The Oxford Union has a proud and illustrious history of inviting far right bigots to speak within its hallowed halls. Both Nick Griffin and David Irving were booked for the same speech in 2007, and Griffin was also originally a planned guest of dishonour at the 2013 debate on whether it was desirable to have gay parents. The infamous assertion in 1933 that “that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country” may just have reflected a subconscious desire of the participants in that debate to not burn any bridges. That the Oxford Union is scouting out Tommy Robinson, Britain’s up and coming fascist pin-up, should come as no surprise to anyone.
When the Oxford Union, or indeed any other organisation with a major platform such as the BBC, attempts to give airtime to rather odious right-wing views, there is predictably an almost entirely manufactured outcry. In these circumstances Unite against Fascism normally complains about giving attention to extremists, and this occasion has been no different. Presumably they will follow their usual tactic of busing in activists from around the country in order to intimidate and dissuade the Oxford Union from upholding their commitment to free speech, a method that was found to be highly effective in experiments conducted in Germany in the 1930s.
Of course, the UAF will argue that “no platform” is not curbing the EDL’s right to free speech; there is simply no obligation on the part of the Oxford Union to offer the EDL a chance to air their views. In itself, I cannot question this proposition. As a genuine small-state libertarian, the only obligations that exist for me are those of the government to not unduly interfere in the liberties of its citizens. There is no duty of any private organisation to actually air any individual’s views. UAF, however, are being deliberately disingenuous. The Oxford Union is first and foremost a debate chamber. You cannot have a debate if you are to deem your opponents’ views as unacceptable before you can rationally scrutinise them. The tactics that UAF use are circular in justification; they prevent debate because they assume they have already won it.
One of the most common objections that UAF use is that allowing free speech inevitably leads to the fascists taking over. I can’t help but think that anti-fascists really need to up their game if the far-right can be assured of victory the second that they open their mouths, but this is really beside the point. Granted, the protection of free speech in the United States allowed disgusting racist propaganda such as The Birth of a Nation to be made freely available for public viewing, but free speech allowed Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak out in defence of racial equality. Similarly, in the UK, the BNP has totally fallen apart. Despite what UAF would like you to think, this was not because we made it impossible for them to tell anyone what they believed in. Entirely the opposite occurred; every foray that they made into the public eye, whether on the BBC or through other means, was disastrous.
It is not just the case that the BNP were a small party that struggled to get off the ground that could easily be put down. At one point they had 55 local councillors and two MEPs. Had there been an election in 2008 where seats were allocated proportionally, then they would have outperformed the Green Party. Yet now we hear almost nothing from them. The EDL is the in-thing for those who want to blame their own personal shortcomings on foreigners. Who’s Nick Griffin? Nobody. He’s probably somewhere in Cambridge holding up a cardboard sign that says “WILL SPOUT RACIAL HATRED FOR FOOD”. One thing that Margaret Thatcher was definitely wrong about was her aversion to giving extremists the oxygen of publicity. Given that she graduated with a degree in Chemistry, she really should have known that oxygen in sufficient quantities is poisonous.
If the Union and other such organisations are willing to give attention to any contentious minority purely for the purpose of generating controversy and therefore publicity, then this is disgusting and manipulative. That sort of media manipulation, however, is disturbing not because of what the minority might espouse, but because it prostitutes an essential civic virtue for the sake of cheap personal gain. It is no different from attempting to get out of jury duty. There is a difference between inviting the controversial to speak purely to win attention, and bringing a matter to light because you think the matter itself deserves attention.
The EDL have so far succeeded because they have managed to capitalise on acts of Islamic extremism, whilst carefully avoiding any overtly racist rhetoric (at least, enough to avoid alienating their supporters as the BNP did). If Tommy Robinson does come to the Union to speak, this is a chance to put him and his supporters to the test. If they really do have valid and rational criticisms of Islam, then by silencing them we would have committed a grave offence against truth. If, however, UAF can send their best speakers to utterly demolish the EDL and expose them as bigots, then that will do far more for their credibility as anti-fascists than any number of attempts to forcibly silence those that they find objectionable.