Unite Against Facism protested against former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson as he spoke at the Oxford Union on Wednsday 26th November. Robinson, who left the EDL last year to collaborate with the anti-extremism think tank Quilliam, was originally set to address the Union last month but was forced to pull out after being called back to prison.
Around twenty protesters from the Socialist Workers Party, the Unite and Unison unions and Unite against Fascism [UAF] gathered outside the event. The protest aimed to persuade the Union not to give an outlet to speakers who represent extreme right wing views.
Kate Douglas, spokesperson for UAF Oxford, commented, “He may have left the EDL but he has not changed his opinions. He should be allowed to have his views but the Union should not give him a platform.”
Douglas added, “We had about 500 people when Nick Griffin spoke in 2007.”
In the days preceding the speech, UAF circulated an open letter which gained over 250 signatures, including that of film maker Ken Loach. Douglas explained, “We are not convinced he has become more moderate — if you go on his website it lists him as the ‘Ex-Leader and Founder of the EDL’ — he is still proud of his association with them.”
The protest, entitled ‘No Fascists in the Oxford Union’, began at 7pm outside the Union, and continued for the duration of Robinson’s speech.
Robinson was originally due to speak in October but was called back to prison after responding to an abusive tweet. He derided the move at the time as an attempt on the part of the police to cover up the “persecution and tactics” he intended to expose in his talk.
Speaking to Cherwell, Robinson said, “They’re [UAF] running a petition because I have a difference of opinion with them. But they’re trying to stop me having a platform to express my views just because they don’t agree with them, which is the exact definition of fascism.
“I’m up for debating UAF, but I just see fascism from them. They should say, ‘let him have a platform and let him have his say and let us prove him wrong’ instead of just stopping me from speaking.”
Robinson also insisted that he now has a ‘Good Behaviour contract’. He declared, “It’s a successful day for freedom of speech, because it’s not easy for the Union to have me in and it shows both the President and the students standing up for freedom of speech, but in other ways it’s a bad day for freedom of speech because I am limited in the subjects I can talk about.”
Robinson told Union members at the start of his talk that due to talks with his probation officers there was a list of topics he could not speak about or he would be recalled to prison. He added that once these restrictions have expired, “I would be happy to come back and speak to you freely then.”
According to Robinson, his speech’s main priority was to help students “understand who I am”. He told Cherwell, “I want to talk about my upbringing, because I bet most of the students there won’t have grown up on an estate like me. I want to tell anecdotes and stories from my upbringing so they understand what helped shape my views and to ask them what they would have done in my situation. I want them to understand where I’m coming from.”
However many students supported the UAF protest. Hertford’s Charlie Jarvis commented, “I’m not surprised that someone with such deplorable views as ‘Tommy Robinson’ would be invited to speak at the Oxford Union, considering the series of unpleasant individuals who have been given a platform here this term.
“He persists in expressing his sympathies for the Islamophobic EDL, an organisation that continually harassed Muslims and even threatened to burn down mosques. I don’t believe that the Union should be using its prestige to endow a racist like Robinson with any legitimacy. This is why I was standing with the many other individuals and organisations at the rally outside the Union on Wednesday.”
On the other hand, PPEist Alexi Andriopoulos was unhappy at the planned protest, explaining, “He’s an important figure in Twenty-First century British politics. I don’t personally agree with his views, but an integral part of democracy is listening to people you don’t agree with.”
Similarly, a Christ Church student who did not wish to be named said, “It’s unfortunate that the group would prefer to protest rather than attend the event to engage with debate. I suspect [Robinson’s appearance] will raise points of interest in an institution which is a bastion of free speech.”