Thursday 22nd of this month sees the BBC televise an event that our union is too short-sighted, reactionary, and cowardly to permit. The decision to allow Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, to appear as a panellist on the national institution that is BBC 1’s Question Time, stands in stark contrast to the spineless policy of UMSU. Even the three main political parties have shown up our union’s idiotic position, by choosing to field representatives to share a platform with the recently elected MEP.
Our union’s policy of no platform for the BNP is abhorrent, and it is something worth getting polemical about.
The general meeting debate, which took place on the 19th September 2008 and led to the carrying of the motion proposing that we ban the BNP from speaking at our union, was defunct; there seemed to be no organised and articulate opposition to any of the motions that were proposed at the general meeting that day.
As well as being an unfortunately typical aspect of a student political culture that suffers from a deficiency in debate and deliberation, this absence of opposition is doubly pertinent in relation to the BNP motion.
The motion that entailed the silencing of contradictory voices, benefited from the absence of contradictory voices. Perversely fitting, I think.
Highlighting the idiocy of the decision to ban the BNP from speaking on university property is merely a matter of picking at the feeble and pathetic argument that was put forward that day.
The position of those that wished to deny the BNP a platform was supported by three arguments.
The first I will call the ‘our house, our rules’ argument. It proceeds as follows –
Lennie: So George, have we beat those pesky BNP guys yet?
George: We are working on it, Lennie.
Lennie: And how comes those BNP fellas can’t speak at our union anymore?
George: I’ve already told you, Lennie. Why are you always forgetting things?
Lennie: I’m sorry, George. I’ll remember this time, promise.
George: You better remember, Lennie. ‘Cos this is the last time.
Lennie: OK, George. I’ll remember, promise.
George: Well, our union’s constitution says that we oppose discrimination.
George: And the BNP love discrimination.
Lennie: They sure do!
George: Well, seeing as how they don’t agree with our union’s constitution, why should we allow them to speak at our union?
Lennie: I see, George. That’s real smart!
George: You see, Lennie, the union is like our house, so anyone that comes to talk here has to play by our rules. You wouldn’t let a racist speak in your house, would you, Lennie?
Lennie: Of course not, George. Racists are scary!
Lennie: That’s a real neat way to beat the BNP, George. Kinda like if Man City said they beat Man United by not letting them into their stadium…
This is clearly an awful argument. The ‘our house, our rules’ position relies on the bigoted belief that once we have decided upon the opinions that we deem ‘acceptable’, we can then ignore all ‘unacceptable’ opinions. Not only is this arrogant, it also profoundly misunderstands what it is to have an opinion. Opinions require reasons that support them, and these reasons are defended via argument. You can’t just decide that a belief is right and then silence all of those that disagree. Why are we right to oppose discrimination? Why are they wrong? The answers come, and are continuously renewed, through robust, lively debate.
Freedom of speech is a key tenet of our society, not something that you merely play lip service to and we erode it at our peril. The cowardly homage that those who proposed the motion paid to this, one our most cherished rights, can only be seen as a disgrace.
In addition, if this is being proposed as a method of beating the BNP, then it is idiotic in the extreme – as Lennie’s insight kindly points out.
The second argument marshalled by those advocating the ‘No Platform’ policy, was the legitimacy argument. Again, enter Lennie and George –
George: You see, Len, when you let someone get up on stage and speak, it’s kinda like saying ‘what this guy says is fine, and it is fine to agree with him’
George: You’re saying that there is nothing wrong with what they are saying. That what they are saying is acceptable, especially if you get up and share the stage with the guy.
Lennie: OK, George, I see.
This argument is slightly better. It is true that platforms do confer a degree of legitimacy upon the opinions that are expounded from them. This argument fails, however, because it subscribes to the almost unanimously held belief that fascism is an inherently illegitimate position. An illegitimate position is one that is not supported by reasons, but there are reasons that can, and have, been provided to bolster far-right positions. It turns out that these reasons are either bad or misguided, but, once again, these features can only be exposed through argument.
Moreover, the general subscription to the ‘No Platform’ policy and the lazy belief in the inherent illegitimacy of the BNP has, along with other factors, contributed to them winning two seats at the recent European elections. This much is certain: the holding of elected office is a playform that confers infinitely more legitimacy than a university student union does.
The third and final argument for banning the BNP from speaking at our union was rooted in fear –
George: Now, Lennie, this is serious stuff, ya know. There have been riots and people have got hurt when the BNP have spoken before.
Lennie: Golly, George, that IS scary.
George: Sure is, Len, it’s real scary. Suppose someone got hurt when one of those darned BNP guys was speaking at our union. Suppose there was a riot, or an attack… wouldn’t that be bad? The union is supposed to protect us, ya know.
Lennie: Stop it, George! You’re scaring me. I hate those BNP guys, I hate ‘em, I tell ya.
George: Calm down, Lennie. The point is that we can’t let them speak at our union, if it’s gonna increase the risk of violence or intimidation that students face. That is just down right irresponsible.
This argument strikes an emotive chord. It highlights that this is not merely an abstract debate about free speech or liberal principles, peoples’ lives can, and have, been affected, particularly those from the vulnerable minorities with which the BNP have such a problem.
All of this is true, nevertheless, the argument is at best astonishingly ignorant, and at worst, grotesquely disingenuous. It is well known that the cities where serious race riots took place in 2001, cities like Oldham, Burnley, and Bradford, are areas of underlying racial tensions and historic grievances relating to poverty and employment. Tensions like this are known to flare up when provoked, especially in an unforgiving economic climate. The point is that these tensions exist within communities, and can flare up, without the BNP inciting them. Furthermore, the BNP prey on these tensions and grievances – tensions and grievances that are ignored or ill-addressed by the mainstream.
There is a discussion that is crying out to be had here. A discussion about whether or not the political elite is failing in its duty to the white working-class, about the viability of our current multiculturalist model, and around issues like immigration, employment, the economy, Europe, and the complex force of globalisation.
Instead of engaging with this discussion our union has chosen to recoil from it.
Writing before the controversial edition of Question Time takes place, I can only speculate on its outcome. I predict that the politicians will collude in taking generally superficial shots at Mr Griffin, but I hope that they will endeavour to show-up his bogus ideology.
Either way, the fact that they have the opportunity to openly challenge beliefs that they find loathsome, painfully embarrasses our union.