Now actually, I rather like the Oxford Union. For all the stick it gets from us in the student press, what harm does it really do? True, it drains the bank balances of eager-but-naïve freshers. And it consumes the lives dozens of hunched and desperate hacks, clinging to their last cracking, desiccated vestiges of humanity.
I am not a member, but I am still glad that the place exists. Partly, I admit, this is because of its similarity to the world of student journalism. There’s a reason we both get called hacks. We also like them because they provide so much fodder for our news stories: minor corruption, in-fighting, big events.
All (cynical political student) life is there. More generously, my friends assure me that they do good things for Oxford, and really work for their members. This they said as they stood eager and wide-eyed upon the precipice, dreaming of the plunge into Seccies’ sweet delights. I must admit that I prefer the controversies.
The Union has not had a spectacular few weeks. We had ‘ballot-gate’ – the scandal that literally no one was talking about – in which the it was revealed that, unthinkably, the Union President, after spending weeks organising an event, might quite like to have some of his friends come along as well.
The Union has also been the object of one of the periodic media blizzards that are wont to blow up around its more controversial invitations. To their credit, they have actually handled the Assange issue well thus far, solidly putting the case for free and open debate against a band of passionate but suspiciously illiberal-looking no-platform protesters.
Now we have Nick Griffin’s non-invitation to add to our list. At first glance this seems like only the latest addition to a catalogue of inept institutional cock-ups. The explanation given is that one member of Secretary’s Committee – the most junior rung on the Union’s ladder – ‘arbitrarily’ invited the BNP leader.
You could just picture the scene, the mad email exchanges and discarded vacation work, as the world’s most prestigious debating society, and the clueless undergraduates who run it, scrabbled around for people to invite and fill up debates only weeks away. Then a hopeful fresher, eager to please, thinks: “Nick Griffin? That won’t cause any problems.” The Union was certainly swift in revoking that invitation when the news broke. The Union giveth, and the Union taketh away.
But there is more to this story than an embarrassingly miscued invitation sent to a man whom I shall here politely call ‘controversial’. For the Union did not simply withdraw the invitation and leave it at that. It came out all guns blazing against the only Nick in Britain now less popular than the Deputy Prime Minister. A Union spokesperson stated: “The Oxford Union does not wish to be associated with the BNP in any way whatsoever. We strongly disagree with their views.”
I always thought that the Union was meant to be a neutral debating platform, a Switzerland where opponents could gather to hammer out their differences and have their points freely heard. Its only value should be that of free speech. Its job is to live up to Harold Macmillan’s impossibly, splendidly hyperbolic claim that it represents “the last bastion of free speech in the Western world.”
Last week, this bastion started adopting corporate political positions, not only disowning nasty Nick, but also supporting his opponents. The Union “commends the work” of Hope not Hate, an anti-fascist organization backed by The Daily Mirror. Hope not Hate is certainly an attractive cause, adopting unifying positions like anti-racism and anti-hate, albeit with a somewhat partisan support base very much to the left of the spectrum. The Union’s debating chamber may pass as many politically transient motions as it wishes.
But when the committees and executive – the guys who actually set up these debates – start becoming political, then the Union begins to lose credibility fast. For those of you who fondly imagine that the chamber over which Gladstone once presided still holds some place in our national life, this outburst was as wrong, as transgressive of basic principles, as if the BBC were to adopt a policy of not covering particular viewpoints.
And don’t kid yourself that this is an abstract, academic point, borne of some priggish fetish for correct and decorous conduct. In fact, it directly undermines the case which the Union had been making so well just the week before, in defence of the Assange invitation. You might not agree with the reasoning behind it, but it was perfectly coherent.
A Union invitation does not condone. Guests can be cross-examined. The Union is neutral. The idea of the Union adopting a political position or pursuing an agenda goes brazenly against this principle. Now it seems that the Union’s invitations are motivated by political opinions and specific agendas after all. And if that is really the case, then the Assange invitation starts to look more like a vote of support. The Union stops being neutral.