Students demonstrated outside the Oxford Union on Thursday in response to far-right activist Katie Hopkins’ invitation to speak that evening.
Hopkins was speaking against the motion “This House supports no-platforming.” She was debating alongside former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe and columnist Toby Young.
Around 50 protesters and police gathered outside the entrance to the Oxford Union before the debate, chanting “Shame on you!” as people entered the building. There were also two pro- Hopkins counter-protesters present.
Cherwell also understands that a student protesting the event was arrested by police of cers and taken into custody. One onlooker claimed that, “someone threw a milkshake at a counter- protester… and was arrested by the police.”
The protest was organised as part of the “Boycott the Oxford Union” campaign. The campaigners also wrote an open letter to the Union calling for them to stop inviting racist and fascist speakers. They wrote: “This is a woman whose hateful views, including comments di- rected at refugees, migrants, Jews, Muslims, the mentally ill and the LGBTQ+ community have led to her being red from LBC Radio. Last year, she was detained in South Africa on the charge of spreading racial hatred.”
They continued: “In January 2019, the Oxford Union played host to Marion Marechal Le Pen, former National Assembly representative for the far-right political party National Rally (formerly known as the Front National). She has accused the Muslim community in France of being aligned with terrorist groups and has repeatedly defended the claim that Muslims are a ‘treach- erous third column’. She has also made frequent hateful statements about France’s LGBTQ+ community and other oppressed groups.
“We call upon the Oxford Union to immediately cease hosting fascists and racists and to remove videos of the following fascist and/or racist speakers from their YouTube channel: Tommy Robinson, Steve Bannon, Marine Le Pen, Mahathir Bin Mohamad.
“Until this happens, and until the institution ceases to appease fascists and openly enable the online radicalisation of far-right terrorists, we pledge to boycott all Oxford Union events.”
Before the debate, an elderly woman was escorted off the Union premises for shouting at Hopkins. She was reported as saying “Fascism is not dead.”
The Labour MP Naz Shah was due to speak in support of the motion, but pulled out of the debate the day before the event.
Although Shah has not publicly stated the reason for her decision, according to an email sent to Katie Hopkins by The Guardian and shared by Hopkins on social media, the politician withdrew from the debate because of Hopkins’ participation. She was replaced by the 12th elected Secretary’s Committee member from St Peter’s, Jack Solomon.
Speaking to Cherwell, Union President Genevieve Athis said: “I am very disappointed that Naz Shah MP has dropped out of our No Platforming Debate at such a late stage.
“We have been in contact since the 11th March 2019 and although the speakers for this debate have been public knowledge since the 24th April, she only expressed her unwillingness to speak opposite Ms Hopkins yesterday.
“I think it is a great shame that instead of debating Ms Hopkins in our chamber Ms Shah has decided to not participate altogether and I am sure that many of our members will also be deeply disappointed by this.
“Far from providing either Ms Hopkins or Ms Shah with a platform, the format of our debates is such that any speaker can be held to account either through challenges from the audience or points of rebuttal from other speakers.
“Ms Hopkins will be delivering an eight- minute in speech in this debate as one of eight speakers including Ann Widdocombe [sic] MP and Chief Justice Robert French AC and anyone in the audience will, as is tradition, have the opportunity to challenge any of our speakers on either side of the motion.”
Three of those who were invited to speak at the debate have publicly rejected the Union’s invitation, criticising Hopkins’ invitation and the nature of the motion.
Matthew Feldman, who directs the
Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, responded to the organising committee’s invitation saying: “I refuse to appear on a stage with radical right activists, irrespective of forum.
“This is because I believe, following Popper, that tolerating intolerance is an avoidable danger for liberal democracies – especially in a multicultural society – and giving racists a platform is not something I’m willing to countenance.
“I hope this sole condition is acceptable to you and thank you again for the humbling offer to debate in your esteemed chamber.”
Historian Evan Smith also rejected an invitation to participate in this week’s de- bate, replying to the Union: “Thank you for your email and the invitation to debate at the Oxford Union. However, given the long history of previous invitations extended to racists and fascists by the Oxford Union, I must decline your invitation.”
Smith was not aware of Hopkins’ invitation at the time, but told Cherwell that he supported the new boycott campaign.
Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, who was also unaware of Hopkins’ invitation at the time, rejected the Oxford Union’s invitation, replying by email with a criticism of the motion: “Thank you very much for this. I am afraid I must decline: I don’t like set piece debates on crude motions like this.
“They militate against any form of nuanced argument which, in any case, are always contextually made, not blanket injunctions.”
After the Union’s decision to invite Hopkins was revealed by Cherwell, Gopal wrote on Twitter: “Recently I turned down an invitation from the Oxford Union Soc. They wanted me to speak for the inanely & tendentiously phrased motion, This House Believes in No Platforming. How silly. Now it turns out they’ve invited hardcore racism-monger and bilious bigot, Katie Hopkins.
“One real problem with both Union soci- eties historically is that they don’t seem to understand that debate isn’t a stupid mat- ter of being For or Against Something. This isn’t party politics and it isn’t a school-boys game.
“Fascists kill. Racists kill. Misogynists kill.
“Anyway, all of which is to say that I am now speaking in favour of the motion to boycott the Oxford Union Soc until they re- consider the value of offering platforms for spouting rank bigotry and extermination- discourse. I call on others to do so as well. This is not a game.
“I also call on both Union societies to stop peddling an infant’s idea of debate and free speech, and to start acting as mature institutions in academic contexts with a serious commitment to freedom of inquiry –which is meaningless if it is not combined with commitment to truth.”
She continued: “It wouldn’t matter what two silly little privileged university clubs did–but unfortunately, they are in fact a pipeline to Parliament & that asinine posh boy (and girl) braying that afflicts that mode of discussion, and therefore national politics–which has consequence for us.”
Hopkins was reported by those who attended to have made a notably controversial speech at the Union debate.
The speech, which was in opposition to the motion, included such statements as: “Now I’m basically Mussolini, and I’m alright with that. I’m comfortable with who I am.”
She was also reported to have said, “Boycott the Oxford Union’s aim was to get vegan and associated unemployables to boycott this place” and “Jihadis are meant to blow themselves up to get 72 virgins, which is more than exists in the whole of Oxford.”
In addition to these comments, Hopkins also told one Oxford graduate student who questioned her views: “Darling, you’re not hot.”
Hopkins is the most recent in a series of controversies around speakers at the Oxford Union. Marion Marechal Le Pen and Steve Bannon attracted significant numbers of protesters as well as condemnation from the City Council.
Naz Shah and Katie Hopkins have been contacted for comment.