UCU Teach Out IX

Radical or Simply Younger

  • This report is a part of the following series: UCU Teach Out.
  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

I was shocked to find that Lancaster had a radical history.

Audience member

This talk comprised of two parts. First, the University of Lancaster’s Honorary Archivist and former Academic Registrar Ms Marion McClintock MBE gave a potted history of student radicalism here. Secondly, Dr Alison Lloyd Williams, Senior Research Associate within our Sociology Department and member of the local Global Link Development Education Centre, discussed the latter’s ongoing Documenting Dissent project, focused on the history of radicalism and dissent in the city of Lancaster.

Ms McClintock (as much a part of the university as the furniture, having joined it since the late 1960s) began by explaining the origins of radicalism in the 1830s, sprouting as it did out of a heady mix of Enlightenment values, the Napoleonic wars, and women taking more of a centre stage. In particular, it was originally concerned with issue of electoral reform. This idea of radicalism has, obviously, developed in the centuries since.

Lancaster University, as one of the later plate glass universities of the 1960s, was put [in Lancaster] quite deliberately, in an attempt to stem a centuries-long outflow of graduates from [the] area. McClintock proposed that a number of factors made Lancaster University a prime locale for fomenting radical dissent. Firstly, as other local industries withered away, the new university absorbed many of the newly-unemployed into its own workforce. Additionally, whilst many of the original Heads of Department were conservative, having only recently returned from serving as officers in the British Army during the Second World War, many of the other academic staff were much younger—far closer in age to the students that they were teaching.

Additionally, Lancaster’s original mix of subjects was a rather radical affair. It offered Religious Studies, rather than Theology. It offered a student-directed (but academic-supervised) Independent Studies course. It offered Creative Writing, which was beyond the pale when it was set up, and is now mainstream. Students were given an unusual level of choice in their studies, with Lancaster lacking much in the way of set curricula. There was a three-part Part I portion to a degree (now a 2-part major and minor system), and one was more able to change their choice of major during their studies than was traditional.

The students were also engaged in international affairs, supporting campaigns relating to Vietnam, Rhodesia and Northern Ireland. Nowadays, we can’t even make quota on a BDS referendum. Multiple competing student publications flourished, such as the weekly newspaper John O’Gauntlet, the named-after-the-editor’s-girlfriend Carolynne and the staff–student Student Comment. On top of that, many groups had their own publications. McClintock read out excerpts from the Socialist Society’s Spark, another group’s journal The Agitator and the joint university–city publication Free Press, amongst others.

I thought, with initial disappointment, about our current offerings. The only student newspaper nowadays is the Students’ Union-run SCAN: Student Comment & News (with a section within continuing the name of the original Carolynne, but without all the pin-up girls in academic dress). The only university publications are the near-worthless collection of press releases that is LUText and the not-much-more-interesting alumni magazine Steps.

I continued listing publications I knew of, however, and began to see remnants of that rich literary tradition. subtext continues to carry the critical, irreverent torch of the seminal InkyText (and, McClintock added when bringing it up, thank God for that). We have a handful of creative and academic publications, such as the open-access journal the Luminary and the fiction anthologies Cake and Flash. I know I’ve seen a very well-produced magazine from the Chinese Students & Scholars Association, and a number of the colleges intermittently publish their own magazines (although Pendle’s venerable The Witch seems to have withered on the vine since my time).

Where the current Lancaster landscape feels barren, however, is in the radical, or at the very least independent, publications. The Feminist Society managed to publish two issues of Fierce three years ago, but that seems to be about it. I was heavily involved with The Tab’s Lancaster branch once upon a time, but that’s been defunct for almost a year and a half now. Her Campus’s Lancaster branch still updates, but I am hesitant to call that drivel a publication. Where are the seething socialists, or the furious feminists, or the raging reactionaries? Despite, perhaps, my best efforts during my Tab tenure/reign of terror, it all remains rather piteously tame (bar for the shining light of subtext).

McClintock then detailed a handful of notable events from the 1960s and ’70s. It all began with the cleaners striking for better wages (where have we heard that before?), leading onto arguments over the introduction of gender-mixed accommodation in 1968 and the first student occupations of university buildings in response to the 1972 Craig affair. SCAN describes the affair as an attempt to dismiss English professor and Communist Party member David Craig due to his allegedly subversive views despite the fact, as subtext report, that the talented and popular teacher was actually not very close to the student militants, nor […] was he in charge of an active conspiracy to subvert the University. The affair even led to a pamphlet from the Council for Academic Freedom and Democracy, titled The Craig Affair: The Background to the Case of Dr. David Craig and Others, University of Lancaster. There were also rent strikes in 1975, which McClintock described as very bitter, and which went unresolved for as many as 12 months.

Part of the cause of this was the prevalence of radical groups on campus. Socialist Workers, Socialist Women and even a branch of the national Communist Party could be found agitating on campus, free to flourish and to issue information. Whilst we still have a Socialist Workers Society listed, the fact that I had to double-check that suggests that they’ve rather mellowed out. The intensity of that period, added McClintock, is difficult to convey. The Nuffield Theatre routinely staged controversial performances. Alexandra Square was used as a meeting point, with performances and debates regularly held there. At this time, the Students’ Union offices were located on the opposite side of the square to University House, which well suited its more confrontational approach. Nowadays, the Students’ Union offices are adjacent to University House. Insinuations regarding this arrangement are the reader’s own.

Further fuelling the fire was Lancaster’s pioneering efforts to put students onto influential bodies, such as the College Syndicates. It was an early adopter of teaching feedback. There was, as McClintock put it, a good deal of drugs and new approaches to sex, a great deal on gay rights and on women’s right. Posters adorned the Spine, which served as an additional meeting place.

This led McClintock to ask where does all that take us? The original point of the university was taking a fresh look at society, was examining, was taking nothing for granted and was pushing norms. There is still plenty of injustices to choose from, and there are still people fighting, but what is missing is some of the freeflowingness, the candour. Responding to a question about the influence of the collegiate system in the growth of such radicalism, McClintock struck a more hopeful note. She believed that the colleges were an example of the seeds that, given the right opportunities, would replant themselves.

Dr Williams now took the stage. Documenting Dissent is an ongoing city-based heritage project that started out of an interest in Lancaster Castle as a site of imprisonment, judgement and execution—there is no better symbol of state power than that. A prime example of Lancaster’s checkered history (along with its vital role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade) is that, in 1805, the Castle was the site of the largest single execution of gay men in British history. Our own founding Vice-Chancellor, Sir Charles Carter, was a Quaker who spent a handful of months in prison for conscientious objection during the Second World War.

The founding of the University coincided, said Dr Williams, with the explosion of the gay rights movement. As another example of the radicalism of the student body, campus saw the emergence of a strong Gay Liberation Front presence, whilst town preferred the more sedate Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

The focus of Dr Williams’ brief history of Lancaster radicalism, however, was the 2004 case of the George Fox Six. The Six were a group of students who interrupted an out-of-term-time presentation in one of the George Fox Building’s lecture theatres. Despite the building being named after the famed Quaker pacifist, the talk was part of a corporate event starring such peacenik groups as BAE Systems. The protestors interrupted the keynote speech […] with whistles, the unfurling of their banner and a speech of their own[, which] was quieter than planned as their loud speaker didn’t work. […] Matthew Wilson, one of the Six, later recalled that there had been a relatively good-natured response from the conference; some laughter and a call to sod off.

They were removed within minutes by security and police, which could have been the end of it. Instead, one was charged with Assault (later reduced to Obstruction of a Police Officer) and all were charged with Aggravated Trespass. This was the first high-profile incident of a university prosecuting its own students for activities undertaken on a campus. Needless to say, the university won the legal battle, but was harangued in the public relations battle. Perhaps this is why they have stayed their hand in all of the subsequent such protests.

In a question from the audience, two other potentially-important events were suggested for the project. The first is the November 12th 1886 speech by Socialist League supporter William Morris, which led in very short order to the setting-up of a local branch. The second is 1999, being the first year in which Green Party councillors were elected to the City Council. I’d question the value of according the Green Party the same respect as the Chartists or Quakers, but to each their own. As for the project, I suppose the greatest testament to it is that this report has been an absolute ballache to write, as I keep finding myself on the Documenting Dissent website instead.

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