1989 and all that: was the LSE Student’s Union right to champion Winston Silcott?

by Ray_North on July 29, 2013

Unknown-2In the early summer of 1989, George, Jackie, Bobby and I were first year undergraduates at the LSE. It was still a very political university back then – elections were keenly fought and, unlike most student unions, your position on the plight of Kurds in Iraq or the crimes of General Pinochet, were more important than whether you wanted to reduce the price of beer in the student union bar. Each Thursday lunchtime the union meeting would attract 300 students – the left would sit on the left, the right on the right and European moderates and Liberals would sit in the middle. To speak in these meetings was like stepping into a cage with a rather pedantic bear – any mistake or utterance of stupidity would be punished. I look back now and cringe at some of the things I said, but feel pretty proud that I had the balls to get up and try. In any event it was that heady, intoxicating brand of soon to be extinct student politics that was one of the main reasons the four of us ended up there.

In the summer of 1989, the four of us were 19 years old and were active members of the Labour club (Bobby was a more occasional member as the 1pm meetings on a Monday were a challenge for him).
For me, it was a massive learning experience, bringing a lad from the seaside in North Wales into contact with political ideas and experiences that I had never encountered before. True, looking back we were so politically correct that occasionally we failed to consider things in an objective way, but, on the whole our hearts were in the right place and our minds were being challenged, and I don’t regret that.

Each year the LSE Student Union, would nominate someone to be the Honorary President. It was, and, I assume still is, an entirely symbolic position designed to highlight some wrong or champion some cause.

And in the summer of 1989, the contest for Honorary President gave us our first taste of political controversy.

Save for what I’d seen on TV or read in the press, I had little knowledge of the Broadwater Farm riots that had occurred in Tottenham three years earlier. At a meeting of the LSE Labour Club, we were told that Winston Silcott who had been charged and convicted of the murder of PC Blakelock, had been convicted on fabricated or false evidence. We weren’t surprised by this allegation, remember this was the time of the Guildford 4 and the Birmingham 6 and as such we saw the plight of Silcott as being another attempt by the police, who were of course the muscled arm of the Thatcherite state, to stitch up an innocent man. And so, without a great deal of discussion, it was decided that we should nominate Silcott to be our Honorary President and highlight the miscarriage of justice.

I remember making a speech at the Student Union in favour of Silcott, I’m not sure why I agreed to do it, probably because I was ambitious – the motion was passed and Silcott became the Honorary President of one of the country’s foremost Universities.

Then all hell broke loose.

We were accused in the Daily Mail and the Sun of an outrageous act, almost akin to the dreadful murder itself. We were vilified and threatened and patronized for our act and an Emergency General Meeting was held in an attempt to overturn the election of Silcott.

I didn’t speak at that meeting – but I remember that the atmosphere was electric, over 1000 students were present in the main hall and other rooms where the meeting was being relayed via radio.

The speeches were as passionate as I’ve heard, everything that student politics should be, the closest we would ever get to 1968 – in the anti-Silcott corner it was asserted that we were demeaning the name of the University by having a man who had been convicted of the murder of a policeman and who had other convictions for rape and violence as our President; whilst those who were in favour argued that it didn’t matter about Silcott’s antecedent history the issue was one of justice and a fair trial for anyone accused of a crime.

It was tricky. I remember my girlfriend at the time, being appalled that I, someone who purported to support the rights of women, was supporting a convicted rapist to be our honorary president – you can highlight his plight in other ways she told me, and, maybe she was right.

Maybe.

The motion was passed a second time and Silcott remained as Honorary President.

I felt sure at the time, as a 19 year old, that we did the right thing, and in the mid 90’s Silcott’s conviction was quashed allowing us to feel (rather ambitiously) that we had played a small part in helping to right an injustice.

Last week, the CPS charged another man with the murder PC Blakelock – I know not the evidence that the CPS have against that defendant, but, for the sake of the family of PC Blakelock, I hope that it’s compelling.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam April 28, 2014 at 6:14 pm

Hi there, I remember this time, although not a student I was intact dating one.
This maybe a bit cheeky, but do you remember Fiona Taylor? She was studying anthropology. I have been trying to locate for a number of years, but I don’t do social networking.
Oh well here goes nothing eh?

I remember those glorious days well and the repercussions that followed …

Cheers
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Ray_North April 28, 2014 at 7:53 pm

Yes, I do remember Fiona Taylor, well at least I think I do – did she play hockey? I think she might even have been one of my Facebook friends – though I’ve come off Facebook.

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