“The National Union of Students has 336,000 members and is the sixth biggest union in the country. The NUS offers, in the stirring words of its President, ‘service provisions in the fields of personal and life insurance, entertainments, concessions, vacation work, cultural activities such as drama and debating and a number of other such issues’.(1. Geoff Martin, ‘Focus’, Home Service, 25 May 1967.) The NUS has bored a generation of students to political death.
The backwardness of British students, their political isolation and docility, and the conceit and self-indulgence which passes so often for ‘university politics’ is directly reflected in the world picture of the leadership of the NUS. For these leaders, the submission of evidence and the preparation of reports has ben a substitute for mass activity and commitment on the campus. Policy is equated with the text of those motions passed at Council, and is left to moulder in the Minute Book as proof of the Union’s liberality. Militancy is the ‘last refuge of the politically impotent’ (2. Tom McNally, Liverpool Council, Easter 1967.). Tio Pepe diplomacy becomes the only conceivable form of student action. The NUS has all the passion of an ashtray. Today, a verbal war between the radicals and the Union escalates as its President complains of the ‘liberal use of sweeping and seemingly fashionable cliché’ and ‘one sided trouble-shooting’ (See T.W. Savage, ‘NUS, the First Forty Years’). Beneath the rhetoric of this bitter and complicated struggle, lies a deep political crisis int he nature of British class society as it is worked out in higher education.
Where are the real differences and what are the alternatives the NUS faces?
In the Beginning
The NUS was formed in 1922 as an outgrowth of various inter-university organisations. It was mainly created for international cooperation and this preoccupation with international affairs has remained with its leadership. In the early period it proselytised in the Dominions urging them to form National Union and affiliate to the Imperial Conference of Students and then the CIE. From the late twenties, it concentrated on a massive travel department with visits and vacation holidays. Out of these service concerns grew interest in welfare in the university; the familiar pattern of consultation with staff unions, drives for student health schemes, text book concession; motions on the iniquities of the tutorial system had begun. Concern for exclusively student welfare and conditions remained at the core of NUS throughout the fifties- even as late as 1961, the Council was still debating the opening hours of the British Museum.
After the war, the definition that discussion could only relate to the ‘student as such’ was enlarged to allow the union to discuss the whole of educational policy. The remaining provision, that the Union should under no circumstances ‘become a general political Forum’ was rigidly enforced. The NUS Council asked for ‘representation of consumer interest on all committees reporting into matters of study’ and the submissions to Robbins, Plowden, Newsom, Hale (university teaching methods) and Anderson (student support) were the source of great pride. The union’s leaders were increasingly welcome at the tables of undersecretaries; the NUS leaders’ delight at their own respectability must have been equalled by the gratification of the Department of Education and Science at finding students so eager to participate in their own subordination. ‘NUS is of course an educational pressure group and this can be measured in terms of the support that we gain form other educational organisations and from the trade unions. In addition to which our representations to the Department of Education and Science are noteworthy for their frequency and their positive results,’ (4. Geoff Martin, op. cit.) said President Geoff Martin last year.
Much of NUS ideological underpinning is in fact contained in these reports t the Royal Commission which are prepared by single executive members and the Research Staff. The draft document ‘Student Rights and Responsibilities’ which amounts to NUS philosophy, contains twenty-eight references to Union Policy, only seven of which refer to motions discussed in Council. Up to 1964, the union’s main policy concerns were the abolition of the means test on student grants, payment of student national insurance dues, lodgings and sports facilities and the pay and conditions for years. Some mass involvement was generated around the campaigns against apartheid (educational) in South Africa and racial discrimination in Britain. in 1965 a large meeting and march was held in protest against the level of teachers’ salaries. The liberalisation proceeded dizzyingly; Council called for the retraction of the Immigration White Paper (because of its effects on educate). At the present rate we can expect a condemnation of the deleterious effect of napalm on text books and mortar boards in North Vietnam by the early seventies.
Recently, the tripartite secondary education pattern of grammar, secondary an public streams wand the Binary System’s division into public and autonomous sections of higher education have been attacked as ‘socially divisive’ and the vision of a ‘comprehensive university’ was offered. The various campaigns against the means test, for teachers’ salaries, for student housing were never linked to make intelligible the structure of educational spending. While meeting after meeting deplored the cutbacks in building, overcrowding and crash expansion of the colleges of education, the inadequacy of teachers” pay, the condition of school buildings and the low grant levels, the total picture of a Labour Government quite unwilling to meet even the modest programme of the 1964 election manifesto was never drawn together. The state of the economy flitted through delegates’ contributions but the assumptions of Wilson’s deflation and freeze were never challenged. the economy and education’s input into it were taken as given. In short, the main body of NUS thought would not have frightened the Townswomen’s Guild.
NUS and Democracy
The structure of the union makes it especially vulnerable to ruling minorities. The rapid turnover of delegates and their lack of political experience leaves procedure and the direction of the Council in the hands of the old men and ex-students on the Executive and the Steering Committee. (The last two presidents have both been twenty-seven, a clear generation older than the students entering the universities they presided over.) The infrequency of Council Sessions, (it meets only twice a year and threes no middle tier of representation) and its unwieldy size in plenary means that the Executive alone takes the fundamental decisions about policy implementation and initiation. While attempts by constituent unions to bring forward their own information seemed to be slowed down from the platform (Newcastle Memorandum on Voting, UCL on Means Test, GLCs on the London Differential, LSE on the crisis negotiations). (5. Voting Commission Report, October 1966, para 56)
Members of the Executive themselves have attacked its level of political morality, especially in relation to the elections. Michael Stern found ‘the most distasteful aspect is the use of the Union machinery they control, by the incumbents, to elect their successors’. Roger Lyons, Union Vice President and later Treasurer, attacked what he called ‘corruption’ from the platform at Margate in 1966. When challenged by the remainder of the Executive to substantiate his allegations, he listed eighteen examples of Executive malpractice which were confidentially circulated to NUS secretaries. Even then three of the examples were not reproduced, ‘on the advice of the Union’s Solicitor’. The Times reports Lyons, who was elected against the ticket, as accusing the Executive of ‘using its prior rights to have information in order to contain members and stop them taking part in discussions’. (6. The Times, 26 January 1967) The most obvious example of abuse is NUS’ unique voting system which has survived the repeated wishes of over half the Council to introduce a more representative election system. The particular dangers of the present Multiple Transferable Vote system is that an organised group of 51 per cent can control all ten Executive seats if they operate a ‘ticket’. While weak candidates can, with the support of the ticket organisers, be dragged on to the Executive, independent candidates have to break the ticket list entirely. The system leads to a polarisation of radical and conservative opinion in the Union and effectively forces groups within the Council, say the ‘political’ universities, to adopt takeover tactics to get any representation on the Executive at all. (7.For general discussion of the Executive’s role in policy and implementation, see op. cit. paragraphs 77-89) Since the Executive plays such a crucial role in the whole policy creation, direction and campaign, it is inevitable that radical opinion in the Union will want at least a voice on that Executive.
The Executive acromegaly and all-or-nothing election system has produced in out view a particularly low level of campaigning based on various modifications of a basic smear, the calling of anyone left of the Rotary Club ‘Communists’. Discontent came to a head at Exeter in 1966 where one of the listed ticket supporters of the executive was changed within minutes of the election. Geoff Martin, who was reported as ‘dedicated to reducing Communist influence'(8. Guardian, 12 April 1966), has admitted, though it was scarcely necessary, to using a ticket on this occasion. An emergency motion at this Council led to a Commission which introduced new methods to make tickets an blatant abuses more difficult without actually changing the voting system. The new system will cramp smear canvassing: militants will find it easier to run for elections without being libelled as mentally sick, sexually deviant or politically motivated.
One of the most nauseous aspects of the election smears has been the intervention of Fleet Street. The Sunday Times in particular has devoted five articles over the last two years to the danger of ‘extremist takeovers’ of the NUS. The paper has exposed ‘a determined left wing bid for power’, ‘closely organised extremist plan’ and ‘far left’s attempt to seize power’. When militants we Labour Party members, the Sunday Times simply said that ‘they deny being Communist Party Members’. A recent article boldly named three ‘self-declared Communists’, none of whom had any connexion whatsoever with the Communist Party. The Observer tagged along rather less energetically, in an article headed ‘Union Fights Communist Bid For Power’. Alan Hunt was quoted, for example, as saying that he did not mind who got elected to the executive, as long as they are ‘aggressive’, when what he actually saud was, ‘progressive’. The rest of the press has been more straightforward; any remotely progressive move is immediately labelled a plot from the Kremlin. Thus after attempts to introduce a ‘Student Charter’ summarising NUS student polecat had failed, at Easter 1965, the Evening Standard trumpeted ‘Communists defeated in First Round’. In the week that RSA held its founding convention, Bruce Kemble, the Daily Express’ Education Reporter, posed the question ‘that worries every responsible don and student in Britain’; ‘who will capture the students’ ears in the next few months – the lively young Liberals or the Moscow-organised militants? …'(9. Bruce Kemble, ‘Crisis among the angry students’, Daily Express, 1 February 1967). Peregrine Worsthorne was less alliterative. “The result is a growing body of bloody minded students who poison the university climate by setting teachers and taught at each other’s throats and generally embroiling the universities in an endless caterwaul of puerile protest.’ (10. Peregrine Worsthorne, ‘Too easy to go to University’, Sunday Telegraph, 5 February 1967). When an NUS conference decision was taken to pursue a neutralist international policy in November 1966, the reaction of the press was such that, as Tribune commented, ‘anyone who thought that the idea that non-alignment meant pro-communism had gone out with Senator McCarthy would have been proved wrong by the press this week.’
NUS and its Activists
The Executive’s paranoia about student Communist Party members is a very revealing aspect of their political outlook. For those who see politics as essentially manipulative, opposition becomes subversion. Any attempt to alter the present situation is sedition, the result of a minority plot and mass gullibility. The evidence of Battersea CAT to the NUS Voting Commission aptly commented: ‘It is unfortunate that the people who fight to keep politics out of the National Union are the same people who go round to you at election time and say, “Don’t vote for him he belongs to the…”‘ For the Executive, CP members have provided suitable scapegoats. In practice, Communist students have been simply too few to operate blocks and ‘control’ delegations and have had to rely on their ability. Precisely because of the smear barrier in most colleges, elected Communists are not only able to downright pedantic about obeying mandates and observing delegation responsibility. What characterised UCL or Leeds when they had CP secretaries was their painstaking and informed motions and speeches: UCL used to manhandle a three-tier filing cabinet into Council floor; Leeds intervention on teacher training and the National Plan verged on the academic. Clause Three of the Union specifics that ‘it is not the role of the Union to become a general political forum.’ (11. Sunday Times, 5 February 1967). In this demonology, politics is seen as something that threatens to bring the conflicts of the real world into the educational enclave which is the students’ only arena. Those from political backgrounds, it is implied, wish to superimpose the ideology of their parent party on the virgin neutrality of NUS thought and reproduce the pantomime of parliamentary debate in NUS Council. in practice, of course, the ‘apoliticism’ appears to conceal a principled adherence to the assumptions and aims of Fabian Labourism. NUS Executive members pass fluently and regularly into Transport House and the Union bureaucracy. The 1964/6 Secretary went direct to the editorship of the Amalgamated Engineering Union Journal whose (unsuccessful) role in the 1967 AEU elections is notorious: the heads of Transport House Research and of its Overseas Department were both until recently members of the NUS oligarchy. The last two personal assistants of Sir Ronald Gould of the NUT have also been NUS Executive members. The present Executive and right-wing floor organisers are active supporters of the London Fabian Society. They are our social engineers, nudging and anticipating capitalism. There is no secret about this. Only they themselves bother with the polite fiction of their ‘apoliticism.’
The Radicals Emerge
The assumptions of a centralised bureaucratised Union with local militants attacked an the central machinery increasingly inducted into central planning mechanisms are explicit and highly political. NUS’ ‘sane and sensible policy to get at the levers of power’ (12. Ian Cunningham (NUS executive) Surrey University, 5 June 1967) has involved respectability at all costs and converted it into a listless company union.
It was inevitable that studens would eventually come to revolt against the menopausal leadership of NUS and its flaccid policies. For the last eight years the larger universities have tended to be an awkward squad with the NUS, continually advocating more radical policies. Universities with a strong and democratic union came to Council with an elected delegation fully briefed and mandated on all issues by general meetings. Universities like Leeds, Manchester, UCL and more recently Birmingham, Hull, LSE, Keele, York and Sussex, have sent sophisticated delegates who have generally voted and organised against the Chair. The main areas of Executive support comes, by contrast, from the backward areas which have tended to rely on national leadership rather than local initiative; the traditionally conservative universities and colleges of education which command a quarter of the votes. The Technical Colleges have become increasingly disenchanted with the Chair and provide rather an unpredictable and truculent bloc.
The pattern of growing opposition to the NUS style and leadership, however, depended on the growth of parallel organisations which were concerned with the type of politics which NUS insisted on ignoring. In October 1965, a new London based student newsletter called Snap was started by NUS activists, for distribution among student unionists. It had been originally conceived as a group called Students Now for Action and Progress, but this thirties-sounding alliance never lasted as far as its launching. the first issue declared, in the sort of prose that seemed necessary at the time, ‘We Believe in the vale of inter-collegiate communication. Students in this country have never had psychological unity – not because common student concerns and action do not exist but because most students are simply unaware of them’ (13. Snap, 8 October 1965.) The news service scooped the first Department of Education and Science mutterings on student loans on 6 October 1965 – although NUS took no action until 22 October when they sent a confidential letter to union presidents, a tactic which managed to let sleeping dogs lie. Snap readers’ groups discussed their own problems rather than those that NUS had in mind for them. The Establishment reacted by barring its reporters from NUS Margate Council 1965, and attacking it. Alan Evans announced from the platform that was edited by lying Communists , despite the well-known fact that both editors were Labour party members. Tom McNally called it a ‘despicable rag’. Both went on to enter the Executive ticket. Frank Fuchs, the editor of Sennet, the London University newspaper, who had refused and was physically barred from the office. Two libel writs were sent to the paper, one in the name of the NUS solicitors, and it was repeatedly attacked in Student News.
The pattern of journalistic agitation continued both in the increasingly disenchanted student press and in specifically insurrectionary papers like The Agitator at LSE. The party-political groups begun to issue joint statements. The first was a mild rebuke to the Americans in Vietnam signed by officials from the Liberal, Labour and Communist student groups and drafted at NUS Margate 1965 Council. it was at this meeting that the fist left-wing NUS breakthrough came, when the Council decided overwhelmingly to reject the proposal of the Majority Report on International Affairs which advocated full membership of the ISC (see David Triesman’s article), the CIA financed, anti-Communist organisation with which NUS had been traditionally identified. The Report’s advice was not accepted. Usually the Executive was prepared to accept the occasional defeat as a tolerable dissonance in their overall fugal pattern. But this reverse undermined their central stance in Cold War student politics and they fought it with ferocity.
Immediately after the decision, delegates were told that they would lose their travel concessions and that anyway the defeat was engineered by left-wing journalists. Over the following six months, a great deal of interest was stimulated in colleges all over the country as the international question was debated. The Establishment found the lobbying of the student hierarchy more to their taste. Selected students were taken on an expenses paid weekend at a Maidenhead hotel by an organisation called ‘The Fund for International Student Cooperation’ where they were gently told the facts of life about world politics by lecturers flown in for the weekend (14. See Private Eye and Essex Left, May 1967) The pressure on the Union Balls and Banquets was unrelenting; at a reception at Endsleigh Street held immediately before the UCL FoundationBall, two past presidents of the NUS were there to support the Executive’s canvassing. Eventually the ‘swingometer’ which the UCL NUS Committee had installed in their Gower Street office moved slowly in favour of the ISC and the Executive. The Council decision was reversed at Exeter
But during these six months radical counter-networks developed; left-wing centres had kept in daily telephone contact and this enabled the cooperation behind attempts at national student opposition to the Rhodesian UDI centred on LSE and York. Throughout this period there was increasing concern with the going pace of student activity in Europe and the USA where the universities were spearheading the opposition to the Vietnam War. The syndicalism of the French students and the Direct Action of the Provo movement increasingly became part of British students political syntax. Jut as the Americans had studied the tactics and literature of the CND movement, so FSM and SDS literature was shipped back to English activists. There was a sudden growth of motions moving no confidence in the philosophy of the NUS, an approach which would have been unthinkable two years ago. The first of these debates was in Hull on 25 January 1967, where David Adelstein’s attack on the inadequacies of NUS’ vision was supported by 208 of the 250 student unions. The Times described the vote as ‘essentially a victory for the union’s politically active element which has successfully exploited a widespread dissatisfaction among students who feel that they are not being given enough say in how their union is run’. (15. The Times, 26 January 1967) Geoff Martin’s reaction was ‘philosophical’, he continued to attribute these reversals to minor and temporary discontents. The Guardian’s summary was more realistic, ‘in constituent union there has been criticism of misuses of executive powers, lack of militant leadership, a decision to double membership fees, internal voting procedures and divisions of opinion among the executive.’ (16. Guardian, 24 January 1967) Over the following months motions of no confidence proliferated in Swansea, Keele, Birmingham, Essex and both the London technical colleges and colleges of Education. The Executive remained complacent; Martin told New Society, ‘that he expects to see unions “trot in and out” for a time’. (17. New Society, 16 February 1967) The first signs of a nationally organised alternative to the NUS’s unrepentantly non-militant politics came when twelve student leaders, six of them primarily active in ULS, NALSO and the CP, and the rest local union celebrities, signed a manifesto which they offered the waiting student movement as ‘a basis for discussion and action’. The Radical Student Alliance was thus launched. The actual content of the manifesto was moderate and basic, stressing student rights to control their own union and union funds and have a say in disciplinary matters. It demanded an end to the means test and declared that education must be ‘classless, integrated (not tripartite or binary) and comprehensive at all levels’. It asked for more pay for teachers and solidarity with foreign students, especially those who were victims of oppression. It even went as far as to mention collective student action on ‘matters of social concern… for example in opposition to racialism wherever it occurs.’ For those without knowledge of the turbulent conflict within NUS, it would appear innocuous; for those convinced of a need for a revolutionary challenge, it was scarcely fiery. For most of the winter term things were quiet. Meanwhile however, the attack on Walter Adams’s desirability as Director of LSE had begun; LSE students boycotted lectures on the day of Adelstein’s trial (for writing to The Times). At the NUS Margate Conference in November, Bill Savage, the outgoing President, skilfully endorsed the LSE action in terms of an attack on ‘educational Colonel Blimps’, a typically golf club image, and managed to use LSE as a codpiece for the NUS’s lack of militancy over less spectacular discipline problems. Every time Adelstein spoke he was received with rapturous applause, but an LSE motion advocating the use of direct action in cases where negotiations broke down, failed to reach the floor. Mike Thomas, Vice President, said angrily, ‘Some of those concerned were not protesting solely about the suspensions.’ (18. At St Mary’s College of Education, Strawberry Hill.) The NUS response was further proof of their ability to miss the point as they stumbled though the wood of injustice trying to find the legal tree. The most heated debate was over the much vaunted change in the voting system. In a bitter debate the platform was clearly split in its attitude to the whole relationship of Executive with membership. The Treasurer attacked ‘corruption’ from the platform. The 58 per cent vote for a change in the election system against the strong advice of the platform reflected a growing independence and radicalism.
The next period is worth some examination to plot out the Executive’s responses to a fluid situation. The RSA pressed ahead to its first conference which was held at LSE over the weekend of 28/29 January. The press release promised that the meeting would be the ‘first public testing of a common front student alliance which has so far been influential but ambiguous… it can be expected that the convention will dramatise the growing split in the leadership and local membership of the national union.’ About 500 students arrived from all over Britain with strong Union contingents from Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Hull. Not a single official from NUS was apparently visible. The discussion was energetic and volatile. Procedure was dispensed with and formal motions scarcely occurred. The meeting had a very strong antipathy to organisation; the phrase ‘grassroots’ could be guaranteed to enter every speech. RSA speakers pledged themselves, as the Guardian put it ‘to a brand of political involvement which NUS has studiously sought to avoid’. (19. Guardian, David Gowlay, ‘The Shape of Student Politics’.) The central discussion was on the government’s announcement of a discriminatory fee increase for overseas students which was decreed on the first day of the Christmas vacation without any consultation whatsoever. After electing twenty members of a council to act as a coordinating body to service student radicals, the meeting called for a day of mass student activity in the form of strikes, boycotts, meetings, and town rally on 22 July 1967 and massive participation in the NUS parliamentary protest rally organised for 1 July.
The NUS’s absence from the meeting did not prevent their attempting to nullify it with the sort of press release which they so much prefer to dialogue. On Sunday, Geoff Martin put onto the Agency tapes the most hackneyed ploy ever used by the NUS. It took the form of a letter to the Russian Student Council, complaining about an alleged meeting between two Russian students visiting this country as guests of NUS and Communist students in Britain. This offence took place in Novemeber and although it took two months for the President to decide that a rebuke was deserved, it was also deemed necessary to release its contents to the British Press before it had been received in Moscow. The press rose beautifully; stories headed ‘Students Protest Against Russian Interference’ all mentioned RSA as the subject of discussion between the Russians and the British Communists. The notion that militancy can be imported from Moscow and student radicals stage-managed from the Kremiln could only occur to an antiquated Cold War bureaucrat.
Despite the assault in the press, students arrived in massive numbers for the July lobby of Parliament, and despite the deliberate attempts of the NUS leadership to confine it to two union officials from each college, like a coach trip to The Sound of Music. Martin walked out of the lobby after twenty minuted but the rest of the 3000 students waited patiently and in spite of the painful movement of the queue and the rain, the lobbiers remained determined. The National Press gave it the wildest coverage that a student lobby has ever had. The Evening Standard described the protest as ‘symptomatic of a fairly modern phenomenon. The development of an obsessive and direct interest in political action among students.’ (20. Evening Standard, 1 February 1967.)
Subsequent NUS activity was centred on manoeuvring with the Conservative Party to have a motion sufficiently mild to encourage Labour rebels, placed on the House’s business. The plan was to stage a one-day protest on the day before the debate in the House but the letters to their local NUS secretaries were entirely concerned with the dangers of militancy. Rather than any rash talk of strikes, they suggested what the Guardian called ‘a moderate policy of lobbying and letter-writing’ and were obsessed that any action that was taken should have the full approval of the college authorities and local newspaper editors. Aware that on the campus the radicals were forcing the pace, the Executive chose this period to dissociate itself from the RSA and its activities.
On Sunday 5 February, the Sunday Times reported that ‘a group of hard-line moderates will demand the proscription of the RSA, a popular front ginger group within the NUS’ and went on, ‘a hard-line member of the Executive..said yesterday “This will be a crushing blow for the Union, but we believe it necessary to prevent Communist control.”‘ The article then attempted to list ‘self-declared Communists’ naming three well-known non-Communists, members of the Labour and Liberal parties, to whom the Sunday Times apologised the following week. Although there is no constitutional means for proscribing anyone, the Exectuive, meeting the same day, busied themselves in the composition of a letter officially, ‘disassociating themselves’ from the RSA. In Manchester, the right wing forced a filibuster through three Union meetings and the Union ran a referendum before the strike action was agreed on. The NUS had still not committed themselves to a date for their action, indeed could not, till the date of their parliamentary debate was decided on by the Whips. They continued with their anti-militant pleas; on no account was any action to be called a ‘strike’ since, ‘preliminary response from the national press to this sort of action has been highly unfavourable’. On 18 February, the Executive chose, lo and behold, 22 February for their activity too, although the parliamentary debate was on the same day. In their letter which announced this, they sternly warned against any lobbying of Parliament in case it would distract and anger previously sympathetic MP’s and insisted that ‘under no circumstances should the word strike be used’… all these admonitions despite the apparent knowledge that any mass activity would have been planned for three weeks now. On the eve of 22 February, the NUS began the final stage of its desk-bound protest and started to claim that it was the radicals who had procrastinated and has ‘attached themselves to our shirt tails because its the only way they can get publicity. They have called for strikes and pickets which we think frankly ridiculous’. (21. The Times, 23 February 1967) Having heaved themselves on the bandwagon some three weeks late, they proceeded to denounce the drivers and announce that it was all a mistake. These anti-militant tactics had some success. The claim that strike action might alienate press and parliamentary opinion confused some unions and Lancaster, Glasgow and Strathclyde called off boycotts. But The Times still calculated that ten universities took effective strike action and quoted an RSA leader as estimating that as many as twenty were officially involved. The only meeting that NUS could claim to have taken a direct hand in organising was the ‘orderly and attentive meeting’ at the Friends House, Euston Road, where Lord Arran called the decision ‘a highly morally distasteful action’. That evening, Geoff MArtin was once again on television where he devoted his time to another attack on the RSA’s motives. At the NUS Easter Council in Liverpool, the Executive’s ‘timing’ of their protest action was censured and the RSA, the Northern Presidents’ Meeting and Coordinating Committee of Overseas Student Organisation were congratulated.
The point of this examination of dates and decision is to show that in a real context the NUS leadership lack both the desire and the political structure to mobilise protest on this sort of scale. For in practice, the people who care enough to organise strikes and lead protests are precisely those militants the NUS Executive had constantly attacked.
Now the Grants
The same patter was repeated with an identical script when the Government announced its intention to halve whatever increase might be recommended by the Triennial Grants Review due to report in 1968. The vicious cut in the value of grants came at a time when the Margate Conference on the NUS (November 1967) had discussed and rejected the notion of a student wage. Discussion of the idea of the ‘student worker’ was widespread among radical students at the RSA’s Second Conference, NALSO’s Student Power meeting and the National Workers’ Control Conference. The concept did challenge student loyalty to the ruling class ethic of the old universities and the power structures of the new. But it is evident that students do not occupt the same position within capitalist relations of production as do workers – whose daily life drums into their consciousness the fundamental conflict over the division of the product. The remoteness of much of this discussion became obvious when -after the freeze, devaluation, the highest bank rate for forty years and a new £3000 million international loan – the January 1968 measures turned to the business of dismantling the social services. The ruthlessness of the cuts of school building, school milk and teacher expansion made complete nonsense of the NUS proposals for educational growth. The international needs of British capitalism made it essential to depress domestic living standards to the point where even British business might its increase its share of world trade. Some of the cuts were economically gratuitous: school milk and prescription charges were attacked entirely for the benefit of foreign bankers. The severity of the assault on student grants showed up the optimism of those militants who felt that the main problem confronting the NUS was whether to dub inevitable increase a grant or a wage. The impossibility of considering student conditions apart from the larger social crisis had never been clearer.
The NUS reactions which ensued follow too closely those of the Overseas Fees Campaign to need repetition here. Martin argued that students were prepared, like anyone else, to make sacrifices for Britain in crisis, although his membership was constitutionally prevented from discussing the nature of this crisis. In his public appearances, he competed with the Government in proposing possible attacks on education spending, denouncing student militants and urging better discipline. Various meetings were held with Gordon Walker.
Aware of the opposition by even the Right to his earlier enthusiasm for the grant sacrifices, Martin now tended to decorate his statements with appeals to protect the ‘children of less well off families’. The usual rallies and marches produced some mobilisation, but the NUS leadership relied on inertia to cover the traces of a defeat they had no intention of fighting. Indeed the circumstances of a cut in grants placed them in a very difficult position. For either the accepted the cut and the ‘Back Britain’ logic that went with it, or they had to accept that the attack on education and student conditions was merely the climax of a sequence of attacks on working-class wages, living standards and industrial organisations – and could only be fought alongside the other groups attacked.
An attempt to move No Confidence in the Executive’s handling of the grants issue failed at the NUS’s Leicester conference despite a wide backing from local union. This setback and the defeat of radical candidates in the 1968 elections depended largely on skilled handling of delegates. The elected president for 1968-70 is Trevor Fisk, previously Union Secretary, who publicly announced that he was running to stop the radical candidate. The Elctions Commission ruled that he was ineligible for candidature because he only signed on to his law course at the Inns of Court six days before the election papers were due. This decisions was then startlingly reversed in a second overnight session. It is an index of the general level of political and intellectual credulity within the NUS that even the gymnastics were not seriously challenged. In 1962, Fisk was listed by David George, the President of Debates at London University, ‘as one of the signatories to George’s own proposed constitution of a University of London Chapter of the John Birch Society’. While there is little doubt that his views have been suitably modified since those days, Fisk remains the product of the right-wing, elitist Union dynasty that is one of the worst bureaucratic cliques in the country.
The international chain of student insurgency in the spring and summer of 1968 began to transform the perspectives of the British student movement. Occupations and sit-ins occurred in a wide range of colleges on a wide range of issues (the examination system, the nature of courses, disciplinary powers of university authorities etc.). Events such as these prompted some student radicals to abandon their tussle within the NUS and to strengthen revolutionary student power agitation at the base. At the same time those socialists who had formerly condemned student movements as irredeemably petit-bourgeois began to acknowledge that they might have a genuinely revolutionary potential after all. The inauguration of a Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation in June 1968 was in part the product of these reorientations. This promises to be a crucial initiative in the development of a revolutionary student movement in Britain. The reaction of the NUS leadership to the stirring events was to tell anyone who cared to listen that student insurrection could be avoided in Britain if only the Government and Vice Chancellors would concede the petty ameliorations proposed by the NUS. Nothing could be more loathsome to Fisk and his kind that a revolution which promised to strangle the last capitalist with the entrails of the last bureaucrat. Their reflex appeared merely to use the student insurrections to apply a little pressure to the authorities and present the NUS as the champion of the reasonable majority of students.
The NUS oligarchy will certainly never reform itself. Despite opportunities for even a diplomatic shift to the Left, it has remianed wedded to a deeply conservative vision of society and human action within it. It has refused to reassess its ‘apoliticism’ and, if anything, has intensified its fetishistic concern with the niceties of non-involvement. The politics of NUS still remain manipulative, managing the press and manufacturing debate; the only hope for mass democracy is bigger parties and more sherry. The Executive’s stained-glass minds concentrate on methods of reforming the Union without allowing any of their top-down power into the hands of the active membership. Externally there is no attempt to unite the fragmented policies of the Union into a single intelligible critique, far less to link this to strategy for change in British education and society. A phoney consensus with genuine differences glossed over, is still preferred to the admission of fundamental divisions. The feebless of NUS consensualism in student crises, like LSE and the Overseas Student Fees decision, emphasises the gap between it and a genuine student union.
What is needed is a programme which would enable the students to experience new rank and file alliances and a much higher level of demands and activities. This is precisely what happened in the USA, where the direct contact of the activist with the machinery of segregation in the South and the Northern Ghettos, expanded their outlook into the wider picture of the American power structure. A real student movement will grow out of a real struggle, not vice versa. The sort of transitional projects that activists could increasingly launch should have as their central aim enlarging the arena of student activity to include the Trades Council and the Stewards Committees as well as the Union and the University. A national Housing Campaign could, for instance, link up with local housing struggles and Tenants Associations in a way which could enhance all three activities. For they are all reflection of the same failure to divert adequate funds into public housing.
The particular situation of the student in lodgings and flats which are quite useless for serious study and cost him two-thirds of his grant, is merely one consequence of the same crisis which forces council rents up and allows the domination of the Rachmans of Islington, Moss Side and Liverpool 9. The ‘sustained programme to provide more houses at prices that ordinary people can afford’ of which the Labour Party Manifesto spoke has utterly failed to change the basic situation. Three and a half million houses lacking basic amenities; four million houses over 80 years old; land prices up 40 per cent over the last 5 years; the student has lived all these problems. Any demand that University students should jump the queue of stagnation may make educational sense in terms of ‘output and efficiency’ but it would the effort of a fragmented interest group to evade the general crisis by a partial solution. Wilson’s satellitism to Washington forces an attack on Government spending. It does not distinguish between student building or local authority building. The new Rent Act, welcomed by NUS as another lever to decent student accommodation at reasonable prices, has turned out to be controlled by precisely these landlords, lawyers and estate agents it was designed to attack. Of the 1100 cases going to appeal in the GLC area, many of them by students, only 357 had a decrease in rent upheld and 480 had their rent levels increased. What is needed is student evidence which can link the students’ housing conditions to the general social situation and then use this factual background not just on the shelves of the DES, student union files and newspaper editors’ waste paper baskets, but in a campaign at tenant meetings and council house protests. A housing campaign for students which does not take the plight of the rest of the community into consideration will get the contempt it deserves from the working people. Students should not be asking for special treatment and university cubicles but fair housing and a council house for students as well as any other young worker. By uniting their experience of the need for decent living conditions with the fights and organisation of other groups, who are demanding dramatic improvements in their housing conditions, students give meaning to their demands to be treated like ordinary people and ordinary people will respect them for it.
Equally, the radicals’ demand for militancy and involvement can be made concrete action over the teachers’ pay claim. Teachers’ real wages have been steadily failing, in relation not only to manual workers but also to white collar and other professional groups. A comparison with ten other European Countries puts Britain at the bottom (except for Eire) in some categories. The combination of a non-militant Union, desperate overcrowding and absurd salaries has long caused an exodus from the profession. In one year alone, 2000 newly qualified students never even took up a position. If the Government were serious about increasing the leaving age, reducing classes to statutory size and implementing the staffing recommendations of the Plowden Report, it would need to increase the number of teachers by about 200000, some 70 per cent of the current teaching force. Yet the blame for the present situation lies very largely with the teaching unions, which have used any and every excuse to evade any militant action. They have followed the ATTI and the AUT’s concept of a white collar union with its ‘professional ethic’ (which never cramps the BMA’s style), isolated from their own rank and file and other union. The correct models of course, are the white collar unions like DATA, ASSET and AScW, which use selected strike action, intensive negotiations and a high level of strike pay to great effect. Employers are powerless against militant wage bargaining in one sector with the whole area resources behind it. Afterwards the neighbouring sectors can fight to drift their wages up to the new differential levels. The selective sanctions that teachers have agreed to apply make possible this form of sectional attack especially if the areas of militancy were already Plowden designated ‘positive wage discrimination’ areas. The NUS has always had a formal policy for increasing teachers; pay, but militant action is now needed on the picket line and the school hall.
In many respects the alternatives which are said to confront student militants – the industrial struggle or the university – are simply a function of a comparatively small number of student militants. A developed, autonomous student movement with a clear theoretical perspective would be able to obtain wide inroads of control within the university while at the same time participating participating in anti-imperialist and workers’ struggles. This is already true of Japan and increasingly so of Germany. Without experience of mass political struggle, above all in the Labour movement, the best criticism of colour-supplement culture, the most complete blueprint for students’ control or the grooviest anti-university might all be sponsored by the Arts Council. The Left within the university has got to find a bond with those parts of the system which are able to halt and change it fundamentally, such as tenants and unofficial strikers. The campus cannot become a citadel of advanced political consciousness if the same lies of national unity, social peace and racial difference are steamrollered over the rest of society. The Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation could play a vital role here, in clarifying and generalising the political content of student struggle.
For either radical or revolutionary, work in the NUS is depressing and seldom rewarding. The sheer dead weight of an organisation defined by the absence of militants is difficult to exaggerate. Debate appears so infantile, organisation appears so manipulative and elections appear so deeply conditioned by hucksterism that the value of enlarging the radical enclave within the NUS is very questionable. At present, given the wide range of interest-groups within the union and their uneven level of political development, it is unlikely that a radical Executive would be able to give the advanced political militants in the universities what they want and at the same time service the entirely different attitude of the apolitical small colleges. The NUS does represent some kind of expression for the activities in the small colleges without any socialist formation, and the NUS Council is their main chance to make contact with other militants, especially those in local universities and bigger colleges who can make available their experience. This happened in Leeds, Manchester and Essex on a very political basis. RSA was welcomed by precisely these people as a way to overcome the isolation of radicals marooned in backward colleges; it allowed them to gain invitations and thus footholds in colleges that would ban the Conservative party. But it is also true that the leadership of the NUS could change hands without anything like a majority of British students being aware of it; unless a radical Executive had some mass backing at the roots, a well-organised Right deprived of power would be in a strong position to counter-attack.
Perhaps the most important of the current developments is that the increasingly frustrated militant universities are talking of disaffiliation. The NUS at present remains almost unique as a single national union What is more frequent is one militant union and a sorry service organisation. But where an autonomous revolutionary student movement emerges outside the national union, such as the SDS in Germany or the SDS in the USA, the latter often trails belatedly after it. If a genuine lead is given, it will oblige the national organisation to follow – such as the VDS and NSA had to some extent to do in West Germany and the USA.
Beyond all these questions of organisation, it is clear that out of the ideological wreckage of social democracy and Stalinism, a new student revolutionary perspective is emerging – international, extra-parliamentary and returning militant politics to the street. These students have seen through the fancy dress of modern capitalism and found the irrational violence and the hopelessness which is its core. They have seen their community of interest with the working class – a community which should concern us as much as it should frighten those who rule us. There is a spectre haunting Europe and its banners read, in Berlin and Warsaw and Paris and London: “Today the Students, Tomorrow the Workers’.”
1969 – London