1968

scan_pic0506In 1968 I was very cold.

I was sleeping on the floor of my university administration block which had been occupied by us students. The administration had turned off the heating. Why was I there? I was seventeen and had had very little political education or leanings. My motivation was probably similar to that of George Orwell who arriving in Catalonia with, he said, a similar lack of political education, just felt that the revolution was something he wanted to participate in. Given that Orwell went to the front in a shooting war, my experience might be described as two or three octaves down the scale.

The University union was run by a selection of elected officers, generally left wing but also pragmatic, often focussing on the sabbatical that the president received and on the catering and entertaining requirements of the student body. The turnout in the student elections was generally low. But that year, revolutionary enthusiasm had gripped campuses across the land. The mechanism employed to mobilise this enthusiasm was the extraordinary general meeting (EGM), which according to the student union constitution, could be called if a certain number of people could be gathered to propose it. An EGM is nothing exceptional. It is a standard feature of many constitutions and almost always in those of public and private commercial companies (now just referred to in company legislation as a General Meeting). An EGM was called and it authorised the occupation.

As the days went on opponents to the direct action mobilised and called their own EGMs and more and more students became involved and many more voted than had ever done so in the regular annual elections, and support for the occupation increased. At the last meeting the students filled the main hall of the university.

Then the administration  implied that it could no longer carry on university business. It would suspend lectures and would not award degrees. A further EGM was called. So many attended that it had to be held outside and the numbers were counted by passing through arches. The vote went against the militants, the occupation was called off and, in that context, 1968 was over.

I think this episode throws some light on Brexit because a referendum is a form of EGM for UK PLC. But the authority of the EGM depends on the ability of those affected to call it. Without that, all you have is a snapshot of opinion at one point in time. If we have no mechanism for calling another referendum, then what does that say about the authority of the original? If only parliament can call a referendum then how can that referendum have any authority independent of it ?

I obviously hope that just as in 1968, at some stage the reality principle will kick in and we will think again. And, however big a majority may be, there can always be a bigger. But I don’t think we have reached the stage for our second EGM yet. I think we may reach it at some point. The “will of the people”, after all, is a moveable feast.

I don’t regret joining in the occupation. It’s core demand was that students should have a say in the composition of their studies and the principle that those involved should have a participatory role in their government at the most immediate level is one I still hold. I hold it locally as a member of the Patient Participation Committee championing co-production in the running of my local NHS, and nationally as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, themselves the champion of localism in politics in the UK generally.

I think the photo is of Gerald Hitman who was a leading figure in the occupation. He later became a controversial property developer and died in 2009.

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