The main problem is that the Brexit experiment flies in the face of the views of most young people across the UK. There must now be a terrible feeling of further alienation amongst those that will lead us in the future. After many struggles, it seems that the signs are ominous. There was rising economic turmoil around 1973 when we joined the European Union (as European Economic Community or EEC). But many students were like me and saw the EEC as offering hope and a new challenge to an old order. The empire was gone and a united Europe called out. In 1972, one event that stood out was a speech made by trade union leader Jimmy Reid when he became rector of Glasgow University. It offered hope and a way forward for young people. Published as ‘Alienation’ in April 1972, it set out an aspiration for the students present and galvanised people around the world. The New York Times published it in full, calling it "the greatest speech since President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address". It is still relevant today and we might take time to reflect upon its message over forty seven years later as young people feel a greater alienation from decisions being made by a generation before them.
Three minutes of ‘Alienation’ can be seen at Youtube courtesy of Jacobin Magazine
How times have changed.
I was a sixteen year old grammar school student at the start of 1972 preparing to sit A-levels a year early. I had been propelled through O-levels two years earlier. This was not done on a whim by my school. They were determined to try to get some of us a few O-levels before leaving school at the age of 15. Yes, strange as it seems, many left school at 15 in those times with no qualifications. The school leaving age did not rise to 16 until September 1972. I was thrown a lifeline and managed to grasp it.
It shows a very young Jonathan Dimbleby, over 10 years younger than Reid and Charterhouse and University College London educated, looking incredulous as he listened to the views of someone that might just as well have come from another planet. The programme starts in Reid’s small council flat surrounded by multiple shelves of books. I was immediately drawn toward the idea that someone born in 1932 could appear to be so educated and erudite without a formal education being apparent. He left school at fourteen. It seems that along the way he had read many books and formed sophisticated opinions that he translated into practice.
The Thames Television interview was no accident; it was essential. His electrifying oratory during the shipyard take-over was already etched into news bulletins and had made people sit up. By 1971 he was elected to the position of Rector of Glasgow University. His address at the ceremony in 1972 was destined to be read by many young people around the world. His advice to the students is timeless.
Worse still, in Northern Ireland the start of 1972 saw the indiscriminate shooting of 28 unarmed civilians by the British Army in Londonderry/Derry. Fourteen died. By March, the Northern Ireland Parliament was suspended after Prime Minister Brian Faulkner resigned and direct rule was introduced. The same year brought the tragedy of rapidly escalating violence and by the end of 1972 we had seen 497 deaths. The hope now is that young people in Northern Ireland will reflect upon this and not look to a violent future. Leaving the EU comes with many dangers and young people must manage it peacefully and not be tempted to inflict violence as a solution.
What does the future hold?
I taught science to students in Northern Ireland from September 1980 to my retirement in 2017. The period saw the extremely violent conflict gradually mature into peace through a determination by many of us to build a better future. The hope for me was that young people would turn their sights onto things they had in common and not their differences. Although the university brought together people from many traditions and backgrounds, it was never easy to break down these differences. Nevertheless, the idea that equality should trump all other ideas was never far away and this offered a way forward. After all, science, and the workings of nature that I tried to explain, do not discriminate between rich, poor, race or any human made social construct. So why should we ration access to the knowledge of how nature works on the basis of means to pay and the cost?
Jimmy Reid was not to know how things would develop in the short term. But he predicted a future marked out by the prospect of more leisure time through “automation and technology”. He foresaw the rise in more time and the need for the wider role of universities to take advantage of this. His words were a plea to universities to “be in the forefront of development” and “must meet social needs and not lag behind them” .
Even in the context of the time, this seemed far-fetched. In his life-time, Jimmy Reid had seen participation in higher education increase to just over 8% by 1972. Now the figure is closer to 50%. But we are also staring down the barrel of AI developments taking away many jobs and the possibility of mass unemployment worse than before. Reid was offering something new. In 1972, unemployment was just over one million. By 1983 it was over 3 million and there was a crisis. In 2019 it is around 1.3 million but propped up by precarious and unstable jobs. Young people are forgiven for thinking another crisis is just around the corner.
Just as in 1972, universities, and the people they influence and teach, must rise to this challenge and must do so with equality of opportunity at the forefront. Jimmy Reid did not refer to equality of opportunity. Perhaps he hesitated as he stood alone in a hall full of privilege and middle-class notions. But he knew that there were no fees or associated debt burden for working class students after all. He did not foresee what we have now, but he did conclude that:
“The whole object must be to equip and educate people for life, not solely for work or a profession”.