A long, long time ago – 46 years to be precise – along with some 300 other students I took part in an anti-apartheid protest at Liverpool University, occupying the university’s administration building for 10 days in the spring term of 1970. The key demands we were making on the university was for the resignation of the Vice-Chancellor, Lord Salisbury, a supporter of the apartheid regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa, and for the university to divest itself of its investments in the the apartheid regime in South Africa.  There were many sit-ins at British universities in this period, but in Liverpool it led to the severest disciplinary action of the time. Nine students, including Jon Snow, Channel 4 News presenter, were suspended for two years. But one, Peter Cresswell, was permanently expelled.

Yesterday, in an emotional ceremony following two decades of lobbying for restitution, Pete Cresswell, now aged 68 and retired from a career in social work, was at last awarded an honorary degree. His expulsion was finally recognised by those who spoke for the University as an injustice. As Pete observed in his acceptance speech, time had shown the protestors to be ‘on the right side of history’.

For myself, as Pete and his guests were afforded a generous hospitality and the Vice-Chancellor, Janet Beer, spoke of the University of 1970 as being very different to today’s institution, the day provoked much thought about passing time, changing social attitudes – and the role of activism and campaigning in bringing such changes about.

Through a twist of fate – or pure serendipity – two people were honoured yesterday. Though not originally planned that way, alongside Pete, the rebel who whose challenge to an institution in 1970 that saw no reason to change (one of its chief officers rejecting the protestors’ demands by remarking that ‘you cannot involve the university in a personal emotion’), the University also honoured Phil Scraton for his tireless investigative work and campaigning to reveal the truth of what had really happened at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989. In both these instances, institutions used devious and authoritarian measures to stifle criticism and deny the truth.

Even better, it turned out that Phil, a first-year Sociology student from Wallasey, had also been one of those occupying Senate House. Speaking to me before the ceremony, he told me that he still proudly displayed at home a framed copy of the letter the University sent out to all of us who had declared our equal responsibility with the ten arraigned students, threatening further disciplinary action.

Inside the Senate House occupation, March 1970
Inside the Senate House occupation, March 1970

Some 46 years later, our campaign against institutionally-condoned racism by the university appears moderate and reasonable, while the university’s position seems inexplicable in 2016. Here was an academic institution whose titular head – chosen because they were ‘regarded as having a respectable reputation in some sphere of public life’  – was Lord Salisbury, an unapologetic racist:

There are, of course, some extremely intelligent Africans …… but the great majority are still extremely primitive……
– Lord Salisbury, 24th March, 1959

Salisbury had often spoken out against African independence, as here in a debate in the House of Lords in 1962 on Kenya:

As I already said earlier, the European population, who have been the backbone of Kenyan prosperity, are rapidly losing heart and hope. They know that they are likely to be handed over in one, two or three years at the most, to the tender mercies of men who are still only one generation removed from a savage state: men without any inherited understanding of our traditions of tolerance. Men still primitive, and many of them only avid for political power.

In 1970, Liverpool University stood by this man, proud to have him as their Chancellor.

Pete Cresswell receives his honorary degree from Liverpool University Vice-Chancellor, Janet Beer
Pete Cresswell receives his honorary degree from Liverpool University Vice-Chancellor, Janet Beer

As the Guardian reports today, Pete Cresswell came from Birmingham to study for a degree in Politics at Liverpool University in 1967. By March 1970, when the sit-in began, he was a third-year student weeks away from his finals. The university’s response to the protest, and the demands for Salisbury’s resignation, was to identify the names of 10 of the 300-plus students occupying Senate House (from a cleaning rota pinned on a door) and issue them with disciplinary notices.

Despite being represented pro bono by John Griffiths, respected Professor of Law at the London School of Economics, a Board of Discipline ruled that nine students should be suspended. Pete Cresswell was the only one of the protesters to be expelled, after the university found him guilty of ‘conduct detrimental to the discharge of the university’. Jon Snow, now the Channel 4 News presenter, was suspended for a year and never returned to complete his law degree. Looking back later he stated:

It was an absolute watershed in my life…it was sublime to be alive. We went down for a great cause. In the end, the University responded as no other university in the country did. They behaved outrageously, they denied us natural justice, they spent vast amounts of money on a QC to put their case. We were undefended until our appeal when the wonderful professor of Law from the LSE came up to defend us. It was a very, very dark day for civil liberties. It was some other place, on some other planet.

Old comrades celebrate yesterday. Pete Cresswell is seated 3rd from left with Vice-Chancellor Janet Beer to his right.
Old comrades celebrate yesterday. Pete Cresswell is seated 3rd from left with Vice-Chancellor Janet Beer to his right.

In Pete Cresswell’s words to the Guardian:

The touchstone for it was Lord Salisbury. It just seems incredible now that someone like him should be the titular head of a multiracial university. He described black Africans as ‘savages’ and felt they shouldn’t have the vote, and this was eight years into Nelson Mandela’s incarceration.

A silkscreen poster from the campaign
A silkscreen poster from the campaign


Looking back 46 years to the attitudes displayed by those at the head of Liverpool University in 1970 serves as a reminder of the extent of changes that have taken place since then in attitudes and law in this country. This morning, on the New York Review of Books website, I came across the text of a speech given by Zadie Smith in Berlin last month on receiving the 2016 Welt Literature Prize. Born in London just five years after our protests, Smith’s father was white, while her mother had grown up in Jamaica and migrated to England in 1969. Now professor of creative writing at New York University, Smith warned against ‘a wistful form of time travel’, a nostalgia for the1950s, that she sees as becoming more commonplace in the United States:

A nostalgia of course entirely unavailable to a person like me, for in that period I could not vote, marry my husband, have my children, work in the university I work in, or live in my neighbourhood. Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others.

I would guess that all of us who took part in the anti-apartheid protests of the late sixties and early seventies – whether a working class kid from Brum, or one who hailed from a village in Cheshire – had been deeply affected by the civil rights movement in the United States. Such is the way in which movements for respect and legal status can gather force far beyond their origin.

Zadie Smith went on to speak of –

The historical forces that had taken the black side of my family from the west coast of Africa, through slavery to the Caribbean, through colonialism and postcolonialism to Britain.

This was also the central message of David Olusoga’s recent excellent BBC 2 series, Black And British: A Forgotten History which forcefully demonstrated that the history of black people in Britain (and in places like the Caribbean or West Africa) is not something separate from the story of this land but absolutely central to it, a history shared.

I thought, too, of how times may often seem dark and progress thwarted. It certainly seemed so in the 1970s, when the momentum of sixties liberation appeared to have faded. It seemed so for the Hillsborough survivors and families for a decade or more after the disaster. It seems especially so now, in 2016, one of the darkest years I can recall.

But then, as I’ve written here before, I turn to a book that has offered me solace in hard times – one of the most important texts, I think, of the 21st century so far: Rebecca Solnit’s, Hope in the Dark. It’s an essay about maintaining hope in dark times like these, written originally in the despairing aftermath of the failure of massive worldwide demonstrations to stop the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq, and now re-published with a new foreword and afterword. ‘Activism,’ Solnit writes, ‘is not a journey to the corner store; it is a plunge into the dark.’ And history, she adds, ‘is like weather, not like checkers. A game of checkers ends. The weather never does.’

Who twenty years ago would have pictured a world without the USSR and with the Internet? We talk about “what we hope for” in terms of what we hope will come to pass but we could think of it another way, as why we hope. We hope on principle, we hope tactically and strategically, we hope because the future is dark, we hope because it’s a more powerful and more joyful way to live. Despair presumes it knows what will happen next. But who, two decades ago, would have imagined that the Canadian government would give a huge swathe of the north back to its indigenous people, or that the imprisoned Nelson Mandela would become president of a free South Africa?

‘Born the summer the Berlin Wall went up,’ Solnit reminds us that in 1961 the Cold War seemed never-ending, civil rights for African-Americans a long way off, equal pay for women laughable, and laws to protect the environment a fantasy. ‘We are not who we were not very long ago,’ she states.

Change, Solnit insists, comes in fits and starts; ‘This is earth. It will never be heaven.’

Sometimes, overwhelmed by setbacks such as those we have experienced in 2016, we can forget what a radically transformed world we live in,Solnit insists; one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but also by dreams of freedom and of justice.

Remembering our celebration party last night, as South African jazz played on Pete’s mixtape, I was struck by this passage from Zadie Smith’s speech:

People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world—and most recently in America—the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

In his official history of Liverpool University, Thomas Kelly perceived a fierce idealism underlying the Liverpool protests, a passionate desire for a more just world order. The degree to which radical students were able to mobilise this idealism through mass campaigns during 1969-70 and achieve, if only for a short period, an unprecedented level of support, is remarkable and worthy of celebration. What united student actions at Liverpool University – from a protest over University-owned slum housing to the racist views of the Chancellor and questions about university investments – was a critical questioning of the nature of a university, its relationship and responsibilities to the wider world.

In the long run, protests like this mattered. That the solidarity protests and the apartheid boycott movement gave black South Africans a sense of hope that change might come was confirmed by Nelson Mandela. He recalled how, in 1981, on Robben Island, isolated from the outside world, he and his fellow-prisoners somehow heard news of the massive and successful protests against the Springboks tour of New Zealand: ‘When I heard that news it felt like the sun coming out.’

The Liverpool protests succeeded in asking big ethical questions about what it is to be human: what kind of lives we want to live, and want others to be able to enjoy in freedom and dignity, and what kind of world we want to pass on to our children.

In her speech, Zadie Smith said this:

We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride.

Yesterday Pete spoke of his pride in having taken that stand. I feel proud to have stood alongside him.

See also

7 thoughts on “After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride

  1. Just fabulous, Gerry. You write for all of us, as ever. I hope friends, colleagues, and more widely, read this and are inspired. Forty-six years is a long walk to justice. But some sort of justice was done to close an otherwise bleak year for optimism

  2. Magnificent, Gerry, but we’ve come to expect nothing less from you. For me it was a surprisingly emotional occasion, a bit overwhelming, really. The final bonus was that, for the first time EVER, I controlled the music for a whole party! Hope everyone enjoyed it.

  3. It the time you were having your sit-ins I was a child in my very Afrikaans, orthodox parent’s home. Only after I left home, decades later, did I become politically aware and took appropriate action. We miss Mr Mandela deeply.

  4. In the time you were having your sit ins I had just come to live in Liverpool after living in Cyprus for five years and fleeing the start of the Turkish invasion. Originally born in London we left the UK for a new life in Cyprus. The war broke out so we came back to the UK to settle in Liverpool. We lived in five areas of Liverpool over forty years and in that time we were at war with the racists. They attacked our home, burned our car, threw a brick in my sisters face at just 2 years of age. During 1970s racism was rife in Liverpool and it should have (if one existed) been awarded the Capital of Racism. Glad to say I got out in the end- unfortunately my mother was punched down the stairs at 75 years of age and my father had CS gas sprayed into his face after racists smashed into their home in Liverpool- that was just five years ago so nothing has changed. Our family spent the 70s and 80s just staying alive in Liverpool.

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