Photograph by Jake Bernard

The rise and fall of ‘Red Warwick’

The 1970s were a period of profound economic, social, and political upheaval – and the trends of the time clearly manifested within Warwick’s student activism scene. The era was replete with protests, rent strikes, and occupations of university buildings, to the point that the university was branded ‘Red Warwick’. Warwick student politics was not only incredibly dynamic during this time, but also diverse – with political organisations on campus ranging from a Conservative Association to a hard-left Socialist Society. The Modern Record Centre’s digital archives contain every print edition of Warwick’s student newspapers from 1965 to the mid-1990s, and it is with the aid of this that I was able to delve into the intricacies of a crucial period in Warwick’s history. 

The Students’ Union will never have its own building

– Lord Butterworth

We may take the Students’ Union (SU) Headquarters for granted these days, but the establishment of the building was a product of a protracted struggle between student activists and University administrators. Agitation for the creation of an SU building began in the late-1960s. A print edition of Warwick’s student newspaper, at the time named Campus, highlights the fact that there were already SU-controlled buildings at 11 other universities, including Birmingham, York, and Manchester. Not only did these buildings provide SU’s greater control over their affairs, but they also raked in tonnes of money – 10 out of 11 of the SU’s in question made “considerable profits” from SU owned stores within the buildings. Alongside this, students also argued for an SU building on the basis that it would allow them to develop organisational skills, and that it would be a clear recognition of the notion that the SU was an important stakeholder within the Warwick community. Whilst proposals for an SU building did receive substantial support from student activists, initially, it was opposed by Warwick’s higher-ups. At one point, the University’s then Vice-Chancellor, Jack Butterworth, remarked that “the Students’ Union will never have its own building”.

A particularly intense strike took place in 1975 – with over 12,000 students withholding rent payments in protest of a proposed 50% rent hike

Because of this dispute, the 1970s started with a bang. Students organised sit-ins as part of their fight for an SU building. It was during one of these, within the University’s Registry, that they struck upon documents that uncovered a stunning revelation. University administrators, in collaboration with industrialists on Warwick’s governing Council, had been spying on leftist student activists and staff. The scandal, subsequently termed ‘The Files Affair’, sparked further sit-ins, nearly causing Butterworth to resign. Ultimately, the student activists won – University administrators acquiesced to the creation of an SU building, which was opened to the public in 1975.

Another hallmark of the decade was rent strikes. Warwick students participated in NUS-organised rent strikes in 1973, with the SU threatening “direct action” in the event that students taking part in it were targeted by University administrators. A particularly intense strike took place in 1975 – with over 12,000 students withholding rent payments in protest of a proposed 50% rent hike. As part of the strike, students occupied Senate House in April, until they were thrown out weeks later by hundreds of police officers. The rent strike proceeded to collapse, contributing to internal turmoil within the SU as members of a socialist grouping tabled a no-confidence vote in the organisation’s Executive, and the Union’s President resigned.

Alongside university-specific developments, discourse surrounding national and global political developments flourished, featuring frequently in the ‘Letter to the Editor’ section of the student newspaper. For one, discussion abounded surrounding ‘The Troubles’: a violent conflict in Northern Ireland. Opinions on the issue sharply diverged. One student in a 1972 edition of the paper praised the IRA and argued the British Army was engaged in a “war against the six counties” of Northern Ireland, whilst others, including a member of the Conservative Association, viewed the British government’s actions more favourably. Other discussions revolved around the liberation movements of the time, with students advocating against racism and discrimination towards members of the gay community. A cause that was particularly pertinent was the struggle against fascism – in 1974, a Warwick Maths student named Kevin Gately was tragically killed in London whilst protesting against the National Front, a fascist political party. In a similar vein, an article in The Boar from 1976 discusses a protest in Coventry in response to a National Front demonstration, in which over 200 Warwick students participated.

Students also rallied against the Thatcher government’s funding cuts to education, organised another rent strike from 1986-87, and mobilised against the university’s decision to ban overnight parking for on-campus student residents

Looking back at 1970s Warwick politics, there’s some striking continuities between then and now. For one, the University’s penchant for spying on its own students has seemingly continued into the 21st century. In 2021, a report by openDemocracy found that a Warwick student climate activist, who requested access to BP archives at the Modern Records Centre, was surveilled by the University and the oil giant.

Moreover, a 1970 column by the SU President in Campus discusses issues that Warwick students continue to be plagued with to this day, such as shoddy bus services and accommodation shortages.

However, one particularly problematic aspect of that era that’s remained a constant ever since is student apathy, exacerbated by the opaqueness of the SU as an organisation. One article from 1970 points out the fact that many students knew little about what the SU was actually up to, with another highlighting the poor publicisation of Union General Meetings (UGMs) – events at which SU motions were discussed and voted on. If anything, the problem seems to have worsened over the decades. One Comment piece from 1973 laments the fact that only 1100 students (out of a student population of 2700) voted in that year’s SU President elections – a turnout rate of roughly 40%. Whilst that might seem awful, it’s relatively respectable by today’s standards. Turnout in this year’s SU President elections totalled a staggering 9%. With most students, as was the case back then, being unaware of what actually goes on within the SU, the situation doesn’t look particularly promising.

Heading into the 1980s, Warwick continued to be a hotbed for student activism. In 1982, there were protests against a ban on the SU sale of chips, with the University soon backing down. Students also rallied against the Thatcher government’s funding cuts to education, organised another rent strike from 1986-87, and mobilised against the University’s decision to ban overnight parking for on-campus student residents. However, the spirit of ‘Red Warwick’ slowly but surely began to fade, perhaps best exemplified by the fact that, in the 1990s, Union General Meetings, which took place weekly, were replaced by Annual General Meetings, which, as the name suggests, only occurred once a year.

Even though Warwick’s activism community isn’t as lively as it used to be, it still maintains a robust presence on campus. Students have frequently engaged in direct action and protests in response to issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, tuition fee hikes, and the University’s infamous ‘rape chat’ scandal.

That being said, it’s clear that the Warwick student activism of the 1970s remains unmatched to this day. Time and again, students demonstrated the sheer power of collective action, seeking out every avenue to fight back against entrenched power structures and further what they saw as just causes. Whilst they didn’t always succeed at realising their aspirations, their relentless passion and determination should be an inspiration to us all.

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