By Laura McKeon
Politics at Glasgow University is generally perceived by the student community as a confusing mess of conflicting ideologies, with a lot of nastiness deployed with very little visible consequence. On the one hand, we have the old guard. Friendly with senior management, trained in the basics of organisation and publicity by friends and colleagues within the SRC or the unions, they downplay their political allegiances and tend to emphasize the objectivity their office necessitates. On the other hand, we have ”the left”, with their inexhaustible desire to communicate directly with the students and their overblown exaggerations of the political significance of our official appointments, whose actual roles are blurred amid the posturing of opponents. And between these two polar extremes, the students, busy with coursework, jobs and life, and pretty much at a loss as to what matters so much.
Anyone at Glasgow University during the Free Hetherington’s seven-month occupation against cuts and fees, the highly politicised SRC elections that followed, and the various scandals that surrounded the council in subsequent months, was aware of the bitter disagreements among staff and students on campus. On more than one occasion these antagonisms turned to violence. Some of these incidents were very well publicized: a furore broke out when some anti-cuts students ”kettled” Aaron Porter (former head of the NUS, forced to step down due to his lack of support for last year’s student protests). But the most horrific instance of this hostility is probably the least well-known: a couple were beaten up by a group of fellow students in front of the Hetherington one night shortly after the eviction. Caught on video, the culprits were made to face a disciplinary hearing, but they were dealt with sympathetically. University security were called on that occasion but didn’t respond. The police came but refused to take any statements or look at the evidence. On another occasion, students were bottled by members of the GU board. A student claimed to have been attacked while attempting to secretly film a meeting at the Hetherington. And of course, many students were injured in the brutal (but miraculously unsuccessful) police eviction of the occupation on the 22nd March.
I’m not putting forward a defence of the Free Hetherington. The space was very close to my heart and I am proud of my involvement, but with little chance that the reader will ever have the opportunity to visit it and see for themselves, I will leave the question of its legitimacy to one side. The occupation is well-documented, as are all the events described in this article.
Aside from violent attacks, there was another kind of nastiness at play in Glasgow University politics, which was at times concealed by the high-profile events of last year: the tendency of our administration and elected representatives to deliberately misinform and conceal information from the students. While the debate raged on campus, it was behind closed doors that the real fate of Glasgow University was being decided.
The argument is often made around election time that the SRC should work to promote the university and to ensure services remain available and effective, and not to engage in political debates. In my first year at Glasgow University, if I had wanted to, I could have made use of the counselling or health service in the afternoon, attended a StaG play in the G12 in the evening, and topped it off with a pint in the Hetherington Research Club. Over the years I watched as my university was stripped of all of these institutions, while the SRC remained largely silent.
At the SRC election hustings last year, I asked Amy Johnson (previous VP Student Support, whose article defending the SRC’s role can be read on the GU Guardian website) what she would have done, had she been in office, to counter plans for dismantling the health service. I don’t think she knew what I was talking about. She mumbled her way through an answer for which she apologised to me after the meeting. If I had any other questions for her, she smiled, she would be happy to help. It was only after this that I found out Amy Johnson actually sat on the SRC for the period in question. The students had been informed that ”changes” would be made to the service by email on the 22nd December. The SRC had been informed but had made no effort to publish the information or raise any objections. When I spoke to one of the 17 members of staff who had been made redundant, she felt very let down. I don’t think Amy Johnson is a bad person, and I know nothing about her politics. But I do wonder if she was qualified to represent students on these issues, given her previous failure to do so.
If Amy Johnson was management’s favoured candidate for the job, she probably didn’t know it. Stuart Ritchie was a very different animal. Having campaigned on the basis that he would oppose fees and cuts, it was revealed late in the year that he had actually been arguing for their introduction in meetings with management. A petition was delivered to the SRC executive containing 600 signatures of students who believed Ritchie’s position was untenable. Minutes before his appearance on a panel to defend his actions to the students who had elected him, he resigned. The SRC awarded him £4000 for his contributions and refused to call an election, saying they would take over his duties for the rest of the year (presumably now unable to pay another president’s wage). So for the last part of possibly the most controversial period in its history the SRC had no president.
We did, however, still have our student-elected rector. Charles Kennedy, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, acted as mediator between the students and management at the mass public meeting with Principal Anton Muscatelli in March last year. On listening to the Subcity podcast of the event (which is still available on the Subcity website and really quite compelling), the anger that the student community felt at the eviction attempt on the Hetherington that week is clear: contributions from the floor calling for Muscatelli’s resignation are applauded for minutes. Charles Kennedy gave repeated assurances that an enquiry was to be held into the events, and that this enquiry would be fully open and independent. The public meeting was cathartic, as it was no doubt meant to be. The enquiry itself was a joke.
Charles Kennedy said he saw his role as ”offering (the students) reassurance that when these matters come to court…I will be absolutely guaranteeing…the independent nature of this enquiry. In my day job, I have seen enough enquiries …which have failed to satisfy anybody precisely because they have failed those basic tests. I’m not about … to repeat that error in Gilmorehill.”
Firstly, the terms of the enquiry were published without the SRC’s approval. Board member Fraser Sutherland, who sat on the panel for the enquiry, admitted this to me (possibly accidentally) in a Facebook post. Having had no direct experience of the day’s events, the terms struck him as a fair and balanced overview. He felt no need to be directly involved in drafting them. On the day of the eviction, most of Glasgow University’s political elite (unlike the hundreds of students who rallied to support the occupiers) stood at a safe distance, at the top of University Gardens. They applauded when the police dragged the protesters out. I don’t know if Fraser Sutherland was among them. He never visited the Free Hetherington and I don’t know what he looks like.
When I read the terms, I could hardly recognise the subject of the enquiry. Rather than asking whether the university management had failed in their duty of care to the students, it seemed to be an investigation into the Hetherington itself. No mention was made of the involvement of university security in the eviction, or the girl that one of them had concussed. By the time it came for students to submit their accounts, the goals of the enquiry had already been set out. Though the police admitted that they had behaved outside of the law, and while the report was critical of the eviction, the bulk of it was a list of commitments from the university to deal exclusively with elected representatives of students in the future. It certainly didn’t fail to satisfy management, who had been saying basically that all year. And all this despite Kennedy’s assurances that ”this will not be something that is run out of the main offices just along the corridor of Glasgow University. This will be of a separate input, completely independent of the university authorities themselves.”
For months I looked forward to a chance to speak directly with our rector, but he wasn’t at the second public meeting with the Principal. I decided to go to one of his surgeries, but twice they were advertised at the last minute, then cancelled. June of last year I finally got the chance to put my concerns to Charles Kennedy.
I had read his forward to the report, in which he expressed regret at the lack of statements submitted by the occupiers about the day of the eviction. I tried to offer him some insight as to why they had not engaged more enthusiastically with the enquiry. I suggested that the terms had been understood as an outline of the enquiry’s objectives and that people had had little faith in the process once they had seen them. He told me that the terms were irrelevant, that the enquiry had been completely unbiased and that there was no longer any point talking about it.
I don’t know why I thought Kennedy would be interested in hearing my perspective. After all, had he been that eager to reassure the protesters or encourage them to submit statements, he could have easily contacted us. While we were talking he felt it was important to remind me of the protesters’ misdemeanours. I don’t think that our behaviour was at all times flawless. I think that these incidents were not treated equally: that management, and the police, in fact, legitimised violence against the occupiers by refusing to punish those involved. Many nights we sat in the Free Hetherington, aware that at any time a drunken group might force their way into the building and vent their anger. We knew that if they did, they would probably get away with it.
Kennedy’s duplicitous nature is brilliantly illustrated in a story from Martin Bell’s ‘The Truth that Sticks’. Recounting his time in parliament, Bell exposes the corruption that leads to public mistrust of politicians. When Bell challenged Tony Blair on the cash-for-peerages scandal in the House of Commons, Charles Kennedy’s secretary passed him a note berating him for criticising the Prime Minister. It informed him that his application for membership of the Liberal Democrats had been denied.
This year I will graduate. The future is uncertain and every day I watch the brightest and best of my generation wasted in call-centres and struggling businesses. But I can take comfort in the knowledge that Stuart Ritchie will be okay. His incompetence in office won’t affect his chances of employment; in fact his future was probably secured by his collusion with senior management. I will never forget the sight of Chris Sibald, president of the GU board, laughing as his friends threw bottles at my friends from the ramparts of the GU. I can think of no better visual to illustrate the attitude to privilege that our elected representatives have displayed. The people I have mentioned in this article will probably go on to have successful careers, maybe even one day to hold public office. It is natural that they should when we continue to reward people who say one thing and do another.