YUSU has chosen to support the NUS in its condemnation of the Oxford Union Debating Society’s invitations to British National Party leader Nick Griffin and discredited historian David Irving. The decision was met with strong criticism from the BNP, who described the affair as “farcical”.
The Oxford Union Debating Society, famed for its controversial speakers such as disgraced former US President Richard Nixon and political activist Malcolm X, has invited Griffin and Irving to its ‘Freedom of Speech’ debate on November 26. The NUS swiftly condemned the announcement and encouraged affiliated unions to follow suit.
BNP Press Officer Simon Darby said: “Who do these small unrepresentative student unions think they are to tell other students who they can and cannot listen to? It’s ridiculous. To accuse us of being fascist and then prevent a political party from speaking is pretty ironic. In a free country you can’t stop somebody’s opinion.”
YUSU Racial Equality Officer Michael Batula defended the decision to write to Oxford Union denouncing its choice of speakers. He said: “I have nothing against freedom of speech”. Their letter describes the BNP as “a scourge on the contemporary, progressive, multicultural British society”, and claims that they “openly voice anachronistic and racist ideology.” It also calls Irving, who was recently imprisoned in Austria for Holocaust denial, and Griffin “obsolescent, bigoted, racist fascists.”
Batula and co-officer Ishmael Norris were initially asked by the NUS to sign a petition against the invitations. The letter, says Batula, “was purely our idea. Then we sought backing from YUSU Senate to get the support of the whole University. It is signed by the two of us, and was sent on behalf of YUSU, but we would have written it on our own behalf anyway. It was good to have the backing of the Union; it’s strength in numbers.”
The NUS also issued their own statement: “Freedom of speech is often cited as a reason to afford a platform to racists and fascists.” It also states that: “Our primary concern is the safety of our members” and claims “whenever the BNP is active in an area the number of racist attacks increases.”
Darby dimissed the accusation, and said that the NUS has an inherent problem with the party. “It’s like a Pavlovian response from the NUS – as soon as they hear BNP, they react. It’s a psychological illness,” he said.
According to Batula, around 25 students’ unions have written to criticise the Oxford Union. The society’s President, Luke Tryl, issued a letter in response to press coverage of the controversy. He reiterates that the debate is to “challenge and attack their views in a head to head manner.”
The coverage and criticism has, as yet, had no impact on Oxford Union’s decision to invite the speakers. Darby said Griffin still plans to attend the debate. He said: “We’re still unaware of whether the invitation is still open. If it is, then Nick will certainly go.”