The saga of the Oxford Union's Free Speech Forum has taken a new twist, after students voted that the controversial debate should go ahead as planned next Monday. The student debating society at Oxford University had invited Nick Griffin (British National Party) and David Irving (Holocaust denier) to speak on the motion "This House believes that even extremists should be entitled to free speech." Plenty of people around the country believe that the answer is "no", and have tried to get the forum shut down. Their efforts were defeated in yesterday's vote.
My views on this aren't a secret: I believe that the truth will always win out in the end, and that unrestricted freedom of debate is our best defence against racism and falsehood. Many thanks to Millennium Elephant for his kind support.
Union members clearly agree with that position. The Union held a referendum yesterday to let the membership decide whether or not the President, Luke Tryl, was justified in inviting the controversial pair. Tryl promised to cancel Monday's forum if the members voted against him, effectively turning the poll into a confidence motion. He won through, and from memory, the vote split 1066 to 640. (The first one is a very memorable number indeed!) The Free Speech Forum goes ahead as planned, and after queueing for an hour in the cold yesterday morning, your favourite blogger has a ticket.
Nevertheless, I'm starting to have serious misgivings about the forum. Irving and Griffin will be debating against a couple of DPhil students, because no mainstream political speakers would touch the Free Speech Forum with a ten-foot battle lance. This is a truly grotesque situation. It mystefies me how the local MPs, the anti-fascist groups around the country, the Jewish and Muslim communities, and the reprehensible Oxford University Student Union are prepared to man the barricades outside the Oxford Union with their placards, but aren't willing to go inside and take on Griffin and Irving. Are they really happy to stand outside the debating chamber massaging their egos, whilst racism and lies go unchallenged inside it?
Unrestricted free debate is a fundamental right, but in order to work, it needs citizens who are prepared to engage with views they find offensive. Everyone can chip in and have their say, so falsehoods don't stand up to scrutiny for very long. It's self-regulating in much the same way as the blogosphere: if I posted factually inaccurate statements on this website, somebody would post a comment debunking me within minutes. But when you isolate and ignore offensive attitudes instead of arguing with them, you undermine the whole system. By refusing to debate against the BNP, the tolerant political mainstream is guilty of serious dereliction of duty.
There's a battle being waged right now across the streets of Britain: a battle of racial tolerance against racist hatred. That battle crucially needs to be won, for the good of every minority group in Britain, and for the benefit of all of us whose lives are enriched by a diverse and welcoming society. But Unite Against Fascism are like an army who refuse to take to the field for fear of getting their hands dirty. That sort of smugness and complacency, in the face of such a serious threat to our way of life, is unforgivable.
Every time the BNP speak, at any sort of public forum, debate or event whatsoever, we have a duty to pit someone against them. That we cannot find one single speaker from the political mainstream prepared to hold the BNP to account is an utter disgrace.
UPDATE: Contrary to earlier reports that he had pulled out, it appears that Evan Harris, the Lib Dem MP for Oxford West, will be speaking at the event.