Monday 26 November 2007

Oxford Union decision a disgrace

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.

Thursday 22 November 2007

Mr Average

England 2, Croatia 3. Probably the best result under the circumstances. Not, I hasten to add, because I have some anti-patriotic desire for the national team to fail (otherwise I would have wanted Brown to attend the match), but because this finally offers the chance for the English FA to get their eyes uncrossed and rebuild before the next World Cup, starting by appointing the man they should have gone for in the first place – step forward Martin O’ Neill.

International football calls for international pedigree, and Steve McLaren just doesn’t have this. I’m sure he’s a perfectly agreeable bloke, but with a background of coaching also-rans and his finest boast being as a number two to other more successful coaches, he was never the man to take the top job. After all, the same is true in any major position – hire mediocrity, and what do you expect?

In contrast, O’ Neill has won the European Cup twice as a player, which is likely to impress any of England’s current crop of so-called superstars. As a manager, his pedigree is first-rate – Champions League experience, league titles (albeit in the two-horse Scottish league), and two cups in England (one more than England’s soon-to-be-ex incumbent). He also has a history in getting the best out of average players – a skill which some might say would be called upon in dealing with England’s current crop.

However with a history of shooting itself in the foot (rivalled only by the current Chancellor), expect the FA to appoint yet another underachiever to the post, make a lot of noise about “getting behind the team”, before sitting back to watch another ignoble embarrassment unfold with a collective expression of "Not my fault, guv".

UPDATE: It has now been confirmed that failing to qualify for Euro 2008 will cost the English FA £5m. So in addition to the £2m payoff to McLaren, plus the lack of activity in shirt sales prior to a major football event, I would put the cost of the FA’s initial decision to appoint McLaren at round about £10 million. Considering he was appointed because he was cheap, this certainly seems to put the comparatively successful Sven-Goran Eriksson’s £4m a year salary into context.

Tuesday 6 November 2007

More of the same, eh Gordon?

Well, the most important political event of the year (bar an aborted election) has been and gone, with predicted results – the Queen’s Speech detailing the Government’s legislative agenda failed to introduce anything we hadn’t already heard before. Of the twenty-nine Bills proposed by the Government, many are simply rehashes of previously proposed legislation (many of which have been rejected by Parliament, e.g. the controversial increase in the time-limit permitted for detention without charge of terrorist suspects). This has not only led to accusations from the Opposition that Gordon Brown is already out of ideas, but also rumblings from within his own party that the decision to publish the proposed legislative programme was a major drop of the political ball, since it allowed little opportunity to add to the legislation agenda.

In terms of Her Majesty’s speech, there were (of course) the usual plethora of touchy-feely-woolly Bills, such as that devoted to “Citizenship”. Such vacuous wastes of Parliamentary time will hardly serve to protect Brown however, given the public outcry he is likely to face when the EU Reform Treaty Bill is debated. Since Labour backbenchers such as Gisela Stuart have already insisted that that Government should honour their election pledge to hold a referendum on the proposed power handover to Brussels (a constitution in all but name), it is not surprising that people on all sides of the party divide have accused Brown of dishonesty. And it is not the first time.

Another Bill of only mild interest to this author is the Health and Social Care Bill (now in its third incarnation – and they say this Government has no ideas…). The central purpose of this piece of proposed legislation is to finally incorporate the findings of the Shipman inquiry (something which, unsurprisingly, have never been opposed by the Opposition) by reforming professional regulation, particularly around the prescription of drugs. The Bill would also lead to the establishment of an overall regulator, Ofcare, to oversee the new regulations and govern the profession in England. You can just imagine the discussion in Cabinet – “So how do you think we can finally cut through all the red tape and bureaucracy currently getting in the way of doctors and nurses doing their jobs?” “ I know Gordon, let’s create another Quango!”. I suspect that the number of ideas is not the central problem with this Government, so much as its instinctive centralising and general Whitehall meddling which most public sector workers object to.

A further Bill which has dragged on for the past three years is the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill, which will seek to transfer unclaimed capital assets from bank accounts lying dormant for periods of fifteen years or more for the use of Young Person’s Training Schemes and other social investment projects. No mention was made as to whom the arbiter of this scheme would be, although multi-billion financier (and major donor to the Labour party) Sir Ronald Cohen has long supported a Social Investment Bank to act as a wholesaler and packager of such capital for the third sector. Alternatively, this could be carried out centrally by the Government, or undertaken by the Banks themselves (as advocated by the Chambers of Commerce). However, knowing both Gordon’s centralising instincts and determination to get his hands on capital gains that essentially have nothing to do with him, we might hazard a guess.