Inside the Emergency Union Meeting on disinviting Steve Bannon

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Image Credit: Barker Evans

In a tense meeting of the Oxford Union Standing Committee, the President narrowly avoided being directed to disinvite Steve Bannon from speaking at the Union, with 6 votes in favour and 7 against.

As previously reported by The Oxford Student, the Secretary, Nick Brown, requested an emergency vote regarding the invitation of Steve Bannon to address its members. The President announced he would be speaking at the Union yesterday, the 14th November, to members and the Standing Committee alike, despite the event having been confirmed in September

The atmosphere was hostile before proceedings got underway as Horvath moved his desk to sit further away from Secretary Nick Brown who initiated the debate.

Brown was first to speak, calling a Bannon a “racist” and said “hosting this event is hosting a white nationalist”. He claimed that the Union Standing Committee had not been informed and that announcing the event with only two days warning was a “clear attempt to to seek to prevent protest”.

Amy Gregg described the decision to announce the talk with such short notice as “highly irresponsible, highly inappropriate and highly unfair”. She argued that the Standing Committee hold the President to account and in providing so little notice of the talk he had avoided scrutiny.

Anisha Faruk made the case that “it’s a privilege to speak in the Oxford Union, not a right”. Disinviting him would therefore not infringe on his freedom of speech.

The Senior Librarian spoke on behalf of the trustees of the Oxford Union, stating that there is no legitimate reason to disinvite Bannon and there would be a “reputational risk to the union if we disinvite him”. If he were disinvited the Union may appear irrelevant nationally and internationally. There is no better to place to challenge views than the Oxford Union.

Horvath explained why the announcement had only just been made. He claimed the invitation had been sent earlier in the summer but it wasn’t in the termcard because it wasn’t confirmed until October. Horvath insisted that Standing Committee were told about a “controversial, high profile American speaker” but nobody asked him who it was or brought a motion to reveal his identity. Standing Committee were not informed in the first instance because meetings are public so it would have become public information and security suggested that there should be a late announcement in order to avoid public disorder. Under Rule 14 the President is in charge of speakers but said that if there were any doubts about his conduct “I welcome the chance to defend myself before an interdisciplinary committee”.

The Oxford Union Librarian Genevieve Athis admitted that the “Method in which this was handled was poor” but maintained the “Best thing to do is challenge these people in broad daylight”.

Brown contradicted Horvath, claiming “we didn’t know this would be a controversial speaker”, Standing Committee were only told the speaker was “high profile”. He then argued that free speech is not mentioned anywhere in the Union’s constitution, rather its role is to educate students and asked: “Is the event really conducive to the education of people in the Union?”

Horvath took issue with Brown’s line of argument, pointing out that he had no problem with hosting Philippine boxer and senator Manny Pacquiao who had made well known homophobic comments. “What I would like is consistency rather than political football”.

Horvath insisted that Steve Bannon’s talk would serve a vital educational purpose in that it would encourage students to properly justify their own views. When you have a speaker you agree with, he argued, “you can bask in the glory of your own self-righteousness” without questioning why you believe what you believe.

A senior member of the Oxford Union spoke in support of Horvath, asking: “Are we really that frightened that people can’t challenge him that we must disinvite him?” Previous guests at the Union have included Marine Le Pen, Tommy Robinson and David Irving and they have all been challenged.

Horvath too was confident in the “intelligence of its members” and had no doubt Bannon would be appropriately challenged. He even went as far as saying that he would resign immediately if Bannon was not sufficiently challenged.

During one particularly dramatic episode, Stephen Marks, the former Oxford Union President in Trinity Term 1967, gave an impassioned speech denouncing Horvath’s decision to invite Bannon. He explained that he had invited Enoch Powell to speak in a debate against Michael Foot but this was before the “rivers of blood” speech. “Had he made that speech before”, Marks stated, “I would not have invited him.”

He argued that there is a  “distinction between those who have a particular view and those who stir up hatred […] this society ought to withdraw the invitation as a public statement that it doesn’t support those who incite hatred.” He went on to say that to invite Bannon “is frankly to gob in the face of the people of this city” and to “throw a lighted match into community relations.”

Marks claimed that people like Bannon and Weidel “lay the foundations for fascism” and “bear the responsibility for the synagogue shooting”. He said the President should be ashamed of himself and that he should “restore the reputation of the Union by withdrawing the invitation which should never have been extended in the first place.”

Horvath stood firm, arguing that “if we cancel the event we will undermine the ability of future presidents to invite controversial speakers.” He then accused Standing Committee of “flipping against the president to make a political point ahead of Union elections.”

Nick Brown then moved to a vote but Horvath insisted on delaying to allow for more debate, pointing out that it is “ironic that those who wanted to discuss this issue in the first place wish to limit discussion now.”

In the final throes of the debate a Standing Committee member challenged Marks’ contention that inviting Bannon would demonstrate he is a legitimate participant in public debate, arguing that Bannon’s beliefs have already become legitimised and disivinting him would only validate his views.

Another Union member argued that Union debates should represent the “public schisms of the day.” Inviting Holocaust deniers and climate change deniers would be pointless as their views will shortly be “consigned to the dustbin of history” but Bannon’s views represent ongoing debates.

Horvath made the concluding remark that “disinviting the speaker is something you will regret – whether you win or lose your election – you will regret it.”

The debate moved to a vote and 6 voted in favour and 7 against. The Standing Committee therefore did not direct the President to disinvite Steve Bannon.

Immediately after the vote Horvath stood up and recited an excerpt from a John Milton speech printed in the Union termcard – “Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience above all liberties”. However, Horvath forgot the words halfway through to the amusement of the room. After he checked the quotation on his phone he told the assembled members: “If you didn’t like free speech you should have complained about it when we put it on the back of the termcard.”