The Oxford Union’s decision to play host to BNP leader Nick Griffin and convicted Holocaust denier David Irving in a debate tonight on the issue of free speech has unsurprisingly generated much discussion, with former alumni such as Dr Julian Lewis, Conservative MP for New Forest East and a Shadow Minister for Defence, resigning his membership and other luminaries cancelling scheduled appearances.
Local Oxford MP and National Secular Society apologist-in-chief Evan Harris has supported the Union’s decision, and will attend tonight’s debate. Coming from an ethnic Jewish family, some might say that Harris is more qualified than most to give his opinion on whether individuals such as Griffin and Irving should be granted a platform to air their noxious views. I consider myself a liberal, and like Evan Harris I understand the need for temperance against unilaterally banning individuals or groups whose opinions are distasteful or even offensive to the majority. However I (not for the first time) disagree profoundly with Harris and the Union’s logic on this issue.
The Union Committee may of course claim that since its purpose is to stimulate debate over such issues as free speech, the event has been a success before the debate has even opened due to the publicity and national discussion generated by the decision. And if such student bodies were consistent in their rulings, this author would have to shrug his shoulders and (along with certain others in this debate) trot out the old Voltairean ideal that while we may despise what a person such as Griffin or Irving might say, we must defend their right to say it. Yet consistency is a virtue which such student bodies have often found difficult to master (I am thinking especially though not exclusively of the decision on the part of the NUS to ban all Israeli institutions, goods and services – naturally without consulting the student body they claim to represent – whilst refusing to make a similar ruling towards nations complicit in Islamo-terrorism, such as Iran or Syria).
Secondly, pseudo-liberal gestures such as those exhibited by the Oxford Union are easy coming from those who will not be forced to deal with the consequences of such “free speech”. Of all the assembled Dons and students gathered at tonight’s debate (which will no doubt be boosted by the notoriety/novelty afforded by the presence of two living Nazi sympathisers), how many will hail from – or return to – the wards of Barking, Dagenham and Redbridge, where the BNP and other far-right groups have slowly been gathering electoral momentum? While such high-minded ideals are fine for those who return will return to the middle-class insulation of Surrey, Devon and Islington, the proposition is a very different one for those facing the prospect of a BNP-led council group in north east London.
For this reason, the Oxford Union’s decision will hardly displace the image in the minds of many who consider Oxbridge students as arrogant, pompous and out-of-touch with the lives of the other 99% of the population. Not for the first time, I am reminded of Tony Blair’s famous reluctance to hire or promote any person who supposedly cut their political teeth in student politics - a position which based on today's evidence, I am inclined to endorse.
Finally, as Peter Tatchell (someone who knows a thing or two about freedom of speech) has pointed out, both Griffin and Irving have the same rights of free speech as the rest of us – they can espouse whatever view they choose in any public meeting or article which they care to proffer, provided that this does not equate to incitement of a hate-crime. The Oxford Union in contrast has gone out of its way to promote both individuals to a prestigious platform from which to air their views, with all the associated coverage which will undoubtedly fuel their profile and, correspondingly, their agendas. As Tatchell neatly summarises, “not offering hate-mongers a platform is not the same as banning them. Hundreds of topical public speakers and first-rate debaters never get invited to address the Oxford Union. They are not being censored”.
In summary, I accuse the students who have rewarded the bigotry of Griffin and Irving not only of the worst kind of arrogance, but of deep-rooted cowardice. When they have stepped out from behind their pseudo-liberal pomposity and stood toe-to-toe against the threat of real fascists (and by which I don’t just mean the possibility of Nestle products being sold by the local Student Union tuck shop) then they can preach on the virtues of libertarianism. Until then, the likelihood is that they will be viewed by the descendants of Holocaust victims as identical to the scabbish Nazi colloborators of the 1940s in all aspects bar perceived necessity.
As I have mentioned, my instincts toward liberalism are to allow free speech, but free speech does not mean that we are therefore encouraged to promote or support those who preach a dogma of hate. By all means lets be liberal in this and other instances, and demonstrate qualities such as tolerance and free speech which individuals such as Griffin and Irving would restrict. But please, let’s have a grown-up liberalism here as opposed to the self-indulgent arrogance which the Oxford Union have peddled in this instance.