The Oxford Union, perhaps or perhaps not in an attempt to wipe from public memory its most recent scandal, has moved headlong into another one. Racist of the month Tommy Robinson/Stephen Lennon/either two of his other aliases has been cordially invited to address a debate at the Union this coming Michaelmas. It is an argument that is getting somewhat tiring. In 2007, they invited Nick Griffin who was greeted by some 1500 protesters. Holocaust denier David Irving and a second (rescinded) invitation to Nick Griffin this year join the litany of offers from Union hacks falling over the buttons of their dinner jackets to see whom the most offensive speaker they can invite is. The cynic in me says they love the controversy, court it and wrap themselves in it, that if Hitler or Mussolini were to return to life today they would find an invite to the Union in their mail way before the Hague got hold of them. But let us proceed under the assumption that they are performing their self-determined mission as a debating society, to hold the most contemporary, useful and incisive debates relevant to the issues of the day. The invitation would still be a gross mistake.
Joe Miles writes rather cogently on the issue in the Cherwell this week, arguing for the upholding of the invitation. He recognises, like me, that this is not an issue solved by yelling ‘freedom of speech’- the Union as a private organisation has the right not to invite whomsoever it chooses. Simply appealing to ‘freedom of speech’ is lazy- organisations have responsibilities about whom they allow the privilege of airtime too. I cannot simply walk onto the BBC and demand a slot in the name of ‘free speech.’ My ‘free speech’ is worth less as a commodity than a newspaper editor’s, who has far more power to disseminate and influence prevailing views. This is not an argument that will be won with that dubiously attributed Voltaire quotation about defending the right of one’s enemies to speak. Yet Miles’ position is that a debate chamber should by necessity invite representatives of all views. Of course there’s not space in the room to represent everyone, in the first instance. But to pause a second there, why must everything be debated by the Oxford Union, and why does that take prevalence over all else? My sympathies are with the wishes of the communities currently having their places of worship threatened and firebombed; their interests are undoubtedly more important than whether an Oxford society can construct the ‘perfect debate.’ What usefulness is to be gained from it beyond an interesting evening for some students? It is not as if we cannot have access to all the far-Right (or far-Left’s) arguments with a quick look at Google search. This is one of the concerns I have with the Union and the debating society style as a whole, it divorces real-life issues from real-life people into the language of competitive debating. The issues are shoehorned into a parlour game and a series of abstract thought experiments.
As I wrote in relation to the gay adoption debate; ‘the fact that such a debate is even being held at an institution that claims to be embracing the present is quite frankly disturbing. Imagine a motion that read ‘This house would be happy to have black parents.’ It would, among any remotely enlightened person who hasn’t willfully chosen to live in a socio-ideological cave for the last several decades, be seen as an entirely artificially constructed dichotomy that is not only a non sequitur but deeply demeaning. Had I happened to have found myself wanting to sleep with men instead of women (or both, neither or anything in between), I would feel quite horrified that a bunch of dinner-jacketed port-quaffing students and lavishly-funded guest speakers were gathering to discuss whether they would graciously permit me the same rights as my heterosexual peers.’
Miles’ piece critiques Thatcher’s obsession with denying her opponents ‘the oxygen of publicity.’ Now, I disagree violently with virtually everything the late Thatcher actually did, but she was certainly a shrewd politician. She knew how to attack her chosen enemies in the most savage and efficacious way possible, and did. And she was right; publicity, especially from respectable platforms like the Union or the media, does enable organisations to grow. Otherwise, why would anti-democratic regimes be so eager to shut down their opponents’ voices? The night Nick Griffin went on Question Time, yes, much of the population reviled what he said, but equally reports claim the party received up to 3,000 membership enquiries that evening. An analysis that says ‘people will just find their views objectionable and stop listening’ is missing any historical view of the social base of fascism. For the EDL is a fascist formation, following the typical model of racism, ultranational politics and organised street thuggery.
Fascism and ultranationalism has a rooted and powerful, if small, tradition in the United Kingdom. Whether it’s the initially British colonists in Virginia that murdered Native Americans by the thousands in the 1670s against the wishes of even the British colonial government, Mosley’s BUF in the 1930s, the National Front and 1970s skinheads, or the BNP at the turn of the century, pre- fascism and fascism has had mobilisational power and a number of adherents. Platforms provide these organisations with confidence and respectability. Secondly, and to lead on from that point, the EDL’s brand of hatred is one that finds currency even in mainstream circles. On Radio 4, Tommy Robinson went largely unchallenged by presenters. The police force remains prone to racial profiling, as borne out by statistical study after statistical study. From mainstream sections of society and culture we hear softer, more tolerant versions of the EDL’s dialogues everywhere. Racists have political representation through Ukip and the Conservative hard-right, along even with the more backward sections of the Labour Party. In most newspapers, political parties and broadcasting outlets, we can find fallacious and soft-racist arguments about immigration and Islam. Yet has one of the EDL’s mosque-bombings been called a ‘terrorist attack’ by the BBC? Have the Telegraph issued a ‘guide to spotting a racist terrorist’ in the way they did around Islamic terrorists? Have politicians argued that mainstream Britons need to actively condemn and disassociate themselves from the actions of the EDL, or that there are ‘problems with sections of white Christian British culture’ that are causing the violence? When a mosque was bombed and the letters ‘EDL’ scrawled at its base, a popular reaction was ‘that doesn’t prove it is the EDL.’ Would Hizb-ut-Tahrir be given the same benefit of the doubt if its initials were found scrawled on a burnt-out church? Thus we are not all independent actors upon which any political philosophy has equal power to convince. There is a section of society which fascism has the institutional resources to mobilise.
It is a truism that in times of crisis both radicals and reactionaries are able to come to the fore. In a period of deep economic exclusion, injustice and the institutionalisation of crisis, a huge section of disenfranchised people are losing faith in the mainstream, and racialised discourses provide a ready-made reference point to fall into. I mention the sharp rise in attacks on Muslim communities, many of whom are being forced to live in fear, and that is what publicity and the provision of platforms helps give rise to, especially in a period of economic turmoil. When the BNP gain seats, racist attacks in the area rise. The bigoted minority are empowered. To fight the liberalism that fetishises not just free speech but the protection of high-profile platforms for all, one can simply deploy liberalism back at it, if nothing else. The liberal harm principle applies- the loss of Tommy Robinson yelling bile at us from society’s pulpits (if you care that much what he has to say, go on the internet- perhaps the EDL’s Facebook page where you can spot the most stomach-churningly vile racist abuse constantly) is surely less harmful than risking the safety and lives of our fellow citizens.
Many have maligned the role of UAF/the antifascist street movement in all this. The reality is that when fascism has been stopped, it has been by mass mobilisation from below. The British Union of Fascists never recovered from the self-organisation of Londoners to shut them down in Cable Street. The National Front and the BNP have been stalled countless times throughout the 1970s by antifascist-led grassroots campaigns, from the Anti-Nazi League to Rock Against Racism to UAF. When looking at how we can stop forces that would unleash a carnival of bigotry and racist violence, one might wish to defer to the campaigns that have opposed such forces for decades. One cannot beat fascism in the debating chamber because fascism has no respect for the debating chamber. It does not play by the rules of the Union’s abstractified philosophy. I’m not the sort of person who lightly wishes to shut down a debate with anyone who disagrees. Debate and discussion is a fundamental part of how we develop, as individuals and communities. Any political organisation seeking to gain currency and support must win an argument with those around them. And yet I also do not believe in wilfully providing momentum to forces that would rip our society apart. This is why I would strongly suggest that the Union honour communities threatened by Tommy Robinson’s organisation and withdraw the invitation. It is unnecessary, divisive and destructive.