GUU Controversy: Why the silence from Charlie K?


Kennedy & Sibbald

As the furore over sexist heckling during a debate last weekend at Glasgow University Union reaches fever pitch – with newspapers continuing to cover the story on an almost daily basis, yesterday revealing the names of the three accused – one voice has been noticeably absent from the growing uproar on campus and in the media: that of Charles Kennedy.

Kennedy is the Rector of Glasgow University, a senior role in the university structure which involves ‘representing student views to management and raising issues of concern with them’. Now serving his second term in the position, he was re-elected with a landslide majority in early 2011.

Given Kennedy’s media profile, his close links with the university and his official role of representing ‘student concerns’, you would think he would, perhaps, have offered some comment on the matter, which has indeed been of concern to quite a lot of students – several thousand at the last count. But from Kennedy so far, only silence, at least publicly.

It’s only two years since the Uni had its last prominent national controversy (and that’s if we excuse Ritchiegate, which was a fairly insular affair), complete with the same line-up of bungling officials, student uproar and days of media speculation: the eviction of the Hetherington postgraduate club occupation in March 2011. Having been re-elected as Rector the previous month, Kennedy rushed back up to Glasgow to get into the thick of the eviction quagmire. Despite having made his opposition to the protest clear from the off and refusing all invitations to visit, he was still seen as ‘impartial’ enough (at least by senior management) to chair an emergency mass student meeting and later lead the internal inquiry cover-up into the failed eviction attempt.   

Two years later – the campus once again divided, the uni’s reputation in crisis and facing a media storm, Kennedy is only notable by his absence. And actually, this should come as no great surprise.

As the story goes, when Kennedy was first elected as an MP all the way back in 1983, the first thing he did was head back to his old haunt – the ‘Grand Old Union’ itself – and efficiently dispose of everything mildly incriminating from his time there (more on that later), less it may come back to haunt him in decades to come (more on that later too).

And not without reason, it turns out.

How times change...

The three horses of the GUU apocalypse: poofs, lesbians and commies

Kennedy is a GUU old boy through and through, serving in a number of positions on the board culminating in winning the Presidency in 1980, the same year women were, reluctantly, first allowed into the union. His candidacy for rector, coming just months after Lib Dem votes pushed £9k fees through Parliament, was heavily promoted and funded by both student unions and the Sports Association – but it would be fair to say that it the GUU leading the charge. In fact, his campaign manager during his re-election bid in 2011 was (then GUU Honorary Secretary) Chris Sibbald – the very same ‘ex-President’ now suspended from the union and facing sanction from the university. As an aside, Sibbald had Kennedy’s ear throughout the campaign and it doesn’t take too much guesswork to figure out that this may have had something to do with with the Rector’s recalcitrant attitude towards the Hetherington occupation. In stark contrast to Sibbald’s Downfall-esque bunker act of the past week, he was remarkably keen to offer his opinions on the 2011 occupation to anyone that would listen, telling the Herald that:

“[they] are making a lot of noise, but they are disrupting genuine dialogue… they are undermining all the hard work we have been doing and the majority of students believe [it is] a distraction and costing us time and money.”

Can you hear that? The irony meter has just gone OFF THE FUCKING SCALES.

Interestingly, Sibbald has political ambitions of his own and has already had stints working in the House of Commons and interning for an MP. Unfortunately for him, the era of the internet means that erasing the more questionable exploits from his GUU days will not be as simple as going back to the union and disposing of the records on one of their roaring log fires. Sweet, sweet schadenfraude.

So what about Kennedy, what was it that he so desperate to consign to history? As it happens, his frenzied incinerator efforts three decades ago didn’t foresee the invention of the internet, and with it the creation of a searchable online archive of the student newspaper, the Glasgow Uni Guardian. So as their gossip column put it when it became known he was fishing about for a parliamentary seat:

“My older readers will remember Charles P. as the graft-king of the union, who smoothed his way to a good honours degree for which he had done no work by wining and dining his tutors at the GUU’s expense. I’m sure Charles will make a fine MP’.

Charles’ glorious tenure as GUU President is a familiar tale of staggering incompetence, financial mismanagement and brazen poshboy elitism. As the student paper put it at the time, he “isn’t qualified to run a sweetie shop, let alone GUU”. Highlights include a Board members expenses scandal, alluded to in the above quote, and a bitter industrial dispute that saw GUU staff on three weeks of all-out strike action. With the latter, Kennedy’s “Victorian master-servant approach to industrial relations” involved a scabbing operation in which students took over the running of the union in exchange for ‘free beer chits’. Sadly for all involved (except the workers), Kennedy’s Lord of the Flies style operation collapsed in on itself and the GUU caved in the workers’ demands of  a 9p an hour pay rise and proper contracts. “I don’t want to talk in terms of victory and defeat”, said the defeated President, already gearing himself up for a life in the Liberal Democrats.

Kennedy’s GUU was the first to allow women to become members, although this decision pre-dated his election. Nonetheless, it was still rife with misogyny with open displays of sexism par for the course; strip shows and porn showings all part of the daily fun and games organised by the Board. This was the ‘golden age’ of the GUU, one which some current high-ranking members of the union still seemingly look back on with the kind of fondness that old Tory racists view Britain in the 1950s; a nostalgia for an entirely imaginary glory days where Britain was Great and women knew their place (and it certainly isn’t in our bloody union, isn’t that right chaps!).

It remains to be seen what will come of the current disciplinary hearings over last week’s ‘Debategate’ controversy. Named and shamed in the media, Sibbald and his cohorts may find themselves cut loose from their antiquated boys club, unwilling sacrifices to 33 years of political correctness and creeping feminism. As for what Kennedy has to say, we’re still waiting.

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