The recent wave of student occupations over Gaza has spread truly across the whole country, and constitutes a most welcome return of student interest in international issues. I attended University Court in Dundee yeaterday, and without any opposition the University divested from BAE Systems as the start of an ethical investment policy. This was a student-led initiative.
But I also walked into a furore which for me carried strong echoes of my own student days. An extraordinary general meeting of Dundee University Students Association had passed motions on BAE and on Palestine, but the student executive were refusing to implement the motion on Palestine. They had obtained a legal opinion that, as a registered charity, the Students Association could not take political stances.
This question of whether students unions could take an interest in the outside world – known as the ultra vires debate – recurred frequently when I was a student. The legal principles remain unchanged, although the precise legislation has altered. The generally accepted view was that the students association was quite entitled to express strongly held views on behalf of its members, but it would be wrong for it to spend any of its charitable funds for extraneous purposes.
That seems to me still a sensible position now. The bogey that the Students Union may lose its charitable status over a pro-Palestinian declaration is a nonsense. For one thing DUSA already has existing and longstanding pro-Palestinian policy that still applies. Student bodies have been making declarations on the state of the World for over a hundred years at least, and no students union has ever lost charitable status because of it.
The threat is a fiction, and the suspicion must be that pro-Israeli supporters – not one of whom turned up to oppose the motion democratically – have resorted to legal subterfuge.
Much more dangerous is the idea that the executive can ignore the will of the students expressed by a general meeting. The notion that students are not trustworthy in democratic process, and that the executive know better when guided by professionals, is something that actually is inimical to the whole idea of a students union.
The sad thing is that the Executive are under great pressure from “the Establishment” and are being told that they would act illegally if they acted on the resolution passed. It is very hard for them not to bow to the general move to dumb down and restrict student activity. It takes courage to rebel – but that is why we have youth. If not now, when?
As it happens, for the first time in many years DUSA has an executive who are genuinely active, altruistic and concerned, and doing a pretty good job. Then they found themselve faced with this situation, which puts them under pressure.
The Executive must act on the letter of what the General Meeting passed, until and unless they get it overturned by another general meeting or referendum (and interestingly it appears that what the general meeting passed may include seeking advice from the Scottish charities commissioners). That they have to obey the general meeting really should go without saying, but DUSA has become so unused to student activity and democracy that it is disturbingly not being taken as axiomatic.
The charities commission in Scotland is, of course, a New Labour body, as witnessed by its scandalous indulgence of the Smith Insitute.
The idea that it tolerates the fake charity that is part and parcel of Scottish New Labour, but would remove charitable status from DUSA over a few words on the massacre of Palestinians, is appalling.
I do hope our students find their backbone.