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Closure of the DSU Shop: Sophie Rants

Posted on 3rd October 2009. 2 Comments

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“Democracy is a funny thing…”

ferrari-f1-15Fellow Durham students, whether you are bright-eyed fresherlings or the most cynical fourth year of them all, we are all going to be witness to an historical event in the recent years of the Durham Student Union. The sound of flip-flops flip-flopping underneath the swish of Jack Wills trackies and a heady smell of rain in the air seem to suggest that all is well in the city of Durham. But something has changed.

What would that be? Well, we no longer have a DSU shop. Those who know of the shop and its provision of pints of milk, chocolate, Durham hoodies and those weird purple ties I have yet to see anyone wear, will mourn its sad passing.

And why do we no longer have one, despite every other university managing to hang on to their students union shop when everything else is going down the proverbial drain?

Who bloody knows. To be honest, the DSU runs like any other bureaucratic tangle of woe. It’s a body made up of people who need to organise things, which means that it inevitably won’t work. Democracy is a funny thing. It runs on its inability to get anything done, just as Britain’s government demonstrates aptly. After the first flush of pride at having voted, we then realise we have put our democratic trust into the hands of someone who changes from a bastion of civil rights to a noddy know-it-all who would rather not have to listen to what the people have to say, thank you very much.

“ …democracy moves a hell of a lot quicker when there’s a debilitating strike or a united protest going on….”

We put up with it at our student union, because what other alternative is ferrari-f1-15there? I’ve heard dictatorship isn’t the done thing these days, and some sort of royal family would be pushing it a little, everybody thinks we’re bloody posh enough. Perhaps ‘elected dictatorship’ may be more appropriate.

And anyway, I would give a tenner to anyone who could think of a fellow Durham student who was charismatic and loony enough to make it as a dictator. You’ve now got a list a mile long in your head for the ‘loony’ column but are struggling to think of anyone for the ‘charismatic’ checklist, right? Yeah, me too. 

So, we have a democracy. It works. But it only works when the people who voted the party/person in start to question the winner’s every move. It can only really get going when someone with a magnifying glass discovers a mistake and shoves a figurative firecracker up the backside of the organisation. You notice that democracy moves a hell of a lot quicker when there’s a debilitating strike or a united protest going on.

But we don’t do that anymore. And therefore democracy, like the kind found in our DSU which has led to the closure of our beloved shop, does not work.

If anyone has parents who went to university in the seventies and eighties, ask for some stories about their university years. You will hear stories of sit-ins, fires, riots in the street over the price of milk being raised by a penny. Their unions were never without a cause. Say no to nuclear. Save the whales. And why? Because the students asked questions of their student union. What are you useful for? What can you do for us? They gave them an answer: a way to fight.

They were an upholder of the rights and voices of angry people that epitomised those years, even before the whole of Yorkshire was torn up by the strikes.

“…we’re just all so laid back the ground seems continually sloped…”

ferrari-f1-15It’s not just universities of the past that make our student unions look like a tea party for the unassuming apathetic youth of today.

No, we need to take a quick look at French universities. If they lost their union shop there would be rioting in the streets. Molotov cocktails through the student union building windows. Cars overturned and burnt to cinders. Admittedly Parisians would have a tough time differentiating between a student riot and a night of national celebration, as the same sort of things usually happen in both cases. The point is that they were and are fiery and angry; no-one went one year without being part of a sit in, a riot, or being chained to a fence next to a hairy guy who smells of stale cigarettes and warm, gone-off wine.

Now, we’re apathetic. You could light a match of the skin of a student in the sixties and seventies, so tightly wound up were they about the world and its issues. A few generations later and we’re so relaxed about who is in charge of our daily life at university we’re horizontal. Literally. Durham’s not as hilly as you’d think, we’re just all so laid back the ground seems continually sloped.

When was the last time there was strike? A sit-in? Never mind at Durham ferrari-f1-15university, think back to your school career. I remember trying to organise a sit-in back in sixth form over the closure of our common room. I was outraged when no-one wanted to join in, but quickly my own resolve started to disintegrate as I realised I was going to look like a numpty doing a sit-in on my own. The sit-in didn’t happen, and we lost our common room. If you do have any memory of something happening like that at your old school, then you’re a lucky person.

We live in a different world of student unions. Students no longer question what they are doing, no longer use them as vehicles for social and political change, or wield their name and power for the greater good. Student unions could strike fear into the hearts of many, as the miners did in the eighties and nineties.

“…with no mass of action, nothing is going to get done…”

So now, we need a different system, surely? If there is no-one to get angry and fire-breathing over our DSU shop being closed, then we need to find a different way to keep on top of our student union. Democracy just can’t function without the lively spirit of debate, or else the lively sound of a student protest. But we don’t do that. We’re students of the 21st century. We wander into the now empty DSU shop, see the pathetic attempt that has been made to turn it into some sort of seating area (looks like a waiting lounge at a bus station, seriously), and shrug our shoulders. Some of us will complain to friends, others will huff and puff about it to their JCR. But with no mass action, nothing is going to get done.

Who do these unions answer to now, anyway? Nobody’s sure. All we know is that, these days, it’s certainly not the students who are asking the questions.

Sophie Camp


  • Simon le Bon said:

    Everyone is too busy trying to make their CV’s look good and going on socials to actually care. Good article by the way.

  • Jack said:

    DSU did lots of demos, sit ins and marches in 2003-4.