An absurd denial

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It is difficult to imagine what Union President Luke Tryl envisaged when he first decided to invite Nick Griffin and David Irving. Did he believe there would be a fierce but gentlemanly debate in the chamber, with Oxford students feeling a sense of pleasure that free speech was encouraged and extremism ground away? Whatever his intentions, sincere and genuine that they were, he could not have predicted the scale to which the local and national community would focus on a debating society clustered in a small corner of Oxford University.
With the weeks and days to the 8th week forum drawing closer, the Oxford bubble has burst and continues to be ripped apart by the national press. Condemnation rather than applause has been heaped on the Tryl administration, with the exception of the far right, who have already taken advantage of the situation to claim a moral victory.
What the invitations have reaffirmed is the importance of the Oxford Union in a national context. Everyone, from right-wing bloggers to professional media pundits, has had something to say on the issue, no matter their geographic or  intellectual distance from the University.
Already, however, the event has been overshadowed by negative repercussions for Oxford students. The issue has caused serious divisions and fractures within normally unified colleges. The threat of protests and demonstrations has hit minorities, particularly for students from the Jewish and Muslim communities. They rightly fear a sudden influx of pro-debate protesters from far-right groups like the British National Party.
But conversely, many ordinary students wish to see the debate, yet fear being labelled racist or anti-Semitic by demonstrators for doing so. Even journalists at this newspaper, ordinary students without any extremist views, have been personally accused of reviving Holocaust denial by the national press.
With his term coming to an end, it will be interesting to see how posterity treats this Union President. Was he a deliberately divisive leader with no concern for minority opinion, a media pariah, seeking out controversy for his own fame and publicity? Or was he a brave advocate for the Union’s role as “the last bastion of free speech,” daring to challenge the silence and taking on extremists single-handedly?
Whatever the final judgement, Tryl is to be admired for sustaining blow after blow of withering criticism and sticking resolutely with his beliefs. At Liberty’s recent ‘Big Debate’, an indicative poll of a few hundred Oxford students showed that roughly three-quarters were behind him, and Tryl has promised a poll of Union members’ opinions to be held concurrently with the termly elections.
But what has this all achieved? Fear, violence, intimidation and division. Although there may be discord and perhaps even arguments between Oxford students, in the face of outside interference we must unify. When all is said and done, Union matters are the business of Oxford students only, and not for external groups who believe they know what’s best, or that we are incapable of solving our own problems.
To British National Party supporters and national anti-fascist groups, to Holocaust deniers and their opponents, to all and sundry who would involve themselves in our affairs, we quote this newspaper’s first editorial in 1920. Like those students before us, in the face of absurd politics we call for whimsical parochialism: let us “exclude all outside influence and interference and from our University. Oxford for the Oxonians.”

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