During the run-up to the recent referendum on Scottish independence, those mainstream media outlets against the idea of independence (i.e. all of them except for the Sunday Herald newspaper) liked to sing the praises of Labour Party MP and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development Jim Murphy. Jim, they’d have you believe, was a heroic street-fighter who wasn’t afraid to take the anti-independence message direct to the people. He even conducted a speaking tour of Scottish town centres, during which he’d stand up on an Irn Bru crate and argue manfully with his opponents by bellowing at them through an amplified microphone and drowning them out. More heroically still, Jim incurred some bloody, near-fatal injuries during the heat and violence of the campaign. Well, in Kirkcaldy, someone chucked an egg at him and splattered the back of his shirt.
I have to say I’d probably have more time for Murphy if I wasn’t aware of his record during the late 1980s and early 1990s, first as a university student and then as a student politician.
According to his Wikipedia entry, Murphy studied Politics and European Law at the University of Strathclyde from 1985 to 1992. That’s seven years, three more than it normally takes to get a university degree in Scotland, and I strongly suspect that during those seven years, at least part of the time, Murphy’s finances were propped up by student grants. For yes, in those long-ago days, many UK students were funded or partly funded by a government-approved grant system. Then from 1992 to 1994 Murphy served as president of the National Union of Students Scotland, and then in 1994 he stepped higher up in the student-politics world and became president of the National Union of Students in its UK-wide form.
During the two years of this latter presidency, Murphy dropped the NUS’s opposition to the abolition of student grants. This was in defiance of what delegates decided at an NUS special conference in Derby in 1995 – though, oddly enough, it was in line with new Labour Party policy at the time. (Once Labour came to power under Tony Blair, grants were replaced with student loans for everyone bar the poorest students, and students were required to pay tuition fees of £1000. By 2004 the fees had been increased to £3000 and by 2012, under the present Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, they’d been bumped up again to £9000.*) Meanwhile, in 1997, a year after he’d finished with the NUS, Murphy was elected to the House of Commons as Labour MP for the Scottish constituency of Eastwood.
Now, in my opinion, someone who probably had at least some of his student life financed by government grants was hypocritical in denouncing those grants and doing his bit to get rid of them the moment his university days were over and he’d started to shin his way up the slimy pole of politics. (And cynics would mutter that his career as a Labour MP started suspiciously soon after he’d overridden the wishes of the NUS conference and forced the organisation to sing from the same anti-grant hymn-sheet as the Labour Party.) Mind you, if someone can prove to me that Jim Murphy definitely got through those seven years at Strathclyde University without any state assistance and funded them by himself, I’ll happily recant what I’ve just written and declare that he isn’t a hypocrite at all. No, he’s a chap of impeccable integrity.
Anyway, Jim Murphy’s back-story has got me thinking about my own, distant student days at Aberdeen University and my dealings with that odd set that Murphy was once a member of: the student-political set.
(c) The Guardian
To be honest, I wouldn’t have had any dealings with student politicians at all if I hadn’t got involved with Aberdeen University’s student newspaper and co-edited it for a term in 1986. The newspaper office was located in the same building as the offices and meeting rooms where the members of the Students’ Representative Council did their business. And obviously, those student politicians also figured in a lot of the stories we reported on. So I got to observe the species close up.
The one who probably did best for himself was Stephen Carter, who served as SRC President from 1985 to 1986. I found Carter pretty lacking in warmth, humour and character and at one point, in a fit of naughtiness, I published in the newspaper a spoof-article depicting him as an aloof Roman Emperor in the manner of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels – the article was entitled I, Carterus. We didn’t get on very well, though not because I’d likened him to one of the Caesars. Near the end of my editorship, I wrote a front page article that made several criticisms of his reign as student president, which infuriated him. To be fair, I later discovered that I’d made an error with a financial figure I’d quoted so at least part of his anger was justified. Being bawled out by the bland, automation-like Carter was a strange experience. The abuse didn’t seem to emanate from a real human being. It was like being scolded by an indignant speak-your-weight machine or a cranky elevator voice-recording.
Decades later, in 2008, Carter served as Gordon Brown’s Downing Street Chief of staff. Also, from 2008 to 2009, he was Brown’s Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting. (As he wasn’t a member of either house at Westminster at the time, which would have barred him from taking on a ministerial position, he was quickly ennobled. He was made the Right Honourable Lord Carter of Barnes and entered into the House of Lords.) I didn’t hear much about how that he got in on those roles, except for claims that his relationship with Brown’s notorious spin-doctor Damian McBride was ‘fractious’. (http://www.theguardian.com/media/2009/jul/17/damian-mcbride-smeargate-emails-gordon-brown) Actually, McBride was such a scumbag that it’s to Carter’s credit that the pair of them didn’t get along.
Coincidentally, days before Stephen Carter – sorry, Lord Carter of Barnes – ended his stint as Brown’s Chief of Staff, I found myself a full-time student again. In October 2008 I started an MA course at the University of East Anglia. The students there had mounted a protest against student debt, with hundreds of them sticking fake cheques to a campus wall. On each cheque was written the sum of money that each student expected to owe by the time of his or her graduation. To me (who’d graduated in 1987 with an overdraft of £1,500, which I paid off within two years) some of those sums were eye-watering: £40,000 or more. What, I wondered, would we have thought at Aberdeen University in the mid-1980s if we’d known that our student president would one day be a key figure in a government presiding over levels of student debt we wouldn’t have imagined in our worst nightmares?
Another student politician from that era who’s done well is Katy Clark. She was a leading light in Aberdeen University’s Labour Party and since 2005 she’s been Labour Member of Parliament for North Ayrshire and Arran. When I co-edited the student newspaper, Katy came to our attention when she led protests against Aberdeen University’s then-rector, the former Scottish National Party MP Hamish Watt. At a debate during Freshers’ Week, Watt had made some supposedly-jovial comments in which he compared the young female students who’d just arrived on campus to ‘unbroken fillies’. Now, while Watt undoubtedly deserved to be strung up by his sexist testicles for saying that, I didn’t enjoy having to speak to Katy about the incident. I found her to be intense, one-note, lacking in personality and devoid of humour. Actually, looking at what I’ve just written about Lord Stephen Carter of Barnes, a theme seems to be emerging in that regard.
To be fair to Katy Clark – and unlike Murphy and Carter, whose careers have been a process of selling out and shifting to the right – I will say that she’s stuck by the left-wing principles she had as a university student. During her career as an MP, she’s voted against the introduction of ID cards, against the renewal of the Trident missile system and, recently, against the bombing of Isis in Iraq. That said, with views like hers, I don’t know how she can bear to continue as a member of the modern-day Labour Party.
On the rightward end of the spectrum, meanwhile, I should mention someone else from my old alma mater – Murdo Fraser, who’s now Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Mid-Scotland and Fife region and was once the deputy leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. That Murdo became a big hitter in Tory circles surprised me because he’d seemed an unprepossessing character in Aberdeen. The detail I remember most about him was that he wore a Glasgow Rangers scarf 24/7, to the point where I wondered if it’d been stitched on. A good friend who knew him a little, the late Finlay McLean, told me once that he had ‘the personality of a deep-frozen Cyberman’. Then again, for an ambitious politician, not having a personality seems to be part of the course.
Murdo’s political ascendancy happened despite the fact that he was once associated with the notorious Federation of Conservative Students, an organisation that by the 1980s had become more right-wing than the Conservative Party of which it was the university branch. At the time the Conservative Party was led by Margaret Thatcher, so being more right-wing than her was quite an achievement. In 1986, after a string of well-publicised incidents – wherein FCS members had abused ethnic-minority staff at student bars, brayed their support for the Contras in El Salvador, sang the Special AKA song Free Nelson Mandela with the words changed to ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’, insulted former, more moderate Conservative prime ministers like Ted Heath and Harold Macmillan and so on – this extreme-minded group was disbanded by Tory Party Chairman Norman Tebbit. And yes, being disbanded by Norman Tebbit for being too extreme was quite an achievement too.
The FCS at Aberdeen University were particularly obnoxious. Among other things, they had a penchant for insulting gay people and taunting them about AIDS. (The more I think back to those un-PC days of Hamish Watt and the FCS, the more I’m reminded of L.P. Hartley’s famous quote: “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.”) The start of my term as newspaper editor coincided with an incident wherein a bunch of FCS students invaded and disrupted a health-and-welfare talk being given to an audience of new students. Their motive for disrupting the talk seemed to be because it covered safe sex for gay as well as straight students and was therefore, somehow, encouraging AIDS.
Later, after the newspaper had published an article about the society for gay students, Gay Soc, we received a letter from one deranged FCS member accusing us of furthering the interests of ‘the plague rats of the 20th century’. We published his letter in the belief that by allowing the FCS to air their views publicly, we were letting people see what arseholes they were. Give them enough rope and they’d hang themselves, we felt. However, at least one gay friend of mine was extremely upset that the letter had appeared in our newspaper. Today, nearly 30 years on, I’d think twice about publishing it.
In Murdo Fraser’s defence, I’ll admit that he seemed aware of what a squad of bampots he was having to keep company with in the FCS. He kept his mouth shut while the rest of them were being as offensively vocal as possible, and whenever I saw them strutting about the campus en masse he was the one who seemed to trail silently and reluctantly along at the back – sort of like Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs. Which I suppose was appropriate given his footballing allegiances.
Having dissed the Labour and the Conservative Parties, I suppose in the interests of balance I should say something about Aberdeen University’s 1980s Liberal Party – the Liberal Democrats as they are now. The Liberals’ most visible representative was one Dan Falchikov who, with his excitable and eccentric manner and his striking dress sense (a slightly psychedelic, stripey, coloured jersy), possessed something that other people I’ve mentioned lacked: a personality. And I think Dan was a genuinely well-meaning guy even if he wasn’t endowed with a great deal of common sense. However, he was also an easy target for us unscrupulous hacks at the student newspaper and we spent an inordinate amount of time poking fun at him, calling him ‘Dan the Man’, ‘Desperate Dan’, ‘Dan, Dan the Liberal Man’ and (when he was particularly off-the-wall) ‘Dan F**k-me-off’.
Out of curiosity, I googled his name a while ago and discovered that he’s now a Liberal Democrat activist in the London constituency of Kingston-upon-Thames, where he’s engaged in a struggle to usurp the sitting MP, that alleged ‘green’ Tory Zac Goldsmith. Also, in 2010, Dan was embroiled in controversy when he was overheard boasting on a train that he’d managed to ‘plant’ a story, a false story, in the Evening Standard newspaper about the Labour Party having plans to close Kingston Hospital. Unbeknownst to Dan while he blabbed about this into a mobile phone, a train-passenger sitting nearby was none other than the journalist Kevin Maguire, political editor of the Daily Mirror. Maguire not only tweeted about what he was overhearing but also sneaked a camera-phone picture of Dan and posted it online (http://order-order.com/2010/01/30/loose-lips-sink-ships/). As a result of Maguire’s scoop, people in Kingston-upon-Thames now seem to regard Dan as the bad boy of local politics.
How could you, Dan? Selling your soul to the political dark arts – I expected better of you.
By the way, Dan blogs at http://livingonwords.blogspot.com/. He regularly calls on the Liberal Democrats to dump Nick Clegg as their leader, which suggests that he has more sense than I’d credited him with. Also, I like the youtube music-clips he sometimes sticks on the blog, so I think he has good musical sense too.
Although I’ve tried to make this account of it humorous, there were things I noticed about the world of student politics that I found seriously depressing. They seemed to reinforce Douglas Adams’ famous comment in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that “it is a well-known and much lamented fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”
I heard, for example, how two different candidates running for senior positions in the SRC, senior enough for the holders of such positions to get a year’s sabbatical from their courses, were given enthusiastic support by their classmates. Indeed, those classmates even went out and campaigned on the candidates’ behalf – not because they thought they were any good, but because they detested them and wanted them to have a sabbatical so that they wouldn’t be in their classes for a year.
Also, shortly before I graduated, some nasty rumours circulated in the SRC building about one student politician making another one pregnant. There wasn’t actually a pregnancy but this didn’t prevent two SRC people, from two different political parties, both of whom had axes to grind with the man involved, from approaching me and assuring me that it was true. One person even swore that she’d seen the results of a pregnancy test. Presumably, I was fed this false information in the hope that, as a student journalist, I’d spread the word to the detriment of the man’s reputation. (I should point out that none of the people I’ve mentioned above were involved in this saga.) This showed me that at least a few of the people operating in that building were backstabbing scumbags — scumbags who’d probably do very well if they ever became real politicians.
Nonetheless, there were some student politicians whom I liked and respected. Indeed, if I ever bumped into the likes of Graeme Whiteside, Tim Morrison, Alan Strain or Stuart Black again on the High Street of Old Aberdeen, I’d invite them into the St Machar Bar and buy them a pint. However, with regard to those people, there’s an important point to remember. None of the decent sorts, to the best of my knowledge, pursued their political careers any further than university. They stayed well clear of the scumbag world of real politics. Good for them.
*These tuition fees do not apply in Scotland. The 2008 Graduate Endowment Abolition (Scotland) Bill re-established the concept of free higher education there.