I've just returned from tonight's Free Speech Forum at the Oxford Union. It's been a strange night, and to some extent, a really unpleasant spectacle. I believe I've seen the very best and the very worst of political thought and activism on display tonight. I'll try to describe things as I saw them, rather than go on another big rant about free speech.
The anti-fascist demonstration was scheduled for 7pm, so I arrived at the Union at quarter-to, hoping to get in safely before any trouble started. The Union consists of a main building (with the bar and the library), the imposing Victorian debating chamber opposite, and a garden in between. The whole thing is surrounded by a high brick wall, with one small gate giving access to St Michael's Street. There's a back entrance too, but for tonight, it was barred and shuttered: that small gate was the only way in or out.
St Michael's Street is a small, largely pedestrianised road just off the Cornmarket, and the demonstration was taking up the entire road. The police hadn't set up a cordon between the protesters and the Union gate, and it was pretty evident that as soon as the crowd built up, it was going to be impossible to get in and out. I made it in just in time. Within fifteen minutes, the anti-fascist demonstration was filling up the only route into the Union, and a row of demonstrators were sitting down, deliberately blocking the gate.
I went into the bar with Micah, a fellow Jewish Society member. We'd corresponded over Facebook about the event - we'd disagreed over whether or not the debate should take place, but now it was happening for certain, Micah had decided he'd rather be in the chamber arguing with the speakers than outside it demonstrating. He'd had to leave most of his friends on the other side of the barricade. We were both hoping to speak in the debate, so we had a beer together, compared what we'd both written, and chatted about lines of argument. We were both concerned that since the motion was about free speech, it was going to be difficult to challenge either speaker on their more controversial views. We compared incriminating quotations and disgusting BNP policies, and decided that if Tryl told us off for speaking off-topic, we could always invoke freedom of speech as a defence.
At about 7.30, there was a serious commotion outside - we rushed out into the garden to see. Students with tickets for the event had arrived en masse, and were being forcibly prevented from getting in. Cameron, a friend from my college, stuck his membership card and his event ticket between his teeth, and vaulted over the wall. Others pushed or jumped their way through the gate, with anti-fascist protesters trying to drag them back. There were cries of "shame on you", lots of very fuzzy megaphone rhetoric, and anti-BNP chants. We stood in the gardens, the hundred or so that had made it, out of over four hundred that had tickets.
Around 8pm we went into the chamber and sat down, with the debate scheduled for 8.30. We were checked through individually, and our membership cards were scanned one by one. By this time, there were serious worries about the event going ahead, as anti-fascist demonstrators had climbed onto the Union's wall and were overlooking the gardens. It was pretty obvious that security had been very heavily compromised. In the chamber, there was no sign of Irving or Griffin; we were told to sit tight and stay away from the windows.
Then a group of 20 or 30 anti-fascist campaigners got through the gate and into the gardens, and tried to storm the debating chamber. Apparently the security guards had tried to let some Union members in through the gate, but a surge of demonstrators had muscled their way through. Most students in the chamber stayed sitting, but group of around 20 debate-goers stood against the doors and stopped demonstrators from coming in. The standoff continued for 10 or 15 minutes; then a few of the event organisers in the chamber decided it would be best to let the demonstrators in. There were a few scuffles as they came through, and I saw some grabbing and shoving from both sides, but no punches thrown.
Micah commented to me: "I've never felt so threatened by my own side!"
The group staged a sit-in on the floor of the debating chamber, singing anti-racist songs, chanting, and megaphoning us. A few Union members tried to talk to them, but they seemed far more interested in shouting us down than in discussing the issues. I cobbled together a makeshift banner in blue fountain pen and bits of A4 paper. It said "FREE SPEECH IS YOUR BEST DEFENCE. One of the photographers snapped it; I don't think anyone else noticed.
Around 9pm, the police finally arrived, - where had they been up till now? - and herded everyone upstairs into the gallery, checking everyone's membership card on the way. They rooted out the protestors, escorted them out of the building, and a few minutes later brought us back down into the chamber, checking all the membership cards a second time. They obviously didn't do a great job, because I found myself sitting next to two students from Exeter who'd come to demonstrate, but were now curious to hear what Irving and Griffin had to say, and asked me not to rat on them.
At ten to ten, Lib Dem MP Evan Harris came in. He was one of the scheduled speakers for the event. He explained that another large group of Oxford students was in the main building; they'd been brought in via another entrance - I heard anecdotally that they'd come in via the fire escape that leads to the Union's underground nightclub. They couldn't be brought into the debating chamber, because the demonstrators on the wall were making it impossible to cross the garden between the two buildings. Apparently, the forum was going to be split into two halves, with Irving speaking at one, and Griffin at the other.
Five minutes later, Luke Tryl arrived, repeated what Harris had said, and asked us specifically not to applaud, jeer, or make any other loud noise throughout the event. He didn't want to give the demonstrators an impetus to storm the building again; it was clear they could swarm over the wall given half a chance.
He went out for a few minutes, and came back accompanied by David Irving; apparently the other group had the dubious pleasure of being addressed by Nick Griffin. Evan Harris and Anne Atkins were also speaking.
The seating arrangements were interesting. Tryl was in the centre, at the speakers' table, where you'd expect the President of the Union to sit for a discussion forum. Harris and Atkins sat right next to him, on the benches to his left. Irving was on the other side, on his own, right in the middle of a bench. Nobody was sitting anywhere near him. He looked like a pariah; he looked very gruff and very sullen.
As Tryl introduced the speakers, he made it very clear that he was distancing himself from Irving. ("Like all of you, I abhor his views, but ...") He called him "despicable" and "abhorrent". It wasn't quite as eloquent as Lee Bollinger's introduction to Ahmadinejad, but it was heading in that direction. His introductions of Harris and Atkins were very matter-of-fact by comparison.
Evan Harris kicked off the debate. He was his usual self - very slick, very personable, a decent public speaker. He said that he would be fully behind the protesters if only they were arguing against Irving's and Griffin's views; but since they were arguing against their right to express those views, he couldn't back them. He slammed the police for failing in their duty to protect the debate, and asked why they hadn't formed a proper cordon around the Union. He also told us a bit about his decision to speak: he'd been invited to the forum before it became public that Irving and Griffin were going to speak, but once he found out that they were coming, he decided that it would be very unprincipled to drop out.
Irving was up next. I have to say that I was very surprised by him. I expected an angry diatribe from a stern-looking hatemonger. Irving comes across far more like an academic, with a clipped and slightly soft accent, very English. He spoke quite calmly. He started off by thanking the Union for the chance to speak - this was his seventh invitation, and the only one that hadn't been cancelled. He expressed his hope that the demonstrations were largely aimed at Nick Griffin rather than himself.
He began his argument with the words "I'm not a Holocaust denier - but you've never had the chance to find that out." He insisted time and time again that he published what he believed to be the truth, and that he was being victimised because his view didn't correspond to the orthodox one. He peppered his speech with references to the Holocaust, and it sounded as if he was doing it rather self-consciously, almost defensively. He paraphrased Animal Farm, claiming that he was "less equal than other historians".
At this point, the two demonstrators from Exeter who were sitting near me got up, and stomped out of the hall in disgust.
Irving then went on a bit of a general rant about free speech. I felt extremely uncomfortable as I found myself agreeing with much of his rhetoric on the subject, although I was well aware that in every sense, he had utterly failed to live up to what he was preaching. He said "freedom of speech means the right to be wrong sometimes" - I doubt he's admitting that his views are wrong, but in truth, it shouldn't be a crime to lie (or, more likely, to delude oneself) about historical facts.
His parting shot should be a serious warning to the anti-fascist demonstrators: "Every time I'm banned from another country, I regard it as a victory ... it means there's no-one there who can debate against me!"
Anne Atkins was next up. She took much the same line as Harris on free speech; its noteworthy that as a Christian writer, she argued for the repeal of the blasphemy laws ("God doesn't get offended!"). She also told us that the protestors outside had been chanting "kill Tryl", which in her view very much fell outside the limits of legitimate free speech: it was incitement to murder; how ironic. She spoke about people in the past who had been killed simply because they spoke against the view of the majority - her main example was of course Jesus, whose views were considered dangerous and worthy of suppression by the Roman rulers of the time.
By this point, the constant din of anti-fascist protesters outside had almost entirely vanished. It sounded like they'd given up. It was almost 11, close to the time limit for the debate, and neither Micah nor I got to make our speeches. Tryl decided that instead of opening the debate to the floor, he'd allow questions and answers instead. Predictably most of the questions went to Irving.
Wasn't he a hypocrite to defend free speech when he had sued Lipstadt in order to silence her? No, he said, he had agonised for a long time over whether or not to take legal action, but did so ultimately because "she had amassed a landslide against me", and because "free speech doesn't mean a licence to smear". He did, however, agree that "it looks hypocritical". There was, apparently, a "fine line".
He also said that the trial took place seven years ago, and that if anyone accused him nowadays of being an active Holocaust denier, they were slandering him: "I don't buy the whole package, that's all - but it doesn't make me a denier." No jeers - people reluctantly obeyed Tryl's request - but there were hisses, muffled expletives, and very audible intakes of breath.
Micah got his hand in, and asked about Irving's infamous racist poem, which he'd written for his young daughter:
I am a Baby Aryan
Not Jewish or Sectarian
I have no plans to marry an
Ape or Rastafarian
The reply wasn't very edifying. Irving admitted to writing it, told us how it had been used against him in his trial, and pointed out that it was only 19 words long, and was found after people had trawled through hundreds of thousands of words of his diaries. "Whatever that poem represents, it's a very small percentage of who I am ... I told that to the judge, and he wasn't impressed." Nor were any of us, and the under-the-breath hisses told it all.
It was about quarter past eleven, and Tryl called time on the debate. Irving was escorted out of the room; we were told to stay put until it was safe for us to leave. Anne Atkins and Evan Harris kept us amused by taking more questions and answers, until at about 11.30pm we were told we could go. The protest had dispersed by then; just banners strewn all over the floor. St Michael's Street looked like a total mess. I took my little makeshift banner on the way out; somebody patted me on the back as I held it up. Coming onto the Cornmarket, I walked straight back to college, and made a beeline for the computers, which is where I am now. Writing it all up.
It's too late, and I'm too tired, to formulate any sort of coherent response to what's happened today. I'll just set out a few quick thoughts, in the order that they ooze out of my brain.
Firstly, it's ridiculous to claim to be anti-fascist when you're blocking a public right of way, and stopping people from getting to a legal meeting, however much you disagree with that meeting.
Secondly, the argument we heard time and time again about the threat from BNP activists being so great that it trumped the right to free debate. I didn't see any BNP people at all (although I'm willing to admit I wasn't in a position to see everything that happened, and they may well have been there). What I did see was a large group of so-called anti-fascists prepared to use physical force to stop people getting to a debate, use large amounts of amplified noise to try and drown the debate out, shout abuse and intimidation at students going about their lawful business, and call for the death of a 20-year-old young man with pretty mainstream political views.
Thirdly, I felt sickened by Irving's constant references to the Holocaust, coupled with his constant efforts to underplay the scale and meaning of it, and his noxious suggestion that Britain should have done a deal with the Nazis in 1940, and pulled out of the war - it would have meant the subjugation of the entire continent and the eradication of European Jewry, but Irving maintains it would have been in the best interests of Britain. As an internationalist and as a believer in universal human rights, that sickens me.
Fourthly, I'm immensely glad that I was able to hear Irving speak. I don't think it endangered me or put me at risk of corruption. It broadened my horizons and let me find out something about a man who up till now had only ever been a sort of bogeyman - and some of the things that I found out were genuinely surprising. I don't see why I should have been barred from going to this talk because of somebody else's arbitrary judgement. I'm also quite glad that Irving's views were shown up and challenged very strongly by students in the audience.
Fifthly, I'm physically and mentally shattered, it's quarter to two in the morning, I'm not sure I can stomach any more of this whole saga which has dominated Oxford life for the past two months, so I'm going to bed!