards to ’68. The Tet Offensive and how important that was to student politics around the world. And the general situation of ’68 – Paris. And even just the images, personally, I was just very interested in the posters and thinking – well, again, this was another world. And the cinema that came out in the late sixties – the French cinema. [I remember] thinking this was quite something. But not at the time. It was over the following years.

(1:03:03) M: I think for us the way it played out in practical terms was that we had discussions about what our role was as students. And of course you couldn’t help but look back to ’68 – whether consciously or unconsciously, if you like. I mentioned about Militant/the Socialist Party seeing their role as being part of the working-class movement. And that meant not what they saw as student politics – which were abstract and arbitrary, kind of irrelevant. And that wasn’t just us – I think many students were trying to get their heads around about, well 1) you have a space as a student – and this is part of our approach, I guess, well you were neither one thing nor another. Wherever you’d come from – working-class, middle-class – your destination’s probably something a bit different. But you were in this space where you could actually discuss and negotiate who you were and what you wanted to do about the world.

R: Yeah you had those three years.

M: And ’68, I think, was a massive underpinning to that, if you like: the height of student struggle. I think we were conscious we weren’t at that height, either. Although things were – the atmosphere, if you like, was sympathetic to the Left but not on that scale. And I think I was aware of that at the time.

(1:04:21) R: Yeah, I mean I think I personally was aware of the economic crisis, actually the general economic crisis. So we were involved in the Right to Work campaign which – I don’t know if you’ve ever spoken to anyone about [that] – that was the campaign against unemployment. And what we did – we organised marches, we took people out of the College, join in, there was a local Right to Work campaign in Central London – again, as far as I remember, initiated by the SWP. But it basically attracted a lot of unemployed kids – and so we’d protest, organise marches. I went on two or three different marches around Britain. We were incredibly busy and active, and there was a hell of a lot going on. And we were in the middle of an economic crisis. We got racism, we got all sorts of things going on. Society is in crisis. So I don’t think we particularly looked to ’68, necessarily. Partly, I think, because we were so busy.

M: I agree with you about ’68. I was in Liverpool where unemployment was very high then, and higher still later, in the early ‘80s. So I helped organise the Liverpool to Blackpool Right to Work march where we’d-

R: I went to [Blackpool] as well, actually.

M: Did you? Alright – so where we would go down to the dole office, leaflet, and usually attract youth, my job was then to keep them occupied for the so many weeks before we actually marched. And the idea on the march was that you marched as unemployed and students – to go back to the ’68 thing, that was your role there – and we would stop off at different workplaces where organisers would have spoken. And you’d take speakers in, either ourselves as students or unemployed kids, to go and speak to these people who were sometimes involved in disputes, whether it was a strike or whatever. And so the idea was that that’s how students became involved – both on-campus and outside, if you like. So peripherally, that touched on ’68 I guess.

(1:06:26) C: Could you tell me a bit more about the economic situation in the seventies?

M: Shall I start? Well to begin with, it was easier as a student or as a young person when I started out at university, putting it mildly then at the end – you could sign on in your breaks, you could claim housing benefit if you were staying on, staying in Liverpool, wherever you were living. You [could] get your free dental and so on and so on. When I left A-Levels I signed on at the local jobcentre and they offered me dozens of jobs that I could have walked into any of those. So work was easy to find and it wasn’t difficult to survive. As students you were means tested so many students then didn’t get the full grant – I did. But you could get a job on the side and it wouldn’t be that difficult, I think. Not that difficult to survive. By the end of the seventies it was a different story.

R: Yeah – housing is a classic [example] because if you were a student in London you’d often be in a hall for the first year. But you could get into some kind of – you could get a council flat, they were hard to let council flats, you’d queue up and you’d get one. We got one – you got one, didn’t you?

M: Mhmm.

R: So you just queue up all night – a big long queue – they’d give you your details and here’s the key. You go and find this block of flats and it’d be fairly run-down.

M: [Cost] you £25 a week.

R: Yeah. And if you didn’t pay, they didn’t bother you particularly for quite a while. But you’d keep the payments – it was a space, actually, where you could be someone with not a lot of money. So when you finished college, you didn’t have to find – like now in London as a single person, you may have to find £600, £700 a month or more – whereas then I think the equivalent would be maybe a couple hundred quid, with inflation, a month, back then which you could manage if you were doing some kind of work. It was a lot of casual work – or if you wanted a job in such and such, something or other, you had a much easier time of it. This is graduates we’re talking about. If you were a working-class kid it’s a different experience because unemployment was high. [There was] racism – so if you were a black kid, you got all sorts of things going on, which had one set of troubles added to another. You got the police attacking you, arresting you, you had [SUSS], you name it. So you got different experiences but, in a way, I think life was easier for this period. Even though they were in the middle of an economic crisis. You may have an economic crisis now, but life is certainly not easy for a vast majority of people. So it was a different period.

M: I think, without trying to generalise, when you studied it wasn’t – well from our point of view from the Left – it wasn’t necessarily with a view to a career. There was a space there – material as well as intellectual, if you like – to exist slightly separate from the system, without being completely outside of it. So my objective was not to get a job as a lawyer or whatever. It was to duck and dive and survive, in a squat or in cheap housing, council and whatnot – to get involved in further campaigns, and not really thinking about a career in my life other than that.

R: Or a mortgage.

M: Yeah. In fact very much the opposite.

(1:10:15) C: Could you tell me a bit about what solidarity means to you?

R: In contemporary times or…

C: Contemporary, looking back?

R: Solidarity is a feeling you get when you’re trying to change something. Solidarity is with other people. Solidarity is with other people in struggle. My idea of solidarity, I don’t think, has changed at all actually.

M: Mine changed very much from when I started as a student to when I got more involved. I would say I would have been prepared to join the resistance movement in Southern Africa and to take up arms. I’m not exaggerating because I know people who I was at school with who did or who got involved as technical advisors for the freedom fighters. So that would have been my form of solidarity then – you know, getting directly involved. And I gradually became aware that there was another way of doing it – partly because I was living in a different country – that involved many others in a mass movement. So solidarity became very much about gaining purchase among students, initially, and then gradually we realised that that would probably involve workers more. I think now if you’re talking about solidarity – I think from Tahrir Square and movements like that are much more conscious of the role of the movement. Whereas we were much, I think understandably, much more fixated about, if you like, classic class struggle which we thought was workplaces first and foremost. I still think that – much the same then but I see the role of movements as much more complex now.

R: I think my view of solidarity is self-activity. And that’s never changed, really. Obviously the forms change but the idea is always there. This idea of people deciding for themselves, democracy, being able to move things forward, struggles against people who don’t want you to decide for yourself.

M: I think one of the arguments that we came up against was the notion of separatism. So if you like, how does solidarity work if – you know, there was massive and very understandable resistance from [radical] feminists of people on the Left. And then Black Consciousness had a purchase there. And there’d be accusations – quite understandable – that “you don’t understand our struggle – how can you be involved in solidarity with us if you haven’t been exploited by the system?” And Darcus Howe and Linton Kwesi Johnson and other black nationalists, sort of separatists, put those points very persuasively. So you would have to examine, if you like, what it is you were looking for from that solidarity. Because going in naïve and enthusiastic is not enough. And we had to learn a lot, I think. I think the biggest lesson for me is that you don’t know that much and you need to ask many questions and learn from those involved in those struggles.

R: And you don’t go around lecturing people. If you want anyone to listen to what you have to say.

M: No. For example – I don’t want to caricature the IMG only because any Left group can do this. If you wanted to join the International Marxist Group you had candidate membership. You had to read the books, they wouldn’t just let you join.

R: You had to have an exam, actually.

M: You had to read Das Kapital blah blah blah. And then you were deemed worthy. Because then you’d know – you’d know what you were doing. And I think the IS was different then – I’m not so sure about now – in that it was felt that you could pick up the pieces and be shaped [by] as well as shape movements. And I think that was quite important.

R: Yeah.

M: It’s not glamourising to say that, but we were very shaped by the Anti-Nazi League. We had to learn as we went along as well as shaping it. And that was very important, to shape it.

(1:14:33) C: What does socialism mean to you?

R: Well it’s a good idea if you ask me.

M: Socialism is much the same to me now as when I first viewed it: as equality, as a lot of “nots” as in not capitalism, not so many long lists of things. And a very hazy view of what it could be. A transition to something better – a lot better. And the opportunity to rid the world of exploitation, famine and so on and so on. So socialism has always attracted me for those reasons. Trying to visualise it – again there was a strong current against that in the Left groups I was part of. Because that had to be forged en masse, if you like. And yes you could conceive of what you wouldn’t have but [it’s] probably more difficult to conceive of what a new life might be like.

(1:15:40) R: And also, I think now, probably as a young person trying to think of socialism is not an easy thing to do, actually, because the world is in such a mess. So you can say environmentalist politics – if you look at what’s happening to the world and you think “there’s socialism” where everything’s sorted out. Here’s what’s actually going on. How on Earth are we going to get from there to there. I’m not sure too many people think about the ultimate aim – a lot of people seem to be talking about how to stop it from getting any worse, basically. So socialism is a long way off on the agenda whereas back then it wasn’t, really, because you’d have arguments about what was socialist. So was the Soviet Union a socialist place? Was Cuba, for example? On the Left, Cuba was a big thing, actually. What was Cuba? And if you criticised Cuba – and in fact even if you do that now, there are some left-wing groups who will really get the hump.

(1:16:45) M: I went on a trip to Cuba just after I left university, as part of the World Festival of Youth and Students. So we were delegated as students from various motley groups, mostly – I think it was 200 from the UK, mostly Communist Party-oriented, from the two major factions there. And a very small group of, I think probably about 5 or 6 gay guys, two of us in the IS. And for most, we were going to the socialist motherland – paradise on Earth, an island in the Caribbean Sea where the sea is warm. And there would be many speeches about before and after, before the Revolution da-da-da prostitution, etc., the Mafia and so on. After [Paradise]. We didn’t go with that view in mind. And we met up with Chilean exiles who’d been disabused of that view having lived there for – well, I don’t think it would take long, having lived there, to see how privilege operated through the Communist Party.  And just talking to people – I mean literally, we were followed by cops with dark glasses everywhere we went in Havana – and we were chatting to some guy, me in my rudimentary Spanish. And he was – in front of me – dragged off by two people for talking to us. Met him later on – it was a public holiday for two weeks, by the way. And he just told us “this is how it is. Socialism is this – committees for the defence of the revolution, which means your neighbour spies on you”, and so on and so on. And socialism meant – in that Latin country – men and women dancing together in their tens of thousands in Havana at this festival, which to us was wonderful and yet bizarre. ‘Cause gay rights didn’t exist and probably don’t exist there now.

(1:18:39) R: No. I mean there are other examples – I went to a conference in Libya, once for a few days. I think that actually was about Palestine. We were invited – I didn’t really want to go but I thought I’d just go, because to be honest, when else would you get to go to Libya. So I went and it was kind of interesting because there were Ba’athists there who said that Iraq was socialist. You can think now and think, blimey, you know, someone saying that – and we know what happened later and we know what happened and what Iraq is and all the rest of it. But then, actually, bits of the Left actually thought that Iraq was socialist. So the Workers’ Revolutionary Party – they were funded, to an extent, by the Ba’athists. And Libya – also people said that Libya was socialist. So you go there and think “what is this? In what sense is this socialist? Who controls what in the society?” The state controls what goes on – like in Cuba. So this is not Socialism from Below. This is not the mass of people deciding how things are going to be. And for me, that’s what socialism is about, really. And so that’s what got me into it in the first place. So a lot of those things have gone, really – about any illusions in countries being socialist. But although you say that, Venezuela – you know I’ve heard a lot of people say Venezuela was a socialist society. But in what sense was that really true? It’s a bit like clutching at straws to think that that’s true. But actually if your notion of socialism is something you get by trickery, in a way, or luck, that somehow you come in, you are in charge of that country – it’s not for me. I remember with someone else who said to me that East Germany was socialist and the Berlin Wall was there to stop the fascists from invading.

(1:20:52) M: I think it goes back to your question about solidarity though. Because many of the movements at the time were in solidarity with what were seen as [the] socialist states of China [from] ’68 and beyond. Third Worldism was prevalent. So it would be a list – I won’t go through the list – but many countries. And these were seen as real, material examples of socialism. And it took a lot to disabuse – if you like – ordinary students and others of these notions because why wouldn’t you hold on to that notion. It has far more purchase, if you like, than a dream of a different world. Another world existed – it wasn’t possible for many thousands of people.

(1:21:36) R: Which is why I think the IS tradition was so important, because the slogan at the time was “Neither Moscow nor Washington”. So if you think about what that means, we were right in the middle of this argument. And it’s not the same now, but to be honest a lot of the arguments would be exactly the same if Corbyn was elected, for example, on a radical programme.

(1:22:02) M: And also, going back to Southern Africa solidarity and so on. We supported freedom fighters, but without illusions, if you like. So solidarity meant that yes you supported those campaigns. But sorry to namedrop – through my dad I had breakfast with Robert Mugabe in the last day of the Lancaster House talks. I was allowed to ask him one question. So I said “well, what countries do you view as socialist?” And he said “Romania and Bulgaria”. And my jaw dropped – I couldn’t believe it. But for many on the Left you supported those groups uncritically. And we didn’t, but we still supported them to the point where we were prepared to raise money. It wasn’t just token support, if you like. So solidarity meant that you actually got your hands dirty. Kind of literally as well. Realising, if you like, the shortcomings of many of these campaigns, movements, leaderships, and so on.

R: Not to have illusions.

M: No. But you did it, nevertheless, gritting your teeth, if you like. Knowing that.

(1:23:09) C: Is there anything we’ve not discussed that either of you would like to say now, that you think is important to this?

R: Do you mean historically or generally?

C: Historically, yes.

R: I’m sure there is but we probably don’t remember what it is.

M: I think in terms of change and possibly how student politics may be now – notions of gender, identity politics and so on are very different from what they were then. The discussions we had then were about feminism, the relationship between feminism or, if you like, women’s liberation and socialism. And those ideas, I think, have advanced massively in the last forty years. So in terms of solidarity now – our issues were that the Communist Party influenced so much that we were often arguing against that grain. And that grain doesn’t exist [now], if you like. Whereas now ideas of intersectionality and so on and so on, if you like, are predominant. Those aren’t Communist Party ideas but those are the ones that, I think, people on the Left or in movements need to grapple with. My ideas about that have changed massively since then – because the pole of resistance was the Communist Party. And so many of those politics were shaped by that. Good in many, many ways – but not so good in others. And good luck to you!

R: Yeah, that’s a good way to end it I think.

 

 

Posted in 1968, 1970s, Anti-racism, Feminism/Women's Movement, Housing/Rent, Industrial Disputes & Strikes, International Solidarity, National Union of Students (NUS), Palestine, South Africa, Strikes, Tuition Fees | Leave a comment

Symposium Programme – Protestival @ University of Sussex

 

programme

Facebook event here

UK Student Movement Research Project // 1st Symposium
As part of Sussex University’s Protestival // 20th – 22st April // University of Sussex, U.K.

The 2010 protests and occupations against tuition fees reignited the student movement in the UK on a scale not seen since the late 1960s. A generation of young people and students organised in their universities and colleges, worked inside the National Union of Students, and campaigned outside of the national union too. There was an attempt to set up a separate anarchist student union at the end of 2012, and a student occupation at University of Sussex in support of staff fighting against privatisation in early 2013. The Sussex occupation organised its own national demonstration that drew student activists from across the country. Heavy police repression at the University of London led to the formation of the Cops Off Campus campaign, and resistance to border controls took place through organisations such as Universities Resist Border Controls. There has been renewed interest in feminist and LGBT+ activism, and efforts to question colonialism in our curricula.

Parallel to this wave of activism is the work done by researchers of the student movement. Bringing both closer together and learning from each other is essential for better understanding the student movement and to meet the challenges of the coming years. The UK Student Movement Research Project was set up in January 2017 to connect those interested or active in research on the student movement. The people involved come from a variety of academic and activist backgrounds, and research in a variety of different disciplines.

The UK Student Movement Research Project’s symposium will be in collaboration with the University of Sussex Students’ Union Protestival, which celebrates a milestone of 50 years of student activism since May 1968. This will be a three day festival of speaker and panel events, workshops, music, comedy. The festival will look at the legacy of student activism and also, where things are at today. As well as presenting papers as a part of the symposium there will also be opportunities to get involved either as a participant or as an audience member in other events throughout the festival weekend.

https://www.sussexstudent.com/ents/event/3791/

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Warwick’s History, Establishment Secrecy and the Reaction to 1968

Connor Woodman

This is the text of a speech made to the Free University of Warwick on February 23, 2018, as part of the student-staff mobilisations around the UCU strike. You can find the my MA dissertation, from which this speech was largely crafted, here

I want to start by taking you back to the late 1960s. A year of global struggle, with student movements in Italy, West Germany, the U.S , Mexico, the Philippines and elsewhere reaching their peak, gay liberation and second wave feminism beginning to emerge, and the forces of working class resistance stirring into what would become the longest period of worker unrest, for the West, in the post-WW2 era.

A general strike in France in May ’68 by over ten million workers nearly brought down the fifth republic; high school and university students in Italy took over and paralysed the entire education system; and African Americans suffered

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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 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 – as was somebody, I recently saw on Question Time, who is now 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 Antoniou 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 time, 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 this or that part of the world? 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
President
NUSUK 1972-3

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

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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.

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