Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Lessons from history

40 years ago, there was a military junta in Greece led by Colonel George Papadopoulos. A clique of army officers (presumed to be backed by the CIA) had seized power in 1967 in order to forestall democratic elections which looked likely to return a left/centre government. Thousands were arrested and tortured. ( The ousted Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, was sent into exile, where he later died.

When I was at university, Cambridge City laid on a Greek Week in February 1970. It wasn't a really smart move. After all the Junta had banned, among other things, the peace movement, strikes, labour unions, long hair on men, mini-skirts, the peace symbol, the Beatles, Sophocles, Tolstoy, Aeschylus, Socrates, Eugene Ionesco, Sartre, Chekhov, Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett, free press, new maths and the letter Z , which means 'he lives'. Students weren't very impressed by the city entertaining this brutal government's tourist interests. The final event was a reception at Cambridge's poshest hotel, The Garden House, by the river, just down the road from my college. A demonstration was predictable and expected. In fact most guests were there well before the scheduled start. Those who weren't ran into hundreds of protesting students. As is the way the demonstration escalated, so that some students got inside, windows were broken, stones thrown, a firehose turned on students, truncheons drawn and dogs brought in.

Six arrests were made, and eventually 15 were charged in court. Eight were found guilty and were given custodial sentences between nine and 18 months in prison by Justice Melford Stevenson, the harshest High Court judge of his time. Clearly the intention was to make an example of the young men. The article published in Cam in the summer
 ( about the incident, marking its 40th anniversary, makes instructive reading especially after the recent student demonstrations about rising fees. When they see pledges broken and Mr Norman Lamb (Lib Dem MP, government whip) declaring on national TV that students will be paying back less than at present (with fees doubled or tripled - hardly!), one can understand students' exasperation and desire to protest. It ends:
'The place of the Garden House riot in the wider history of British student protest remains a matter for debate – particularly on the question of whether the sentences were responsible for quelling further violent demonstration. Melford Stevenson continued to think so, up to his death in 1987. In retirement, he told a reporter that the Garden House protest was “undoubtedly a case for deterrent sentences, and that is what I passed. The significant thing is that since then, no major incident of such student violence has happened.”
'An opposing view was taken by Owen Chadwick, Vice-Chancellor at the time of the events. “That is wrong,” he told the Cambridge Evening News in 1980. “It stopped because people in the University themselves did not want it ever to happen again. They realised they had gone too far.”
'Of those approached for this article, none admits to any regret over their involvement in the demonstration. Stephen Amiel says: “I don’t know what the people who went to prison would say, but those of us who didn’t had no regrets. The fact that it created so much negative publicity for the Greek regime was fantastic.”
'Rod Caird, who would end up serving 12 months, broadly agrees; but believes that the deterrent effect on protest should not be underestimated. “We certainly publicised the protest movement about the dictatorship in Greece very effectively. But it brought people up with a start to realise that if they were going to get involved in demonstrations, it could have a really bad outcome.”
'Nick Emley likewise professes “no regret at all about what happened” and is dismayed at the responses sent to the Cambridge News after he was recently interviewed about the events. “Forty years on, there’s resentment at the way we behaved, and I assume at our political attitudes, which I regard as reasonable and decent – hardly what you’d think of as hardline Marxist stuff.”
'The most pragmatic view of the Garden House affair is taken by Bob Rowthorn – now Emeritus Professor of Economics, and a life fellow of King’s College. “The truth of the matter was that it was a rather small event that got out of hand,” he says. “Well-organised demonstrations typically don’t have clashes or violence. “So if someone said, ‘If you had planned to do something like that, could you justify it?’, I’d say no. But it wasn’t planned as a riot. The trouble is, demonstrations do get out of hand.”'  

I suspect Owen Chadwick, the historian, is nearer the mark than Melford Stevenson, the beak, who turns out to have been a trifle optimistic, if not naïve.

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