Hannah Mawardi

Every holiday, I talk to my grandfather about the previous term, and he asks me if I have been out to protest. I mention watching an XR march from my window, or forgetting to turn up to a picket line on sidgwick, and he berates me for failing to organise the next great student rebellion: how can we anaemic students simply lie down, whilst we cough up unpayable fees for unpaid lecturers?

He was pretty far from a ’68er in his day - a Vulcan (nuclear) bomber pilot, drafted along with other armed forces to replace firemen during the strikes in ’77 - ’78 - but he brings it up because he knows that it makes me feel guilty. My first year room was papered in slogans from the May ’68 student protests; I would tell anyone who asked that this was all in aid of revising for my paper on 20th century European history, which wasn’t entirely untrue. And of course, student protests were the first thing I looked for in the archives.

“The images, the language - it is everything promised by the slogans.”

They don’t disappoint. Due to its proximity to America’s armed presence in Britain, and the role of certain left-leaning academics (Bertrand Russell for example), Cambridge was central to the CND movement - one of the great student protest movements of the 60’s. And nuclear weapons are very much on the student mind; “yet another move has been made [in 1963] by a college towards providing shelters for undergraduates in the event of a nuclear war” - the article concluding that “to have a situation where some colleges, perhaps the rich ones, were fully equipped with shelter facilities for its men while others had no more than a small wine cellar would be ludicrous and unjust.” It is hard not to find such concerns somewhat absurd in the face of total annihilation - a point made by Varsity during the Cuban missile crisis, when the paper writes that the concerns of the undergraduate (“whether essays would be on time, whether they would be elected to the Labour Club Committee”) were “put into the background by an apparent threat that they might be exploded at any minute.”

With this on their minds, students protest: Varsity describes how “police and proctors patrolled Parker’s piece and the market place on Tuesday night as an unruly mob of over 2,000 heard speakers of the ‘Hands off Cuba’ movement warn of nuclear war during the next 24 hours.” Prospective labour candidate Robert Davies, “undeterred by a guided toilet-roll, accused the Americans of ostracising Cuba, and driving it towards Khruschev and Mao Tse Tung,” whilst “the press” (presumably of people, rather than of student journalists) were nearly run over in “a grim moment when a 105 bus roared through … jamming hundreds against the steps of the guildhall,” as part of a confusion caused by a counter protester crashing his motorbike into the crowd.

The images, the language - it is everything promised by the slogans. An open letter published by Varsity in 1969 boldly opens “We are radicals. We believe in freedom. Freedom of thought. Freedom of speech. Freedom of movement. Freedom of assembly.” And yet, in a way, the authors doth protest too much. The more Varsity you read, the more radicalism starts to sound like an assertion rather than a reality. The CND admits later in 1963 that “it [had] failed in its objective” - not only that of disarmament, but that of recruitment: “about 9000 leaflets were sent out after the Cuban crises, but as a result, only 11 had joined.”

“The more Varsity you read, the more radicalism starts to sound like an assertion rather than a reality”

The first demand of the ”Varsity radicals” is the introduction of a student union; I had been unaware that ours formed in 1971, and was only recognised by the university in ’84. Shortly afterwards, this is followed by the call for co-residence, and “at least some mixed colleges in the University.” Admittedly, the issue of co-residence in Nanterre University was the spark for the ’68 protests in Paris: but there, and in the rest of Europe, demands went far beyond co-residence - as barricades were set up, workers went on strike, and protest sought to challenge the political hypocrisies of Western and Eastern leadership. Varsity itself draws a “marked contrast to the demonstrations and violence that have been taking place in Paris and even Essex,” against the student action in Cambridge. It credits “the possibility of force … some slight degree of anarchy” as the crucial ingredient in forcing the introduction of student representation to Kings; but later asks itself “What kind of trouble? Well, probably not demonstrations or sit-ins, or even shouting at reactionaries. But a steady pressure; rowdy meetings, continual questioning of dons, a refusal to let the issue be forgotten.”

This is partly reflective of Varsity as a newspaper - it is far from a revolutionary rag, with editorials consistently criticising sit-ins or demonstrations, arguing that they risk polarising a liberal University discourse and causing it to collapse into street politics. Even reading Stop Press however, (a considerably more radical student paper, which merged with Varsity in the 70’s when we went bankrupt), shows that “rowdy meetings” are by no means the greatest threat Cambridge has to offer: in a protest in ’76 (which perhaps could only have originated in Cambridge), “nearly 300 students [took part in a] ‘work-in’ at the University library in defiance of the early closing hours.” Varsity’s open letter from ’69 actually includes “more seminars and lectures” as one of its demands.


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The demand of student protest however (common to all student action from the 60’s onwards) - is exams reform. It is in the open letter: it is behind the burning of gowns, and appearance of 100 marchers gathered in front of the Sidgwick buttery “dressed in white sheets” with heads “swathed in bandages or [walking] on crutches [carrying] banners proclaiming, ’We are the academic cripples”; it continues into the 70’s, with a “1000 strong occupation of the Lady Mitchell Hall” in protest against the refusal of the Regent house to abolish Part 1 classing in Economics and introduce coursework papers in place of examinations.

Much like co-residence, it is hard with perspective to view this as revolutionary. Then again, for many of us over the past three years, exams have been reformed: due not to the efforts of student activists, but to a global pandemic. Returning to college this Michaelmas, and the reactionary reintroduction of in-person exams appears to have slipped under most of our noses - as in a Rishi-Sunak-cigarette-ban style, most faculties have forced the first year undergraduate back into a futile exercise of sheer memorisation, which neglects the purpose of a university education. For all that the bureaucratic and academic demands of 60s students can seem anything from boring, to laughable, they did take their educational philosophy seriously: “more interdisciplinary studies and courses … [and] a social sciences faculty this October, if practicable” are further demands of the open letter. And so - for all that I love him - there is a part of me that doesn’t look forward to seeing my Grandfather at the end of this term.