Forty years ago, an event in Liverpool tied together Tribune, Peter Hain, Jack Straw and Eric Heffer, Jon Snow and among others, myself.
On March 19 1970, a mass meeting of students decided to occupy the Liverpool University Senate House and stayed there for three weeks, flaunting a red flag on its roof. That really upset the University’s establishment, which had always been profoundly reactionary, in contrast to the radical reputation of its surrounding city.
The Chancellor was Lord Salisbury, an outspoken leader of the Monday Club, supporter of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, whose capital was named after his family. It seemed that significant proportions of the University’s endowment were held in South African stocks. The Apartheid connection was the main target of the protest.
To the baying applause of Tory backbenchers, the University staged a kangaroo trial and expelled one and suspended for two years most of the committee of ten elected to run the occupation of the city. In lieu of leniency, it suspended a couple for only one year. At the time, it was the harshest repression of the wave of student protest against Apartheid, the war in Vietnam and similar repressions.
At the time, Liverpool Trades Council made the university’s harsh sentences one of the issues of its traditional May Day strike. Indeed, a keen palaeographer can still discern “All Out May Day” painted opposite the old Senate House entrance. Eric Heffer moved an early day motion, Tribune carried an article by Richard Davies, one of the ten, while Peter Hain and Jack Straw, then head of the NUS, came to speak in solidarity.
This weekend survivors of the sit-in will assemble in the University’s Victorian core to celebrate the fortieth anniversary. Times have changed, even for Liverpool University. The new Vice Chancellor Sir Howard Newby is actually offering University premises for the re-union, in welcome contrast with previous reactionary vindictiveness. In fact, ITN’s Jon Snow, one of the ten, had previously refused an honorary degree because of that. Sir Howard even expressed his personal regrets to Peter Cresswell, the sole expellee.
Cautiously, the establishment has moved to a cautious acceptance that maybe having had a Chancellor who championed Apartheid was not the most ethical move.
Looking over the roster of those directly involved, it was certainly a formative experience: the sentences may have redirected, but certainly did not blight careers. Many of us were from the first generation of our families to go to university, and we did not forget our origins nor did we forget that our education was a privilege hard-fought for.
From a motley collection of young Liberals, Labour, assorted Communists, Trotskyists and Maoists, emerged over the years a body of socially concerned citizens whose politics have collectively gravitated, I would hazard, to somewhere near Tribune’s rational left. Many were in the forefront of resisting the antics of the Hattonistas and Militant in Liverpool – but did not succumb to New Labour’s vacuous evasions.
Many years later I discovered that the Economic League had also put all ten of us on their blacklist – I even interviewed the guy who did it! But then I remember one of the local Special Branch, an ex Boxer, coming up to me at a rally, saying “I hear you’re having difficulty finding a job,” and reciting a list of all my unsuccessful applications for the previous six weeks. At the time it seemed almost a badge of honour to be considered such a threat. Then Alexei Sayle’s dad, a railwayman, volunteered that British Rail was so short of staff that the interview consisted of taking your pulse. If you had one, you were on. And so I became a British Rail guard and member of the National Union of Railwaymen.
I had already been to China, argued English Literature with Chiang Ching, drank with Chou En Lai, and the railways gave a PhD in the university of life. I coped with so many suicides that the joke was that Samaritans told callers what train I was on, so they would get a sympathetic hearing. I read book after book while stuck between trains, and rose through the NUR to the National Executive, only to go head to head with Sid Weighall, the autocratic General Secretary, who, to my sense of déjà vu all over again, tried to have me expelled. I began to write for Tribune, happy that my articles upset him even more.
I spent much of 1984 in India on a Nuffield Fellowship studying Indian unions and discovering that there were indeed places worse off than Liverpool and that was when I began full time writing, including some of the first dissections of the sordid reality beneath Militant’s rhetoric. After working on Neil Kinnock’s election team in 1987, I finished the first of four books and moved to New York, where I was for a while President of the UN Correspondents Association and am now on my fourth Secretary General.
It was there it all came full circle. Desperately busy, I got a call from South African newspaper –could I cover the visit of the newly released Nelson Mandela to the UN? I had the sense of history circling round and ambushing me. It was indeed a profound pleasure to meet him and tell him about the long strange road his courageous struggle had led to for lesser characters like the Liverpool 10, who his victory – and subsequent statesmanship – had vindicated.