by Michael Allan
The 1st of February this year marks the 5-year anniversary of the beginning of the Hetherington Occupation at Glasgow University. Coming in the midst of the militant 2010-11 UK-wide student movement against fees and cuts, it marked a peak in political activity on campus and served as a rallying call to thousands of students across the UK. What lessons can we take from this?
It was a chilly February lunchtime, in the midst of my second year at uni, when I got the call from a friend. “Come to the Hetherington. We’ve occupied it.”
Due to my geographical ignorance, I trudged up the hill past the brutalist monolith known as Glasgow Uni’s Adam Smith building to the place where I thought it was happening. Inside I was greeted by nothing but confused languages students when I asked where this occupation was. A couple of phone calls later and I had scuttled back down the hill toward University Gardens, to the grand old townhouse formerly known as the Hetherington Research Club.
The building had been closed for several months. Previously a building to provide post grads and languages students a social space and meetings venue, it had been shut due to a lack of funds. The intention from uni management, I would later understand, had been to turn it into offices.
Unfurled at the front was a large banner that read “OPEN”. Outside stood a couple of university security guards, who denied me entry. As you can tell I was hardly a leading member of the anti-cuts movement on campus, or else I would have been inside with the initial occupiers.
The Student Movement
Prior to this I had been a rather timid left reformist, a fan of Tony Benn and an active if somewhat increasingly disenchanted member of my local Labour Party. The occupation and the student movement at that time radicalised my politics and turned me toward the ideas of Marxism. I was not alone in this. The events of 2010-11 politicised thousands more like me across Britain.
The fag end of New Labour had been followed by the formation of a Tory-Lib Dem coalition the previous May. With the economic crash of 2008 and economic stagnation worldwide, the onus was on this government to push through austerity in order to shore up capitalism.
Nick Clegg, that once-popular TV debater, reversed the much-celebrated key campaign promise of ending tuition fees for students. The Lib Dems helped push through a cap of £9000 a year for students outwith Scotland, 3 times the previous figure. Now a lowly backbencher, his lasting legacy is that a complete reversal on a supposedly principled stance is now widely known as “doing a Clegg”.
The anger that this provoked among students was to trigger the biggest political awakening in the UK since the Iraq War. A wave of strikes, demonstrations and occupations of campus buildings came over the following months. On 10th November, the day of the tuition fees vote, a very militant section broke from the official NUS demonstration in London and ended up storming the Tory HQ in Millbank tower. Although fees were not to be implemented for Scottish students, the rise in fees limited choices for students in Scotland as well as affecting non-Scottish students who wished to study north of the border. Education was being cut by the newly elected SNP majority at Holyrood, with courses set to end and decreased student places at colleges and unis across Scotland. At Glasgow, Strathclyde and elsewhere, university management were pushing through ‘marketisation’ of campuses in order to boost income, with privatisations, redundancies, changes to working conditions and a reduction in ‘unprofitable’ courses.
In Glasgow, there were several solidarity demonstrations during that winter, which included school students who came out in support. And just before Christmas, there was a one-day occupation at Glasgow Uni. In spite of the fees vote being a done deal there was a huge upsurge in student militancy across Britain, in the first large-scale politicisation since the beginning of the economic crisis. It was in this climate that the Hetherington occupation began.
Initially it was occupied by a small group of established anti-cuts activists, but after the withdrawal of campus security there was freedom of access. The social and political life inside was very lively, with regular meetings, talks, and film showings. Many figures from the left visited, from Patrick Harvie MSP (the Greens were the only Holyrood party I recall that gave any sort of support) as well as film maker Ken Loach, poet Liz Lochhead and others. The night Billy Bragg visited was one of the most memorable. He had been doing a gig in Glasgow earlier on and visited us afterward. He didn’t help himself by giving a mini-speech, where he was quite rightly heckled for saying that the working class “wasn’t political any more” and that socialism was “a dream” – he probably should have sussed out his audience! However, he made amends with a set. With about a hundred people crammed into the small bar, Billy stood atop a sofa with guitar in hand singing Solidarity Forever and the Internationale among other old favourites – of course, we all joined in, as if the atmosphere wasn’t electric enough!
It wasn’t all jolly sing-alongs though. From its outset the occupation was faced with hostile pressure from university management. On the 12th of February occupiers ‘kettled’ Aaron Porter, then-head of the NUS, who was in Glasgow for a Labour Students conference. Quite rightly, this was making a mockery of Porter for his lack of action in condemning the heavy handed repression of student protestors by police or support for a militant response to the fees and cuts to courses – as his nakedly opportunistic desire was to get a nice little job in Labour and perhaps a parliamentary seat further down the road. Although it was a bit of stunt, the student unions – the GUU and the QMU – were quick to pile in and condemn the action and the occupation as a whole, instead of criticising the inept right-wing leadership of the NUS that had failed to stand up for students.
In March, just days before many were set to head to London as part of the massive March 26th TUC demo, a huge and heavy-handed (and cack-handed) police operation forcibly evicted occupiers from the building. 80-100 police, 20 police vans, a dog team and a helicopter were used to evict protestors. Initially some wanted to force their way back in, although such a tactic would have ended in failure. By this point a large demonstration had formed from occupiers and students who had gathered to watch, and ingeniously decided to march on the Senate offices and occupy them in order to cause maximum disruption to university management. What had been planned as a quick fix to the protestor problem on campus had backfired tremendously.
Anton Muscatelli, the Principal, as well as other leading figures were roundly criticised in the media for inviting the police on campus and their ham-fisted approach, and achieved UK-wide notoriety. By the following day they had retreated with their tails between their legs, and allowed students back into the building. This simply added to the pressure that had already been mounting on management to reverse their proposed cuts and closures.
Other developments had been taking place. In March, a massive demonstration was called to protest outside a Senate meeting that would discuss cuts and course closures. Whilst the occupation served as a focal point for its organisation, it was really the involvement of non-activists that made this much more significant. I could tell from the conversations in my tutorials that a change in consciousness was happening, with a high proportion of fellow students saying they would attend – including the lecturers! Around 2,000 took part, certainly the largest demonstration at the uni in a long time and larger than anything since.
We were also active in building support for lecturers’ strikes called by the UCU for February, and during the two days of action helped out with picketing and making morale-boosting cups of tea and coffee for those standing out in the cold. On Thursday 25th March, myself and many other students, alongside school students and trade unionists from the Glasgow area, made the trip down in overnight buses to London for the massive Britain-wide TUC demo the following day. When the Glasgow students reached the ULU buildings on Malet St that morning to join the rest of the student bloc we were met with a hearty cheer – the events of the week hadn’t gone unnoticed!
Looking back, I feel these actions were the occupation at its best – linking up with staff in struggle whose livelihoods were under attack, and attempting to push the occupation outward and draw in the ‘non-activist’ students to political activity. With the occupation of a building for a long while, and a lack of external developments in the class struggle, an unhealthy trend of insularity can develop. These events countered this and were the most effective tactical use of the occupation.
However the occupation was not without its faults. I co-authored an article in its aftermath which praised its success, but was a bit critical of the ‘jazz-hands’ and ‘consensus decision-making’ which is common in the student movement and activist left, as well as a sentimentality about the building and other insular trends that had developed. I was immediately slammed for this for seemingly going off the reservation by being mildly critical of these aspects. However, as a Marxist it is important to clarify the failures as well as the successes of a struggle, so as to provide key experiences that can maximise the effectiveness of future disputes and avoid potential pitfalls that could hamper them.
It was always dubious how much ‘Consensus decision-making’ was actually employed, as inevitably there was always one or two people who disagreed with a decision taken. Rather than bend the will of the group to suit them (which would have been unhelpful as well as undemocratic) the decision was usually taken on the basis of the overwhelming majority – which fundamentally wasn’t any different from a show of hands and a majority decision. The lack of any unelected body, for reasons of not wishing to have a ‘top-down leadership’ that ‘imposed their will’ on everyone else, was likewise a bit of a sham as there was always a core of people who led discussions, spoke to the press and did the day-to-day work. These are necessary functions, but to pretend we all did it in equal measure is disingenuous. At least an elected spokesperson, treasurer etc. is explicitly elected on their merits by a large group and can be recalled if necessary. This is not a question of electing a bureaucracy or hierarchy that will run away and do their own thing against the will of the majority, but is to counter the leadership of unaccountable cliques that can otherwise emerge. Quite often a person would be chosen after we had organising meetings, so there was a de facto leadership of sorts. These tasks were pressed upon us by the situation and the more ‘post-modern’ left-activist mumbo-jumbo only served to muddy the waters rather than clarify them.
As a newcomer to these activist rituals I found them bewildering and alienating – which is also an important point. The student movement in itself cannot change society. It must connect with both the students and youth who are turning toward socialism, and also the most politically advanced elements of the working class. The working class is the only force that has the size and power to change society. However, organised youth and students can provide a vital source of energy and morale which can serve to spur on or revitalise the organised working classes. For this reason they should avoid using such cliquey practices which can alienate workers. Such practices hamper the ability to draw new layers into political activity and build a movement that is ultimately capable of challenging capitalism and the apparatus of the state.
Fundamentally, democratic decision making is not to be fetishised for its own sake. The reason it is used is because it is necessary to draw out the best ideas from a group and bind that group together in a decision that guides collective action. It is only on a collective basis that the working class can win in a dispute, or actively go on the offensive.
An occupation is also, fundamentally, a tactic in a wider struggle. Whether at a university or in a workplace, it poses the question of who runs a workplace or in whose interests an institution exists. The occupation protested cuts and put forward the question of in whose interests the university existed – for business and profit, or for an education available to all. Whilst the idea of having a place that ‘we’ ran was nice, fundamentally when participation and energy dipped, as inevitably it would, it put the occupation in danger of fizzling out. Without a outward facing set of demands, an occupation becomes self-referential and loses its power. Thankfully the occupation kept up its demands to the end.
The occupation ended on the 31st August, nearly 7 months later, having gained guarantees from university management that allowed it to end with heads held high. There was a halt to further course cuts and student services, no compulsory redundancies and a new postgraduate space. Courses such as nursing (at the time rated 2nd in the whole of the UK) that had been set for closure were saved. Whilst some courses such as anthropology were merged, or some such as central and eastern European languages closed since then, in the end the movement at Glasgow was a successful one, and showed the way forward for an effective student fightback.
The Scottish government backed away from cuts to higher education due to the militant response of the well-organised staff and students. They cynically turned toward cuts and mergers in further education colleges, where staff are not as heavily unionised and there is less of a tradition of political organisation on campuses. This will change though, with developments in society as a whole.
The police response – with aggressive crowd control and singling out of political activists – is likewise a warning for what the labour movement could face in the years ahead. Without mass action, the state will try and keep a lid on any potentially disruptive political activity through whatever means at its disposal. However, what we have learnt is that such action can also play into the hands of the movement, as the police actions in March 2011 won over a lot of sympathisers repelled by the actions of the University and Strathclyde Police’s finest.
Off the back of my experiences I began to read into Marxism. Later that year I co-founded the Marxist Society at Glasgow, which from small beginnings has since gone from strength to strength. It has been on the basis of hard work by the student comrades there, but most importantly the primacy of an education in the ideas of Marxism in the society which has led to such a strong foundation. This year it is looking to stand a candidate for Glasgow’s Student Representative Council (SRC) elections, which indicates just how far it has come. The Tories and the SNP will have to implement austerity in the face of economic stagnation and a possible slump this year – so a situation like that of 2010 will likely develop again in universities. I’m in no doubt that when that happens Glasgow Marxists, as well as the other societies that have popped up around Britain and formed the Marxist Student Federation, will be able to play a leading role in the student struggles that will unfold – and have the political understanding to be able to link them effectively with non-students too.
Since August 2011 there were the big public sector strikes in November of that year, which resulted in a strike rally of 20,000 marching through Glasgow city centre, the largest since the Poll Tax. In the intervening years there was an ebb in the overall political movement in Britain, which changed with the Independence Referendum campaign. The Indy Ref politicised tens of thousands of people in Scotland, many times more than the student movement had done. And in 2015 there was the remarkable election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, whose campaign served to act as a pole of attraction for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, across Britain and marks a definite shift to the left in society. These experiences have been on a much greater scale than the student movement of 2010-11, and show the quickening tempo and larger scale of events in the class struggle that we see developing. We have valuable lessons and experiences from the 2010-11 student movement, which was the first indication of the stormy clashes in the years ahead.