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Interview with former president Cam Matheson

Ian Wilson (left) arguing with Cam Matheson

This week, the Badger reports that the Guardian has found Sussex to be one of the most middle-classed universities in the country. Certainly, to many minds, your stereotypical Sussex student is a white, middle-classed liberal from London or one of the Home Counties.

One can only imagine, therefore, what the demographic of Sussex must have been like in the early 1970s, when further education was far less accessible than it is now.

Enter Cam Matheson, a twenty-nine-year-old working-class ex-coal miner from the small village Penicuik, just south of Edinburgh, who eventually rose to become the Students’ Union’s president in the academic year 1973/4.

To this day a committed communist and no stranger to political activism, Matheson had already spearheaded anti-Apartheid movements in his native Scotland prior to attending Sussex and he says that it was curiosity that took him to the AGM (Annual General Meeting) in his first year as a mature student.

As many of us know only too well, your first AGM can be rather daunting and many first-years watch in awe as events unfold before them, without mustering the courage to get involved. But this is not Cam Matheson’s style. Outspoken and uncompromising, he was not afraid to make his voice heard from the off and quickly made a name for himself in the Sussex of the early seventies as a force to be reckoned with.

He considered the Students’ Union of the time cliquey and governed by “tribal influences”, referring to those involved with it as “wankers” who weren’t getting enough done in the way of political activism. And it was his passion for successful activism that inspired him to stand for president, on a slate along with two other individuals (there being only three sabbatical officer positions at the time). When asked if all three were successful, he replied:

“Of course we bloody were! I didn’t stand to lose, I stood to win!”

And as I speak to Matheson, the one thing I do become sure of is that this is a man who gets things done; a man who wins. A man with balls of steel who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.

As the conversation turns to the political climate of Sussex during the early seventies, it becomes clear that Matheson’s time at Sussex collided with that of Peter Hain, current Labour MP and member of the shadow cabinet.

“He was originally a member of the Young Liberals,” Matheson explains, “then I told him not to bother with them and switch to Labour.”

And it certainly seems that Hain – who Matheson described as a “single-issue politician” in reference to his anti-Apartheid activism – was no stranger to the sharp side of Matheson’s tongue:

“I was chairing the AGM and was supposed to be impartial and not say anything when Peter Hain brought forward a motion to blockade the Lewes Road to protest against the Apartheid. I couldn’t stop myself saying, ‘You fucking eejit!’”

It quickly becomes clear that this is exactly the kind of activism that Matheson views with disdain, perhaps the kind that made him enraged with the Students’ Union before his premiership.

After Hain’s motion was shot down in flames, Matheson promised to devise a more pragmatic means of opposing the Apartheid and after collaborating with some friends in the ANC, within two weeks established the Mandela Scholarship at Sussex and persuaded the university management to contribute funds to it. The Mandela Scholarship is still in existence today and there are currently eight members of the South African Parliament who were educated at Sussex. Every inch the pragmatist, he calls Hain’s kind of reactionary activism “vogueing” and has little time for self-perpetuating careerists who engage in such politics.

“When there is a problem, I will get results,” he maintains. “What is important is being practical and winning the struggle, not performing glorious gestures. Too many people are more interested in themselves, about gaining the limelight and getting their faces on the front page of the local newspapers. That way, people will think we’re idiots and won’t take us seriously. That way, you will never achieve anything.”

As well as establishing the Mandela Scholarship, during his time as president, Matheson led the student body to boycott the Barclay’s bank on campus, which funded the Apartheid regime. This prevented it from profiting from Sussex students.

“There were two banks on campus,” he explains. “Back then, students received grants and got it paid into one of the two. The campaign involved students boycotting Barclays and having their grants paid into Lloyds instead in order to cripple the branch.”

I am now more convinced than ever that Matheson is a man who fights to win, and when he tells me that were he at Sussex now, the crèche would not have closed as part of management’s savage cuts, I find myself believing him.

“When I was president, we marched through Falmer to demand a nursery for the kids of students in Park Village. I negotiated with the Vice-Chancellor and the uni eventually agreed to fund one provided that the union paid a one-off sum of £800 towards it, which was a lot of money back then.

“But that’s the way we did things and that’s the way to get things done. By God, we disagreed but we worked together. Saying that, I hear the latest VC is a physicist, which is a solemn state of affairs.”

When asked how he felt about the accusation that campus life is over-politicised and detached from reality or the “outside world”, Matheson’s disagreement was fierce.

“University is part of the outside world,” he insists, “just like the City is part of it too. They are all interlinked and could not survive without one another. But nothing is over-politicised because everything is politics. Everything. Even Morris dancing.

“There is no such thing as apathy. I don’t believe in it. People get involved with politics because they see a problem or an injustice and they bear the responsibility of educating people who don’t know what it is; telling them the problem and explaining why change is needed.

“So it is vital that students continue to make an impact on the wider world and remain politically active after graduation … many students have rich parents who think they can come to uni and do three revolutions then go off and do whatever.”

Upon graduation, Matheson worked as a research officer for a trade union and later as a manager for a recycling company. Thinking that we could all benefit from the advice of such a successful individual, I asked him what his thoughts were on the current state of student activism and what direction he felt we at Sussex should take next. In particular, I asked what stance he felt we should be taking in regards to the Israel-Palestine conflict, this being a hotly contested matter at Sussex over the past few years, with many students referring to Israel as an apartheid state – something Matheson should be able to educate us about.

“I’m not overly keen on Hamas, the Palestinian leaders,” he admits, “but nonetheless it is the country – Israel – that is doing the most damage. I was baptised an atheist and I do not believe that any state has the right to exclude all but Judaism from its borders.

“Regarding a boycott, I personally don’t have anything to do with Israel but it’s not my place to be telling students whether they should vote to boycott or not. I’ll tell you what: there’s nothing worse than an ex-president who thinks they can make an influence today. They can be a pain in the arse; there’s a certain arrogance that comes with the role and they always think that they knew best and that what they did was right.

“So on that note, I think that you’ve probably heard more than enough from me already today!”

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