Further to my previous three posts. Irving and Griffin at the Oxford Union is yesterday’s news and unsurprisingly reports of what was actually said are thin on the ground in the mainstream media. The actual debate was the litmus test of my
free speech stance on this particular debate, but it’s been neglected in favour of reporting the antics of the anti-fascists and the crumbling of the no-platform policy.
A blogsearch unearths some eyewitness accounts.
Jonny Wright, LibDem and Oxford Uni JSoc member, arrived with a friend and speeches, and heard Irving:
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!”
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.
He says that Irving’s views were shown up and strongly challenged by students in the Union.
There’s a recording of Griffin with the demontration quite audible in the background. Jerome Taylor reported from the Griffin room (the two were split up for some reason):
“There was a fantastic moment where a floppy-haired student who described himself as a “integrated British Asian” stood up and told Mr Griffin that he would have no intention of “going home” were the BNP to ever take power. Why? Because home is Britain.
Confronted by this eloquent and educated student who walked and talked like someone from Middle England the only response the BNP leader could muster was, “Well stay then.”
Not a bad policy climbdown from the leader of a party that wants to see 2 million immigrants deported from the UK.”
And in The Independent:
Never one to shy away from bold statements, the BNP leader’s speech was littered with the sort of soundbites that have made him such a controversial figure – but a method to his arguing was hard to come by.
From supporting the rights of indigenous people living in the rainforest to “cut off the heads and stick on poles” those loggers and miners who would steal their natural resources, to stating that immigration was bad for the environment – “Every time someone from Africa comes over here, think of the carbon footprint” – Mr Griffin’s arguments verged on the obscure.
But the one area where he could not help but win grudging agreement from his audience was on the subject he was asked to defend – the fundamental right to free speech. “The moment you have an establishment or an elite saying ‘This is wrong’ your heading towards a totalitarian state. Every generation has its sacred cows, its certainties, but very often they are wrong,” he said.
It was an argument the audience spent little time trying to defeat. Instead they concentrated on dismantling the BNP, which Mr Griffin had a much harder job defending. Told by a self-confessed “integrated British Asian” that he would have no intention of “going home” were the BNP to win an election and try to force him to, Mr Griffin simply stuttered: “Well stay then.”
Unlike most debates at the Oxford Union, however, there was no official motion and therefore no vote. The union decided to label last nights debate a Free Speech Forum and, while the discussions took all the forms of a debate, there was no way for the audience to express whether they liked what Mr Griffin had to say.
Interestingly, the anti-fascists came out of it pretty badly – they intimidated the audience and allowed Griffin and Irving to come across as very civilised in comparison. That said, the crisis did unite the Islamic and Jewish Societies around a common cause, and the demonstrators were said to be very diverse.
So what did BNP and Irving make of the experience?
On the BNP site the first victory claimed is the opportunity to address 200 Oxford students. Then there is some incoherent self-contratulation:
“Intellectually, physically and morally the BNP has demonstrated to the British people once again that we will not be pushed around or intimidated. We won the battle of Oxford last night, quite simply, because we passionately believe that what we say and what we do is the right thing.”
He didn’t win anything. There was no vote and he arrived in a taxi.
Nothing from Irving, that I can find.
So the central plank of my argument – that they should stick to free speech and be prevented from diverging from it – is rotten. Even if the organisers or speakers had been serious about that, the thing was a forum and naturally students wanted to engage with them on their views and take them apart. As Deborah Lipstadt said:
“The President of the Union has claimed that they are not being invited to spout their views. What then is there for them to say? That they have been denied the right to speak? Griffin has a platform anytime he wants it and David Irving used and abused your courts as a platform to spew his distortions of history.”
From what I can gather this wasn’t a debate about free speech at all, but an exercise in academic freedom and self-promotion. It was Oxford Union students deciding to give themselves a bit of publicity and incidentally the opportunity to take Griffin and Irving apart. Though of course what the media noted was not this but rather the crumbling of the no-platform policy and the startling alignment of anti-fascists against free speech defenders. It really shouldn’t have been that way.
Anyway, silly old Flesh – taking Tryl’s pledge so seriously. I’ll know for next time. My free speech stance appears to still be to ask whether there is any other person equipped speak on the topic and if not and if the invited speakers are a threat to other people, then campaign for a proper debate where opposition to their views will be heard.