The student protests: part 1

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For the principal, there is an issue of personal responsibility

by Kenneth Roy

If not quite a YouTube hit, the meeting in Bute Hall of Glasgow University to discuss last week’s student eviction is being widely circulated on the internet.  It makes painful viewing.  The only genuinely funny moment was unintentional, when a badged functionary name of Paul came forth as a health and safety disciple to give detailed instructions on how to escape the joint in the event of an emergency – say, an unexpected visit by 80 burly chaps in fluorescent yellow.

“Our job,” said Paul, “is to ensure your safety at all times” – an assurance worth a giggle in the circumstances.  The irony went unappreciated.

The meeting was chaired by Charles Kennedy, the rector, whose attempts at humour likewise failed to raise even a half-hearted laugh.  “We’re keeping Kennedy West Highland time” … “I opted for this job thinking it was time for the quiet life” … “I’m beginning to feel like David Dimbleby.”  Haha.  Not.

Charles, whose polo-neck sweater was itself worthy of eviction, uplifted by police helicopter if necessary, said he had been in London all week but ‘following events closely’, as politicians do when they are otherwise engaged in matters of grave national importance.  For him not to have jumped on the first available train to Glasgow, these matters must have been grave indeed.

Where does the rector stand in all this?  Does he support the principal?  Does he support the students who elected him?  Does he support the Glesca polis?  Or does he merely support Fort William, the hopeless team that regularly props up the Highland League?  Will he somehow find a way of supporting all four?  There is no present way of knowing.

To his left sat a woman who was not introduced – perhaps she was even more famous than Charles Kennedy and did not require any introduction; to his right, a mild-looking middle management type, the sort who blows self-consciously on his microphone as he attaches it to his tie, a master of the PowerPoint presentation.  It turned out that he was the principal of the university, Anton Muscatelli, and within five minutes he was being asked impolitely to go.


Where was the oratory?  The honed barbs?  The passion?  Where was the stuff to show on national TV so that people were reminded of Glasgow’s great tradition of protest and wanted to rush up here to show solidarity?”


Your position has become untainable” – the speaker meant untenable – “and we want your resignation.”  When the thunderous applause finally died, Professor Muscatelli responded by giving a short reading from the Glasgow telephone directory.  I jest.  He merely spoke as if he were.  He said there would be an independent inquiry into the ‘deeply unfortunate events’ at the Hetherington Club and that he would not be ‘walking away from the problem’.  Or indeed walking away from Bute Hall to Paul’s nearest assembly point.

Then someone else called for his resignation.  On ‘Just a Minute’ there would have been cries of ‘Repetition!’  Professor Muscatelli was certainly not guilty of deviation or hesitation.  He simply found a slightly different way of saying that he was not the resigning type, that he would await the outcome of the independent inquiry.  Ah, yes, the inquiry.

I fear that, in the noble way of inquiries, it will have a great deal of evidence to hear, a great deal of thinking to do, and that it will finally issue its findings on a hot day in June when Andy Murray is close to defeat in the fourth set of the Wimbledon semi-final, most of the protesting Glasgow students, poor lambs, are clutching their Lonely Planet guides, the distressing events of March 2011 feel as distant as a Japanese nuclear meltdown, and some kind woman has bought Charles Kennedy a new sweater.

Of course, the age of oratory is dead.  It was finally buried in Hyde Park on Saturday when it was revealed that, not only is the mouth of poor Ed Miliband full of cotton wool, his brain is packed with the stuff too.  All the same, we might have expected better of Glasgow University, an institution with a fine, combative record of student debating.  Was this not the spiritual home of young John Smith, young Donald Dewar and – dare one add – young Charles Kennedy?

A member of the teaching staff emailed me after the Bute Hall meeting: “Where was the oratory?  The honed barbs?  The passion?  Where was the stuff to show on national TV so that people were reminded of Glasgow’s great tradition of protest and wanted to rush up here to show solidarity?”

Where indeed?  Professor Muscatelli escaped lightly.  The questions he would have anticipated.  The answers he would have prepared.  Yet there was something not quite right about his initial reactions both in writing (his emailed ‘message to all staff’ last Thursday) and in person the following day in Bute Hall.  “The action was instigated by university staff,” he wrote.  No doubt the inquiry will identify which staff – although their names are already generally known.  Are they to be the fall guys?

Either the principal knew and approved what was about to happen, in which case he showed extremely poor judgement; or he was unaware of the invitation to the police until the helicopter was buzzing overhead, in which case he had lost control of his own staff.  Either way there is an issue of personal responsibility.

In the meeting in Bute Hall, we saw a microcosm of the more general failings of Scottish public life: the largely meaningless incantation of a duty of care; the feebleness of non-executives even, as in this case, an elected one; the reluctance of those in power to acknowledge their own errors; the tendency in a crisis to consolidate the crumbling position of the strong while failing to protect the vulnerable; the absence of wit and forensic ability; and a corrosive sense of personal insecurity which discourages any rocking of the leaky boat.

 

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.