This article, from Guild and City Gazette – the Liverpool student newspaper – is from 1988, when Pete Cresswell and Jon Snow were nominated for honorary degrees by the Students Union.
Today we hear about the new student who would rather have a good c.v. than change the world. Back in 1968 students were at the forefront of an international wave of demonstrations and strikes. The radical student movement built up in Liverpool from 1968 until early 1970 when Senate house was occupied for a fortnight and had the red flag flying were students really more radical then or is it just the view through nostalgic rose-tinted spectacles?
The spread of student action at the end of the sixties was not accidental. Dr Belcham was at Sussex University in 1968 – he sees the root cause and ”single most important inspiration” as ”an awareness of black America.” This was brought about by the ”spread of good black music” coinciding with the civil rights movement. Vietnam linked up with the race issue so that ”people were prepared to question American power”, and to reject the strong arm tactics of the super powers in Vietnam and Czechoslovakia. The problems in Ireland and civil rights were issues with ”domestic implications”. ”People felt the old structures were vulnerable. ”
Pete Creswell, a student expelled from Liverpool in 1970, views the picture of ”a big country bombing and brutalising a small one”, Vietnam, as the international issue which linked the various movements. ”Vietnam was very much what 1968 was about for me.” ”We saw things globally and we thought of ourselves as revolutionaries.”
The global issues influenced the climate of politics in the university. The strength and unity of the left-wing was organised around the 700 member Socialist Society, known as the Soc. Soc. Dave Robertson, a student from 1967-1969 and an ex-editor of The Gazette, now teaching at the Poly, remembers the society. ”We thought the union irrelevant. We never bothered with guild committees: we raised our own money and were almost independent, we ran it from the grass roots.”
The radicalism was certainly not without opposition. Dave says ”I was the loud-mouth who did a lot of speaking.” He recalls coming under a hail of bread rolls when speaking to the engineers and medics. He had to get a friend to act as a bodyguard after he was ‘kidnapped’ by a group of engineers and bundled into a car in order to prevent him making a speech in the Mountford Hall. The medics and engineers were to play a more sinister role in the occupation of Senate House.
The activities in Liverpool were organised around specific issues. Irene Roberts, an honorary member of the university who taught in the history department at the time, served on the disciplinary committee. She remembers that ”the big emotional issue” was the position of Lord Salisbury as Chancellor of the University. He was seen as a symbol of right wing imperialism and racism on the grounds of some articles he had written. According to staff some students were under the false assumption that his ancestors had founded Salisbury in Africa. His right wing views combined with the university’s investments in South Africa made the time sorely out of joint for him. The major student demand was for Salisbury’s removal and this, Pete Cresswell remembers, was “principally behind the occupation”.
Professor Hair of the history department wrote letters to The Times in support of Salisbury. Many staff were also conscious that Salisbury had used his Tory party contacts to help build up the university. Paul Hair’s letters prompted a brief sit-in in the history department and he even received threatening letters at home. Today he prefers to play down the situation, claiming that ”up here (the history department) we did not think the world would be turned upside down.” He did not tell me about the threatening letters. He dismisses the ”odd motives” of a ”minority” of what he considered ”rather self-indulgent students.” He sees it as the “last manifestations of student radicalism in emulation of the continent.”
Radical activity was often as symbolic of the time as it was of the radicalism. Three students, including Dave Robertson and Tom Burke, now director-general of Greenpeace, gave a clenched fist salute as they received their degrees at the 1969 award ceremony. This caused a scandal and a major inquiry into how it could have been allowed to happen and as a direct result compulsory attendance at degree ceremonies was dropped.
The focus of activity and main cause of tension was the fortnight long occupation and lock-out of Senate House. The decision was taken at a huge mass meeting of between 2500 and 3000 students. Dave Robertson, though having left in 1969, was still in Liverpool and involved. As he was no longer a student ”the university tried to get me for conspiracy and trespass.” He eventually left the occupation one night ”driven out on the back of a motorbike in the dead of night.”
Tony Beck, a lecturer from the department of politics, remembers the occupation as ”traumatic.” ”It got quite hairy,” he said. Dave recalls ”in the middle of the night the medics and engineers tried to break in and smash up the sit-in. We were pretty nervous and had to lock ourselves in; we only just kept them out.”
It was truly a sign of the times that the university flag was pulled down and the red flag flown. It caused a lot of upset and was seen as an affront to the University’s impartiality.
The occupation and the activities ended with the expulsions of ten students including Jon Snow, the ITN reporter, by the disciplinary committee. The most memorable incident for the committee dealing with the incident was when Pete Creswell pulled out a cap gun and ‘shot’ them. One member dived under the table. It is indicative of the tension at the time that the gun was really believed to be real.
Ten people were expelled but only one permanently. Peter Creswell was the student expelled permanently and it is believed that he was victimised. His crime was to prevent the Registrar from entering Senate House. He had caused no violence but in the questioning he claimed that he would have kept him out forcibly if necessary. Although Pete is now secretary of NALGO’s Liverpool branch he has lost a lot of potential earnings from being expelled one term away from getting his degree.
Pete Cresswell, now approaching forty, does not think he was wrong to take the actions he did although he seems mildly embarrassed about the cap gun incident. Dave Robertson also says ”I don’t know anyone who has sold out completely. I feel just as radical now.”