24 November 2007
I am writing, in my personal capacity and with great sadness, to resign my Life Membership of the Oxford Union after 37 years, in protest at your decision to offer the privilege of a platform to this country’s best-known Holocaust denier and also to the leader of the British National Party. As your President seemed surprised when I indicated my intention to him on Thursday, let me explain as clearly as I can why this is necessary.
No-one denies that even the most unpleasant people must be allowed to say what they like within the limits imposed by law. No-one denies that a private debating society is at liberty to invite anyone it selects, similarly within the law. Yet, it should equally be obvious that no-one has a right to such an invitation unless that society chooses to offer a platform. The right of free speech does not confer a right of access to privileged platforms from prestige organisations. So why is the Union choosing to offer one to David Irving and Nick Griffin?
During my visit for last week’s debate on terrorism, four reasons gradually seemed to emerge – two explicit and two implied. I set them out here in descending order of merit:
The first reason is the principle of free speech – as if either of these individuals has been prevented from publishing his views far and wide in books, pamphlets, papers and on the internet. The Union does not seem able to distinguish between the right to express one’s views, on the one hand, and access to a privileged platform, courtesy of a (hitherto) respectable organisation, on the other.
The second reason is the belief, reiterated by your President on BBC television, that their “awful and abhorrent” opinions will be “crushed and defeated” in debate on Monday. This is either laughably naïve or rather disingenuous. Mr Irving could not possibly be discredited more completely or convincingly than occurred in the Lipstadt trial and subsequent book (Telling Lies about Hitler) by Professor Richard Evans, and in Mr Justice Gray’s devastating verdict (easily accessible) at the end of that trial. In any case, my understanding of Monday’s debate is that it will not be about Holocaust denial or BNP doctrine per se, but about issues of free speech – in which case [your President's] televised excuse is simply misleading.
The third reason is an understandable, if morbid, curiosity to see this notorious duo in the flesh; whilst the fourth – and most discreditable – reason is to attract a blizzard of nationwide publicity for the Union itself and/or its current leading figures. As politicians often find out to their cost, however, it is always easy to generate media coverage if one is willing to behave sufficiently badly.
For Holocaust deniers and the BNP there may well be no such thing as bad publicity; but for most of the rest of us the opposite is true. Do you think for one moment that the national media would be in the least interested in this debate if Irving and Griffin were being offered a platform by a body with no status to confer nor reputation to lose?
Nothing which happens in Monday’s debate can possibly offset the boost you are giving to a couple of scoundrels who can put up with anything except being ignored. It is sheer vanity on your part to imagine that any argument you deploy, or any vote you carry will succeed in causing them damage. They have been exposed and discredited time and again by people vastly more qualified than you in arenas hugely more suited to the task than an undergraduate talking-shop, however venerable.
So far as I can see, the only good to have come from this self-indulgent behaviour is the fact that Muslim and Jewish students are working together to condemn the appalling message you have sent to their communities, both locally and nationally.
(Balliol & St Antony’s, Ex-Secretary)
[To hear Julian and Evan Harris MP on the Today programme debating freedom of speech and privileged platforms at the Oxford Union for political extremists, 26 November 2007, click here.]