Paul’s Column: Playing at Politics

30 December 2018

As we head into another year it is a time to look to the future. Yet with all the talk of elections and referendums I am reminded of past events that helped my journey into politics. 

Leon Brittan was the Home Secretary and due to the situation in Northern Ireland at the time he was accompanied by armed police officers wherever he went.

With the miners’ strike also ongoing there was a large crowd of protesters waiting to ‘greet’ one of the leading figures in Thatcher’s cabinet when he arrived to speak at Leeds University on a dark November evening in 1985.  In a calculated act aimed at winding up the Left, the meeting’s hosts, the Federation of Conservative Students, had hired a dozen night club bouncers from the town and used them to screen who was allowed into the “everyone welcome” public meeting.  

As the Secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Society - rather than member of the Socialist Workers’ Party - I presumed they would allow me in but not a bit of it, I was barred from entry.

Indignation is a strong fuel and while I’ve never had a head for heights I was so determined to get inside to give Brittan a hard time in the question session that I found myself round the back of the Great Hall and two floors up clinging to a drainpipe.  An open window had lured me upwards and after a few more heaves I was inside.

Had I paused for thought before embarking on this reckless endeavour I may have realised I was actually putting myself in a genuinely dangerous situation.  It was, after all, only a year since the Brighton Bomb and the country was on high alert. Yet there I was backstage and all that separated me from the Home Secretary was a drawn curtain.

Brittan’s speech was frightfully dull and rather short, with the meeting moving quickly to questions.

Democracy is built on free speech so clearly as an elected politician Brittan was allowed his platform. However his repeated and deliberate avoidance of answering questions on the miners’ strike, poverty and unemployment levels was beginning to tax my campaigner’s instincts.  How to respond?  

It dawned on me that I was next to the lighting rig and its full set of controls.  A quick examination revealed a large lever switch with a piece of gaffer tape above it on which was inscribed ‘House Lights’.  

At that pivotal moment in the development of my own thoughts on the workings of a western democracy I concluded that if the Home Secretary blatantly didn’t even attempt to answer the next question then, yes, I would switch all the lights out.

You can guess what happened next. Feeling entirely justified in my action I rammed the lever down.  But instead of the lights going out there was a loud bang as something somewhere short-circuited.

I lunged through the curtain startling both the Home Secretary and the audience. Brittan was promptly bundled off stage left while I grabbed the microphone to demand why the meeting had been advertised as open to all when it clearly wasn’t.

To be fair to Special Branch they were no doubt far too professional to ever have shot a 20 year old student wearing ex army surplus trousers, a free Mandela T-shirt and a cardigan.  But they were suitably annoyed to give chase, after all they must have been hugely bored by the evening to date so running after me probably lifted their spirits before the long drive back to London.

Out of the side door of the Great Hall I dived into the biology rooms.  I was on home turf so I was able to lead them a merry dance as I traversed a couple of floors before doubling back on myself and hiding beneath a work top in a chemistry lab.

Looking back on those university days I’m of the view that participating in student politics taught me a great deal. Yes, some of my fellow students belittled it as ‘playing at politics’ but play is a good way of learning, as any teacher will tell you. With potential elections or even a referendum looming in the coming months, it’s a game I’m glad I played.

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