The Oxford Union’s decision to play host to BNP leader Nick Griffin and convicted Holocaust denier David Irving in a debate last Monday evening on the issue of free speech was always going to generate discussion. The motion, which effectively called on the two far-right apologists to justify their right to speak at the event, was described by Shadow Defence Minister Dr. Julian Lewis, who resigned his membership of the Union, as “sheer vanity”. In support of the Union’s decision was local Oxford MP Evan Harris, who highlighted the importance of tolerance in recognising the right to free speech of even those who hold the most noxious views. As Voltaire’s maxim goes, while we may despise what a person such as Griffin or Irving might say, we must defend their right to say it.
As someone who considers himself a liberal Conservative, I (like both Dr Lewis and Evan Harris) understand the need for temperance against unilaterally banning individuals or groups whose opinions are distasteful or even offensive to the majority. However I must disagree profoundly with both Dr Harris and the Union’s logic on this issue.
In its defence, the Union Committee may claim that since its purpose was to stimulate debate over free speech, the event proved a success before the debate even opened due to the publicity and discussion generated by the decision. But then, pseudo-liberal gestures such as this 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 the debate how many will have hailed from – or will return to – the wards of Barking, Dagenham and Redbridge, where the BNP 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 far-right groups taking over positions of power on local councils.
Similarly, Peter Tatchell (someone who knows a thing or two about
freedom of speech) has argued elsewhere, 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
crime. In contrast, the Oxford Union 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
points out, “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
As I have mentioned earlier, my liberal instincts would always err on
the side of 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
claptrap which the Oxford Union have peddled in this instance.