What’s going on at Aber?

I found (via Discarded Lies) an intriguing attack on my old university at Aberystwyth on Melanie Phillips’ website. For American readers, Melanie Phillips is a columnist who writes for the Daily Mail, but used to write in left-associated papers and magazines like the Guardian and the New Statesman. She calls herself a progressive, but has become rather conservative of late, and is very pro-Zionist. The article, which features no content from Phillips apart from a brief introduction, is an attack on various un-named people at Aberystwyth for anti-Semitism and for being biased against Israel. (You can find some pictures of Aberystwyth on this blog here: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

I was an undergrad at Aberystwyth for three years (1995-8). This period was a period of hope about the situation in the Middle East, as the post-Oslo peace process was still very much alive, although the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin and the coming to power of Benyamin Netanyahu dimmed this optimism somewhat. I studied in both the History and International Politics departments, and the university had a number of distinguished academics with widely-varying opinions.

For example, one of my teachers was William D Rubinstein, author of The Myth of Rescue, who identified himself as a Tory and told me personally that he had been a Likud supporter in the 1980s. In the same department was Peter Lambert, a self-declared communist. In the IP department was John Garnett, who was said to be a passionate believer in the old “Realist” school of foreign policy, and had been consulted by politicians (another professor told us, after he had given us a whole module of lectures on Realism, that what Garnett had taught us was ideology presented as truth). There was also Jenny Mathers, who was able to give a nuanced picture of political life in the USSR and in contemporary Russia; she was not condemnatory although she gave a clear picture of its negative aspects.

I never once encountered anti-Semitism, although the Palestine situation was nowhere near as fraught then as it is now. There was also neither an active Jewish nor Islamic society, and there still isn’t (you can check for yourself on the Guild’s website), and nor was there any Hizb-ut-Tahrir or Muhajiroun presence. There was, however, one important source of bigotry: the large and vocal Welsh nationalist community, which had its own union (UMCA), with its own paid president and its own Welsh-speaking clubs and societies, which was (and still is) based in a separate hall of residence. When the Guild attempted to restructure in 1996, an outside reviewing body suggested that we settle for five paid or “sabbatical” officers, and there was never any question of removing UMCA’s paid president - despite the fact that the sabbatical Rag chair and Athletic Union president were being cut. There was simply no way of getting such a proposal past UMCA’s mass-mobilising abilities.

I was at this meeting as I had a minor role in the Guild, the Chair of the Guild Council. Because I was at that time sympathetic to the Welsh nationalists, I got on well with them; but it was reported, for example, that an American student who lived in the Welsh hall and tried to learn Welsh (not that year) had his efforts mocked. In 1996 the student body elected a Labour president, Vaughan Gething, who became unpopular with the Guild community for his apparently greater loyalty to Labour than to the Guild. A no-confidence motion was submitted, which due to quoracy problems finally got discussed in the last General Meeting of the 1996-7 academic year. Despite the general discontent with the president’s leadership, most of the anti-Gething speeches concentrated on remarks he may or may not have made to the Cambrian News about bigotry among Welsh-speaking Welsh students. I had originally supported the motion, but got the impression that it was aimed to send a message of “don’t mess with UMCA”, and didn’t vote for it in the end.

The most famous incident involving nationalists was the disruption of the Queen’s visit in 1996. This got blamed on four youths (including the president of UMCA) who attempted to jump barriers in order to sit in front of the Queen’s car, but a more distasteful spectacle was the assembled crowd outside the Welsh hall, which lies on the only road to the National Library the Queen had been invited to open, who shouted “Twll tin yr Cwîn” (arse to the Queen - by the way, the proper Welsh for Queen is Brenhines, but this was typical of the Welsh-English patois spoken by the language’s young defenders). There was much bitterness after the royal opening of two university departments was called off due to their antics. Perhaps more disturbingly, after AA Gill wrote a series of offensive anti-Welsh articles in the Times, somebody posted a notice on the wall of the Welsh hall - all in Welsh - giving directions to anyone who wanted to pay Gill a visit if they were going to Twickenham or Wembley.

The student body consisted of some 6,000 students over two campuses. To clarify the terminology, the Guild is the organisation, and the Unions are the two buildings at Penglais (the main campus) and Llanbadarn. There were two or three organisations called unions, and they were affiliated to the Guild. I’m not sure why that makes it a guild, or if the term was used to distinguish it from the other unions, but the terms Guild and Union were used interchangeably (if that doesn’t complicate things further). The organisation’s biggest problem was apathy; the quoracy for Guild General Meetings was 70 (100 for constitutional amendments), and turnout was often not much more than that unless the 300 or so students in the Welsh hall were mobilised. So it’s easy for a small group of extremists to pass a motion - the worst example during my time there was the rent strike of Christmas 1995, which despite passing a referendum, was ignored by most of the students.

The Guild attempted to reform the decision-making process in 1996 by establishing a Student Representative Council (SRC), not to replace the GM altogether as has been done in some unions, but to replace some of the meetings. The SRC, however, was unsuccessful, as its predecessor, the Guild Council, had been - during my time as chair, we only had a single quorate meeting. The general political tone of the Guild, by the way, was basically left-wing with the added influence of the Welsh-language and Welsh-nationalist scene. The usual givens of union politics were there - the pro-gay and pro-abortion stances, for example. There were also a group of very able activists from the Midlands, at least one of whom was known for being a Conservative, and who narrowly missed becoming the paid Deputy President in the 1998 elections (there was a dirty tricks campaign, but his appeal failed as it couldn’t be proved that his Conservative affiliation was not to blame, rather than the dirty tricks campaign).

I should add that unions sometimes have to deal with individuals who use them to fulfil personal power fantasies - we had one of these who was elected as Halls affairs officer in 1995 and resigned after days in the post after an argument at the Freshers’ Fayre. He then turned his attention to the council for his hall of residence (and mine), printing a “hall magazine” called The Hourglass which gave vent to his personal vendettas, and credited as members of the editorial team people who were entirely unaware of its existence. (He lived in the same block as me that year, and on several occasions I had plant matter from the flower-bed posted through the window of my ground-floor room, and on one occasion the people mentioned the words “hall chair” in their conversation. I suspect him and/or his friends.)

Of course, much may have changed in the time since I left. I can understand why a Guild influenced by Welsh nationalists might also be anti-Israeli; while a sizeable proportion of the Welsh are now content to be part of the UK, and were even before the assembly was established, the status quo was established by a Norman invasion against the will of the local populace. More recently, the English who bought the holiday homes that were burned were dubbed “white settlers” by the “Sons of Glendower” group which carried out the arson attacks; some Welsh may see parallels with Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. I have no idea what presence the SWP has in Aber now - there was absolutely none during my time, although there was a small Militant (Students for Socialism) group.

As for the accusation that the Guild “has been filled with rabid Amnesty International types”, the only way this could have happened is for the student body to fill it. The University does not appoint officers of the Guild (the student body elects them), nor does it decide who comes to General Meetings (the attendees decide for themselves). The person who wrote this letter alleges an “anti-Semitic orthodoxy” when he actually means an “anti-Israeli orthodoxy”, as anti-Semitism means a whole lot more than opposition to Israel - it means hostility to Jews as a race, the belief that institutions are controlled by some worldwide Jewish conspiracy, and so on.

It appears that the department is, as it was in 1995, composed of academics with opinions across the political spectrum. Aber, like many universities, has played host to avowed Likudniks, communists, cold-war Realists, Welsh nationalists and others whose views some might find repugnant, and one Hamas or Hizbullah sympathiser is not much of a departure from previous form. It is, of course, entirely wrong that a whole department should be biased in favour of one position in a given issue, be it in favour of the Israelis or of any of the armed Palestinian factions. It’s also wrong that a student be marked down because the person marking the work is prejudiced. (Papers are marked anonymously, by the way.) It’s also entirely right that a student whose papers reflect his hardened opinions and prejudices be marked up or down accordingly.

I suspect there is another side to this story. He makes some absurd accusations, such as of “racism present nationwide in academia” and “Jews being second class citizens”. Perhaps anyone reading this in Aber (anyone?) can fill me in.

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