Sometimes the cleverest people can also in their own way be the stupidest. I suppose that it the lesson to be learned from the childish and irresponsible decision of the members of the Oxford Union to invite the author and holocaust denier David Irving and BNP leader Nick Griffin to speak in a Union debate.
Let’s be clear from the start, this is not a question of free speech. Griffin and Irving are entitled to express their views within the laws of the land. The point is whether an organisation such as the Oxford Union should be giving them a platform to do so. Oxford is one of Britain’s elite universities, and although I confess to ignorance of its precise constitutional position, the Oxford Union is linked in most people’s minds with the university. It is also Britain’s best-known student debating chamber. There must be some assumption, therefore, that those invited to address its debates have things to say that are worth hearing, that will somehow stimulate the intellects of our supposedly best and brightest young people. It is ludicrous to imagine that this is the case with either Irving or Griffin, absurd to imagine that they have something useful to contribute to a debate about free speech.
Among Irving’s best-known recent activities was an attempt to prevent a legitimate scholar from exercising her right to free speech. He is a proven liar and charlatan, who adopts the trappings of genuine scholarship to falsify the historical record in order to promote his own hateful and anti-semitic views. As for Griffin, he is the leader of a political party which, whatever its attempts to appear respectable, promotes a doctrine of hate, exists on the fringes of criminality and which would deny the human rights of, including the right to free speech of a substantial proportion of our fellow citizens.
In short, on top of being purveyors of deeply unpleasant opinions, neither have any mark of intellectual or public distinction that might render their views of interest to decent people. While they are entitled to free speech, an organisation such as the Oxford Union has no business inviting them and is being irresponsible in giving them this opportunity for publicity and the credibility of addressing a supposedly intellectually respectable institution.
It is disappointing that at least two Lib Dem bloggers (here and here) do not see this and have defended the Oxford Union decision. Does this mean they would be happy to see Griffin or Irving addressing fringe meeting at a Lib Dem conference or a Centre Forum seminar or Liberal Democrat History Group meeting? The logic of their comments is that they should be – indeed that such invitations are a necessary part of defending free speech. But I, for one, would not want to be a member of any organisation that extended invitations to speak to Irving or Griffin and I like to think most Liberals would agree.
No doubt when the event takes place, there will be a big demonstration outside the meeting, Griffin and Irving will try to occupy the moral high ground, as TV cameras show them appearing statesmanlike (while barely supressing smirks), as the police protect them from an angry and potentially violent mob. I can only hope this doesn’t come to pass.
Instead, I would like to think that people who are in the future invited to speak to the Oxford Union consider whether they wish to be regarded in the same company as Griffin and Irving, and if not then they should favour some other worthy body with the benefit of their views on whatever topic is under discussion. Doubtless the membership of the Oxford Union will find other ways of attracting publicity by getting nasty people to address their ‘debates’. Perhaps for their next trick they will ask Ian Brady or Ian Huntley to discuss child protection policies, for example. But genuine scholars and mainstream politicians should give their meetings a wide berth.