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Thursday, 8 December 2011

A Dark Day for British History

Here you can read about the University of Birmingham obtaining a court injunction criminalising any occupation or sit-in protest anywhere on its 250-acre campus during the next 12 months.  That's right.  A British University has outlawed peaceful protest on its grounds.  Leave aside, for a minute, the general implications of that - there are ample good points made in the article.  What this means is that at a time of unprecedented attacks on Higher Education students are barred by University management from making peaceful protest. 

Consider too, the historical struggle that people had to open up access to higher education in the UK; consider the historical struggles waged to earn British people the right to protest without getting sabred by the yeomanry.  Now consider the fact that the V-C of Birmingham University rose through the ranks as a historian.  I don't know whether he still thinks of himself as an historian; his profile makes scant mention of his historical credentials, except seemingly as a past phase he went through, and the only publications referred to are policy documents and speeches.

Whatever.  Speaking just for myself, if this report is accurate and if Birmingham's V-C is behind his University's legal actions - and it's difficult to believe that, as V-C, he isn't - then I think that, whether or not he does still think of himself as a historian (supremely ironically, one who used to teach Chartism and Marxist theory), his actions ought to shame the British academic historical profession.  In my own view, this would be a disgraceful thing for anyone to do at any time, but it is especially so during this year of all years. This year non-violent protests have occurred through the world and often been violently repressed.  Our governments have mouthed support for these protests and yet here we are, in the Free West, with a seat of learning threatening with the force of the law peaceful student protesters (protesting about issues that affect them, the future of UK Higher Education). 

My own view is that it is especially regrettable that a historian should be behind this - and, I assume, a pretty good historian too since he has a chair in the subject.  As I have argued repeatedly in this blog, there is an ethical demand at the core of historical research and I think it says nothing good when no attempt is made to bear that demand in the present, outside one's research into the safely dead past.  Having a historian behind it sheds a bad light on this affair not just because Birmingham's V-C knows about the events of nineteenth-century British social history, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists and the rest, but because I assume that he had to engage with the writings by and about those movements in what (as I have argued before) is inevitably a humane, ethical fashion.  That is why, as a professional historian, I feel ashamed that this action should have been taken by a fellow historian.  OK, I can imagine various scenarios in which a threat of legal action might be a useful negotiating point with protesters on campus and it's possible of course that the Guardian article hides some nuance of this sort, but whatever scenario I envisage in a UK university with UK students, all this looks horribly heavy-handed and unnecessary.

So, overall, I say to Birmingham's V-C shame on you.  Shame on you.  Perhaps you have been badly advised.  I hope you can see that this was a mistake, reconsider it and rescind this action as soon as you can.  Sheffield backed down on their similar injunction, after all.

Otherwise, pepper spray, anyone?


2 comments:

  1. Well said, Groucho. I was absolutely appalled when I read about it. The pepper spray analogy came to my mind too....

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  2. Hear hear! But then: remember - Eastwood was one of those VC's falling over to praise the Browne report and the commodification of HE, so I fear his journey to the dark side is complete!

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