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The British 1968: Hornsey College of Art Occupation

THERE is a school of right-wing history that sees Britain as exceptional. For example, according to this view, unlike other countries there was never a revolution that saw an industrial ruling class replace an old landed elite. 

There obviously has not been a 1917-style revolution here, but that is far from the only model available. In fact we had the “glorious” revolution of 1688.

So it is with 1968, the 50th anniversary of which is being marked this year. All over Europe uprisings and revolts took place but apparently in Britain all was quiet.

This is far from the truth. The anti-Vietnam war demonstration at the US embassy in Grosvenor Square set the template for such protests elsewhere. In the first weeks of May attention was focused on events in Paris and elsewhere in France.

The British 1968 started definitively later in May as students at the Hornsey College of Art in Crouch End, north London, occupied the main college building. There was a clear echo of French events because the students were focused on the conditions of their education.

The building itself has an interesting history, and Star readers may know it better as the TUC’s National Education Centre. It is now a primary school.

The origins of the students’ grievances lay before 1968. The Labour government was in the process of creating polytechnics and the plan was to subsume the college into the new Middlesex Polytechnic. Already the college had elements of its activities scattered across north-east London.

The students felt that this would detract from their art education. They also complained that the facilities at the Hornsey building were poor, including recreation areas and toilets. In addition the college did not properly recognise a students’ union. Finally the students felt that the education they were getting was of a piecemeal fashion not adequately giving them the skills they required.

A student teach-in on May 28 1968 led to a full occupation of the college by the students including control of the canteen, which as health inspectors later agreed was run more safely than before. The occupation continued until July 4 1968.

The college was run by Haringey Council, which earlier in May 1968 had passed to Tory control for the first and probably last time. 

The councillors were unsympathetic to Labour’s polytechnic plans, and therefore had some joint ground with the students. But Tory councillors could hardly be seen to be backing student power.

As a result the council did very little about the occupation for some weeks, while the principal of the college was also absent.

There was extensive media coverage, although perhaps unsurprisingly given the context, there was more in the Daily Telegraph than the Guardian.

The students focused specifically on the issue of art education and mostly resisted attempts to more widely politicise the fight at Hornsey.

A Telegraph article on June 2 1968 was headed “Hornsey students issue reform manifesto. Clear off, anarchists told.”
It was reported that the manifesto “demands the end of examinations based on academic studies. The imposition of a final examination in art history forced the subject into a rigid pattern.”

Eventually the principal conceded many of the students’ demands and an inquiry was set up under the auspices of the Institute of Education. The college reopened in September 1968.

It might be argued, particularly at 50 years’ distance, that the limited nature of the student demands — refusing wider politicisation — hardly suggests that Britain was following the wider pattern of 1968 across Europe. 

Yet the reality was that the students were largely successful, and in that perhaps they were exceptional.



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