40 years on: Memories of student protests, squatting, and street politics

An Anti-Nazi League demonstration outside Brighton Town Hall, after it was hired out to the National Front
An Anti-Nazi League demonstration outside Brighton Town Hall, after it was hired out to the National Front

It was a sunny autumnal morning when I was dropped off on the A23 at Bolney on my first day of enrolment at Brighton Polytechnic.

It was a sunny autumnal morning when I was dropped off on the A23 at Bolney on my first day of enrolment at Brighton Polytechnic.

For three days, I stayed in Brighton Youth Hostel in Patcham, now long gone. Then I pitched my tent in front of the director’s office.

I came from Liverpool, where poverty is all around you. Brighton Trades Council was stuffed then with manual workers, such as engineers. Today, Brighton and Hove is the male heroin death capital of Britain.

Being a poor student, I went for veggie stew and the latest gossip to Bruno’s Open Café in Victoria Street. The café was our base as we occupied the Aquarius Hotel and Crest Hotel in Kemptown. A fellow squatter was to become Baron Bassam of Brighton, former Labour leader of Brighton council.

The number of empty properties was staggering. When we occupied an empty office block, the property company offered us a deal: Move out and they would give us a licence to use and renovate the gutted 9 Lansdowne Place. We agreed - and the Dudley Hotel opposite often sent for kitchen porters.

The polytechnic’s head porter said that "his” students were a conservative lot who would never occupy. Well, he was wrong. And, in my second year, we were in occupation and I was elected vice-president in 1978, with a majority of more than 300.

Even then, Brighton was the radical centre of Sussex. Hove could be persuaded to join Brighton only by keeping low parking charges!

Brighton was not then the country's gay capital. Only in student unions could they organise openly. There were National Front attacks on a meeing of the  Campaign for Homosexual Equality and on a meeting at Sussex University, in which people got hurt. There was a gaggle of anti-gay Tory councillors, led by Catherine Vale and Danny Sheldon. The proposal for a nudist beach was resisted by a Councillor Blackmun. Nudists were "perverts and voyeurs".

Brighton had a vigorous anti-fascist punk scene and we held regular concerts at the polytechnic. ("The Poly" was a forced merger of the College of Technology and the Art College in 1970, and the College of Education in 1975).

Top of the bill were usually The Pirhanas and Misty in Roots. The Pirhanas were excellent; I still play my old copy of Vaultage 78.

In 1987, 134 continuous years of Conservative rule ended in Brighton. Even Hove, which was bluer than Nick Clegg, went Labour.

Pavilion’s MP Sir Julian "Gunboats" Amery had no surgeries. His duties were national not local. His conservative colleague in Kemptown, Andrew Bowden, was promoted by The Argus newspaper as the "pensioners' champion" - although he always backed down on a vote at the last moment. In 1997, he was defeated by charges of Tory sleaze.

Dennis Hobden. the only Labour MP for Kemptown (1964-70) suffered because he was a Freemason. But he was a good socialist; unfashionably I liked him a lot. In 1964, he won by just seven votes. Labour was a radical party until 1992, when - becasue of Lord Bassam - 50 of us were expelled or suspended.

Sussex University - one of the "new" universities - had a radical reputation under the liberal Asa Briggs. It was a hive of activism and elected Richard Flint, an anarchist, as president. Tragically, he died young.

We opposed and stopped the prelim examinations. Union meetings of more than a thousand were held on the grass. Flint was expelled.

When the fight against apartheid began, Sussex’s largest hall was named the Mandela Hall. At the polytechnic, we occupied over autonomy and overseas student fees. Which we saw then could lead to today’s full-cost fees.

The number of students was tiny: 3,000 at the Poly and 4,000 at Sussex - compared with about 20,000 each today.

There was barely a voluntary sector and the Brighton Rights and Advice Centre was always under fire from the council at Prince Albert Street.

We formed in 1980 the Brighton Campaign Against Youth Unemployment and occupied an East Sussex building. More than 10,000 signatures and a "Right to Work" march locally, where ordinary people clapped us along the route, led to the council granting us a small unemployed centre in Coalbrook Road. Which no longer exists.

Brighton was always fiercely opposed to fascism from the days of Oswald Mosley. The Heidelburg Hotel in Lower Rock Gardens had an international Nazi guest list, but fascist leaders like John Tyndall preferred to campaign elsewhere. Anti-Nazi League monthly meetings at the Resource Centre in North Street, which was burned down, attracted up to 500 attendees.

Having attacked gay and Irish meetings, we stopped the fascists in their tracks despite police hostility. Nothing changes!.

Opposition to the English Defence League (EDL) march in April every year is part of that tradition.