The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

During my sabbatical year as Deputy President of Liverpool University Guild of Undergraduates (student union to you and me), there was a very rowdy demonstration against the Thatcher government’s planned increased in parental contributions towards the grants and tuition fees. A quarter of a million students took action across the country. But our sit-in at Senate House unfortunately headlined when the Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Whelan suffered a heart attack and died. This distressing incident happened right in front of us.

The Guardian newspaper, reporting the incident, noted that universities and colleges seemed to have been taken by surprise at the sheer scale of the protests. But protest was in the air. This was November 1984 and we were in the middle of the national miners’ strike that would continue for another four months. And we were by no means the most feisty demonstration. In fact, Liverpool University was arguably one of the more docile colleges in the country compared to London and Manchester.

But on 21 November, we held a mass meeting at the Guild as planned to decide on what action to take. In other cities, students were already occupying buildings and staging sit-ins. There was a movement for occupation but the trade unions on campus had asked me to ensure that it was anywhere but Senate House. However, there was a notable precedent for heading towards that building. Back in 1970, students led by amongst others the future Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow staged a very high profile sit-in in the Senate.

FIND OUT MORE: Memories of Liverpool in 1981

The 1970 Liverpool student sit-in compared to 1984

Their demands were less bread-and-butter than ours: Opposition to racial discrimination; details of university investments to be published; an inquiry into how the university kept data; information on chemical and biological warfare related research at the university; and no victimisation of those taking part in the occupation. Our demands reflected the dire economic straits in which Britain found itself in 1984. Three years before, Toxteth had been rocked with riots. Unemployment was endemic in the city. And students were terrified that grants would soon be replaced by hugely costly fees. And as we know now – those fears were very justified.

A year before, Liverpool had thrown out a Tory-Liberal coalition at city hall and Labour had swept in dominated by supporters of the Militant. Essentially, a Marxist group in the Labour party now exerted huge influence in the running of Liverpool. That of course set it on a collision course with the Thatcher government. And she was determined to crush the Marxists in Liverpool once she’d finished with the miners. But at the time of our occupation, I’d say that many of us left-wing students were flushed with revolutionary optimism. Though not like the cheerful exuberance of the 1960s. This was more a grim fight to the finish.

Even Tories weren’t happy

What the government was actually proposing to do in 1984 was make better-off parents pay more towards their children’s education and living costs. Some Tory MPs could clearly see that wasn’t going to be a vote winner in the shires. One Tory MP, Michael Forsyth, suggested that instead of doing this, why not introduce student loans “so that students would be treated as adults”. Or as we would say today – so that students could be saddled with the enormous cost of their own education. At the time, this was still too bold for even the Iron Lady. But things were starting to move in that direction.

Tragedy at the Liverpool student sit-in

Our sit-in had a stormy start when the doors of Senate House were forced open with students on one side and the security staff and porters on the other side. The students overwhelmed the staff on site and one guard was injured. After that though, everybody barring us sabbaticals sat down and began chomping crisps, slurping soft drinks and engaging in a remarkably civilised debate on what to do about the government’s proposals.

I began to wonder when the occupation was going to end. It wouldn’t surprise me if some ultra-left sects demanded we stay there until global capitalism collapsed. In the end, we convinced the demonstrators that after the Vice-Chancellor had made a statement, we should peacefully disperse. Nearly everybody agreed. From memory, it was while one of the lecturers was making a contribution that Professor Whelan clutched his chest and fell to the ground. It’s a scene I’ll never forget.

The events that followed were like something out of a Tom Sharpe novel. Probably the strangest day of my life. By the end of it, I found myself in my office back in the Guild being interviewed by Radio City. The media were actually very supportive and Professor Whelan’s widow made a beautiful statement not blaming any of us for what had happened. But as a 21-year-old, I’m not going to deny that the tragedy left me very shaken and feeling very upset for a family left without a father.

NOTE: One of the press clippings below incorrectly identifies the Guild president as standing next to Professor Whelan.

2 thoughts on “Liverpool student demo ends in tragedy

  1. Vic says:

    Thanks for that. Can you tell me where you found the New Socialist cover, as I valued this mag in the 1980s and would like to find an archive, but can’t.

    1. I never threw anything away. So that New Socialist is part of my archives – or mountains of rubbish as my partner refers to my 80s treasure. When I wrote the biography of Neville Staple of The Specials, Original Rude Boy, I asked the NME for back copies and found they had none from around 1979 to 1981. The reason? Punks hated the past – including yesterday morning – so they didn’t archive anything. Last week was tripe. Only the future mattered. Etc.

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