Rory Scothorne

Rory Scothorne

On Scotland’s Student Radicalism

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Over the past week and a half, Scottish students have occupied (or continue to occupy) university premises in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Strathclyde, Dundee, Stirling and Aberdeen – all to show solidarity with striking staff in their pensions dispute. In this adapted piece, Rory Scothorne explores the history of Scottish student radicalism during the “1968” era and how it has left a lasting impression…

This week, university staff on strike against the further marketisation of their pension scheme rejected a proposed ‘deal’ between Universities UK and union negotiators. Angry protests against the deal, which left the long-term future of any ‘defined benefit’ pension in serious doubt and committed strikers to the unpaid rescheduling of classes missed during the strike, spread rapidly across the country. Local branches organised packed, impromptu meetings which unanimously voted to reject it. Strikers have been emboldened by the knowledge they do not stand alone: one of the pleasant surprises of the strike so far has been the level of student support, with the “impacted customers” themselves (as senior managers would see them) joining rallies, picket lines and beginning a wave of occupations across the country.

At the time of writing, students are occupying university premises in Edinburgh, Surrey, King’s College London, Exeter, Bath, Dundee, Aberdeen, Cambridge, Queen Mary, York, Stirling, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Sheffield and Reading. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that many students are deeply concerned not only about their debts and teaching standards, but broader questions about the role and value of universities in wider society.

It’s fitting that this wave of activism coincides with the half-centenary of 1968, a year with emblematic status in the history of student protest. It was in May 1968 that Parisian students, following minor upheavals on campuses across Europe and America, turned protests at the University of Nanterre into a nationwide revolt against the conformism, traditionalism and rising alienation that defined so much of post-WWII life. The iconography and mythology of ‘les évenements’ continues to shape the traditions of student resistance, forming a “usable past” through which students can align their own struggles with a storied episode of creative rebellion. But in this regard campus radicals in Scotland are stymied by our own distinctive myth of 1968: it didn’t happen here.

This is part of a broader myth about radicalism in Scotland, prominent in the work of Gerry Hassan and others, which tells us that genuine radicalism is largely absent from Scotland in the second half of the twentieth century. Only the “brief dawns” of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in and the magazine Radical Scotland threatened to make an impact, and Hassan suggests that even these became incorporated into Labour and nationalist narratives. Yet this insistence on identifying “radical Scotland” – rather than radicalism in Scotland, shaped by its Scottishness but not subordinate to it – only reinforces the predominance of a stodgy, defensive class politics and flavourless nationalism in the historiography of ‘popular politics’ after the Second World War.

By subordinating radicalism to its influence on wider “national” priorities, this approach not only forces radical history into precisely the sort of nationalist teleology from which it ought to be rescued, but also draws our attention away from key elements of the radical tradition, whose enduring influence on Scottish political culture is less intentional and direct than the idea of “radical Scotland” implies. One of these elements was the culture and politics of student radicalism.

In his Modern Scotland, Richard Finlay suggests that “the waves of student protest which marked campus life around the western world in the sixties and early seventies were largely absent from Scotland”. While it’s true that no paving-stone missiles disturbed the peace of George Square or University Gardens that summer, there is much more to say. Christopher Harvie describes “a student bohemia” emerging from the early 1960s in Edinburgh, focused in particular on the “Paperback Bookshop” on Charles Street. The bookshop was owned by Jim Haynes, whose adventures in British counterculture saw him involved with the founding of the Traverse Theatre and the influential underground newspaper International Times.

The emergent culture of literary radicalism that Haynes and his bookshop represented has been well documented in Eleanor Bell’s edited collection The Scottish Sixties, and Ross Birrell and Alec Finlay’s Justified Sinners. But its role within a broader political scene remains strangely underexplored, and its legacy is often reduced to the status of mere curiosity. The stuffed Rhino head which surreally adorned Paperback Bookshop’s frontage is now memorialised in a small bronze replica, mounted – to the endless bemusement of students – on the side of Edinburgh University’s Informatics building, the old site of the bookshop.

Photo by  Cory Doctorow

Photo by Cory Doctorow

If this strange marker seems to embody one sad story of the contemporary university – the replacement of mind-expansion with information-processing – we should remind ourselves that sixties student culture was (of course) uneven and ambivalent. Tensions between a countercultural minority and a seemingly apathetic majority of students were particularly concerning for the more radically-inclined editors of Edinburgh’s Student newspaper in the late 1960s. Responding to the wave of unrest which consumed the London School of Economics in 1967, one editorial identified “a picture of a university and a student way of life which is about as far away from the life we lead here as the moon is”.

Frustrations like this were intermingled with provocative moonshots of their own, trying to jolt their peers out of conformism, if not into revolt: a meeting between the Duke of Edinburgh and the president of the male-dominated University Union was reported on the front page of the Student under the sub-heading: ‘ANACHRONISM MEETS ANACHRONISM’. A fortnight later, a full-page spread on the merits of L.S.D. prompted the Student Representative Council to suspend the editor, Hugh Griffiths.

Sexual liberation was also a key concern, though often couched in carefully administrative terms. When the Student Representative Council began facilitating access to contraceptive pills for students, the university rector – right-wing celebrity Malcolm Muggeridge – condemned the decision, and after a campaign against him led by the new Student editor Anna Coote, he resigned in the middle of a speech at St. Giles’ Cathedral. That week’s Student featured an enormous cartoon by a maths student called Phil Bevis, depicting Muggeridge’s face as a skull (later described as the ‘Muggerskull’). The SRC, uncomfortable with The Student’s provocative approach, demanded closer scrutiny of the newspaper’s output, prompting further outrage from the small group of radicals running the paper.

An end-of-decade reflection on the Student’s “sixties” described this group as a radical “dynasty”, the “apotheosis” of “the increasing tension and sorts of disagreements that began to appear openly in universities on the question of what university was about anyway”. Their names, some of which are now more familiar, pop up time and again in controversies of the period: alongside Hugh Griffiths and Anna Coote were Steven Morrison, one of the leaders of radical demands for student democracy, and the first, unsuccessful, student candidate for rector; and Yvonne Baginsky, who was fired as editor after refusing to print a letter by rectorial candidate Kenneth Allsop that criticised Morrison, and who established the radical Student Independent newspaper in response. There was also Bob Cuddihy, chair of the university’s Labour Club.

While they may not have been representative of the student body, their antics created ripples that can be felt to this day. In the aftermath of the “Muggeridge Affair”, for instance, the Edinburgh University Student Publications Board was set up to oversee the Student in place of the SRC. EUSPB rapidly developed into a crucial part of the Scottish publishing scene, producing the influential New Edinburgh Review from 1969 and the Red Paper on Scotland – edited by Gordon Brown, at that point Edinburgh’s second student rector – in 1975. At the end of the decade, EUSPB evolved into Polygon, publishers of some of the most important texts in Scottish literature and history since the 1970s.

This was part of a broader “apparatus of criticism” through which, Harvie suggests, “the treatment of Scotland moved away from myth, recollected grievance and the romanticism which had penetrated earlier accounts,” and towards efforts “to understand why Scotland was different, and what long-term factors, if any, underlay the current political upheavals”. In 1968, an Edinburgh PhD student called Bob Tait, then an editor of the student-run Feedback magazine alongside future Radio Scotland chief Jack Regan, established Scottish International Review (SI) with support from the Scottish Arts Council in premises provided by the university chaplain, Father Anthony Ross.

Tait and Ross exemplified the liberal, inquisitive and modernist Catholicism that has become closely associated with the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. Their culturally rooted, yet intellectually cosmopolitan ideology helped to shape SI, which sought to place Scotland’s new culture and politics in an international context while simultaneously providing critical (though often somewhat distant and experimental) ballast to an emerging left-wing nationality politics in the aftermath of the SNP’s by-election win in Hamilton.

“A colourless or promiscuous internationalism is to nobody’s advantage,” proclaimed the first editorial, “but a self-conscious cultural nationalism can lead to bad habits of stereotyped thinking and unwillingness to look at the situation as it really is”. In pursuit of Scotland “as it really is,” SI published a regular summary written by Christopher Smout of developments in the study of Scottish social history, an attempt to address the glaring lack of attention given to the distinctive trajectory which E.P. Thompson had identified, but never explored, in the development of working-class identity in Scotland. The muted reaction of much of the Scottish left to Bob Tait’s death in December 2017 suggests a similar process of historical recovery is now essential for the 1960s and ‘70s.


Such developments were by no means exclusive to Edinburgh. Ray Burnett has described his experiences in Aberdeen, where left-wing students took control of the well-funded “Debater” society to support a series of “teach-ins” on campus. In 1970, one such event titled “The Culture of Scotland, past, present, future”, saw Hamish Henderson, Christopher Smout and others engaging in wide-ranging critical discussions of Scotland’s cultural and political heritage. The structure of the event was heavily influenced by the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, drawing on the Sardinian Marxist’s historicist approach to the role of intellectuals and “subaltern” struggle in the making of national cultures.

Gramsci’s work would later get one of its first major UK outings in the New Edinburgh Review, which – during the rather turbulent editorial tenure of Maoist student Chic Maisels in 1973-74 – published Henderson’s translations of Gramsci’s ‘Prison Letters’, and papers from a conference on Gramscian thought. His significance when exploring our own ideas about modern Scottish history, culture and politics is substantial (if occasionally overstated), and the student radicalism of the ‘68 era – along with the lifelong efforts of Henderson – can be given a lot of the credit for this.

Tom Nairn, credited in a recent essay by Neal Ascherson with introducing “the notion of cultural hegemony” to Scottish nationalism, was in fact rather isolated from such developments in 1968. He was busy with the occupation of Hornsey School of Art in London, where he was sacked from his lecturing job for supporting the students. Burnett suggests that despite the considerable impact on Scottish intellectuals of Nairn’s essay “The Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism” in that year’s New Left Review, its author was “a strange, distant figure on the metropolitan and chic European left … at the time it never occurred to anyone that he actually might be Scottish.”

The politics of identity, so ubiquitous in the memorialisation of that era’s radicalism, were threaded through everything. Students were beginning to see themselves as not only a distinct community but a political movement: Sarah Browne has argued that “student representation”, at that time largely absent from university governance, was an omnipresent demand. It took various forms, but was often focused on the distinctly Scottish position of the elected rector, which was used for both symbolic and practical purposes. At Glasgow, left-wingers persuaded Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the Parisian revolt, to run (though he came fourth).

In Aberdeen, the left organised behind the New Left intellectual Robin Blackburn, whose 1967 essay on inequality publicised the Economist article that is supposed to have inspired the name of John McGrath’s 7:84 theatre company. In Edinburgh, students furious at their “absentee landlord” Rectors, Muggeridge and Allsop, pushed hard for a “working” student rector and eventually managed to elect Jonathon Wills (whose “Gaston Le Jobbe” cartoons in the Student nevertheless satirised his peers as “fung studn’ts”) in 1971, followed by Gordon Brown a year later. The legacy of these efforts to politicise the Rectorship is felt today: Aamer Anwar at Glasgow, Maggie Chapman at Aberdeen and Ann Henderson (below) at Edinburgh have all taken firm lines in support of the strike.


Other identities were finally coming to the surface too, and these were also closely linked to campus culture. Under Father Anthony Ross, Edinburgh University’s chaplaincy became a home for the Scottish Minorities Group, founded in 1969 to campaign for gay rights. At St. Andrews, as elsewhere, the university became a crucial hub for the emergent Women’s Liberation Movement, as Sarah Browne writes

“…it was being part of a small and remote community with a focus on student life and the university that really gave the women’s liberation group in St Andrews a particular character. It also provided them with more opportunities to publicize their events and campaigns. They were able to promote their full message through the pages of AIEN [the student newspaper] where members Zoe Fairbairns, Stevie Norris, Susie Innes, and Anne Jackson all became editors. They used this influence to pack the pages of AIEN with articles on abortion, pornography, and book reviews of women’s liberation texts, quite clearly giving the impression that St Andrews University was ‘a veritable hotbed of feminism’.”

Nevertheless, Scotland was no hotbed of radicalism in 1968. The second issue of Scottish International, published in August that year, featured a new poem by Iain Crichton Smith – titled simply “Scotland”, which ended grimly:

Your artists cower in their walls of stone.
Europe has forgotten you. What are you?
You are a silence, you’re a mineral,
sleep of the dead strata, step on step,
a house of echoes on a posthumous green.

Such a silence was hard to break. Yet those underground “dead strata” would soon burst back into life: oil and Scottish nationalism erupted into British politics during the following decade.

The attention lavished upon those developments by scholars has tended to obscure another underground influence on Scotland’s recent history, one over which we had – and have – far more control: the sedimentary power of collective, utopian intransigence, however small those collectives might be. Though few heard them at the time, the cries – both of frustration and hope – of Scotland’s ‘soixante-huitards’ have echoed through five decades of history. If we remember ‘68 as yet another “missed event” in Scottish history, we risk letting that echo die out.

Tales of Scottish apathy all too often fall into what Kristin Ross calls “the police conception of history”: just as the police tell us what is and isn’t allowed, so too do historians often try to tell us what was and what wasn’t possible, pointing to the past and saying: “nothing to see here, move along”. As Raymond Williams tells us, it is the duty of radical historians to “make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”; to show people what might be concealed behind that bland surface, holding fast to the old ‘68 slogan: beneath these streets, the beach.


This piece has been adapted and updated with permission from Scottish Cultural Heritage, a blog which “aims to offer new critical perspectives on Scotland’s political, cultural and literary heritage.”

For more: Students at the University of Strathclyde present an exclusive vlog on our Facebook and Twitter pages explaining why they are in occupation.

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