A very English conflict

A VERY ENGLISH CONFLICT- the Warwick University Files affair – a personal note from a participant- Trevor Fisher

 

 A note giving the context to the account of the Warwick Files Affair published as Warwick University Ltd Ed E. P.Thompson, published by Penguin Books in Spring 1970 and republished with new introduction by Spokesman in 2014. Early in the affair the students elected a Commitee of Seven to represent their interests. I was one of those elected.

 

When students at the University of Warwick returned to their studies in the New Year of 1970, they returned to a campus lacking the buzz of activity of today’s university. There were only a tenth of the current number of students – the university opened in 1965, and only about 500 undergraduates were admitted every year.  After the first students had graduated in 1969, around 1500 undergraduates plus 300 post graduates made up the student cohort.,  Many students had been attracted by the pioneering spirit of a new university and realised the university was still developing and realised  they were working in a building site. However the development of the university raised more questions than answers about its identity.

 

The first year when students and staff crammed into the East Site with considerable camaradarie, was history once the move to the main site was completed. By New Year 1970 any students who thought in terms of a community of scholars and dreaming spires realised this was not the model Warwick was following. When tiles began falling off the virtually new library building – and the contract was traced back to the brother of the Vice Chancellor, Jack Butterworth (check) – a growing cynicism was detected among students, with muttering about business involvement in the highest levels of university governance..

 

Nevertheless, most complaints were relatively mundane. The price of food was an issue, especially as getting off campus involved a trek to catch a bus down the A46. Entertainment was limited, no arts centre as had been promised, and above all only a social building. The main space was dubbed the Airport Lounge as the architects had worked on airports and it felt like designers thought we would be flying off in a couple of hours.  The university had granted a students union but not a building in which to house it.

 

However keenly felt, isolation and boredom did not make for a revolutionary consciousness. The myth of ‘Red Warwick’ (1) is overstated. While student General meetings in the Airport were attracting increasing numbers of students and gave a  constitutional basis for the sit ins which echoed developments elsewhere, the radicals paying their dues to the Socialist Society never commanded majority support among students. Indeed the biggest meetings in the Airport prior to the Files Affair were to watch The Magic Roundabout on children’s TV, with the cartoon characters  Florence and Zebedee having more followers than Marx and Engels.

 

A WINTER OF DISCONTENT

 

Warwick was affected by the international student protests following the events of 1968, but the big issues like the Vietnam war had only indirect effect.. The first sit in took place in the library in support of LSE students protesting steel gates installed in the university buildings. We thought that the paranoia that sought to restrict movement in a university was more akin to a prison than a place of scholarship. And this concern for academic freedom was a core value for students at Warwick. The Socialist Society showed maturity in keying in to what the student mainstream valued and avoiding leftist rhetoric. I personally was a member of the (Old Pre Lib Dem) Liberal party and had just finished a year as Political Vice Chair of the  Union of Liberal Students.

 

The lack of a students union building was the key issue for most students. Frustration at stonewalling from the administration led to a token occupation of the Registry on February 2nd, which failed to change anything. Students then voted for an indefinite occupation on February 11th. The sit in was planned to be a genteel affair. The Assistant Vice Chancellor Walter Coutts struck a deal with the sit in leaders that if they promised no damage would be done the the adminstration would not order the porters to bar access. Thus the outer offices were left open to be occupied (not all the offices as WUL suggests (p50) ). The deal allowed a peaceful occupation, albeit over a relatively minor issue. While rumours of dodgy dealings at the top of the university had been  rife for some time, porters had removed boxes of files once news of the vote to occupy reached East Site.. I could see no point in occupying empty offices and with Finals a few  months away, went to the library with a friend  to finish an essay.

 

THE LAW OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES.

 

However the law of unintended consequences then operated with startling effect. The adminstrators had removed boxes of files, but one compromising letter – the Montgomery letter – had been left in the rush to evacuate the Registry. This mistake, and the accidental discovery of the letter, changed the climate. By 9pm the letter had reached not only EP Thompson but the bar of the social building, and there was an immediate evacuation of concerned and angry students heading up the hill to the East Site. When we got there, we entered a surreal . The Sitters In, already combing the rest of the files in the open offices and finding nothing suspicious, were discussing whether to break into the locked inner sanctum and go through the vice chancellor’s files. It was unanimously agreed to do so.

 

While as this book shows, the files did contain very dubious material, it is worth noting what a gamble this was. WUL gives the impression the discoveries were inevitable. At the time, this was far from certain. If there had been nothing, the consequences would be very serious. The only justification for breaking into a Vice Chancellors office, searching his files and removing some was that the action was in the public interest. This could only be argued if material of public interest were found.

 

Rumours of dubious practices proved to have substance and by  Thursday 5pm the occupation had the evidence. But as WUL notes (p53), “the dillemma of the evidence had begun”. No one would believe the testimony of students. The files had to be abstracted and made public, but this raised even more serious dangers for the students concerned, especially after the High Court injunction was delivered by loud hailer (possibly uniquely) at 11.30pm.

 

The General Meeting that Friday morning backed the decision and decided to publish the material through a joint committee of staff and students. A Committee of Seven students was elected to do this. But the staff refused to back the students in setting up a joint committee and as WUL notes “the students were isolated. But they decided to continue their efforts to uncover the truth about the University Administration” (p56). This meant a strategy of publish or be damned. It was quite clear that unless the files could be made public, we were to be hung out to dry. Thus photocopies were rushed to London to the offices of the Sunday newspapers as the mainstream press were key to success. In the meantime, the original files were kept in the most secure place anyone could think of.  Without any irony intended, they were kept under a pile of dirty laundry in my wardrobe in Benefactors Hall.

 

That weekend was the crux of the confrontation, but the section of WUL on pages 56 and 57 only sketches the main developments. On Saturday 14th the University senate met and adopted the hard line statement printed on pages 126-127. The tone was set by the attack including the wholly innaccurate accusation of intimidation of staff. There had been none. It clear that when Senate’s reps came to address students, it would be high noon.

 

THE WEEKEND OF 14TH -15TH

 

While some of the Committee of 7 headed for Essex University that weekend to commune with the Red Base established there, (Warwick did not have a Red Base but Essex was a genuinely left wing student body), it was clear that the stakes had risen, and the dillemma of the evidence had to be resolved. The documents were extracted from my laundry basket, taken away and typed up. On the Monday morning every door in the university would have a copy put under to greet the dawn. No one on campus would have any doubt what had been discovered.

 

But this was small beer. The real issue was the national press, and it was with great concern that students read the reports of the Files Affair in the national sunday press – without any mention of the actual documents which had been copied to every national paper. The evidence was missing. Without that, the senate had every right to think they could lay down a hard line at the student meeting called for Monday evening, and split what had been till then a remarkable unity of liberal and left wing students over the academic freedom issues posed by the files. It was not looking good that Sunday.

 

When Monday morning dawned, the documents were taken round the university in the dawn light. The meeting with the  Senators – including the Vice Chancellor, but led by Professor Hugh Clegg, a noted moderate was notably low key. The students heard the administration in silence, but questions became increasingly hostile as the document distributed that morning was referred to without gaining answers from the senators. It seemed they would make no comment pending advice from lawyers: and they could have no doubt their action in securing the High Court injunction had given hostages to fortune. If they hoped to engineer a split in the student body, over 1000 of whom were crammed into the Airport, then had failed. When they left, 850 students voted for a motion which, while regretting ‘distress, fear or anxiety’ inadvertently caused to clerical staff by the sit in, opposed disciplinary or legal action by the university and in rejecting the Senate statement of the 14th called for a full inquiry into the running of the university

 

The press had printed none of the compromising documents, and the Committee of Seven was told by advisors in Fleet Street that the papers had been deterred when the High Court injunction had suddenly and myseriously appeared over the Press Association teleprinters. Lawyers advised that any paper printing material from the Files would be in breach of the High Court. It was effectively a stone wall which escalated the issues from Academic Freedom to Freedom of the Press.

 

The leading newspaper of the West Midlands, took this challenge seriously. The Birmingham Post, on the morning of Tuesday 17th February, drove a horse and cart through the injuction by printing, verbatim, the most crucial evidence taken from the University files. The rest of the press followed suit. It could no longer be argued that concern over the governance of Warwick University was simply a student fantasy.

 

A KIND OF VICTORY

 

The campaign continued to Easter, when Final exams brought an end and students had to accept that they would not get an independent inquiry. The wider issues were never fully resolved, but a line had been drawn under business involvement and vice chancellor power within Higher Education in Britain. The Warwick Spring was unique both in raising these issues, and in achieving at least a hearing for them. No student was ever disciplined or prosecuted over what we did. We had won the moral high ground, and the authorities dared not have the issues aired in open court. And we had created a space for the academics to regain lost ground – for a time.

Trevor Fisher                                                                                                    4th August 2013

 

Revised 4th April 2019

 

(1) Recalled in 2000 as a student legend according to Cal Winslow – see his essay in ALBION’S FATAL TREE Verso 2011 edition pxxiv. The legend was established by the Files Affair. Radicalism did not exist before.

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