Then, as a 17 year old apprentice telephone engineer, I had joined the second big anti Vietnam War demonstration that year to the US embassy in Grosvenor Square.
In some ways the protests were similar: the violence of the cops, the thousands of students who fought back and the rapidity with which things can change. But there is an important difference.
Back in 1968 very few working class kids stayed on at school after the age of 16. To start with, at least, most anti Vietnam War protesters were students and most working class families had little connection with them. Even if workers in Britain were soon to engage in massive confrontations with the ruling class, only a relatively small minority had much sympathy with student protesters.
Today this is a distant memory. At Islington Sixth Form College, where I now teach – having received a free university education, with a grant, as a mature student – a large number of students receive an Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which means they come from relatively poor families.
Their parents are extremely proud of their achievements. And they are also very proud that these same sons and daughters have stood tall, struck, occupied, protested and defended themselves from riot cops when doing so. And so are their teachers.
That is why, when two Islington Sixth Form students approached NUT members with a request to help them organise a meeting in college, we did so. And what a meeting it was! Eighty students and staff turned up to hear students from the King’s College occupation, our local MP Jeremy Corbyn and the two Islington students themselves make blistering, inspirational speeches calling for a huge turnout on the 9 December demo.
One student argued that their struggle was not just about fees and the EMA but stopping the corporate takeover of education. Another condemned the media frenzy about violence by protesters. When Corbyn asked to respond to contributions the 17 year old chair told him to “keep it short”!
Teachers present gave wholehearted support to the students and afterwards agreed to call an NUT group meeting to discuss how to make that support concrete. Some of us argued that we should walk out to join our students. Discussions continued throughout the next week and were due to conclude with a final decision at an NUT meeting on the day before the 9 December protest.
However, we had to wait because, having got wind that the students were planning to occupy, college management locked the building up!
When it reopened we held our NUT meeting at lunchtime. All 45 people there expressed support for the students. One rep opened the meeting with a powerful speech in favour of solidarity action. Several others spoke in support of the proposal. But some argued that we should only do this if we were absolutely united. After a serious discussion we voted unanimously to walk out at 2pm.
We walked out behind the college and local association NUT banners. On the way we were cheered by students and local workers – now everyone was sure we had done the right thing.
Later that night, having escaped the kettle, Islington Sixth Form College teachers joined fellow protesters in the pub. They were in high spirits, pleased they had shown solidarity with their students and shocked at the behaviour of the police. One teacher said to me the next day, “This is only the beginning, you know.”
Three things won the teachers to walk out. The first was the students – especially ours – who had shown us what was possible. The second was the recognition by a group of teachers that the student protests had changed everything. The third was that they had the confidence to argue for action – and win.
I always looked on 1968 and the years that followed as a high point. Now there is no need to be nostalgic – the best is yet to come!
Ken Muller is assistant branch secretary of Islington NUT (personal capacity).
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