I have to say I think I felt justifiably proud of being at the Cambridge Union Society tonight, attending a recording of The Doha Debates. The motion was ‘This House believes Britain’s role in the Middle East is in terminal decline’, to which – to my surprise – I ended up voting against. This was partly because the speakers in favour seemed to utterly misread the question as having the word ‘positive’ inserted – arguing endlessly that Britain had played a negative role – but of course, missing the point. The speakers against (including, oh shame of shames, Malcolm Rifkind) were not there to argue that Britain’s role hadn’t declined, or that America wasn’t by far and away the most important power. However, do we still have ‘a role’? I believe so.
Anyway, the reason I felt proud of being in Cambridge was, of course, because at the very same moment the Oxford Union was trying to conduct a debate on ‘free speech’ with Nick Griffin and David Irving as invited guests, in the face of some considerable protest. I’ve thought about the two sides to this debate a great deal. It’s surely common currency that these are two repugnant men with repugnant views. But should they be given a platform to be ‘crushed in debate’, as the President of the Union has insisted, or not?
In the end, I am opposed. Speaking at the Oxford Union is not some ordinary right of free speech – it is a privilege extended to those judged worthy to make a useful contribution. David Irving is liar: a man who falsifies evidence to further his anti-semitic views, and not an academic. Nick Griffin is simply a leader of a bunch of thugs with some limited media skills. They aren’t intelligent, thoughtful voices to bring to a debate on the important issue of free speech. It would have actually been better to debate them on their very policies, rather than elevate them into authorities on a subject they are not qualified to speak on.
Furthermore, we live in an age where both David Irving and Nick Griffin are perfectly able to publish their message – via the Internet, for one – in a legal manner which is open to all to access, if they wish to do so. Inviting them to the Oxford Union simply seems a publicity stunt which was ill-considered, and for which those responsible are now genuinely obliged to press ahead with rather than make martyrs out of these men. Perhaps this is true: perhaps to row back at a late stage would have only made a bad situation worse. But they should never have been invited in the first place.