Monday, November 26, 2007


Oxford Union Debate Not Really Such a Big Deal

The President of the Oxford Union, Luke Tryl, seems to be a silly young man, bleating to the media about 'my members' and their rights. Almost certainly, he is after publicity for himself and for his debating society. And he's managed to get it- securing the speaking services of Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP and David Irving, the Holocaust Denier- though at expense of other speakers pulling out.

Some have condemned the debate about free speech on the grounds that the object of Irving's admiration, the Third Reich, snuffed out this feeble flower in Germany, without a shrug of remorse, while Griffin would probably do the same if he had the chance, no matter what casuistries he might currently employ to conceal his real aims. Quite possibly a mistake has been made and if things get really ugly between BNP supporters and the legion of antis likely to turn up, then Mr Tryl might find more than a little egg on his face. I'm currently reading David Winder's marvellous book, Bloody Foreigners: the Story of Immigration to Britain.

In it he explains how immigration has been part of the woof and warp of British history ever since the first of our ancestors landed on these shores. It seems that we are all descended from immigrants; no doubt Messers Irving and Griffin too have some foreign blood in them which it would seem illogical of them to condemn as impure. I don't often find myself agreeing with Max Hastings, but on this issue I think he writes good sense, if at the cost of sounding rather more patronising than usual.

He finds it in his heart to praise Irving's scholarship and the contacts from which he had benefited:

But I could endure Irving's possessing the most embarrassingly malodorous breath in London, because he provided access to people and material of historical importance.

He also suggests that Oxford students are unlikely to come to much harm:

Members of the Union Society must be a sorry lot indeed if they are likely to catch the plague of intolerance and racism from a single evening's exposure to Griffin.

The key question though is whether the danger of legitimising repellent views by providing a respectable platform for them, outweighs the need to ventilate such views and subject them to scrutiny and criticism. On balance I think the latter case has it and that, as Hastings points out, Oxford students:

need to know what sort of extraordinary and sometimes dangerous people are out there.

Not sure I can agree with Hasting's generalisations. He says: "It seems good for Oxford students to be exposed to the views of Griffin and his BNP, rather than spend their educational lives in a warm bath of Guardian decency." For one thing, if he thinks some (or even most) Oxford students subscribe to "Guardian decency", he's sadly mistaken. Second, "Oxford students" (of which there are ~18,000) have not been "exposed"; 300 Union members have.

Hastings is correct to say that those 300 members will hardly be swayed by an evening with Griffin; if they were, then they are hardly worth saving.

Much more pertinent, however, is the thinly veiled racism being expressed over dinner in millions of lower-middle-class households across England. Why is this issue all but ignored, and the Union debacle obsessed over? Partly because some newspapers help exacerbate said racism, and partly because newspaper commentators (like Hastings) like to drop a reference to their alma mater every now and again.

[By the way, Bill - the Forum is finished and is at the printers - I will send you a copy as soon as]
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