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The Spike [: or, Victoria University College Review 1957]

The Noise of Battle — Recent Politicsal Activities at V.U.C

The Noise of Battle

Recent Politicsal Activities at V.U.C.

"Let truth and falsehood grapple. Whoever knew truth worsted in a free and open encounter?"

John Milton

"If he were to contribute to the world's store of knowledge, the student must be an irritant to the community in some way. That partly resulted in people getting the idea that the hue of the brickwork of the college was the colour of the staff and students."

E. K. Braybrooke, in an address to the Rotary Club, Evening Post, 1/4/54.

Ever Since its foundation in 1899 Victoria University College has been slightly suspect in the eyes of Wellington's respectability. Even before the institution had a home of its own, it had acquired a reputation for hullabaloos with a political flavour, and its whole subsequent history has been careering from one such hullabaloo to another.

The story has been well covered up to 1949 in past issues of Spike"—and our chief task here is to fill in the picture since the last big contribution on the topic by J. W. Winchester in the Jubilee number.

The most noticeable change has been the passing of the returned serviceman generation, with its strange mixture of idealism and toughness. The students who led the Socialist Club's street demonstrations against the Dutch attack on Indonesia (1947) and Conscription (1948 and 1949) were men well into their twenties, with unassailable records of war service"—Harry Evison, Ron Smith, Pip Piper, Peter Morris, Oscar Melling, Jack Ewen. . . . Some lingered on to take part in later battles, but they are only names to most students today.

When the younger students expressed themselves on political matters they were not taken so seriously. Their very youth led them to battle about issues so remote as to be unreal to the battlers and the victories of the starry-eyed were often rather quixotic.

In 1949 there was a storm over whether Salient's editor had been "guilty of conduct tending to bring discredit on the College" by publishing an editorial commenting page 41 unfavourably on current conditions at Weir House, and a book review which made unkind references to Sir Will Appleton and Lord Freyberg in their capacity as V.U.C. old boys.

The Professorial Board fined the editor £5, and this looked to some students like the incarceration of Galileo. A special Students' Association meeting protested"—successfully, it must be admitted. The fine was revoked at the price of a permanent arrangement which gave the Student's Association President power of censorship over the paper.

The Left's slogan at the time was "Down with academic isolationism," and with it they campaigned for V.U.C.'c participation in overseas conferences with a leftist tinge. In 1946 the Students' Association had affiliated with the World Federation of Democratic Youth (known popularly as Woofdee), and delegates"—usually graduates who chanced to be in Europe"—were sent regularly to its gatherings in East Europe. A running war for disaffiliation with this body began in 1949, but was not crowned with success until the fifth round in mid-1950.

We were also represented at congresses of the "Partisans of Peace," and from affirming support for this body a general meeting in 1949 went forward to pass its own "Manifesto for Peace" (in high Miltonic prose), which was sent to the press and to all M.P.s, and earned some mention (mainly slighting) in Parliament.

Opposition to the Left was provided at this time by the Charter Society"—the first manifestation of organised right-wing opinion at V.U.C. since the 1920's. Founded late in 1948, the Society aimed at supplying an antidote to the Socialist Club. But no organisation could exist entirely for such a negative purpose, and the Chartist Society gave itself a comprehensive Charter of what it considered to be basic human rights"—with emphasis on "economic freedoms," but heavily flavoured with Papal encyclicals.

Resenting the radical tone of Salient, the Charter Society ventured into the field of printed journalism with spasmodic issues of a paper called Charta, until, in 1951, the nemesis of history was given a helpful push by the Students' Association Executive"—the editor of Charta became the editor of Salient, and Charta died.

Conscription caused most of the noise of 1949. The Students' Association was committed to oppose the introduction of conscription by a well-attended general meeting in August, 1948, and two returned servicemen represented the Association on the Wellington Anti-Conscription Council up till the Referendum of August, 1949. Persistent attempts to reverse the Association's policy failed, and pro-Conscription activities at the College were eventually confined to the Charter Society. A meeting addressed by Sir Howard Kippenberger on this subject was the largest the society ever sponsored"—and it got completely out of hand ("dominated by the Socialist Club" according to the daily press) and passed a resolution endorsing the Students' Association policy of anti-Conscription. A Socialist Club procession the day before the Referendum was orderly and uneventful, except for a group of Charter Society boys who walked alongside it rending the air with cat-calls.

The big tumult of 1950 centred round the figure of the Dean of Canterbury (the Very Rev. Dr. Hewlett Johnson). He was at a Peace Congress at Melbourne in April, and when it was announced that he might be visiting Wellington, the Students' Association Executive decided to investigate the possibility of inviting him to speak at the College. Horrified, President Kevin O'Brien handed in his res- page 42 signation, which was accepted, and the Women's Vice-President Alison Pearce was elected in his stead. A motion of censure on the Executive emanating from the Charter Society was defeated heavily at a packed general meeting.

It is typical of V.U.C. tempests that the Dean ended up by not coming to New Zealand at all, so the invitation was never sent"—just as the celebrated Gottwald telegram was never sent. The controversies over which so much time, energy, and emotion were expended, were often based on utter abstractions, but were fought out furiously for the principles that seemed to underlie them.

The triumphs of C.M.T. and the National Party at the 1949 polls, the Korean outbreak and the general war scare, helped turn the tide at V.U.C. The 1950 annual meeting carried disaffiliation from Woofdee. A Peace Committee formed in June suffered from the gloomy atmosphere, and the elected convener handed over the membership list to the security police and disappeared to Australia. Some enthusiasts collected signatures around the College to the Stockholm appeal for the banning of atomic weapons; and the Students' Association, the Socialist Club and Salient were all represented at a very narrow and rather futile "Youth for Peace" conference in the Trades Hall.

A fortnight before the 1951 session opened the Great Waterfront Dispute had begun. The radical tone of the first issue of Salient soon died away when the editor of Charta took over. The Socialist Club was the sole repository of the tradition of protest, and when it held a meeting to hear representatives of the Watersiders' Union (officially banned from publicly stating their case by draconic Emergency Regulations), Students' Association officials tried to extract an undertaking from the club committee "that the law would not be infringed." One hundred and fifty students crowded into the Lower Gym to hear two Wellington wharfies speak on "The Background to the Emergency Regulations." The Students' Association President and Secretary (Kevin and Maurice O'Brien) were present, and later summoned the club committee before the Executive on the grounds that they had broken their undertaking"—and a controversy began which was never really concluded.

On May Day eve, the Socialist Club went further, and had an even bigger meeting addressed by the watersiders' national president Jock Barnes"—an event which was treated to a front page article in Freedom, who noted darkly that "professors were present." 1951 Extravaganza, Siderella, had a heavy red tinge, but was still acclaimed by quite conservative students (including the Charterist editor of Salient) as the most successful for some years. Members of the cast shouted seats and boxes to locked out and striking workers"—and the watersiders' Transport Worker printed a laudatory review complete with some of the more pointed lyrics.

The Student Labour Federation, to which the Socialist and Labour Clubs in the various University Colleges were then affiliated, had its executive in Wellington at that time, and its weekly cyclostyled bulletins had some influence in strengthening and consolidating the V.U.C. Left. Big meetings to hear Dean Chandler (returned from a Peace Congress in Berlin) and V.U.C.'s Rhodes Scholar John Platts-Mills (here for a rare visit) showed that the Peace Committee had gained new life.

On the other hand the Charter Society showed no signs of life the whole year.

The big controversies of 1952 both concerned overseas events"—alleged germ warfare in Korea, and representation al a conference to heal the East-West breach page 43 in the world student movement. A resolution calling for investigation of the Chinese charges about germ warfare was carried by one general meeting and withdrawn by another. At the same time a fight was waged over whether V.U.C. should send a Charter Society star or a liberal S.C.M.-er to the unity conference; and out of that arose a war as to whether decisions of a general meeting (reputedly inclined to the left) should be binding on the Executive"—as they are in every other organisation in the world. But the Left lost on both counts.

These 1952 campaigns were the last in which the Charter Society's face was seen at V.U.C."—and this was not because the body it existed to counter was declining disastrously. The Socialist Club lost many of its prominent members at the end of 1952, but its influence continued to be felt over the next few years"—especially through the Debating Society and a more liberal Salient.

In 1955 the sending of New Zealand troops to Malaya agitated students, and a Debating Society motion declaring opposition achieved some publicity outside the College. A general meeting of the Students' Association later in the year passed a resolution calling for the abolition of capital punishment. A Free Discussions Club formed in 1955 awakened memories of an earlier body of that name which held the radical bridgeheads at V.U.C. in the 1920's and '30's. For a time the revived idea succeeded"—it attracted many students to its discussions on serious subjects, many of them directly political such as "The Colour Question in Africa" and "Equal Pay for Equal Work." It offered what no other political club (except perhaps the very academic Pol. Sci. Society"—when it was alive) could offer"—a meeting ground for both Right and Left on the big issues of the time. But alas it seems to have gone the way of many other clubs.

The main hue and cry of 1956 was among the staff and College Council, over the question of granting leave to two senior staff members to join a delegation to China. Salient came out (surprisingly, for its editor had earlier announced his intention of blackballing politics) in favour of their going. Battle raged, and while there was disappointment that Prof. Buchanan was not allowed to go, there was satisfaction that at least Mr. Bertram got away.

Relations with Asia in general have coloured V.U.C. politics as much as anything else since the war. The various vagaries of the Left"—the demonstration about Indonesia, opposition to C.M.T."—have been mainly motivated by disapproval of a foreign policy which bore all the hallmarks of "colonialism," and put military barriers between ourselves and the people of the Asian mainland. The decision to found a chair of Asian studies, the presence among us of students from several Asian countries under the Colombo Plan, are welcome signs that the barriers are being overcome. For there is no doubt that New Zealand's future is bound up with her relationship with these people with whom we share the Pacific. That this belief has been constantly brought forward at V.U.C. is one of the positive contributions of the Left.

The constant right-wing charge against the Socialist Club of "Communist domination" was lent some colour by a feud which arose late in 1955 within the club, and which led, early in 1956, to the formation of the Social Democrat Society. It began over the question of whether the club should protest against Society foreign policy in the Middle East, where certain members believed it to be playing a reactionary role. It rapidly broadened into a fight of Communists and those who page 44 believed in the possibility of co-operation with Communists against those who did not.

It is no news that the only continuous political influence at V.U.C. for something like two decades has been the University Branch of the Communist Party. Never organically connected with the College, it consisted of graduates and undergraduates, and led a twilight life between open and underground activity. Its members"—and many passed through it ranks who would not like to be reminded of the fact"—usually publicly acknowledged their party membership, and many filled leading positions in the Students' Association and affiliated clubs. They included the late Gordon Watson, Ronald L. Meek. Harry Evison . . . all of whom wielded a strong influence at the College in successive periods.

From its foundation late in 1946 the Socialist Club has been the main vehicle through which the University Branches influence has been felt at V.U.C., and in it Communists have often won from Socialists of a paler hue affectionate regard for themselves and respect for their views. There has never been any question of Communist policy being foisted on to the club"—club policy was always the highest common factor of the varying opinions of its members"—most of whom have been ideologically closer to Nash than to Stalin. The 1955-56 split originated, there is little doubt, with the personal disenchantment of one ex-University Branch member who had suffered directly at the hands of an East European police state. His campaign was made easier by Krushchev's revelations of February, 1956, which resulted, in combination with Hungary, with the virtual disintegration of the branch.

By the end of the first term of 1956 the Social Democrat Society was a going concern, with a Constitution aiming at the exclusion of Communists"—though its members voted unanimously for close relations with the Socialist Club, and most retained dual membership.

But experience has shown that V.U.C. cannot support more than one flourishing left-wing club at a time. It looks as if the Socialist Club may have outlived its day, and may be going to give way to something new"—probably not the Social Democrat Society, but to some sort of combination of the two which will have room for all shades of radical opinion and a programme suited to the needs of the times.

The Social Democrats, like the Free Discussions Club, failed to rally a quorum for their 1957 A.G.M.

Organised right-wing activity has faded away"—it only ever showed its head when left-wing activity was vigorous. We seem to be in a period of political doldrums. But it is possible with Salient back on a radical tack, general meetings being called to discuss H-bomb tests, and a general election and a referendum on capital punishment approaching, noises on the left will summon up a few echoes on the right, and V.U.C. will again reverberate to the feverish noise of battle, which is a healthy noise in a university.

C. V. Bollinger

Malgrée le Contrat Social,
On avait l'impression
D'une réevolution plus radicale
Dans les Confessions.

"—Anton Vogt