We Glasgow students were inspired by the spirit of Red Clydeside

Written with Liam Turbett and Suzanne Ross. Originally published in the Guardian.

It was with the words “It’s not an eviction – it’s an upgrade” that, in late March, Newsnight Scotland viewers learned of the resilience of the Free Hetherington – Glasgow University’s student occupation. Up to 80 police officers, the police helicopter and university security had tried to end an occupation that at that point had lasted 50 days. They dragged us out, but we later forced our way into the university’s administrative hub and occupied the historic Senate tower instead, before an agreement to re-occupy the Free Hetherington. Now, after seven months – the UK’s longest ever student occupation – we are finally leaving. And this time it’s not an eviction – it’s a victory parade.

Our protest has ended amid stunning concessions from university management. The planned axing of courses from nursing to archeology has been stalled, perhaps indefinitely – alongside a guarantee that no staff will be forced out of their jobs. Although some course cuts and a voluntary redundancy programme are going ahead, it still represents a massive climbdown from what was originally proposed in February. And while the occupied building won’t return to its original use as a postgraduate social club, a new club is in line to be opened in the next few months.

The occupation cannot take full credit for these gains. Students and staff, unions and politicians, people from across the political spectrum – they all came together to create something more powerful than any one group could hope to be. But there is no doubt that the occupation played a key role in building and sustaining this momentum, even after the end of term.

From day one, our occupation sought to be more than just a protest. Through free lectures, debates and daily meals cooked in the building’s kitchens, we attempted to demonstrate that there was an alternative model of education – and an alternative model on which to base society – at the heart of a university descending into a neoliberal nightmare. Our actions radicalised a whole new layer of students, and through practical support – hot drinks on the picket lines and banner-making sessions – for the lecturers’ strikes in March, we were able to put the rhetoric of student-worker solidarity into action.

Owen Jones, author of Chavs, has called us “the students who took on management and won”; but those of us raised on the traditions of Red Clydeside see the seeds of much greater things. Over the last seven months we’ve experienced the kind of strength-through-solidarity that our rulers would rather remained buried in obscure history books. It is almost 40 years since Jimmy Reid began his rectorship at the University of Glasgow with a speech compared by the New York Times to Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: “Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today … it is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making.”

After a summer that saw an explosion of discontent on Britain’s streets, Reid’s rectorial address has lost none of its power. The country’s citizens, especially young people, have been disconnected from the country’s institutions. Our fates are decided by politicians and financiers away from the public eye. But Reid also pointed us toward solutions.

That year – 1972 – he would lead one of the most audacious struggles in British history. Faced with the closure of their shipyards by blind economic forces and government cuts, Clydeside’s workers staged a work-in, outproducing the old management and forcing Ted Heath’s Conservatives into a climbdown. We would not seek to draw a direct comparison between the fight of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and our own, but we feel that by staying the course through to victory, by creating alternative institutions, by showing ourselves and those around us the power that we have when we all stand together, we have shown that Reid’s dream of a society free from alienation lives on.

We also believe that while the occupation is ending, the fight to win more power for the people of this country goes on. The Glasgow University court – which is composed of managers and has responsibility for financial decisions only – believes it has the right to over-rule the senate, which is a democratic body of academics. This is a perfect microcosm of our society today, where the financial rules the political. In our own small way we will work towards change by challenging those cuts that are still planned – both at our university, where staff pensions continue to come under attack, and across society. We are building towards a major “People First” demonstration that the Scottish Trades Union Congress have planned for 1 October.

To the rest of the student movement, to working people and the unemployed, to families facing repossession, we say this: they will tell you that the decision has already been made, that you can’t fight and win. This is because they are scared of you, scared that you’ll band together. To borrow a popular chant from the student movement, there are many many more of us than them.

  1. May 11th, 2012
    Trackback from : Moh Kohn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: