When we discovered that the Australian born, British Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was an alumni of the Polytechnic of North London (now London Metropolitan University) we decided to head down to his foundation offices and ask him some questions about his time at Uni, how students can be better campaigners and whether going to Uni was still worthwhile.
Was there something about your experience of school that led you to start your first campaign?
I went to the Australian equivalent of a comprehensive school. My headmaster and American history teacher encouraged critical thinking and social awareness. They helped trigger my inquiring, dissenting mindset.
What was your first human rights campaign?
I was just 15 when I took my first foray into campaigning. It was 1967 in Melbourne, Australia. A prisoner, Ronald Ryan, was due to be hanged for allegedly shooting dead a warder while trying to escape from jail. I read about the autopsy report in a newspaper and worked out it would have been almost impossible for him to have fired the fatal bullet. But Ryan was hanged anyway. That destroyed my trust and confidence in authority – in the government, the police and the courts. It made me a lifelong skeptic of authority and led me to campaign against other abuses, like the mistreatment of the Aboriginal people and Australia’s role in the immoral, unjust Vietnam war.
What made you decide to go to University after the gap in your education?
I left school at 16, with a few O levels. My parents were poor. They needed me to go out to work to supplement the family income. When I came to London in 1971, aged 19, I was determined to finish my education. I was not very literate. I did my A levels at evening classes at West London College, 1972-74. Then, from 1974-77, I studied Sociology at the Polytechnic of North London, gaining a 2.1.
Were there any particular challenges for you of being a ‘mature’ student? Did you enjoy the experience?
I think I gained more by being a mature student, than I would have gained if I had gone straight from school to higher education. It was a wonderful experience. To this day, I am the only person in my entire extended family who has been lucky to receive a tertiary education.
Were your experiences of the NUS campaigns you were involved in positive?
I was active in the National Union of Students Gay Rights Campaign from 1973, when the NUS passed its first ever policy in support of LGBTI rights. In those days it was quite a battle, with some students on the right – and the left – opposing LGBTI equality.
Why do you think that the current NUS activity has such a limited impact on government policy in key areas such as funding?
There’s been a de-politicisation of many students. The turn-outs for protests have not been huge. Furthermore The NUS has not had any financial leverage to pressure the government to change tack.
Do you think that students would benefit from participating in more direct campaigns?
Bigger, more sustained and imaginative campaigns are likely to have a more substantive impact. Targeting Conservative MPs in marginal seats might be one way to get them to listen and support student demands.
When politicians ignore the wishes of the people and break their promises, direct action is the only option left. It is the highest form of participatory democracy. People represent themselves. They get involved in political decision-making, and through their own efforts bring about social change.
Direct action can be a vital mechanism for the defence of democracy and liberty, against the abuse of state power or mob tyranny, as exemplified by the campaigns of the suffragettes and the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s-1990s.
Far from threatening the democratic process, protest from outside the parliamentary system protects and enhances democracy – acting as a much-needed counter-balance to the frequent arrogance, self-interest and elitism of political parties and politicians. Power to the people!
What is the most important difference you have made as a result of your work and activity?
Among the effective, important successes was the campaign in the early 1990s against police harassment of the LGBTI community. The police refused to end their homophobia and wouldn’t negotiate. So the queer rights group OutRage!, which I was involved with, began a high-profile campaign of direct action. We invaded police stations, interrupted police press conferences and exposed ‘pretty police’ undercover agents who were luring gay men into committing sex acts and then arresting them. Within three months, the police were pleading with us to negotiate. Within a year, they agreed to most of our demands for a non-homophobic policing policy. Within three years, the number of gay and bisexual men convicted for consenting behaviour fell by two-thirds – the biggest, fastest fall ever. We saved thousands of men from arrest and criminal conviction.
How important were your university experiences in shaping your activist career?
I was already an activist long before attending North London Polytechnic. My prior experience helped me contribute effectively to NUS campaigns. Getting a higher education helped improve my knowledge, literacy, research and writing abilities – which has benefited my campaigning ever since.
Do you still think that going to University is worthwhile?
University education aids personal development and opens the doors to a wider, more interesting range of occupations. It is also vital for the economic success of the country. Plus, you get to meet a great variety of wonderful people from different backgrounds and cultures.
For more info about Peter Tatchell’s human rights campaigns: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org