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Student Protest in Oxford- This Day 1971

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posted on Jun, 23 2011 @ 04:16 AM
This account of events forty years ago today might be of interest as a piece of social history. Veterans of student protest in France or America would think it a bit tame, but that's the way it was.

Political background;
Ted Heath had been Conservative Prime minister for the last twelve months. He was making first attempts at introducing the kind of strike-control legislation which Maggie Thatcher later brought in.

Oxford background;
Mr. Heath was in Oxford to receive an honorary degree at the annual Encaenia ceremony. Harold Macmillan, the former P.M., would have been there in his capacity as Chancellor of the University. This was "Ninth Week", in Oxford parlance; the normal undergraduate term had ended, so most students not involved in exams would have "gone down" (left the city).

This is a contemporary account from an careful and objective observer.
Or, to put it another way, this is an extract from my diary. I was a student of history at Wadham at the time.

Wednesday June 23rd, 1971

During the course of this morning, there were dignitaries in red gowns and velvet caps sauntering across the quad into the hall. The area of the quad was empty, although a few people, including electricians, were watching from the gateway to the second quad for a glimpse of Mr. Heath. For rumours had been floating around all morning that he, Sir Alec, and Macmillan were coming to Wadham and visiting Steve Perry's room on 5:3. At about half past eleven the waiting was for the retinue to come out again and pass in procession from the gates.

There was a small crowd visible outside (as seen from the window of the porters' lodge), including one man wielding a portable, long-legged, B.B.C. television camera. There were Wadham people out there; none of them were allowed back inside for the time being, because entry before twelve o'clock was being prevented except by pass. This was used mainly to prevent the incursion of the press (only one tried), but another person affected was Al, who should not have been out of his exam until three-quarters of an hour later. At the other side of the entrance gap, from the wooden gate, there were three men, effectively guarding the gap.

Eventually the red gowns were seen to come down the steps from the hall and formed up in a line which stretched round a quarter of the path round the quad (not even they attempted to walk across the grass) and stood still. Then they got under steam again, the start jerking its way from the front to the back of the procession, and the front finally found its way to the gate. The Head Porter, Arthur, had told his assistant that he would be needing his help in a minute, and then, when the procession was coming from the steps, they pulled the two halves of the gate open, together, and Arthur hurried back into the lodge to get his camera and come out again.

I was an appalling security risk myself; I was standing at first in the gap between the opened gate and the entrance to the lodge. Then, giving place to the assistant, I moved out to stand by the wall of the gate gap. I naturally had an excellent view of Harold Macmillan, passing by with his cap, and his gown held up from behind, and the Warden was near the back (but I did not see Edward Heath until later on), and the end of the procession disappeared into the road, cameras, and people. [I then pressed on to catch up with it]

The noisier reception was waiting for him at the junction of Park Road, Catte Street, and Broad Street, where the cry of "Heath out!" was already rising to a degree on his approach, and became louder and more concerted as the front of the procession pushed its way through the road to the Bodleian, aided by its spearhead of police.

(There had been a few police in front of the gates during the waiting period, and one burly officer in a flat cap was prominent as he went into the hall, and later led the procession out of the gate. While the porters remarked that the place was "crawling with them", so that if anyone went out, they wouldn't be able to get back in through the back way.)

As Heath passed by, the cries rose to a barrage of "Heath out!";
"One, two, three, four, we don't want the Tory law;
Five, six, seven, eight, we don't want the Tory state."
He was looking incredibly crimson, a dark crimson as if he had acquired a sun-tan, as perhaps he had,and looked about him smiling. As the end of the procession passed, the crowd closed in behind it, shouting and waving their banners. There was a black flag flying, to contrast with the stag's head flying above Hertford- and others around, including the Bodleian and Wadham.

One man had prepared a model of the Morning Cloud which was draped around him, with the sail acting as his banner. He was associated with a group of people who had square cardboard boxes around them, with a letter on one side and slogans on the other. One man ran along by the side, trying to reach [Heath] and shouting "What about five hundred thousand unemployed?...What about the Blacks in South Africa?...What about...things", he added lamely after one final attempt. Further cries of "Grocer out!"

A little further on the auditory arm of the television service was waiting with his equipment by a car, speaking casually into a microphone, telling what would happen when the procession passed into the Bod. and the gates shut. One boy passing by and seeing him, stopped on the other side of the next car, cupped his hands, and shouted in [the B.B.C. man's] direction "Heath out!". "Some chants of 'Heath out' coming from the students", added the commentator obligingly, without changing the tone of his voice. Others took up the cry with "Heath, in!", and got approval, and all along the road there had been a good measure of clapping combined with the shouts. The procession passed into the Bod., the gates were shut, and there was a movement towards Broad Street and the railings of the Sheldonian, into which the gowns could be seen moving. I went back to the college at this stage, to return to the scene of the action shortly afterwards.

Keith told me afterwards of the scuffles and arrests ha had seen. He said he had been both entertained and disturbed, disturbed because of those arrests which had seemed to be for little reason. For example, when one person was being arrested, another had come up to ask the reason and had been literally junped upon by police.

When I returned to the scene, three policemen and one plain-clothes man held a boy, were struggling to hold him on the side of the road by Blackwell's, surrounded by an increasing crowd shouting "Let him go!"; and, as the plain-clothes man was searching him, ""Show your card!", "Where's your Special Branch card?" Hoarse cries of "he didn't do anything". Another man, from the edge, shouted "Three cheers for the police", twice, and a thin little bespectacled woman told me that the police ought to bring some reinforcements up. "It's mad, quite mad", one hot-headed boy told a middle-aged stander-by. A bespectacled young girl wielding a pram attempted to intercept a constable on his way to the incident, saying "Listen, when someone gets arrested...", but he walked on by and she stood fuming, muttered "For #'s sake", and rejoined her husband. When a police van arrived to carry him off, the cries of "Let him go" were renewed. But after the departure of the van the crowd relaxed its pressure, although still occupying the side and middle of the road while allowing vehicles through, and dispersing only with a great deal of reluctance.

A young American told some of his compatriots (there was a good number of American groups in the area) that it had been the kids' own fault that they were arrested. Blackwell's had a Heath display in its windows, with appropriate books. The placards on the side of the newspaper stand at the corner of Park Road and the Broad now read "Heath faces Oxford demo". I don't know if they had been there before, but by the end of the afternoon they had been changed to "Mother, five children murdered".

There was another procession later on, after lunch, from the Bodleian to the nearest gate of All Souls. The bearer of Morning Cloud and his satellites in the cardboard boxes had been marching about shouting "Heath out!" in the interval, and continued to do so now, but the pressing of the crowd produced no incident. They marched on into All Souls garden to the ringing of bells, the gates were shut and people looked in at the crowd milling outside and photographed the women trotting along in their hats.

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