Student politics

Yesterday’s flashbacks (I keep having them, doctor) made me think back to St. Catherine’s (always known as ‘Catz’) as it was when I was there (1970-73, the last year before co-education, something I only experienced on the PGCE course at Exeter the following year). It was new – when formally opened, in about 1964, Macmillan had referred to it as looking like ‘a petrol station’. That was exactly why I wanted to go. Anything with ivy and old grey stones was anathema to me.

There was little in the way of student political life at Oxford then, unless you belonged to a coterie, or the Oxford Union, in which I never had any intention of setting foot. There was no university student union at all, only a loose federation of the individual colleges, under the heading of ‘Student Representative Council’. However, each JCR (‘junior common room’ – what a childish phrase that is, when you see it written down) met and debated anything it felt like, and Catz was in this respect, at that time, quite unusual. Most of the students in the college came, and it was a large college. You could find more than 200 students present at a meeting, which was dominated by sensationally clever discussions of current political issues, and generally concluded by a vote of sympathy and a whip-round for a deserving cause (striking miners, in most cases. Quite what they would have made of long-haired swots chipping in for their right to a greater paypacket, I do not know).

The debates were witty and fiery, and the JCR committee was fond of great gestures. It was announced that Merton College had withdrawn from the SRC (see above), because it was excessively left-wing. Not to be outdone, Catz voted to withdraw because the SRC was insufficiently Stalinist. One of the key figures in the college (not only a first class mathematician, but the possessor of a pair of jeans that had been patched so often that almost none of the original denim survived) was Alan Roff, a witty, charismatic character who was behind most of the political ‘action’ the students took. (He is now deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, I am pleased to note.) After one stormy debate in my third and final year, during which the entire committee was forced to stand down, I can’t think why, and after which some constitutional quirk meant that I was instated as its chair, Alan proposed a vote that we occupy the Senior Common Room. I will be honest with you, I cannot recall what the aim of this occupation was, but it was of course seen at the time as a dangerously radical thing to do. The Senior Common Room (just as stupid a term as its Junior equivalent) was out of bounds to undergraduates, and was where the dons and their guests congregated after dinner.

Obviously, there has to be a frontman for occupations, who goes head to head with the Master (Acting Master at that time) of the college, and explains why a very large number of students is entering the inner sanctum. As the vote was being taken, it occurred to me that the ringleader – God help him, he would be followed by MI5 for life – was the chairman of the JCR committee. And, as had been the case for the previous ten to fifteen minutes, that was me. Alan Roff caught my eye. ‘Losing your bottle?’ he asked in a very friendly and supportive way. ‘No, no,’ I lied.

So in we pushed, and I had some trifling exchange with the Acting Master about votes, majorities and so on. After this, the invaders stood about in the Senior Common Room, and ate a few free After Eight mints. I have absolutely no idea what happened after that, or whether whatever it was we were demanding was granted.

The reason this has all come back to me is not just the trigger of remembering my refusal to be an MA (Oxon). It is a more curious fact. As I say, the whole college participated, pretty much, in these meetings and debates, and exchanged interesting and passionate political views. In my third year – the one in which the minor insurrection occuured – there was a first-year student at Catz who went on, some years later, to higher things. But I do not remember him at all. I do not remember him speaking in the rowdy pit in which the debates were held, and I do not remember him invading the space of the dons. In fact, I don’t remember him being there at all, but it is certainly shown in all his biographies.

He was Peter Mandelson.


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