Student revolution in 1960s Britain:
Myth or reality?

A dissertation by Patrick H. J. Smith, 2007.

This document was last revised on 15th July 2007.
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Student activism towards the latter part of the sixties has attracted many historians to voice particular opinions concerning its effect on society. Student protest in general has been well documented and therefore would not benefit from another narrative. This however, cannot be deemed true of the student movement that took place across UK universities, which can be considered to be under represented in comparison to that of the US movements. Obviously it is not possible to present a completely thorough documentation of student protest in what is a relatively short essay, but it does allow the highlighting of particularly interesting aspects to a decade considered by some to be revolutionary. The dissertation will assess the emergence of a student movement in the UK and draw comparisons to the activism being displayed by students in other countries. It will diverge to evaluate the effectiveness of protests and will examine the changing society caused by a disgruntled generation.

Ronald Fraser’s 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt proved to be an integral part of researching the dissertation. The book features a collection of eyewitness accounts from students which are melded together with Fraser’s own opinions. He states that ‘from Prague to Paris, London to Tokyo, San Francisco to Peking, student revolts erupted with unforeseeable suddenness in the 1960s to challenge the existing order of society - a challenge which in many places took them to the brink of radically changing history itself.’ He presents an overview of the year that student protest reached its pinnacle but the insight into British protest itself is provided solely by a relatively small chapter. Prior to the book’s publication in 1988, works related to the student movements were often written by student activists themselves thus ensuring an unbalanced account. This book however, shows more of an historic account and unlike many of the subject’s predecessors was not trying to exaggerate the spread of student protest. The interviews Fraser conducted were between 1984 and 1985 and are based on the students’ memories. Therefore it is fallible if this dissertation expects these interviews to reproduce exactly what occurred. It does, however, allow for the students’ genuine feelings to be recorded two decades on.

In understanding the revolutionary aspects of the late sixties, it is important to pinpoint the figures that played an instrumental role in promoting activism. Tariq Ali’s Street Fighting Years provides an extensive insight into this as it is an autobiographical account of Britain’s leading student activist. Ali was notorious for his anti-Vietnam War efforts and opens up much to the particular methods of protest used to degrade the establishment. The most important element from Street Fighting Years, in aiding the dissertation, is that it gives descriptions of the people involved in leading a revolution. These names have thus become more recognisable when they appear up in other literary works.

The magnitude in which the student movement affected the UK has often been debated as there seems to be a lack of detailed research. In answering the question set, it is important to delve deeper into the differing articles that have led to much speculation. A problem that emerges from the studying this particular topic is that much primary information stems from students themselves, thus creating a biased view. Student Power edited by Alexander Cockburn and Robin Blackburn compiles an assortment of eyewitness accounts written by leading student activists. Though this introduces many personal experiences it does not display them in a historic context. This is due to its publication in 1970 when for all they knew, student activism in the UK could still augment. They argued that the ‘students have erupted into the world of politics with a suddenness no one could have foretold. They are today a new social force of incalculable significance.’ The debate that Nick Thomas provokes in his journal, Challenging the Myths of the Sixties: The Case of Student Protest in Britain, is that the events registered in books such as Student Power or Street Fighting Years reflect the experiences of glamorous leaders, and not those of the majority. Indeed, some have argued that student protest in Britain was a parochial and small-scale activity in comparison with events in other countries. Acknowledgment of the little facts and figures available is therefore essential and Nick Thomas does manage to find information concerning political allegiances. The National Union of Students (NUS) had been complaining about student apathy since its foundation in the 1920s, and it was still a problem in the 1960s, the high point of student activity. A survey that was conducted at Warwick University found that only seven per cent of students were active in politics, while a survey at Leeds University discovered in January 1969 that only 15.5 per cent of students there were politically active. These statistics found in contemporary student newspapers such as Campus (Warwick University), Union News (Leeds University), and Redbrick (Birmingham University) suggest that although there was undoubtedly an escalation in student protest in the late sixties, there was not a halcyon revolutionary fervour among the majority of students. These student newspapers are located in the special collection departments at the universities. Nick Thomas’ journal enhanced the ideas behind the dissertation as it unearthed figures that contradicted the mass alignment of books claiming a student revolution. This dissertation will also find that more often than not, a small minority of politically extreme students corrupted the majority into protesting particular issues. This argument is also enforced by articles found in newspapers at the time which were often dismissive of the students’ ‘successes.’

It is essential that comparisons are drawn between the British student movement and those in other countries. The US led the way in student revolts partly due to the controversial policies run by the American government. With the ongoing debacle in Vietnam and Civil Rights dominating the front pages of the newspapers, protest became rife. Tessa Blackstone and Roger Hadley compiled a study entitled Student Protest in a British University; some comparisons with American research. The authors begin by pointing out that very little information has been published on student protest in the UK and throughout the report refer back to the US, where a great deal has been researched. The report concentrates on the boycott and sit-in at L.S.E. in 1967 and how the authors conducted a survey of 3,000 full time students eight weeks after the event. The survey provides an informative insight into the student mentalities and displays some conflicting attitudes that are dismissed by the various authors in Student Power. The survey reveals that student protesters, both in Britain and the US, were usually high academic achievers and in spite of popular belief that students shun their parents beliefs; more frequently came from families with left wing views. Ronald Fraser in 1968 looks at the rebellion in six of the West’s industrialised countries: the United States, West Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Northern Ireland. For it was in these parliamentary democracies that the revolt came as the greatest shock. It does cover the May movements that occurred in France in 1968, but not in as much detail as displayed in Alain Touraine’s The May Movement: Revolt and Reform. The importance of the French May movements is undeniable to the progress of the dissertation as it triggered student risings throughout the world. The Guardian went as far to suggest that Britain was mimicking the examples set by students in other countries and described it as ‘me-tooism.’

Methods of protest are again well documented by many historians but this does not undermine its importance in displaying a time of change. Sit-ins were made infamous by students and it was America and France’s influence that provoked British students to riot in the streets. It has been suggested that Tariq Ali’s aim for the anti-Vietnam demonstration on 17 March 1968 was to in fact invade the American Embassy. This led to the view that student protest and the revolutionary left were synonymous. The methods of protest and their reasoning are detailed in Street Fighting Years, Student Power, and 1968. The rise of the ‘sit-in’ is examined through contemporary university newspapers and surveys carried out at the time. There was nothing historically new about students protesting in these customs as the 1848 German revolutions saw students fighting alongside workers on the barricades. The Argentinean university revolt of 1918 lead to many campus rights that students from the West sought over five decades later. The Cordoba Manifesto of 1918, drafted in Argentina, was the first declaration of student rights and demanded a student share in university administration. The theme of greater student representation will be thoroughly explored throughout this dissertation.

The economic boom in the post-war era provided students a foundation in which to protest from. It accounted for a financial stability that permitted the young generation to focus on their education and enhance their influence on society. This dissertation will analyse the incredible rise of the young generation and which propelled them into the limelight. Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year that Rocked the World features the radical cultures developed in the 1960s such as rock music, films and the emergence of the counter-culture. Rock music and in particular the counter-culture, were closely entwined with student campuses. Bill Graham, the rock concert producer, frequently gave benefit concerts for protesting students in the US. College students accounted for seventy per cent of concert activity and also represented a large share of record sales. The development of a counter-culture in itself was a method of protest and the dissertation will access the impact it had on campuses across the UK. All Dressed Up by Jonathan Green focuses on the development of a counter-culture in the UK. Indeed he states that ‘if a single sub-group of young people could be seen as the prime movers in any form of revolution, whether political or counter-cultural, then the group was the students.’ In embracing the counter-culture, it was deemed to be a form of rebellion. Ronald Regan defined a member of the counter-culture or hippie as someone who ‘dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like a cheetah.’ Listening to the Rolling Stones, using psychedelic drugs and having sex were the way adolescents could rebel against society and in most cases, their parents. These were the views held my many of the subject’s historians.

This dissertation focuses primarily on identifying whether on not the student rebellion in Britain can be considered a revolution. With a revolution being a radical change or sudden upheaval of a government, the changes that occurred must be monitored. This dissertation will also discover that student representation was the prime motive behind British protest unlike in the US where the student movement was accelerated due to issues such as the Vietnam War and Civil Rights. Despite there perhaps not being a student revolution, there are definitely reasons to believe that great changes did occur. For example, there was a rise in student representatives involved in university affairs and by October 1968, there was a genuine feeling that revolution would occur. Therefore this dissertation will gauge how close the students came to achieving a complete upheaval of 1960s British society. This dissertation has enlisted the help of Richard Dixon who was the student president at the Regent Street Polytechnic (now Westminster University) in 1969. Regent Street Polytechnic was a source of student activism of only slightly lesser intensity than that of L.S.E. The interview with Mr. Dixon proved to be insightful although he is remembering events that took place nearly forty years ago. He was a student activist who participated in campaigning for greater student representation and was present at the demonstrations in London between 1967 and 1969. He was also involved in an interview conducted by the BBC in 1970 concerning the rise of student power.

In conclusion, a successful dissertation on student protest must achieve a number of objectives. The dissertation must present the subject from a different angle than its predecessors as much work has been done on the student movement of the sixties. As, however, the dissertation is focusing on activism across UK Universities, information is far less accessible unless research is conducted at the archives and libraries of various universities. Of these universities, L.S.E., Leeds and Birmingham, were best suited for dissertational purposes as their location and relevance are ideal. L.S.E. was considered to be the ‘hot-bed’ of student activism in the late 1960s and was renowned for specialising in the study of the social sciences, a subject that this dissertation will consider. With the collection of statistics from surveys such as the Gallup Poll and primary articles taken from their student newspapers, an unbiased account can be melded. Although the collections of primary sources found in Student Power and Street Fighting Years provide an important insight into student activism, they alone cannot build the basis for primary information. As earlier stated, much of the effects of the student movement have been vastly exaggerated by these authors because they were leaders of the movement, but nonetheless the changes that occurred did pave the way for a more disputable society.

Chapter one:

The rise of the young generation

‘The teenage youth in the suburbs, was a new phenomenon. They had everything they needed, the world was now wide open to them. Their parents had worked their nuts or their tits off to provide for them in a fashion unique in modern-day history. If they hadn’t existed, there wouldn’t have been people who could just get up in the morning and say, fuck it!’ This was according to the counter-culture leader, John Sinclair, who firmly believed that the new breed of revolutionaries could confront the ruling classes. The rise of the young generation, and in particular the adolescent, owes much to the post-war economic and demographic boom that changed the landscape for years to come. This chapter will examine the changing position of young people in society and explain how, through this, the students were able to challenge authority in a way never before witnessed in Britain.

Through the economic boom, young people ceased to be financially reliant upon their parents. The dependence had been evident for many years and had been experienced by previous generations. Fraser claimed that ‘a hitherto prosperity which, if still unevenly distributed, was more widely spread than at any time in the twentieth century, was accompanied by near full employment, availability of consumer goods that previously had been confined to the well-to-do and, for the young, access to money.’ This corresponds with Francis Wheen’s claims that ‘there is a prevalent belief that the start of the youth revolution coincided with the economic boom of the late fifties and early sixties - the time when people had never had it so good.’ The immense demographic boom that occurred as a product of post-war conditions became coined as the ‘baby boom.’ In Britain and France between 1946 and 1950 the birth rate increased by about 30 per cent compared to the last five pre-war years; in both these countries there were over 800,000 more teenagers in the population in 1963 than there had been ten years earlier. Through the rise of adolescents, the demand for a growth in the education system escalated. Between 1950 and 1964, Britain increased their university student numbers by 60 per cent. Although this figure was not as dramatic as the results found in France, who trebled the number of students attending university, Britain was undoubtedly witnessing the rise in number of students, some of whom would later emerge as a prominent faction of outspoken radicals.

The economic boom caused consumer spending to augment from £7 billion per annum in 1946 to £30 billion per annum in 1970, with teenagers alone accounting for £850 per annum by 1960. Despite this being only 5 per cent of the overall national spend, the young generation now symbolised a potent consumer interest group, and products were marketed with the intention of engrossing them. The products which were targeted specifically at the teenagers were found in forms of entertainment and clothing. The adolescents purchased more than 40 per cent of record-players and 30 per cent of cosmetics and toiletries. Mary Quant, the pioneering fashion designer of the sixties, declared that ‘I had always wanted young people to have a fashion of their own.’ This clarifies that the young generation were now cementing their position in society and were stepping away from the customs of being younger replicas of their parents. Elisabeth Tailor, a teenager in the sixties, remembered that ‘suddenly there were whole shops catering for teenagers - clothes and record shops especially - and make up and cosmetics designed just for young people. At last we were being recognised.’ Emphasis should be placed on ‘being recognised’ as later in the decade, students endeavoured to gain a more creditable status within society. This theme will run to a large extent throughout this dissertation.

The creation of a new culture named appropriately the ‘counter-culture’ marked the beginning of teenage rebellion in the 1960s. This young culture, with its expression of music, clothes and drugs caused uproar on a global scale. Richard Dixon stated that, ‘the generation before ours had been wholly conscripted to contribute to fight a total war. They had emerged scared and scarred, susceptible to authority and authoritarian themselves. The fifties and the first half of the sixties saw a recuperation of spirit and the post war generation initiated an anti-authoritarian step change.’ This anti-authoritarian stance was best illustrated with the invention of the counter-culture. Music played a significant role in creating the counter-culture and also in mobilising the disgruntled youth against the establishment. Its importance is emphasised by the protester, Jeremy Brecher, ‘It was a way that people who were isolated in their areas culturally, who didn’t have people like them around them, could be in a social milieu where there were a lot of other people like them. It was really exciting, had that sense of overcoming isolation.’ The Rolling Stones became the embodiment of rebellion as their long hair and the way they dressed were extremely audacious for its time. Such was the hostility contained in Mick Jagger’s (the lead singer of the Rolling Stones) voice, that lyrics to Street Fighting Man were published in the radical paper Black Dwarf under the editorship of Tariq Ali.

The use of sex, rock music and alcohol could occasionally be expressed as a form of rebellion in order to challenge middle-class norms. ‘As a sixteen-year-old, my parents forbade me to go out alone with a boy, to ride on the back of a motor scooter, to drink, to go to a club where the Rolling Stones played,’ recalled Elisabeth Tailor. ‘So one night I deliberately broke every one of their norms. I went on the back of my boyfriend’s scooter to the club, listened to the Stones and got drunk, and I fucked him in his house before going home. It wasn’t just adolescent rebellion against being controlled, though that was part of it. There was something keener, fresher in the air. A sense that we were going to do things our way, and that there were a lot of us who rejected not just our individual parents but what their values represented socially.’ This raises the issue of sexual repression that existed in society. According to the student activist, Fred Halliday, ‘One of the most fundamental ways in which an authoritarian society controls its members and its young is by sexual repression. This repression begins from the first years of a child’s life and is effected by instilling false fears, by cultivating taboos, by denying adolescents the facilities (rooms, contraception) for sex, and by parents and educators keeping the young under constant surveillance.’ Although it was not made available to unmarried women until 1969, the pill could be obtained from university medical centres from the mid-sixties. This represented a real liberation for women who wanted to be in control of their bodies. Taboos were being broken as sexual freedom was becoming a vital part of the counter-culture. Music and films were playing their part too, as songs included lyrics crammed with sexual innuendos. The controversial poet, Philip Larkin, even went as far as to suggest that, ‘Sexual intercourse began in 1963.’ The rise of the counter-culture is important to the dissertation as it was this emergence that paved the way for students to actively defy their government and seek more than the position in which they were confined to.

The economic rise allowed young persons the right to express themselves, an entitlement to air their own opinions, and to embrace a cultural expression that echoed their own particular tastes. In previous generations, their mannerisms and the clothes they wore were imitations of their parents. The economic rise meant they no longer had to replicate their parents and could instead choose to participate in a new youth culture that was fresh and pioneering. According to Nick Thomas it was therefore ‘difficult to maintain that young people should know their place in reference to those in authority, and student protest was a reflection of this change in the expectations of young people, as well as forming yet another example of a common cohort experience in which the young demanded that democratic institutions live up to their democratic rhetoric via a process of reform rather than revolution.’ This dissertation finds that the vast economic growth experienced in post-war Britain acted as the fundamental catalyst in triggering desires for social change. With financial stability combined with a demographic boom, more students than ever were attending university. It was through being able to focus on the enhancement of their education rather than align themselves with means of making immediate capital that students evolved into radicals. This is confirmed by the historian Ronald Fraser who claimed that ‘the formidable growth in student numbers marked the end of the university as the training ground of a small and privileged elite and the beginning of the era of mass higher education.’ The financial stability permitted the young generation the discretion to choose what they desired to do. For example it allowed them to step up to challenge authorities with regards to the cultural normalities that society had come to expect and without this, the young people would not have gained the platform that proved integral to possible revolution.

The rise in the economy in the post-war era affected all of the protesting countries in the West. This economic boom is inextricably linked to the rise of student power as it changed the young generation’s perceptions with regards to authority. Nick Thomas claimed that, ‘France, Germany, Italy and the US, all of the student protest movements in these countries were characterised by a desire for the young to play a new role in the government of universities, and to have a new influence upon national governmental policy.’ This was due to conditions changing for young people concerning attitudes and acceptable social behaviour. It is supported by a student who declared that ‘no such thing could possibly have occurred twenty years ago because we would have regarded such behaviour as a breach of hospitality and because we were disposed to be courteous to our elders, even when we despised them.’ Without the financial instability that affected previous generations, the young people were allowed to hope for more from their education. This is in agreement with Fraser’s views that, ‘Many of the new radicals were amongst the brightest, most dedicated students who demanded that higher education be more than this. The irrelevance to the problems they saw around them of much that was taught, the forms of teaching, the rules and regulations that treated them as non-adult, the over-crowded conditions, and ultimately the university’s role in society became the focus of demands for radical change.’ Taking this into account, the dramatic rise in the economy and the demographic boom undoubtedly stimulated the student insurgency which was first witnessed in Britain at L.S.E. in 1966.

Chapter two:

Student protest across UK universities

In the late 1960s, while the streets of Paris and numerous other cities in America and Europe were occupied by rioting students and were littered with burning cars, students were also protesting in Britain. Although contemporaries have debated greatly the extent of American protest, student activism in British universities has been somewhat neglected. In assessing the wave of sit-ins that hit British universities in the latter part of the decade, this chapter will be able to determine whether or not the country underwent a time of radical political and ideological change. The London School of Economics (L.S.E.), The University of Birmingham and The University of Leeds provide evidence in order to deduce whether or not this period can be truly deemed revolutionary. In addition to this, the chapter will concentrate on the demonstrations in London organised by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), and the establishment’s efforts to thwart a growing consensus amongst the young generation that they could challenge the decisions of the authorities.

With events across the world being increasingly broadcast, Britain received a new impetus following the French May Movements of 1968. This undoubtedly acted as a catalyst in encouraging student militancy which had been active since 1966 amidst growing disaffection with governmental decisions and attitudes. On hearing the news from Paris, Pete Gowan, a student leader at Birmingham University believed that ‘students represented the rebirth of the revolutionary movement in Britain.’ 1968 was the year in which sit-ins reached their pinnacle and Essex University set the ball rolling at the height of the May events. Originating in protests over racism and Vietnam, the twin issues that most rapidly mobilised students in Britain, the Essex occupation was sparked off by an American-style factor: war-related recruitment on campus by a scientist from the Government’s germ warfare establishment. The idea was that the scientist would attempt to enlighten those attending, but instead he was challenged by the student union’s executive, David Triesman, who continually demanded response to compromising questions. In the aftermath of the fracas that broke out in which the police appeared, Triesman was banned from university sparking a sit-in consisting of some 1,200 people including a large amount of staff. Triesman opted to study sociology and economics at Essex University and at the age of 22, was one of many mature students involved in the movement. Essex University, like Sussex University, was relatively new and because it encouraged the study of the social sciences, encompassed many of the radical student political thinkers. Triesman believed that ‘Essex produced an atmosphere in which radical progressive thinking spilled over into all sorts of other things: the film and the theatre societies, for example, became socialist societies that happened to show films and put on plays.’ Although these universities played their part in student occupations, it was the L.S.E. that proved to the most active of the universities across Britain. It was here where the first indications of student militancy surfaced in 1966.

The L.S.E. was founded by Fabian socialists in 1895 for the study and encouragement of Economics or Political Economy, Political Science, Sociology, History, and any other subject cognate to any of these. It had long established itself as one of Britain’s most important educational institutions, and with its large input of foreign students, came to influence a world that extended far beyond its own London boundaries. In mid-1966 news reached the students that Dr Walter Adams was to be inaugurated as the School’s new director. He would be succeeding the then Director, Sir Sydney Caine and would begin his administration at the start of 1967-68 academic year. The students, as was customary, had not been consulted, but when Private Eye ran a piece attacking the appointment, and linking Adams with Ian Smith’s breakaway white supremacist Rhodesian government, protests inevitably followed. Tariq Ali, an influential student activist believed that ‘the L.S.E. decision to appoint Adams was a mindless provocation.’ At the beginning of the Michaelmas term, 1966, the L.S.E. Socialist Society issued a pamphlet strongly critical of Adam’s record. The student union and their president, David Adelstein, preceded to dispute with the School authorities for the duration of the term the rights for the students to interfere in the appointment of a new Director. These disputes consisted of refusal to attend lectures along with demonstrators in the street brandishing banners promising ‘Berkeley 1964: LSE 1966: We’ll bring this School to a halt too.’ The ongoing saga was re-opened at the start of 1967 when a ‘Stop Adams’ meeting was held on 31 January. The meeting erupted into a sequence of skirmishes that resulted in the unfortunate death of night porter, Edward Poole, who was caught in the mêlée and suffered a fatal heart attack. These events obviously had serious repercussions as the Board of Discipline clamped down on the guilty parties. David Adelstein and Marshall Bloom (the American President of the Graduate Student Association) were considered responsible for the disturbance and were suspended for the remainder of the academic year causing controversy throughout the Student Union. On 13 March upwards of two hundred students, with the support of some staff including Ralph Miliband, embarked on a sit-in that would last nine days and result in the reinstatement of the student leaders. The publicity these demonstrations generated was vast therefore in order to downgrade the students’ efforts Sir Sydney Caine blamed the sit-in on, ‘a small group of about 50 left-wing students who had enticed at most 200 of the school’s total of 3,500 students to join them.’ The Guardian ran an article on 15 March 1967 dismissing protest as the efforts of an extremist revolutionary minority defying the student body and corrupting the ideas of the majority of students. Although statistically these opinions are correct, the sit-in ended up achieving the desired result and sent shockwaves throughout Britain thus creating a trend in which other universities would follow.

In the aftermath of the L.S.E. occupation, a contemporary survey polled around 80 per cent of the School’s three thousand students. Of these students 56 per cent had refused to attend lectures, 39 per cent had actively participated in the nine-day sit-in (only 1 per cent stayed the full course). The survey tallied even the briefest of involvement with the sit-in which affects the authenticity of the results. The remaining percentage had taken no part. As for the students’ desires: 69 per cent wanted greater student involvement in the management of the School library, 54 per cent in questions of discipline and 43 per cent in teaching arrangements; only 28 per cent actually wanted to determine their own courses. The most surprising result was, however, a mere 13 per cent were actively disgruntled with Adam’s appointment which ostensibly caused the whole episode. These results suggest that Sir Sydney Caine’s opinions were accurate but nonetheless the L.S.E. continued to contribute to the British student movement. On 24 January 1969, of L.S.E.’s 3,000 student, 500 voted by a small majority to demolish the gates that had been erected to prevent occupations. As students attacked the gates wielding sledgehammers the police were called and the School was shut down. Rachel Dyne, a Marxist student, remembered ‘It was a euphoric feeling, I felt a great sense of power. We were doing something authentic, we resented the gates, felt they were transforming the place more or less into a prison. Taking them down was a way of challenging authority.’ When the School reopened it was minus its sociology lecturer Robin Blackburn who had been made redundant for siding with the students.

The student occupation at Leeds University in June 1968 is a well-rounded example displaying the development of sit-ins and is supported by useful survey findings conducted at the time. The root of the Leeds disturbances began with the visit of right-wing Conservative MP Patrick Wall to Leeds University on 3 May 1968. His lecture was the focus for around 400 protestors who were angered by the politician’s backing for the white regime in Rhodesia and support for the Vietnam War. The demonstration descended into violence with press reports claiming that the MP was spat on and that Mrs. Wall had suffered a seemingly fictitious attack. After the demonstration the university created a disciplinary committee in order to reprimand students who participated in the violence. As customary in 1960s British universities, students were often not included in the committee and therefore were given an unfair trial. One of the main motives for protest according to Val Remy, an unradicalised student, was that ‘students wanted to prove that they could run the college without bureaucratic administration.’ Richard Dixon, the student president at Regent Street Polytechnic in 1969, remarks that ‘at that moment, students were frustrated because they couldn’t contribute and representation was one of the ways of alleviating that sense of frustration.’ Leeds University, however, anticipated a backlash to this and included six students and six staff members in their disciplinary committee with the deciding vote given to the Vice-Chancellor Sir Roger Stevens. At the same time radical students had established a 3rd May Committee. The group said the selection of the student members of the disciplinary committee was undemocratic because they were unelected. It also alleged that there had been politically motivated investigations by the university’s security service. On 19 June the 3rd May Committee called for the dismissal of the heads of the security service, the abolition of security files, and the abolition of the unrepresentative disciplinary committee. The 3rd May Committee also demanded the resignation of Sir Roger Stevens if these points were refused and they threatened to stage a sit-in if their requirements were disregarded. By 25 June the Vice-Chancellor was yet to reply to these demands so members of the Students’ Union voted by 386 to 48 to occupy the Parkinson Building, then the administrative heart of the University. They demanded a public inquiry into the actions of the University’s security staff, and put up a notice which read: ‘The Vice-Chancellor’s office, the Registrar’s office and the Bursar’s office are closed indefinitely. By order of LUU Action Committee.’ It was estimated that 400 students moved into the Parkinson Building, with the support of their then Student President Jack Straw (became the Foreign Secretary), where they stayed until the sit-in’s conclusion on the evening of 28 June. At the time, Maurice Kirk was a Social Studies lecturer and a member of Senate. He describes the atmosphere: ‘I clearly recall in the Parkinson Building there were groups of serious-minded students trying to run their own tutorials and seminars, in what was a noisy marketplace atmosphere. The other thing that stuck in my mind was seeing a girl walking up Woodhouse Lane carrying the black and red banner of the Sorbonne anarchists, because the Leeds students were very taken up with the troubles on the streets of Paris in May 1968.’ Although none of the demands were met, later that year a committee was set up to consider the possibility of greater student involvement in university government.

Six months after the sit-in the Leeds University newspaper Union News conducted a survey of 546 of its students and the results reaffirmed the opinions of Sir Sydney Caine. Of these 546 students, only 15.5 per cent claimed to be politically active and 86 per cent found union politics to be monotonous. Concerning the demonstration against MP Patrick Wall, 63 per cent disagreed with it as opposed to the 22 per cent who had backed it. Perhaps the most alarming result was that only 3.5 per cent identified themselves with the left. Although this survey makes important findings, it is important to remember that only 546 students participated in the survey at what is a large university. The theme of a small group of radicalised students being able to corrupt and command a majority of generally apathetic students is very much evident in the case of Leeds University 1968. Although sit-ins may well be attributed to small militant groups, it is clear that many students were protesting for their own amusement. As a student of politically moderate views, Val Remy declared that ‘it was absolutely exhilarating, liberating. There was a sudden and new-found sense of solidarity. You really felt you loved people, they were no longer just fellow students, but comrades-in-arms.’

It seemed all the major redbrick universities were keen to emulate the events at L.S.E. and the University of Birmingham was no different. In October 1967, Stuart Hall, the former editor of New Left Review, was the guest speaker at the Freshers’ tea held in Priestly Hall. It was here that the Birmingham Socialist Union was first urged to ‘do something’ and as an example Hall suggested that they should do more work for ‘student control in the university.’ A year later the Guild of students created the ‘student role.’ Student role was a document ‘setting out in detail the minimum amount of representation necessary for beginning student participation and democratising the university.’ Motion four of the document demanded that a university commission be formed to scrutinize the university structure. This commission would consist of representatives from the University Council and the University Senate. The Guild of undergraduates should comprise 50 per cent of the commission and the Guild president should operate in alliance with the Vice-Chancellor as co-Chairmen. On 29 October 1968, the Guild of students held a meeting where they issued an ultimatum to the university authorities concerning student role. Sue Jackson, the vice-president of the Guild, proposed the amendment to motion four urging ‘executive to direct action if student role is not accepted by the University Council by November 27th.’ When asked precisely what she meant by ‘direct action,’ she replied, ‘I mean strike, I mean blow this place up…’ at which point the meeting erupted in applause and stamping. The amendment was carried by 47 votes to 17. Predictably, the university authorities did not accept the document and on Wednesday 27th November, direct action commenced when up to a thousand students gathered in the Great Hall. One Redbrick journalist wrote, ‘when the official occupation began, no formal system of organisation existed. There were just over a thousand students sitting in, as one giant body of protest, unified by a common belief in certain principles. Yet within twenty-four hours, this mass body had organised itself into a recognisably and structured community, employing some of the formal regulative mechanisms of the society outside the Great Hall.’ It is apparent that most students used protest in order to eliminate the disenfranchised conditions imposed on them and also to prove they could function formally despite their place in society. Students viewed protest as a form of earning a position in the system of government, as opposed to myths that they wanted to depose the government. ‘Student role’ is a clear indication that students were desperate for greater student representation.

As with the L.S.E. case, the media again created a false image of the students as ‘long-haired layabouts’ and ‘bearded militants.’ This produced a rift between students and the public which would take months to bridge as pressure to finish the sit-in augmented. On 3 December, ‘seventy-one members of Birmingham University students’ Guild Council ignored the wishes expressed by more than 2,340 students and determined by votes that the sit-in should continue indefinitely.’ The general meeting of 4,000 students revealed that the majority wished to finish the occupation, and with the original thousand students sitting in having subsided to 200 by 4 December, a familiar theme was yet again emerging. Were the university authorities able to starve out the students all too effortlessly? Again, Caine’s opinion seems to echo throughout all the occupation cases in British universities, a small extremist group had corrupted the majority that were just following a trend.

Although occupations were the preferred method of protest at universities, demonstrations towards the latter part of the decade increasingly encompassed students. This is best illustrated by the Vietnamese Solidarity Campaign’s (or VSC) organisation of demonstrations in London between 1967 and 1969. The VSC was ‘committed to the victory of the Vietnamese people against the war of aggression and atrocity waged by the United States.’ The campaign itself epitomised the power that the events in Vietnam had in mobilising the students. The campaign received much public exposure due to the new radical paper Black Dwarf which, under the guidance of Tariq Ali, concentrated on the anti-imperialist struggle and in particular Vietnam. The paper had been a year in the making but due to the events in Paris in May 1968, it was rapidly transformed in order ‘to capture the embodiment of student revolution.’ Britain, unlike the United States, was not shackled by the effects of conscription so protest was not as fierce. Despite this, the demonstrations often descended into violence. The VSC demonstration in London on 2 July 1967 attracted 5,000 protesters and resulted in thirty-one arrests after clashes with the authorities. By the 17 March demonstration outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, the VSC were enticing 10-20,000 demonstrators with some estimates suggesting there were as many as three hundred arrests. With the increase of violence and Tariq Ali’s intentions to invade the American Embassy ‘for as long as the Vietcong held the American Embassy in Saigon,’ condemnation for the campaign was widely publicised by the press. Newspapers were declaring that ‘this kind of thing has to be stopped’ and The Times redistributed their crime reporters to maximise coverage for the 27 October 1968 demonstration taking place in London. The establishment used a hysterical media campaign focusing on the threat of bloodshed and revolution to combat the escalating support for demonstrations. According to Tariq Ali, however, ‘never at any stage did anyone seriously involved in VSC imagine that the October demonstrations would be anything more than a show of the anti-imperialist left’s strength. But the establishment embarked on a campaign of black propaganda and disinformation. They did it for two reasons: to isolate the march from the bulk of the population by raising the fear of violence, and because they over-reacted, panicked after May (Paris 1968). France shook the ruling classes throughout Europe, and the British decided to take no chances that the disease would spread. Hence their ferocious attacks on VSC and on me personally.’ The demonstration attracted 100,000 demonstrators in what turned out to be a relatively peaceful affair. L.S.E. students utilised their School as a base for the demonstration, Students also accounted for half of the marchers that day again proving to be integral in trying to radicalise Britain. ‘None of us knew what might happen,’ recalled John Rose at L.S.E. ‘But we thought the revolution was going to start then - The Times was even predicting the possibility. We would have welcomed a major confrontation which would have raised the stakes and drawn the workers into the struggle. Had there been fighting, with serious injuries, possibly even a killing, I’m quite sure a major student rising across the country would have taken place, and the thing would have exploded.’ However, a Redbrick journalist claimed that, ‘I do not think that October 27th achieved very much, other than to create further antagonism towards students.’ This statement was reaffirmed when enthusiasm for protest diminished from 1968 onwards with the London demonstration on 16 March 1969 only managing to attract 4,000 protesters.

With this dissertation focusing on discovering whether there was in fact a student revolution, it is important to emphasise that many students still seemed to remain politically apathetic. As already stated, in January 1969, only 15.5 per cent of Leeds University students considered themselves to be active in politics. This is supported by a survey conducted at Warwick University that found a mere seven per cent were politically active. In terms of protest participation, a Gallup Poll survey conducted at Sussex University in May 1968, found integral results to this paper. Of the 270 students interviewed, 60 per cent believed in protesting for greater student representation in university academic affairs as opposed to 16 percent who were opposed to it. 67 per cent believed demonstrations and occupations were a useful purpose while only 8 per cent viewed them as harmful. The Gallup Poll survey found, however, that despite these statistics supporting protests, the majority of students did not participate in demonstrations regularly. The results supported the idea that most students were following a path that had been glamorised by a small militant group of left-wing extremists. The important issue to consider is the alarming rate in which student protest augmented in 1968. This may be considered a ripple affect from the events in Paris, but it is evident that at the time, desires for revolution were rife. Although statistics clarify that most students were politically apathetic, the hysterical media campaign initiated by the government indicates that there were growing fears that the students could mount a serious challenge. Contrary to the myth that students desired to overthrow the government, it seemed they were instead intent on attaining a more creditable and official position in a government system by claiming greater representation in university matters.

Chapter three:

A comparison with other countries

When social historians discuss the decade of the 1960s, student revolution is often considered one of its most distinguishing characteristics. By 1968, Students had now made their impact in every part of the world - Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and the USA. In order to fully comprehend the extent in which student activism effected Britain, it is essential to juxtapose the research found at British universities with the events that took place in other countries. Again L.S.E. proved integral in providing a case study in which to compare to American findings. This chapter will also focus on the events in Paris in May 1968 which arguably acted as the main catalyst in prompting student risings throughout Britain. With students uniting around the world, it is also significant to assess the student rebellion in an international context in order to decipher whether or not the British student movement can be coined ‘revolutionary.’

The most comprehensive study in the United States concerning student protest is the survey conducted by Richard E. Peterson of 85 per cent of four-year colleges. His salient results focused on issues of national politics and whether or not they could be classified with the same importance as internal university affairs with regards to mobilising students. In Britain there is a scarcity of studies attributed to the causes of protest in which to compare to Peterson’s findings. It would, however, transpire that about one third of demonstrations in 1967 and 1968 were concerned with student demands for participation within campus government. The remainder were equally split between matters of curriculum reform, student discipline and guest speakers. The L.S.E. debacle, as already noted in the previous chapter, was accredited to student discontent with the disciplining of David Adelstein. Tessa Blackstone and Roger Hadley conducted a survey of 80 per cent of L.S.E.’s 3,000 students just eight weeks after the sit-in of 1967 and found that in ‘comparing the L.S.E. and subsequent protests in Britain to those in the United States, the major differences would seem to be the extent to which non-educational issues were involved. In Britain internal university or college issues seem to have been more important than national or international political issues.’ Peterson’s findings in the United States, however, reveal that issues such as Vietnam and racism were more important in rapidly mobilising students. These results again illustrate the theme running throughout this dissertation that the British student’s main incentive for protesting was to obtain greater participation in university affairs. At L.S.E., in terms of disciplinary issues, 88 per cent of the extreme supporters desired at least equal student representation on the committee. Taking into account all the students that aided with the survey, 83 per cent wished for some degree of representation on the disciplinary committee. Furthermore, 69 per cent of the students wanted to have at least some student representatives on the committee dealing with course content. These statistics again clarify the students’ main reasoning behind protest was to gain greater representation.

One of the main differences between British universities and their US counterparts was the sheer size of the colleges. L.S.E.’s 3,000 students were vastly inferior to the 27,000 students attending the University of California at Berkeley, where student protest originally exploded into the American limelight. Roger Hadley and Tessa Blackstone argued that ‘size is important in that there must be enough protest-prone students to form a group which is big enough to promote action, to provide leaders, and to run the demonstrations once they have begun.’ However, despite a considerable smaller amount of students attending, L.S.E. was still vigorous in airing their views about student representation. This was due to L.S.E. specialising in the study of the social sciences, a subject that attracted many radical political thinkers.

Table 1. Degree of support for the sit-in at L.S.E. in March 1967 by field of study

This table reinforces the idea that social scientists and in particular sociologists were more prone to protest. It reveals a higher percentage of students who studied subjects such as sociology supported the sit-in compared to the percentage of students concentrating on other subjects. Conversely, there were also a large amount of students studying the social sciences that were hostile or apathetic towards student revolt. For example the statisticians and accountants contribute 20 per cent of the extreme opposition. Therefore, whatever their political allegiance, supported by research found in the US, the social sciences attracted the more outspoken student who was prepared to voice his or her strong opinions.

In 1967, L.S.E. consisted of 40 per cent student graduates. According to Roger Hadley there were several explanations why students at this juncture in their university careers were more prone to protest participation. ‘They suffer the insecurities of an uncertain status position, wedged between the undergraduate mass and the faculty elite. Lacking the relative homogeneity of the undergraduate groups, and their regular contacts with members of staff, they are likely to be more vulnerable to feelings of social isolation and powerlessness. Yet they have more experience than the undergraduates and almost certainly include a larger proportion of exceptionally able students; two factors which probably explain why they provide a high proportion of the leaders in many revolts.’ This is highlighted by student graduates such as Marshall Bloom at L.S.E. who became a leading student activist. This was similar to the set-up in the US where graduates, along with teaching assistants, played a pivotal role in protest. Teaching assistants were also plagued by the same insecurities that the graduates suffered concerning their status position. Whilst being overworked and underpaid, they were neither officially part of the academic staff nor part of the student body. Under these conditions, it is plausible that they would use their extensive class time to declare their disgruntlement to students capable of protest. This is elucidated with the case of Robin Blackburn who was formerly the assistant lecturer in sociology at L.S.E. until he was made redundant after siding with protesting students.

In the aftermath of the L.S.E. sit-in and boycott of spring 1967, results found that 44 per cent of the students believed the sit-in was wholly justified, and 44 per cent also believed the boycott was wholly justified; 34 per cent believed that both were wholly justified and 58 per cent that both were partly or wholly justified. There were as many as 79 per cent who believed that at least the sit-in or the boycott was wholly or partly justified. In terms of participation, of L.S.E.’s three thousand students, 56 per cent boycotted, 39 per cent had played some part in the nine-day sit-in with only 1 per cent staying its entire duration. In the US, there is some evidence that suggests that the extent of students involved in protest was much smaller than at L.S.E. This evidence is found in Peterson’s survey in 1967-8 which revealed that on average only 9 per cent of the student body were involved. At Berkeley only 3 per cent of the students were devoted enough to the Free Speech Movement to risk arrest. These figures must be utilised with some degree of caution as it is likely that the number of students involved were misjudged by the Dean of Students. These findings, nonetheless, suggest that L.S.E. was more concentrated in terms of student protest than universities found in the US.

This dissertation has the view that former student protesters from both Britain and the US have exhibited shared characteristics of the ‘protester’ into later life and largely they have carried their expectations and hopes into adulthood only to be disappointed. Shunning the more traditional political parties and ever looking for alternative political offerings to combat the shared issues of today’s world. Both countries also experienced the rapid augmentation of the protesters’ preferred subject, the social sciences, which influence radical political thought. Despite these similarities, Richard Dixon believed that British students placed more emphasis on student representation than the Americans. ‘When I say that UK students may well have been better placed to put more emphasis on student representation it is because I do know that the British Government (first Conservative and then Labour) had ‘exploded’ the higher education population with polytechnics and new universities - I was part of the ‘bulge.’ Thus in the UK the issue was not ‘a denial’ of higher education opportunities - more what to ‘do’ with the franchise (turned out to be about consolidation - representation and academic involvement) and to clarify; what the new mass opportunities meant and whether it was worthwhile.’ Britain were undoubtedly active in terms of protest concerning Vietnam and other issues stemming from across the Atlantic, but in comparison to the efforts in the US, Britain may well have been viewed as following a sweeping trend that had become globally glamorised. It is also important to remember that Britain was not shackled by the effects of conscription that engulfed so many of America’s young generation, therefore they would not have protested as enthusiastically as their US allies.

It is important to utilise the May events of France 1968 as a case study as it proved integral in initiating a student revolt in Britain. Ronald Fraser claimed that ‘the May events in France, watched with awe and fascination on both sides of the Atlantic, were the apogee of the student 1968 and all it represented. Here was a student movement that had barely existed in force six months before, taking on and shaking a seemingly secure and authoritarian regime. Here were students catalysing the largest general strike in French history at a time when, even on the left, it was widely held that the working classes were so firmly integrated into capitalist society that no sudden cataclysm could occur. Here was a challenge to the social order which fitted no preconceived pattern and that burst on the world without warning.’ Tariq Ali believed the reasoning behind this was that ‘ten years of Gaullism had choked French society.’ The French May movements were undoubtedly the student movement at its most penetrative.

In 1868, a century before Paris would erupt in the greatest student uprising it has even known, in which students violently clashed with police in an attempt to topple Charles de Gaulle’s government, Louis-Auguste Blanqui wrote and distributed a manual for students engaging in urban warfare against the state. Thus, when the May riots of 1968 broke out, they did so in a cultural context that included historical precedents encouraging French student guerrilla tactics against police, fashionably theorised by the most prominent French student radical of the previous century. In January 1968 a student faction at the University of Paris, Nanterre, appropriately named Les Enragés, generated a series of disturbances on campus. They were led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit and endeavoured to create an urban revolution concerning itself with anti-Vietnam War protest, militarism, and Western imperialism. The events commenced on 2 May when a right-wing extremist assaulted a student union office at the Sorbonne in Paris. This was nothing new as for months right and left-wing students had waged a war of words that had also led to the circulation of a leaflet intending the extermination of left-wingers at Nanterre. The left-wing students, feeling threatened, enlisted the aid of trained street fighting militants and on 3 May they took up their position. Robert Linhart remembers; ‘we put down oil so that enemy vehicles would skid, broke down the barbed wire fence that separated the university from the shanty town so that immigrant workers could come to help us in case of battle, organised students in self-defence groups - but no fascist dared show his face that day.’ Needless to say the administration closed Nanterre and announced that there would be disciplinary hearings for some of the leading student activists. The Nanterre activists requested a meeting be held the same day at the Sorbonne to discuss a plan of action. Soon after the meeting, however, the police arrived causing immense controversy. This was an astonishing action on the part of the police who rarely ventured into the Sorbonne as it was considered student territory. Skirmishes broke out as police vans bundled students into the back of their vans. The police, having been provoked, attacked the students with batons and immediately the Sorbonne exploded into a full-scale riot in which hundreds of students were injured and many vans were seriously vandalised. It was a grave error by the government and the consequences sparked a ‘domino effect’ series of protests.

On 6 May, The Union Nationale des Etudiants de France (UNEF) supported the student leaders to protest in order to liberate the Sorbonne and free the four students sentenced to prison following the riots against the police. That day more than 20,000 students and teachers alike marched towards the Sorbonne to be greeted by the Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité (CRS), who were a police force specialising in riot control. As riots raged until 10 p.m., police reports speculated that there had been as many as 487 casualties from their department. The amount of injuries sustained by the protesters was unknown as many refused to check in to hospitals in order to maintain anonymity. Although the students did not manage to reclaim the Sorbonne, their bravery had gained them a political triumph. Fraser believed that ‘the brutality displayed by the police served to isolate the Gaullist regime in the eyes of a large proportion of the population. In this, 6 May showed both how exceptional the battle had been and how exceptional France under de Gaulle was. Large and militant as the movements had become in the US, they had not mobilised so large a proportion of the population into rejecting the regime itself.’ According to an opinion poll taken on 8 May, four-fifths of the city’s dwellers supported the students. Parisian students were captivating a global audience.

On 10 May the whole world witnessed a savage battle between protesters and the CRS as it was broadcast live on radio. The radio reporter described the events: ‘Now the CRS are charging, they’re storming the barricade - oh, my God! There’s a battle raging. The students are counter-attacking, you can hear the noise - the CRS are retreating… Now they’re re-grouping, getting ready to charge again. The inhabitants are throwing things from their window at the CRS - Oh! The police are retaliating, shooting grenades into the windows of apartments…’ At this point the radio station, which had been telling the commentator over the air not to dramatise events, interrupted him. ‘This can’t be true, the CRS don’t do things like that!’ ‘I’m telling you what I’m seeing…’ His voice was then cut off the air. These atrocities served to fuel a nation on the brink of revolution. Such was the courage displayed by the students in the face of such adversary even The Times reporter spoke of their ‘great bravery’ and ‘fearless heroism.’

The pinnacle demonstration took place on 13 May, ironically on the tenth anniversary of de Gaulle’s regime. It was a monumental demonstration with reports claiming up to a million protesters present. It resulted in the four youths being released from police custody and the CRS withdrawing from the Sorbonne. Through this the students believed they could actually topple de Gaulle. By May 27, de Gaulle’s government demise appeared forthcoming and the president unexpectedly left Paris at the end of May, stunning the population. This event proved to be the zenith of the French May movements as by the third week of June, the Gaullist regime gained an immense victory in the elections. Using his control of television, the Gaullist regime played blatantly on the alleged threat of a ‘Communist seizure of power’ during the recent events to frighten voters into the realisation of where their actions might have led. Also many of the radicals were under the voting age of twenty-one thus excluding many of the people disenchanted with de Gaulle’s regime. Mark Edelman Boren believed that ‘the students and workers generated enough power to threaten de Gaulle’s regime but they were unable to focus it effectively and decisively.’

France, like Britain, experienced a ‘baby boom’ and rise in the economy in the years following the war. Prior to the Second World War, France had only 60,000 students in a population of 42 million. In 1958, when de Gaulle had seized power and disbanded the fourth republic, their numbers had increased to 175,000. In 1968, France had grown to fifty million and the number of students had risen dramatically to 600,000. The university authorities had to cope with contentious issues such as insufficient building standards and amenities. This was detrimental to the quality of education as it deteriorated rapidly. Disillusioned, the students emerged with new motives to test the resolve of the authorities. Like Britain, France waged a constant struggle against discipline. The disciplinary rules were repressive and archaic: political meetings and propaganda were forbidden and men were not allowed into women’s lodgings. This was similar to the set up in British universities until Keele University set the ball rolling by staging a three day sit-in demonstrating for the right to have halls of residence with mixed sexes. Despite some similarities, the French May movements were the closest students came to causing a revolution within their country.

The relevance of the May movements to this dissertation should not be underestimated as many have disputed that Britain was following a growing trend set by their French peers. It has been identified that May ’68 acted as the main catalyst in promoting student revolts to ripple throughout Britain. The Guardian, however, claimed that it was a case of ‘me-tooism,’ and that British students were merely imitating the examples made in countries such as France. This idea was evidently condemnatory towards the students but also raised the fact that broadsheets often patronised the students involved by degrading the student movement without basing it upon research. The idea of ‘me-tooism’ was raised in most of the protesting nations, therefore if students copying their foreign peers were to blame, how did they initially begin? There is, however, no denying that whilst students heard news on the radio from Paris, the student movement in Britain received a new impetus as they threatened to challenge the ruling class.

It is significant to recognise that student protest had been evident long before the rebellions that occurred in the sixties. Campus rights had undergone a substantial change in Latin America after the protests that arose in Argentina. The Cordoba Manifesto of 1918 was the earliest assertion for student rights and it denounced the old administration in which there was no reform of rules, for fear that someone might lose his job because of the changes, and it declared: ‘We want to eradicate from university organisation the archaic and barbarous concept of authority which in the university is a bulwark of absurd tyranny.’ The manifesto also declared its complete confidence in the ability of the students to run their own affairs. A series of demonstrations were concluded when President Irigoyen permitted student reforms. This inspired universities across Latin America to protest issues such as student representation and is best illustrated by the victory for Peruvian students that allowed them to dismiss a professor if it is by majority vote. These events were fundamental in a historical context as these were the demands that British students mainly strove for in the 1960s.

The student success in Argentina occurred rapidly and was radical regarding changes to university infrastructure. In terms of France, the ruling class was entirely shaken yet the rebels did not seize power. Nelly Finkielsztejn maintained that ‘to achieve reforms you have sometimes to try to make the revolution. Much has changed in French society since 1968, even if things are by no means perfect. Authority in schools is less strong than it was, women’s place and role in society is no longer what it was, contraception and abortion have been legalised, the death penalty abolished. We’ve finally escaped from the leaden weight of Gaullism which stifled life and freedom. And all that, I believe, is a result of May ’68.’ This, however, can be considered the gradual effects of the May movements as all this did not occur in a short time span. Such were the aspirations of the French students that the May movements focused on toppling a government whereas the British students, in truth, never came close to an upheaval of the government. Instead they concentrated on gaining an admirable position in society and revolutionising the universities in a similar vain to the Argentinean students’ achievements forty years earlier. Jonathan Green states that, ‘Inevitably, when one compares the role of students in the various countries, Britain’s representatives could hardly be compared with their American counterparts, whose commitment lasted longer and who faced opposition far more vicious in intensity, or to those in France, who perhaps more than any other group came nearest to creating an actual revolution, but the thought was certainly there, and in various contexts, so too was the deed.’ In comparing Britain to the US and France, it is inescapable that the British student movement will appear humble. In the aftermath of the May movements, Paris bookshops were immediately filled with hastily compiled studies claiming a student revolution. One journalist stated that ‘the French and American contributors were responding to a situation quite unlike anything that has been seen in this country (Britain), or is likely to be seen.’ The British students did, however, concentrate their efforts towards creating a university in which they could administrate their own affairs. Something the US did not devote nearly as much attention towards.


For many of the generation in revolt, the student revolution meant an organised attempt by a small minority of radicals to destroy the universities as they existed. If this is the case, the sixties undeniably have cause for being coined revolutionary. The magnitude and frequency in which student protest took place in the 1960s has never been equalled and this could be due to several factors. Firstly, the universities gradually buckled to the students’ demands and reformed, thus including students within their governmental structures. Secondly, according to Jack Straw (the then Foreign Secretary speaking in 1985), ‘The ideas developed in the student movement have fed their way into challenges towards the established structures of the Labour party. An awful lot of people involved in the party over the last decade or so were active in student politics.’ This clarifies that increasingly the ideas of student activists were forcing their way into parliamentary government. Thirdly, after 1968, troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, meaning that the war ceased to provide an incentive for many people to unite and demonstrate. Instead they broke up into smaller factions protesting issues such as environmentalism and feminism, which on their own could not mobilise such a vast amount of demonstrators. These reasons certainly contributed to protest diminishing after it reached its peak in 1968. The successes of the student movement are highlighted by Richard Dixon, who claimed that, ‘In my years, students became allowed to vote when they were studying. Suddenly some MPs had as many student voters as non-student. Student representation in college governance had made a start and extending this to school students was being debated.’ On 1 January 1970, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 thus confirming young people’s status change.

‘In trying to keep student representatives off committees, the universities are attempting to deny us any real influence in the way we are educated and the way in which we live.’ This statement was made by a student journalist and as this dissertation has emphasised, the students’ principle motivation behind protesting was to gain greater student representation and the right to determine their own lives. This is confirmed statistically by the surveys taken at L.S.E. and the Gallup Poll conducted at Sussex University. The idea introduced by Sir Sydney Caine that a small group of extremists were corrupting the majority of students into actively participating in protest is also statistically true as results from contemporary surveys reveal that most of the students were apathetic. In accordance with Richard Dixon’s views, British student protest tended to be more persistent in achieving greater control of university governance, whereas in the US, students were engrossed in issues of a larger scale, such as the Vietnam War.

This dissertation has stressed the importance the economic boom had in catalysing rebellion as it enabled a financial stability not experienced in previous generations. As a result of this rise in the economy, more students than ever recorded were attending university. This meant greater pressure was played on institutions to deliver better education and to adapt to the growing expectations of higher education. Consequently this led to student radicals becoming very much part of society as they thrived on challenging the government. According to Ronald Fraser, ‘Although it was unable to mount a challenge to the established order, the British movement had mobilised more people than ever before. But, like the French movement, it had not found a way to translate this new-found strength into a political force. Anti-authoritarian revolt no longer seemed sufficient against an established order which, sooner or later, was prepared to launch a counter-offensive.’ This is supported by the Independent on Sunday that claimed that despite the leaders of the student movement transforming what they controlled; ‘their mistake was a hopeless underestimate of capitalism’s power to adapt.’ This dissertation finds that the British Government, in the face of such student activism, was never realistically in serious jeopardy of being overthrown by the students. There was, however, an element of fear as illustrated by the hysterical media campaign set-up in order to thwart the student’s efforts.

The French May events contributed greatly to the British student movement as it set the radicals new aspirations of emulating their French peers in bringing the country to the brink of revolution. This, however, did not materialise as after the October 1968 demonstration, protest gradually diminished. John Lennon suggested that nothing had changed. ‘The class system and the whole bullshit bourgeois scene is exactly the same. The same bastards are in control, the same people are running everything, it’s exactly the same. They hyped the kids and the generation.’ This dissertation does not agree with this statement as the movement did enjoy some significant changes in terms of university infrastructure. The students achieved greater student representation over a longer time span than would suggest a revolutionary epoch. It appears that the student movement across Britain in the 1960s was more a case of evolution rather than revolution as the changes were gradual but are evident in today’s society.


Primary sources

Birmingham Post, 4 December 1968
Blackstone, T & Hadley, R. ‘Student protest in a British University: Some Comparisons with American Research’,
Comparative Education Review, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Feb, 1971), pp. 1-19.
Campus, 25 June 1968
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Daily Mail, 19 March 1968
Gallup Poll, Student Demonstrations, May 1968
Guardian, 15 March 1967
Guardian, 10 June 1968
Independent on Sunday, 19 May 1996
Neville Brown, L. ‘Student Protest in England’, The American Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 17, No. 3. (Summer, 1969), pp. 395-402.
Peterson, R. The Scope of Organized Protest in 1964-5 (Princeton: Educational Testing Service, 1966) Ditto in 1967-8.
Redbrick, 11 October 1967
Redbrick, 29 October 1968
Redbrick, 30 October 1968
Redbrick, 30 November 1968
Redbrick, 4 December 1968
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Sun, 19 March 1968
Times, 4 May 1968
Union News, 21 June 1968
Union News, 24 January 1969
VSC Bulletin, July-August 1967, no. 6.
‘What is the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign?’ recruitment flyer.
An interview with Richard Dixon was conducted by the author. 20 November 2006.

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