Ian Williams made this contribution to the Comment is Free section of the Guardian online on 24 March 2010:
Last weekend, some 60 survivors gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the occupation of Liverpool University senate house in 1970 to protest the university’s investments in South Africa and the views of the then chancellor, Lord Salisbury. His lordship’s family name had been given to the capital of Southern Rhodesia, and he was a supporter of apartheid and holder of racist views so extreme that Cameron’s Conservative party would not now countenance them (or at least their public expression).
One of the most galling things for the reactionaries of the university was that we raised a red flag, which flapped provocatively for two weeks, on the pole above the senate house. The university, egged on by baying Tory backbenchers, was vindictive in its response. It held a kangaroo court to try the 10 members of the committee elected to run the occupation. The court expelled one, and suspended seven, including me, for two years and two for one years – probably the harshest treatment meted out during the wave of student protests. The Economic League promptly put all 10 on their infamous blacklist of people not to be employed.
The survivors assembled from all over the world, from Cyprus, Canada, Italy, France and the US, which demonstrates that neither the occupation nor the sentences clipped the wings of the participants. For example, Jon Snow, suspended for one year, never returned and thanks the university for diverting him from a likely legal career to one in broadcasting, while my own suspension led me to China during the cultural revolution and a chequered career in politics and writing on subjects ranging from railways to rum and the UN.
The reunion re-emphasised a growing suspicion about the very mixed legacy of the famous swinging 60s. On one side, hedonism and selfishness, “doing your own thing”, played straight into the neoliberal outlook. The bankers, the MPs feeding at the expenses trough, and the New Labour ministers plotting lobbying and consultancy careers are recognisable children of the era.
So it was reassuring to reunite with a group that represented the other tendency: a judicious mix of hedonism and selflessness. Most of those attending had stayed socially concerned and active, poised reasonably somewhere on the rational side of Old Labour. There was a consensus that for a bishop’s son, Snow really had not turned out badly at all, probably moving leftwards in an era where the tendency has seemed inexorably to the right.
Indeed, speakers pointed out that our demands had largely been implemented. Apartheid was gone and it was inconceivable that a reactionary such as Salisbury would have any role in current public life, where there are crooks and swindlers galore, but no overt racists.
That the reunion was held in the former medical students’ debating hall lent a touch of irony since the medics and engineers of the era were profoundly reactionary and regarded the Labour party, let alone the assorted Marxists of the occupation, as a Bolshevik plot. For most of us, it was even more ironic that the vice-chancellor, Howard Newby, not only offered university premises for the occasion but sent a letter expressing his personal regrets for the effects on those disciplined, while tactfully pointing out that all those responsible had “moved on”.
He added, “Your voice and actions serve as a legacy to the freedoms we enjoy, preserve and defend within higher education.” To the surprise of many of us, the university got the closest ever to kissing and making up. For 40 years its establishment had been hostile, albeit tempered with sycophancy. They had wanted to give Snow an honorary degree but weren’t prepared to let the student they had expelled, Pete Cresswell, study to finish his degree.
Adding extra puff to the wind of change, the current president of the guild of students, Danielle Grufferty and her deputy Ed Moloney not only greeted the reunion but presented certificates of life membership to the 10, which sadly, we discovered still meant we had to pay if we used the bar. But then, when we were given the bum’s rush, there was a (male) president and a lady president, whose job was to give bouquets to the likes of Lord Salisbury not honour ageing revolutionaries.
To show the spirit of rebellion is still alive, the two have pledged that at the next meeting of the university senate they will wear the T-shirts we presented to them, based on one of the posters from the occupation, “Old Chancellors Cast Long Shadows”. It was both fun and fruitful to get together to cast dispel those dark shadows, but we can’t envy the young generation who have to cope with the products of the dark side of the 1960s: the banking crisis, the climate crisis and the amorality of the political class, without the comfort of the naive revolutionary optimism of our generation.