15 June, 1974 – ‘No Platform’ and Red Lion Square

15 June, 1974 saw both an emergency conference held by the National Union of Students on the issue of ‘no platform’ and a counter-demonstration against the National Front in Red Lion Square. The two incidents were a pivotal moment for the emergent anti-fascist movement in Britain. Below is based on a passage from my forthcoming manuscript on the history of ‘no platform’.

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The front page of the IMG’s newspaper the week after Red Lion Square

At the National Union of Students (NUS) conference in April 1974, the policy of ‘no platform’ was devised as part of a wider stance against racism, in particular the discrimination faced by international students in Britain. A resolution stated:

Conference recognises the need to refuse assistance (financial or otherwise) to openly racist or fascist organisations or societies… and to deny them a platform. However conference believes that in order to counter these groups, it is also necessary to prevent any member of these organisations or individuals known to espouse similar views from speaking in colleges by whatever means necessary (including disrupting of the meeting).[1]

 Student unions were also called upon to ‘refuse any assistance to openly racist or fascist organisations or individuals’, as well as ‘prevent any racist or fascist propaganda being displayed, sold, distributed, or propagated through meetings by whatever means may be necessary’.[2] Although the resolution was successful, it caused considerable controversy and soon after the conference ended, there were pushes by some student unions to have the resolution overturned.

Because of the controversial nature of ‘no platform’ resolution, the NUS held a special emergency conference in London on 15 June, 1974. Students from the International Marxist Group, who were instrumental in pushing though the policy back in April, accused the Communist Party faction within the NUS of wavering, suggesting that the Party ‘began to tremble at the thought that they were losing support inside the NUS’ and eventually ‘cracked under the strain’.[3] In the lead up to the conference, the IMG warned that the Communist Party faction wanted to weaken the resolution and restrict ‘no platform’ to non-violent means only, effectively getting rid of the phrase ‘by whatever means necessary’.[4]

At the June conference, the debate was over the application of resolution. A motion was put forward by several student unions arguing that ‘violent disruption of a meeting of a racialist speaker gives that speaker publicity which she or he would welcome’ and that the NUS should have used ‘any non-violent tactics necessary to combat racialism’.[5] The student union from City University London had been significant in the lead up to the June conference in the campaign to revise the ‘no platform’ resolution and a representative from this student union stressed that any action ‘must be non-violent because violent disruption was unacceptable on a moral level and politically bankrupt and ineffective on a tactical level’.[6]

However a number of representatives again defended the ‘by whatever means necessary’ part of the resolution. A representative from Portsmouth Polytechnic said that it didn’t matter whether violent disruption received negative publicity in the press and that ‘students should not be interested in winning this mythical idea that somewhere there was the average man or the average student who symbolised public opinion’.[7] Another representative from Birmingham Polytechnic argued that fascists ‘were willing to use whatever means necessary to achieve their policies’ and thus, ‘[t]heir opponents should be the same’.[8]

The emergency conference happened to be scheduled for the same day that the National Front attempted to hold a meeting at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square and a counter-demonstration was held by Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) and other anti-fascists, including the IMG. A number of those who came for the conference also attended the counter-demonstration. The resulting melee between anti-fascists and the police led to the death of Warwick University student Kevin Gately.

News of the police actions at Red Lion Square filtered back to the NUS conference. John McGeown, an IMG member and University of Kent representative, announced to the conference during the ‘no platform’ debate:

Someone had just come to the rostrum with blood over his face and body. The wound had been inflicted by the police who were preventing people from demonstrating against the National Front.[9]

McGeown linked the action at Red Lion Square to the debate being held at the conference, arguing that the violence experienced by the (largely student) demonstrators emphasised ‘the importance of the debate today’.[10] He continued:

While students were sitting here and liberals came to the rostrum and talked about free speech and the right to do this and to do that, student were actually being attacked by fascists in conjunction with, and in alliance with, the police force… Such violence was being inflicted by the police force outside Conway Hall today in alliance with the fascists. Students had the opportunity to make a big contribution to the fight against the fascists today and they ought to be doing that by upholding the Liverpool conference resolution.[11]

The death of Gately at an anti-fascist demonstration bolstered the argument made by the Trotskyist groups – if fascism was not countered ‘by any means necessary’, then people on the left were to become targets of violence. As Dave Hann has shown, throughout the mid-1970s, NF activists violently broke a number of meetings by the left, leading to the need for meetings to be stewarded by militant anti-fascists.[12]

The NUS produced a pamphlet in the aftermath of Gately’s death that called a mobilisation of an anti-fascist movement against the National Front, but while not mentioning the ‘no platform’ on university campuses, also called for other institutions to implement a ‘no platform’ policy. The pamphlet proclaimed:

we call upon the government and local councils to recognise their responsibilities and ban further marches by the National Front and other fascist groups, and to deny them the use of public facilities. Such measures alone will not alone win the fight against racism and fascism, but will be an expression of the government’s resolve to check its growth and to protect hard-won democratic rights of working people.[13]

It is quite likely that the violence witnessed at Red Lion Square convinced many at the time that ‘no platform’ was necessary to combat fascists in a time of supposed ascendancy and that to allow these fascists to publicly organise was to risk fascist violence in the future. The tragic events at Red Lion Square occurred at a pivotal moment for anti-fascist movement in Britain and the promotion of ‘no platform’ as an anti-fascist tactic. By the late 1970s, the ‘by any means necessary’ phrase had been removed from the NUS’ ‘no platform’ policy and the policy was entirely revoked between December 1977 and April 1978. It was resinstated in the same month as the first Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism Carnival was held in London, happening as the anti-fascist movement gained momentum. Despite the initial controversy around its implementation, the NUS’ ‘no platform’ policy has remained in place for over 40 years.

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An IMG pamphlet from 1974

[1]NUS, April Conference: Minutes and Summary of Proceedings (London: NUS, 1974) p. 79. Bold in original text.

[2]Ibid., p. 79.

[3]Red Weekly, 31 October, 1974, p. 2.

[4]Red Weekly, 23 May, 1974, p. 6.

[5]NUS, Minutes of Extraordinary Conference (London: NUS, 1974) pp. 34-35.

[6]Ibid., p. 35.

[7]Ibid., p. 36.

[8]Ibid., p. 36.

[9]NUS, Minutes of Extraordinary Conference, p. 36.

[10]Ibid., p. 36.

[11]Ibid., p. 36.

[12]Dave Hann, Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism (London: Zero Books, 2013) pp. 250-251.

[13]NUS, The Myth of Red Lion Square (London: NUS pamphlet, 1974) pp. 21-22.

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UK events

I am leaving for the UK for research and will be travelling for the next few weeks, taking in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, London, Nottingham and Birmingham. Here are a few of the events that I will be speaking at:

Tuesday, 25th June – ‘From Subversives to Snow Flakes: Fifty Years of Fears of Student Politics and Free Speech on Campus’, IHR Life Cycles seminar series, SOAS rmT102, Russel Square Building 22 (5.30pm)

Wednesday, 26th June – Book launch for paperback edition of Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 (with Matthew Worley and John Kelly), Housmans Bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, Kings Cross, London (7pm)

Thursday, 27th June – Book launch for Haymarket paperback edition of British Communism and the Politics of Race (with Daryl Leeworthy), Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London (6.30pm)

Monday, 1st July – Book launch for paperback edition of Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 (with Phil Burton-Cartledge), Five Leaves Bookshop, 14A Long Row, Nottingham (7pm)

There may also be an event in Manchester. When details are confirmed, I will post again.

#BoycottMorrissey – the end of Hatful of History

I am in the process of changing my online presence from the ‘Hatful of History’ moniker. While I remain a fan of The Smiths, I cannot, in good faith, remain a fan of Morrissey while he promotes the far right and espouses xenophobic views. This article in The Guardian explains the conscious uncoupling that Morrissey/Smiths fans are having to go through at the moment.

For me, this means removing an explicit reference to Morrissey from my online identity. I have changed my twitter handle to @evanishistory and the same with Instagram. I am in the process of working out how to transfer this blog to a new URL.

Hopefully this blog will have new identity in the near future!

Love Milkshakes, Hate Racism: A short history of throwing food at the far right

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In the last month, milkshakes have been lobbed at several far right candidates in the Euro elections. First it was former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson, then UKIP’s misogynist YouTuber Carl Benjamin and now Nigel Farage as he was out campaigning in Newcastle for his new Brexit Party. When Farage visited Edinburgh, the local police advised McDonald’s not to sell milkshakes and there has been further news that Farage refused to step off his tour bus after being threatened with further milkshakings.

This has followed on from the egging of right-wing politicians in Australiaand of neo-Nazis in the United States. Some commentators have argued that these milkshakings and eggings are a form of political violence, while defenders of those who have thrown milkshakes and eggs have countered that these are non-violent forms of protest, designed to humiliate rather than injure. Compared with the prospect of violence from the far right, the dousing of political opponents in food stuffs is relatively minor.

On social media, opponents of the far right have been quick to use eggs and milkshakes as cultural symbols of anti-fascism. The throwing of food stuffs at politicians has a long history in most parts of the world, but there is a discernible history of food stuffs being used to combat the far right in Britain going back to the 1930s and the fights against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

In June 1934, shortly after the violent clashes between anti-fascists and the BUF at Olympia, eggs and fruit were thrown at the BUF in Melksham, Wiltshere, alongside a car being overturned. Later in the same year, eggs and bottles were thrown at the BUF in Gillingham, Kent. At the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in October 1936, various accounts say that eggs, rotten fruit and flour were hurled at the marching fascists and the police. In the weeks following ‘Cable Street’, eggs, vegetables and tomatoes bombarded fascist speakers in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

After the war, Oswald Mosley still attracted protests involving food. After being invited to speak at the Cambridge Union in 1958, Mosley was hit in the face with a custard pie. Invited again to speak in 1960 to the same union society, Mosley was slapped with a jelly across the face, while protestors chanted ‘Sharpeville, Notting Hill’.

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When the fascists attempted to go out in public, they were also confronted with food stuffs. When Colin Jordan’s National Socialist Movement held a rally in Trafalgar Square in July 1962, he had tomatoes and rotten eggs pelted at him. A few months later, Mosley attended a Union Movement (the successor organisation to the BUF) in Bethnal Green in East London and endured a hail of fruit and bad eggs while he tried to speak. As he fled to his car, he was egged again. When Jordan married Francoise Dior in Yorkshire in 1963, eggs were among the things thrown at those attending the Nazi wedding.

In the 1970s, when the National Front held provocative rallies, there was a clash in North London in April 1977 at the ‘Battle of Wood Green’ (with a young Jeremy Corbyn involved in organising the protest). Bags of flour, rotten eggs and fruit were gathered and thrown at the NF.

During the protests against visiting hard right politicians in the 1970s and 1980s, several MPs had food stuff thrown at them. Sir Keith Joseph, one of Thatcher’s early supporters, was pelted with flour bombs and eggs when he came to speak at Essex University in February 1977. Home Office minister David Waddington was doused in beer in December 1985 when he tried to address a meeting at the University of Manchester and Enoch Powell had a ham sandwich thrown at him the following year during a visit to Bristol University.

And the tradition of egging the far right continued into the twenty first century. Days after winning a seat in the 2009 European elections, leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, was egged as he tried to hold a press conference. When the English Defence League attempted to march through Nottingham in August 2016, eggs (alongside the protestor’s popular choice, smoke bombs) were thrown as anti-fascists largely outnumbered the small EDL crowd.

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After the egging of Nick Griffin,Gerry Gable, the long-time editor of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight wrote that while seeing food stuffs being dumped over Griffin’s head ‘certainly brought a smile to many people’s face’, it was ‘going to take more than a few well-aimed eggs and worthy placards to finish the BNP for good.’ This is certainly the case, but a well-aimed egg or milkshake (especially in the era of social media where such spectacles can shared and replayed by millions) can lift the spirits of anti-fascists everywhere.

 

 

 

 

The Revolutionary Communist Party, Living Marxism and the road to free speech absolutism

Some of the most infamous free speech warriors today are those associated with Spiked Online and its predecessors, the Living Marxism network and the Revolutionary Communist Party. The RCP and the Living Marxism network are currently in the news because a number of those involved with them are now involved in the Brexit Party. As Spiked Online has been leading the charge for many years against ‘no platform’ policies on campuses in Britain and elsewhere, this post looks at the pre-history of Spiked and how the RCP’s opposition to ‘no platform’ developed since the late 1970s. It is based on research that I am doing for a book on the history of ‘no platform’ and free speech at British universities since the 1950s.

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With a concern over the growth of the BNP in the early 1990s and the BNP’s Derek Beackon winning a local council seat in East London in September 1993, anti-racists and anti-fascists started to organise again against the fascist threat. One action undertaken was by the National Union of Students (NUS), in conjunction with the Union of Jewish Students and the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. Thiswas the Campus Watch initiative. In December 1994, the three organisations came together over concern that a ‘small but growing number of BNP and other fascist activists [were] now operating on campuses over much of the country’ and established Campus Watch, ‘a hotline to monitor racial attacks’.[1]  The 24/7 hotline ran throughout 1995-96 and was described by NUS President Douglas Trainer as a ‘massively important project’.[2]

One of the predominant critics of the Campus Watch and of the NUS’ approach towards the BNP was the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). The RCP had long been considered a disruptive influence on campus through its student wing, Revolutionary Communist Students (RCS), and since the mid-1980s, the RCS had been opposed to any formal ‘no platform’ policies. In the RCP’s magazine Living Marxism, Jennie Bristow complained that the Campus Watch initiative was established ‘to combat the (virtually non-existent) activity of the BNP on campus.’[3] The previous year, Juliet Connor objected to the focused anti-fascist response (what she called ‘the “No Platform” lobby’) to the BNP, arguing that the BNP was ‘a small organisation of a couple of hundred people, a combination of social misfits and skinheads, concentrated in a handful of places’.[4] For Connor, the BNP had ‘no platform in any real sense’ and it was the anti-fascists that were giving them publicity.[5]Instead of enforcing the NUS’ ‘no platform’ policy, Bristow suggested that student unions should have allowed the BNP to speak on campus, writing:

If there is a conflict of ideas, and if we accept that some ideas are right and others are wrong, there are two possible ways of dealing with this situation. One way is to attempt to stifle the opinions which you believe to be wrong, by imposing bans and censorship. The other is to challenge the ideas you believe to be wrong in open argument.[6]

At this time, those writing for Living Marxism seemed to be suggesting that the BNP needed to be debated, rather than demonstrated against, moving away from the confrontational protest tactics used by the RCP in the 1980s, but maintaining the stance of opposing ‘no platform’. This was part of a wider trajectory of the RCP (and its successors) from ultra-left Trotskyism to libertarian contrarianism.

Originally a splinter group called the Revolutionary Communist Tendency (until 1981), the Revolutionary Communist Party gained a reputation on the British left in the 1980s as sectarian and controversialist, with some arguing that the RCP indulged in cult-like behaviour.[7] The RCT had originally broken away from the Revolutionary Communist Group(RCG) in the late 1970s, particularly over their approach to South Africa and the role of the African National Congress/South African Communist Party, although wider disagreements emerged.[8] The RCG was itself a split from the International Socialists in the mid-1970s, before the IS became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977. The RCT/RCP formed several front groups around single issues during the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the most prominent being the Irish Freedom Movementand Workers Against Racism (WAR).

Being known by other left groups as promoting an ultra-left agenda, the RCP stood out from the rest of the left at this stage, even amongst the other Trotskyist and Leninist groups that were around during the 1980s. As well as disagreeing with several groups over the Falklands War and balloting during the Miners’ Strike, the RCP also argued that the Labour no longer represented the British working class and admonished the rest of the British far left for calling for a vote for Labour in general elections.  While some of their ultra-left policies may have resonated with the rest of the far left, there were others that demonstrated the significant differences between the RCP and its rivals. This was particularly the case with regards to their views on social and equality issues (for example, their attitude towards AIDS awareness),[9] which became more pronounced in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1987, the RCP attempted to build an alliance called The Red Front, which cynically called for working class unity towards an electoral alternative to Labour under the manifesto, The Red Front: A Platform for Working Class Unity.[10] After the rest of the British left (besides Red Action and the Revolutionary Democratic Group) rejected these overtures from the RCP, they increasingly sought to differentiate themselves from the other left parties and traditional left politics – a trajectory that eventually led to the RCP disbanding in 1996. By the early 1990s, the party had eschewed the other left-wing parties at the time and amplified its self-identification as the contrarian Robinson Crusoes of the British left.  In his account of the life of the RCP, leading member Michael Fitzpatrick says that during the first half of the 1990s, the RCP argued that ‘the working class had disappeared as a political force’ and deeming that the revolutionary party was redundant, emphasised a shift ‘towards advancing an intellectual rather than a practical alternative’.[11]

This shift upended its anti-racist outlook, which had previously been highly militant, but its attitude towards the far right (often minimising the threat that it posed) had existed for much longer. WAR had originally proposed that the ‘most effective response to racism is the formation of workers’ defence groups’ and the mobilisation of workers against the racism of the state, portrayed as the opposite to the left’s ‘staple diet of petitions, lobbies and paper campaigns.’[12] This position meant that the RCP and WAR always looked to emphasise the fight against state racism, which sometimes undermined any anti-fascist actions as the NF and BNP were seen as the smaller threat. For the WAR, anti-fascism against the NF was ‘a convenient diversion’ from the anti-racist struggle.[13] As the militancy of the RCP dwindled from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, WAR’s street-based anti-racism faded and underestimation of the threat of the far right remained. But while it had previously argued that ‘[t]he fight against racism cannot be restricted to a campaign against racist ideas’ and that ‘[r]acism cannot be fought with “facts”’,[14] the RCP in the pages of Living Marxism now privileged debate over other forms of anti-racist activism. This fed into the party’s approach to ‘no platform’, which had evolved over the 1980s towards free speech absolutism and a rejection of the anti-fascist consensus that had been built over the last two decades.

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The RCP’s opposition to ‘no platform’ stemmed from the group’s opposition to calls to the state to fight racism and fascism. After a number of bans on demonstrations under the Public Order Act in the first half of 1981, the RCP condemned those on the left who seemed to condone bans of fascist demonstrations, declaring:=

Whether or not they are justified as measures aimed against fascists, allstate restrictions of the freedom of speech, assembly and press are ultimately directed against the working class.[15]

During the demonstrations against Patrick Harrington at the Polytechnic of North London, the RCP saw the call for Harrington to be excluded from the campus as a similar call for the authorities to intervene under the guise of anti-racism. Kirk Williams wrote:

instead of simply beating Harrington off the campus, the campaign asked the college authorities to expel him and argued its case in the courts. The left’s reliance on the law rather than direct action to deal with Harrington only encouraged other college authorities to introduce new powers of suspension, aimed at anybody expressing ‘radical views’.[16]

It was actually Harrington that brought the case before the courts and the students were the defendants, but for the RCP, the broader demand for Harrington to be expelled was one of the primary problems with the campaign. Again Williams argued that Harrington was ‘a soft target for the liberal left casting around for an issue on which to prove its anti-racist credentials’ and instead ‘[a]nti-racist student should have been campaigning against state attacks on overseas students’.[17]

By 1985, the RCP’s argument against ‘no platform’ was starting to solidify and in reply to a letter about the ‘no platforming’ on the Jewish Society at the Sunderland Polytechnic, The Next Step editors stated, ‘bureaucratic bans can never be an effective substitute for political struggle against racists or anybody else’.[18] The following month, the editorial in The Next Step wavered between the argument put forward by WAR that racism needed to be forcefully and physically confronted on one hand and on the other proposing that ‘physical measures are no substitute for a political struggle against the influence of nationalist and racist ideas within the working class movement.’[19] The RCP still retreated from arguing that fascists should be debated, but suggested that other chauvinist ideas needed to be challenged in a non-physical manner.[20]

The editorial, written in May 1985, seemed to condemn left-wingers who ‘indulge[d] their personal distaste’ for anti-abortionists by ‘breaking up meetings or suppressing student societies’, writing that ‘[s]uch measures do nothing to combat the growing influence of these views’.[21] However this was only a short time after a group of Revolutionary Communist Students attempted to disrupt a speech by pro-life speaker Victoria Gillick at the University of Manchester. At the time, Gillick was campaigning for under-16s not be given the pill by doctors without parental consent (a final ruling was made by the House of Lords in October 1985). This came at the same time that Enoch Powell sought to push the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill through the House of Commons. In fact, Gillick had previously been part of a pro-Powell group, Powellight, in the 1970s.[22] At the University of Manchester, Gillick was taking part in a debate over the prescription of the pill to under-16s and there was planned action by various feminists to hold placards from the crowd.[23] However the RCP rejected this approach and ‘furiously heckl[ed]’ Gillick, followed by a storming of the stage.[24] The RCP saw Gillick as part of a moralist campaign by crusaders ‘whose object is to impose their particular version of Victorian values on the rest of us’.[25]

The feminists, linked to the Women’s Group and Sexual Equality Group at Manchester, wrote a letter to The Mancunion (the student paper at the university) saying that while they agreed with the RCP’s criticisms of Gillick, they objected to the protestors ‘who tried to stop her speaking by standing up and shouting “murderer” and hurling general abuse’.[26]The letter stated that they found ‘a certain incongruity in the [RCP’s] professing to be fighting for women’s rights’ and argued that the RCP protestors ‘overrode the decisions’ of the other women at the Gillick debate by ‘refusing to leave, although the majority of women there wanted you to’.[27]The letter writers added that the ‘violence’ of the RCP protestors ‘affected many of the women in the room’ and their ‘stinkbombs set fire to a chair, a potentially dangerous situation.’[28]

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Two members of the Revolutionary Communist Students group, David Chandler and Lynn Revell, replied to this letter the following week, stating that they disrupted the Gillick debate ‘not because we wanted to be kicked out, but because we wanted to initiate broader opposition to Gillick’s victorian [sic] morality’.[29] Despite the RCP’s general resistance to ‘no platform’, Chandler and Revell used it to defend their actions against Gillick, claiming:

We don’t allow fascists to speak on principle… [W]e can not fight [Gillick’s and Powell’s] attacks through debate, only by showing we are serious in defending our rights – which means giving no lee-way to them – and doing everything we can do to prevent them from speaking.[30]

Sarah Webster suggests that this disruptive protest by the RCP students ‘left student feminists determined not to work with RCP, but also deepened wider factional divides, scuppering organisational work by creating mistrust and ill feeling amongst activists and potential recruits’.[31]

The Next Step was celebrating a picket of another Gillick’s talks in Edinburgh in December 1985,[32] but by early 1987, the RCP was encouraging an opposite approach, proposing ‘[w]e should organise public debates with the anti-abortionists and put them on the spot in front if a wide audience.’[33] The reasoning put forward by Frank Richards (a pseudonym for RCP leader Frank Furedi) was a precursor of the arguments made in Living Marxism in the 1990s:

In the past left-wingers have criticised our party for taking the same platform as the anti-abortionists. But this only shows that the left lacks confidence in its arguments. We cannot afford to ignore our opponents if we are to defeat their ideas.[34]

As politicians and the media became increasingly concerned about ‘no platform’ and free speech at British universities during 1986, the RCP further denounced the tactic of ‘no platform’. Beyond its principal argument that ‘no platforming’ fascists was a distraction from the primary fight against the racism of the state, the RCP now argued that the way that ‘no platform’ was being applied at universities in the mid-1980s was ‘an impulsive outburst of liberal moralism which seeks to sweep away distasteful views, rather than confront them politically.’’[35] Another editorial in The Next Step criticised the tactic of ‘no platform’ for giving ‘exaggerated importance to a few eccentrics in idiot organisations which have virtually no influence’ and playing into the hands of the right, who were pushing a ‘free speech’ agenda to combat broader student radicalism.[36]For the RCP, ‘no platform’ was ‘an attempt to wish away a problem that must be confronted politically’ and ‘invite[d] the state to take repressive measures against the right which can easily be extended for use against the left’.[37]

The RCP’s claim that ‘no platform’ was ‘an evasion of the real problem of racism’ and a token gesture against the far right seemed to suggest that ‘no platform’ was the only anti-fascist and anti-racist strategy being pursued by the student left in the 1980s.[38] While the left was in retreat during the 1980s (including on the anti-racist front), anti-racist and anti-fascist activism was still pursued by students and the left in a number of areas, including anti-deportation campaigns, campaigns against police racism and street campaigns against the National Front and the BNP. The RCP liked to portray itself as the only real anti-racist force in Britain and this often meant depicting the rest of the left as failing to take racism seriously. By focusing on ‘no platform’ at the expense of all other anti-racist and anti-fascist activism being conducted in the 1980s, the RCP could attempt to distinguish itself as the only group involved in the ‘real struggle against racism in the workplace and on the estates’.[39]

The RCP also condemned ‘no platform’ for ‘leav[ing] it up to the authorities, courts and the police to judge who should be censored’,[40] but this overlooked the fact that most of the ‘no platform’ actions by students during the 1980s was in the face of pressure from the universities and student union leadership to allow controversial speakers to be heard. Even when student unions were involved in ‘no platform’ actions (such as the protest against homophobic Tory councillor Richard Lewis at the University College Swansea in 1987), there were little appeals to the university administration or the police, instead using the student union as an organising force for grassroots student activism.

This was also partly a suspicion of the student unions by the RCP in the mid-to-late 1980s. Between 1988 and 1990, as the student unions came under a renewed attack by the Thatcher government, the RCP argued that the student unions were ‘appendages of the institutions of higher education, not independent organisations of students’ and therefore allegedly unwilling to adequately confront (in the eyes of the RCP) the universities and the government.[41] For the RCP, the NUS in particular was ‘ill-placed to lead a student fightback because it [was] part of the system’ that was attacking students.[42]

The formalisation of the RCP’s opposition to ‘no platform’ during the late 1980s and early 1990s came also at a time when the RCP was increasingly concerned about censorship, defending Salman Rushdie, as well as fighting the broadcast ban of Irish Republicans and the ‘Christian morality’ of the Conservatives and the religious right.[43] However by lumping ‘no platform’ together with these other forms of censorship, the RCP made no distinction between the censorship conducted by the state and by the media, and the denial of a platform by student groups. These student groups, in almost all instances, did not appeal to university authorities to ban certain speakers, but through the student union (or other student organisations) making a public (and often physical) demonstration that certain speakers were not welcome.

For the RCP, there was no difference. This was made clear by Juliet Connor when discussing the anti-fascist campaign in the early 1990s calling for the media to refuse to provide a platform for the BNP:

Many might think that it’s all right to call for censorship of racists so long as the government is not invited to do the banning. Anti-fascists argue that it’s up to ordinary people to demand ‘No platform’ for fascists in colleges, in the press and in their workplaces. But it makes no difference who does it. Whether the appeal for censorship is addressed to the government, media barons or trade unions, calling for a ban on the BNP can only reinforce an already censorious climate.[44]

The RCP steadfastly conflated calls for the state (through legislation, the police or discrete government bodies) with campaigns for the media to deny a platform to fascists and for student unions to refuse to allow racists or fascists to speak. The distinction between calls for a top down approach and a bottom up approach was non-existent. And as the militancy of the RCP faded and the ‘marketplace of ideas’ was increasingly fetishized by those centred around Living Marxism, debate became the primary battleground for the remnants of the party. Despite arguing ten years earlier that direct action against racism was needed and that arguments could not adequately fight racism, the RCP in its later days now argued the opposite – which would echo through its successor projects.

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[1]‘Campus Watch’, Searchlight (January 1995) p. 5.

[2]Cited in, British Muslims Monthly Survey, 4/8 (August 1996),

http://artsweb.bham.ac.uk/bmms/1996/08August96.html (accessed 17 May, 2019).

[3]Jennie Bristow, ‘Free Speech on Campus’, Living Marxism, 83 (October 1995) http://web.archive.org/web/19991103220041/http://www.informinc.co.uk/LM/LM83/LM83_Speech.html (accessed 8 March, 2018).

[4]Juliet Connor, ‘The Problem with “No Platform”’, Living Marxism, 72 (October 1994) http://web.archive.org/web/20010730211339/www.informinc.co.uk/LM/LM72/LM72_Platform.html(accessed 6 March, 2018).

[5]Ibid.

[6]Bristow, ‘Free Speech on Campus’.

[7]Peter Davies, ‘Lenin’s Crystal Ball’, Marxism Today (August 1990) pp. 34-35.

[8]For the RCT side of the split, see: Chris Davies & Judith Harrison, ‘ ‘A Retrograde Step for the Marxist Movement – A Reply to Cde Yaffe’, Revolutionary Communist Papers, 1 (March 1977) pp., 3-26. For the RCG side, see: RCG Executive Committee, Statement on the Expulsion of a Chauvinist Grouping in the RCG (RCG internal document, 17 November, 1976) https://bit.ly/2wcuNQK (accessed 21 May, 2019).

[9]Lucy Robinson, Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain: How the Personal Got Political (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2007) pp. 177-178.

[10]For a discussion of The Red Front, see: Evan Smith, ‘A Platform for Working Class Unity? The Revolutionary Communist Party’s Red Front and the 1987 Election’, Hatful of History(7 November, 2017) https://hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/2017/11/07/a-platform-for-working-class-unity-the-revolutionary-communist-partys-red-front-and-the-1987-election/ (accessed 20 May, 2019).

[11]Michael Fitzpatrick, ‘The Point is to Change It: A Short Account of the Revolutionary Communist Party’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017) pp. 232-233.

[12]Workers Against Racism, The Roots of Racism (London: Junius Publications, 1985) p. 83; p. 85.

[13]Ibid., p. 46.

[14]Ibid., p. 82; p. 47.

[15]‘Fighting the Bans’, The Next Step (May 1981) p. 3.

[16]Kirk Williams, ‘Fight Racism, Not Idiots’, The Next Step (October 1984) p. 6.

[17]Ibid.

[18]‘Sunderland Poly’, The Next Step (19 April, 1985) p. 10.

[19]‘No Platform?’, The Next Step (3 May, 1985) p. 2.

[20]Ibid.

[21]Ibid.

[22]Martin Durham, Sex and Politics: Family and Morality in the Thatcher Years (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1991) p. 50.

[23]Sarah Webster, ‘Protest Activity in the British Student Movement, 1945 to 2011’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Manchester, 2015, pp. 198-199.

[24]Ibid., p. 199.

[25]Kate Marshall, Moral Panics and Victorian Values: Women and the Family in Thatcher’s Britain (London: Junius Publications, 1985) p. 32.

[26]The Mancunion (6 March, 1985) p. 4.

[27]Ibid.

[28]Ibid.

[29]The Mancunion (13 March, 1985) p. 5.

[30]Ibid.

[31]Webster, ‘Protest Activity in the British Student Movement’, p. 199.

[32]‘Saying No to Victoria’s Values’, The Next Step (6 December, 1985) p. 2.

[33]Frank Richards, ‘Taking on the Moralists’, The Next Step (6 March, 1987) p. 11.

[34]Ibid.

[35]‘The Propaganda War: No Platform?’, The Next Step (21 March, 1986) p. 5.

[36]‘Stonehenge and Free Speech’, The Next Step (6 June, 1986) p. 2.

[37]Ibid.

[38]‘The Propaganda War: No Platform’, The Next Step (5 December, 1986) p. 10.

[39]Ibid.

[40]‘No Platform?’, The Next Step (31 October, 1986) p. 10.

[41]‘What Future for Student Unions?’, The Next Step (18 November, 1988) p. 7.

[42]‘They Can Be Beaten: Tories Get Tough With Students’, The Next Step (2 December, 1988) p. 12.

[43]See: ‘Satanic Flames Ignite British Racism’, The Next Step (24 February, 1989) p. 2; Kenan Malik, ‘The Culture of Censorship’, The Next Step (6 October, 1989) p. 7.

[44]Connor, ‘The Problem with “No Platform”’.

Talk for SA History Festival – 11 May, Box Factory, 2pm

Adelaide peeps, I have been invited by the South Australian branch of the Labour History Society to give a talk as part of South Australia’s History Festival. I will be discussing the book that I co-edited with Jon Piccini and Matthew Worley, The Far Left in Australia since 1945, particularly how we put it together and why this kind of history is needed now. See the flyer below for event details.

There will be copies of the book on sale. If you can’t make it, you can order it from Routledge here (currently at a discount price!).

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‘No Platforming’ at Bristol University in the 1980s and Now

The protests against Eric Kaufmann at the University of Bristol last week are part of a much longer history of ‘no platforming’ at the university, stretching back to the 1980s.

This research is part of a book that I am writing on the history of ‘no platform’ and free speech at British universities for Routledge’s Fascism and Far Right series. 

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Daily Express, 18 October, 1986, p. 4. 

Last week students at the University of Bristol staged a walkout in protest of a talk being given by Professor Eric Kaufmann, who has been promoting his book Whiteshift about white anxieties about immigration. Denigrating ‘the cultural Left’ for their support for multiculturalism, Kaufmann has argued for ‘ethno-traditional nationhood’, with ‘slower immigration to permit enough immigrants to voluntary assimilate into the ethnic majority, maintain the white ethno-tradition’.[1] Umut Ozkirimili has described Kaufmann as part of the ‘academic alt-right’,[2] while Alana Lentin argues that Kaufmann ‘confuses racial self-interest expressed as white opposition to immigration with the sense of ethnic belonging’.[3] By doing so, Lentin writes, Kaufmann attempts to portray white concerns about immigration as ‘not racism’, but legitimate fears.[4]

Kaufmann was invited by the Centre of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol to speak about his research. The Bristol Post reported that around 30 students walked out of the lecture, but some who opposed Kaufmann also stayed.[5] Several academics at the university questioned why Kaufmann was invited. On twitter, Kaufmann complained that a ‘small, vocal minority’ had the potential to ‘no platform’ his event and while acknowledging that they did not actually shut down the event, he asked whether there should penalties ‘in order to deter such actions in the future’.[6] A number of people argued that those who walked out were merely demonstrating their freedom of speech to not listen to Kaufmann, who has been championed by free speech absolutists recently. This has been part of a broader debate about free speech, ‘no platforming’ and the ‘marketplace of ideas’ in an era of a global right-wing resurgence.

The recent media obsession with ‘no platform’ and free speech at British universities (also seen in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) often overlooks the history of these debates and the lengthy development of the tactic of ‘no platforming’ since the 1970s. Many commentators are quick to blame the use of ‘no platform’ tactics on the rise of ‘identity politics’, suggesting that it is a twenty-first century phenomenon. But ‘no platform’ has been official NUS policy since 1974 and there have confrontational protests with conservative and far right speakers at British universities since the late 1960s.

This incident at Bristol University in 2019 echoes a much longer history of battles over free speech at the university. In particular, the university became a significant site of student protest against speakers perceived to be racist in the mid-1980s. This happened amidst a wave of Conservative MPs and hard right speakers visiting universities that provoked strong student reactions and led to the Thatcher government introducing legislation seeking to protect ‘free speech’.

Throughout the year 1986, the University of Bristol was a focal point for the debate between ‘no platform’ and ‘free speech’ on campus. There seemed to be a significant increase in the number of protests against visiting MPs to university campuses between 1985 and 1987, with several notorious hard right Tories, as well as other figures on the right (such as Enoch Powell) attempting to speak on campuses throughout this period. By 1985, students had been locked in a four year battle with the Thatcher government over funding for higher education, with cuts to student grants and plans to introduce fees for higher education.[7] As Richard Aldrich has written, ‘the more market-led, free-enterprise approach to society and the economy which characterized the premiership of Margaret Thatcher’ influenced the education reforms of the 1980s,[8] which led to confrontations with students, just as the government had in their battles with other sections of society such as the trade unions, peace campaigners or Britain’s ethnic minority communities. The period of confrontation with MPs on campus came at the end of the Miners’ Strike, which had polarised British society and generated a strong oppositional movement to the Thatcher government.

In January 1985, Enoch Powell cancelled a visit to the University of Leeds after the students declared that they would protest against him[9] and Home Secretary Leon Brittan faced a hostile crowd at the University of Manchester in March 1985 in the week that the Miners’ Strike ended.[10] At the University of Bristol, a Professor of Modern History, John Vincent, became a target for protesting students who objected to his columns for The Times and The Sun. Vincent was considered part of a cohort of ‘new right’ intellectuals, who ‘skilfully adapt[ed] the cultural racism of the “New Right” circles into a populist format’, namely the mainstream press.[11] Vincent had written some inflammatory columns for The Sun, such as one in July 1985 in which he blamed the death of a black toddler on Lambeth Council’s belief in ‘separate treatment’ for black people.[12] Cited by Paul Gordon, ‘The anti-racist “mumbo jumbo about black identity”, Vincent wrote, had overridden the safety of the child and had led to disaster’.[13]

A campaign to boycott Vincent’s lectures started in 1985 and escalated in early 1986, coinciding with the beginning of the Wapping Strike, when Rupert Murdoch moved his printworks and instigated a long-running battle with several trade unions (months after the Miners’ Strike ended). In late February 1986, students disrupted a lecture by Vincent and this was repeated the following week. The Daily Telegraph described the second incident:

Prof. John Vincent… was escorted by police through a mob of angry students yesterday after giving a lecture at Bristol University.

Mr Vincent… left the arts faculty building after a two-hour siege by about 300 students while he gave a history lecture abandoned last week due to protests.[14]

The newspaper cited the University’s Information Officer who claimed that the protest was ‘orchestrated by the Socialist Workers Party and anarchist elements determined to widen the dispute over the printing of Mr Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers at Wapping’.[15]

The disruption of Vincent’s lectures was condemned in the media. An editorial for The Times declared:

An academic lecture has an absolute privilege. Disruption is an act of intellectual vandalism as dangerous as any other effort to truncate learning and the exchange of opinion…

Professor Vincent’s extra-curricular activities are irrelevant. Prveenting his teaching about late nineteenth century politics was to disrupt the instrument of higher education itself, the academic lecture.[16]

In the same newspaper, Lord Beloff stated that the disruption of lectures due to the lecturer’s external activities ‘must be regarded as conduct so irreconcilable with the idea of a university that its perpetrators must, after due warning, face expulsion’.[17]

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Daily Mail, 16 May, 1986, p. 8.

15 students originally faced disciplinary proceedings as a result of the disruptions,[18] but this grew to 19 by May 1986, when nine were acquitted, two hard the charges against them dropped and seven were found guilty.[19] Baroness Cox, during parliamentary debates about the introduction of legislation to protect free speech on campuses, complained that the penalties for those found guilty were too mild.[20] John Carlisle, an MP who faced violent protests on various campuses around the same time, also criticised the leniency shown to the protesting students. In the House of Commons in June 1986, he said:

The students who came before the court were merely fined and slapped on the wrist. They were not expelled from the university. The taxpayer has the right to ask whether such students should be able to continue their studies at the taxpayers’ expense when they are intent on disrupting meetings.[21]

Eventually the seven students who were found guilty had their convictions quashed on a technicality.[22] Meanwhile John Vincent took a leave of absence from his teaching role after the disruptions, but continued to write.

But the troubles didn’t stop after this. In late April 1986, Conservative MP John Carlisle visited Bristol University as part of his tour of university campuses. Carlisle was a prominent member of both the Monday Club and Federation of Conservative Students, and was a hard right figure within the Conservative Party. In the 1980s, he was most well-known for his support for apartheid South Africa and his condemnation of the African National Congress, including the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Matthew P. Llewellyn and Toby C. Rider have described Carlisle as a ‘fierce pro-Pretoria spokesman’[23] and it was on this topic that he frequently spoke at public meetings, including at universities. In February 1986, large student protests had forced Carlisle to cancel speaking engagements at the University of Bradford and Oxford University as he faced hostile crowds. He pre-emptively cancelled a visit to Leeds Polytechnic the following week after these incidents. In late April, Carlisle went to the University of East Anglia, where there was a picket by some students (mostly aligned with the SWP) and a much larger ‘silent vigil’.[24] Carlisle managed to bypass the crowd, but his speaking engagement was eventually cancelled.[25]

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Daily Express, 26 April, 1986, p. 7. 

A day later, Carlisle arrived to speak at Bristol University, invited by the Conservative Association. He was joined by fellow Tory MP, Fred Silvester, who had recently introduced a private members’ bill to ensure free speech on campus[26] – an idea that had been raised by Sir Keith Joseph’s green paper on higher education the previous year and would become part of the Education (no. 2) Act 1986 by the end of the year (after pressure from the House of Lords).[27] Unlike many of his previous attempts at speaking at universities that spring, Carlisle was able to address a crowd, despite significant student protests. The Times reported that ‘more than 100 left-wing students attempted to disrupt a meeting on free speech’ and that both MPs faced ‘a barrage of screaming, foot stamping and obscenities’.[28] The newspaper further described the protest with the following:

Ignoring cries of ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’, Mr Carlisle said he was pleased that in Bristol at least he had been allowed to address a meeting…

Making himself heard through a microphone in spite of a fire alarm being activated, Mr Carlisle shouted: ‘You won’t stop us because we believe in the fundamental principle of democracy’.[29]

Using the trope of the ‘red fascist’, Carlisle said that the reaction by the protesting students reminded him of ‘what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s’.[30] By the mid-1980s, the comparison between protesting students and Nazism was a well-worn allegory, often used (since the late 1960s) to portray students as violent or hostile to opposing ideas.

Over the summer, Carlisle became one of the staunchest proponents of legislation to be put in place to protect free speech at British universities and greater penalties for those who disrupted speakers. By the autumn of 1986, the section of the Education Bill regarding ‘no platform’ and free speech was being debated in parliament, which coincided with further clashes between hard right speakers and protestors.

In October 1986, Enoch Powell visited two universities amidst this debate and following in the footsteps of Carlisle and others. As Camilla Schofield has argued, Enoch Powell had an influence on the hard right forces in the Conservative Party that developed Thatcherism in the 1980s,[31] but during Thatcher’s Prime Ministership, Powell himself remained a critic on the right of Thatcher. He had left the Tories just prior to the 1974 election over the issue of British membership of the European Economic Community and joined the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). As the ‘Troubles’ continued into the 1980s, Powell frequently spoke about the issue of Northern Ireland. The other major topic that Powell spoke on in the 1980s was ‘race relations’ and immigration, a topic that had originally brought him notoriety in the late 1960s. Powell used the 1980-81 and 1985 riots as vindication of his racist pronouncements on Commonwealth immigration and challenged Thatcher to clarify her position on non-white immigration in the wake of the 1985 riots.[32] Despite not being a member of the Conservative Party anymore, Powell was still a drawcard for the right and he was invited on a numberof occasionsto address Conservative Associations at various universities around the country. While he had to cancel a speaking event at Leeds University in January 1985 after a proposed protest, he had still spoken at Cambridge later in the year with little protest, but after the actions against John Carlisle at a number of universities, Powell’s campus visits drew a renewed level of opposition.

A week prior to his proposed speech at Bristol, Powell had had to abandon a talk at University College Cardiff (UCC at the time; now part of Cardiff University) when students from the Socialist Workers Student Society, as well as the UCC Labour Club, the UCC Women’s Group and the UCC Union of Liberal Students (several of which were leading members of the UCC student union),[33] launched a protest to prevent Powell from speaking. The front page of Gair Rhydd, the student newspaper at UCC, described the protest:

Trouble began almost before the meeting had started when Socialist Worker Students, angered at the prospect of the controversial right-winger speaking at UCC, mounted a picket outside room 22 of the Law building.

When this failed to stop the meeting they attempted to enter themselves… After ten minutes of argument [sic] most of the protestors were kept out.

Trouble flared up again, however, when Mr Powell began speaking. A group of protestors flung open the doors and occupied the platform on which Mr Powell stood. Mr Powell then faced a barrage of abuse and chanting of ‘No free speech for racists’…

As it became more and more obvious that the protestors had no intention of leaving until Mr Powell did, the UWIST College Secretary made an appeal to the demonstrators to stop chanting of face disciplinary action. He was unable to finish his announcement before being drowned out by further chanting.

Mr Powell then left with the words ‘Thank you for your courtesy’, and beat a hasty retreat to a waiting car.[34]

Ten students were eventually identified and faced disciplinary proceedings brought by the College, but the student union argued that the College had failed to inform the student union in a timely manner of Powell’s proposed visit.[35] The student union declared, ‘College denied us the right to organise and orderly protest… The spontaneous nature of the demonstration was due to College’s negligence.’[36] As protests against the disciplinary actions grew in the weeks that followed, the student union’s Communications Officer, Jake Lynch, claimed that the College had ‘ridden roughshod over the Unions [sic] No Platform policy’.[37] This disciplinary charges were dropped after a negotiated settlement between the student union and the UCC administration, which also led to a revised version of the ‘no platform’ policy at UCC.[38]

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The week after the Cardiff incident, Powell was scheduled to speak at the University of Bristol, invited by the Bristol University Conservative Association. The student union at the University of Bristol did not have a formal ‘no platform’ policy in place (in fact a referendum on whether to introduce such a policy was being held during the Powell debacle) and the student union instead urged a silent protest.[39] Similar to when John Carlisle visited Oxford, Leeds and Bradford earlier in the year, the President of the student union, David Gottlieb, suggested that the Conservative Association was being provocative with their invitation of Powell.[40] Gottlieb queried the Conservative Association’s aims with their invitations, arguing that ‘the individuals who have invited these speakers to come and talk here in the sensitive atmosphere of Bristol must bear some responsibility’ for stoking tensions on campus.[41] He added, ‘It is my considered opinion that there are people in this Students’ Union whose actions prove them to be interested not in protecting freedom of speech but in stirring up trouble’.[42] An editorial in the student newspaper Bacus also questioned the motives of the Conservative Association in inviting Powell, asking:

Do they hope for interesting speeches, or for the sort of protest which will give Fleet Street the chance to run yet more ‘left wing thug’ stories?[43]

In a Union General Meeting leading up to Powell’s visit, Phillip Malcom, the Chairman of the Conservative Association, said to those opposing Powell’s invitation that he ‘would not be intimidated in defending free speech’, claiming to be ‘fanatically in favour of free speech’.[44]

 Bacus also reported that the University were reluctant to intervene in the case, even though the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals had previously recommended that ‘speakers in possible danger should be barred’ (especially after the incidents involving Carlisle a few months prior), while the student union president stated that he did not expect any trouble from students regarding Powell’s visit.[45] The editorial in the student paper implored students to be peaceful in their demonstrations, pleading:

Any sort of violent demonstrations will discredit all opposition groups in the eyes of those who read such reports [from Fleet Street].

Don’t play into the hands of the Tories and right-wing press by resorting to violence.

We will suffer the consequences if you do.[46]

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While around 200 students had attended a peaceful protest against Powell in the foyer on the building where Powell was speaking, a smaller group of protestors violently confronted Powell shortly after he began. The front page of Bacus described the incident:

Around 30 demonstrators, mostly anarchists from outside the University, gathered at the front of the hall hurling abuse and spitting at Mr. Powell. They blew whistles, let off stink and smoke bombs and at one point threw a ham salad sandwich at him…

Mr. Powell left the stage after only ten minutes when the protestors began shaking the crash barriers in front of the stage.

Three of the demonstrators then climbed onto the stage, overturned tables and chairs and snapped the microphone stand. Two of them gave mock Nazi salutes to the audience.

Others tried to chase Mr. Powell but were met by a locked door which one protestor kicked in.[47]

The actions by the anarchists were condemned widely. Phillip Malcom described the events as ‘worse than I could ever have imagined’ and called for legal action to be taken against those who disrupted Powell.[48] An editorial in Bacus declared that the anarchist protestors had ‘discredited everybody who had made an effort to provide a forum for those who find the views of Powell and his ilk abhorrent’.[49] In the Daily Express, Lord Chalfont called those who disrupted Powell ’a mob of illiterate morons’.[50] Even the SWP criticised the anarchists for their ‘tactical suicide’,[51] suggesting that ‘the event was marred by the Anarchists’.[52]

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One of the anarchists that broke up the Powell talk gives their reasons for doing so. Bacus, 10 October, 1986, p. 1.

The anarchists themselves wrote to Bacus justifying their position. Alongside affirmation of the broader ‘no platform’ position shared by the SWP and others that ‘it should not be used as an inalienable right to allow a racist a platform’, the anarchists argued that ‘[s]ymbolic demonstrations do nothing to prevent racist attacks or the spread of racist propaganda.’[53] They rationalised their tactics by claiming:

In the absence of an effective anti-racist policy in this Students Union there was no other way of preventing Powell and what he represents from speaking.[54] 

A week later, two figures from the ‘new right’ centred around the journal Salisbury Review, John Savery and Ray Honeyford, spoke at Bristol University, alongside John Bercow from the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS). The FCS had been involved in the invitations of Carlisle to the University of Bradford and to Leeds Polytechnic earlier in the year and many accused them on deliberately trying to provoke the student left into ‘no platforming’ by bringing these hard right figures onto campus to speak. The FCS campaigned against ‘no platform’ throughout the 1980s, often as part of a wider campaign against the ‘closed shop’ of the NUS.[55] Future Speaker of the House John Bercow debated the policy at the University of Leeds shortly before the FCS was disbanded in late 1986, arguing that the policy was ‘dangerous’ because ‘it enable[d] cowardly student unions to use the policy against any people to whom they object’.[56] When asked whether he would allow the NF to campaign on campus, Bercow said he would, but claimed that ‘No Platform is designed solely to exclude Conservative MPs’ (despite evidence that fascists were still active on campuses across the country in the early 1980s).[57]

For this event with Savery, Honeyford and Bercow, the student union had significantly increased security for the event in the light of the Powell protests, with Bacus reporting little trouble at the event.[58] Bercow commented on the disruption of the Powell speech the previous week, calling it ‘a disgrace to a free society and to the very concept of an academy where debate and free speech occur’.[59] The student newspaper stated that there only three hecklers inside the venue and once the event had ended, Honeyford was ‘jostled and pushed by about fifty demonstrators’.[60] One protestor attempted to throw yellow paint over Honeyford but missed, hitting a car, other protestors and a policeman.[61]

In the wake of these incidents at Bristol, the student union held a vote on whether a ‘no platform’ should be introduced at the university. According to Bacus, students were to vote ‘either to allow all freedom of expression within the law, or to ban organisations such as the National Front and the British Movement and their members’ (with the vote requiring support from 500 students to be binding).[62] However the NF and BM were not the target of the recent protests against Carlisle, Powell and Honeyford and the student union stressed that ‘[n]o platform would not be used to ban Conservative MPs unless they are declared members of the National Front or like organisations.’[63]

For the anarchists and Trotskyists who disrupted Vincent and Powell, whether a formal ‘no platform’ policy applied to Tory MPs was a moot point – the NUS endorsed ‘no platform’ policy at the national level made a distinction between fascists (who were to be ‘no platformed’) and hard right politicians (who were to be allowed to speak), but was often ignored by more militant protestors from the left. The Powell incident showed that disruptive protests happened outside the bounds of the politics of the student union, often at odds with the wishes of the student union itself. As one of the protestors wrote in a letter to Bacus:

When we sent [Harvey] Proctor, Vincent and Powell packing we were not simply silencing racists. We were saying an emphatic ‘No!’ to the lie that our ‘free speech’ has anything to do with real freedom or power over our own lives.

The right must continue spouting its cliches [sic], and in such a white and middle class university as Bristol it can be no surprise that so many are willing to swallow them at face value. But, make no mistake about it, the only freedom that the brats in BUCA really care about is the freedom to stay rich and become powerful, and that means that the rest of us must stay poor and powerless.

We can talk about it as much as we like. That’s our freedom of speech. Unless we back our words up with action nothing will ever change.[64]

An editorial for Bacus the week of the vote implored for a more civilised discourse around politics at the university, writing:

Whether we get No Platform or not, let common sense be the guiding instinct to those on both sides of the political divide. We do not want a repeat of the scenes at the Powell meeting…[65]

This was a sentiment expressed by moderate student union leaders and student newspaper editors across the country in the mid-1980s (and is something that is still mentioned today) – that the far/hard right and the far/hard left were at each other’s throats and left no room for civility.

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University of Bristol Newsletter, 27 November, 1986, p. 1.

The eventual outcome of the vote was a rejection of a formal ‘no platform’ policy at the university, with just over 1,200 students voting for the option ‘which compelled the Union to adopt a policy of freedom of expression for all views within the law.[66] At the same time, the Education (no. 2) Act 1986 was being passed, which demanded that universities, polytechnics and colleges ‘shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.’[67] After seemingly reaching a peak in 1986, the controversy of far right and hard right speakers on university campuses wound down slowly over the next few years (although the issue of ‘no platform’ did not go away entirely).

The University of Bristol seemed to a particular flashpoint for controversy over free speech and the tactic of ‘no platforming’ in the mid-1980s, but was far from alone in witnessing clashes between students and controversial speakers. In recent years, there have been complaints that students today are less open to difficult ideas and are using the policy of ‘no platform’ to silence ideas and speakers that they do not agree with. Looking at the case study of Bristol University in 1985-86, it can be seen that the same criticisms of students were being made then and like today, some commentators have been calling for the enforcement of a policy of free speech protection against a supposedly hostile left on campus.

The ‘no platform’ policy has gained a new notoriety in an era when the far right seems to be making significant strides, with many on university campuses becoming more resistant to encroachment of the far right into their spaces. As scholars like Eric Kaufmann promote ideas that non-white migration has a detrimental effect on host societies and suggest that racist anxieties about immigration are based on legitimate concerns, many feel that this is helping to bring white supremacist ideas to the mainstream and legitimising these ideas through academic discourse. The protest against Kaufmann at Bristol was a response to this, and fits into a much longer history of student protest at the university, whether rightly or wrongly used against various speakers from the right in the 1980s.

Thanks to David Gottlieb for his assistance and feedback on this post.

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The Times, 18 October, 1986, p. 2.

[1]The Australian, 6 April, 2019, p. 24.

[2]Umut Ozkirimili, ‘White is the New Black: Populism and the Academic Alt-Right’, Open Democracy, 2 January, 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/white-is-new-black-populism-and-academic-alt-right/

[3]Alana Lentin, ‘Beyond Denial: “Not Racism” as Racist Violence’, Continuum, 32/4 (2018) p. 408.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Bristol Post, 5 April, 2019, https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/bristol-university-students-walk-out-2725051.amp

[6]Eric Kaufmann (@epkaufm), twitter thread (https://twitter.com/epkaufm/status/1114473894797299714) , 6 April, 2019.

[7]David Watson & Rachel Bowden, ‘Why Did They Do It? The Conservatives and Mass Higher Education, 1979-97’, Journal of Education Policy, 14/3 (1999) p. 244.

[8]Richard Aldrich, ‘Educational Legislation of the 1980s in England: An Historical Analysis’, History of Education, 21/1 (1992) p. 59.

[9]Leeds Student, 25 January, 1985, p. 1; Leeds Student, 1 February, 1985, p. 3.

[10]Brian Pullan with Michele Abendstern, A History of the University of Manchester, 1973-90(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013) pp. 200-202.

[11]Neil MacMaster, Racism in Europe 1870-2000(Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001) p. 197.

[12][12]Paul Gordon, ‘A Dirty War: The New Right and Local Authority Anti-Racism’, in Wendy Ball & John Solomos (eds),Race and Local Politics(Houndmills: Macmillan, 1990) pp. 184-185.

[13]Ibid., p. 185.

[14]Daily Telegraph, 5 March, 1986, p. 1.

[15]Ibid.

[16]The Times, 28 February, 1986, p. 17.

[17]The Times, 21 June, 1986, p. 8.

[18]The Times, 23 April, 1986, p. 2.

[19]The Times, 10 May, 1986, p. 16.

[20]The Times, 28 May, 1986, p. 1.

[21]House of Commons, Hansard, 10 June, 1986, col. 215.

[22]The Times, 5 September, 1986, p. 2.

[23]Matthew P. Llewellyn & Toby C. Rider, ‘Sport, Thatcher and Apartheid Politics’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 44/4 (2018) p. 579.

[24]Phoenix, 1 May, 1986, p. 1

[25]Daily Telegraph, 26 June, 1986, p. 6.

[26]Times Higher Education, 7 February, 1986, p. 1.

[27]Secretary of State for Education and Science, The Development of Higher Education into the 1990s(London: HMSO, 1985); Times Higher Education, 6 June, 1986, p. 3.

[28]The Times, 26 April, 1986, p. 2.

[29]Ibid.

[30]Daily Express, 26 April, 1986, p. 7.

[31]Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) p. 330.

[32]‘Speech by the Rt. Hon. J. Enoch Powell, MBE, MP to the Birkenhead Conservative Women’s Luncheon, at the Masonic Hall, Birkenhead, at 1pm, Friday, 20thSeptember, 1985’, PREM 19/1521, National Archives.

[33]Gair Rhydd, 22 October, 1986, p. 1.

[34]Gair Rhydd, 15 October, 1986, p. 1.

[35]Gair Rhydd, 22 October, 1986, p. 1.

[36]Ibid.

[37]Gair Rhydd, p. 2.

[38]Gair Rhydd, 19 November, 1986, p. 1.

[39]Bacus, 3 October, 1986, p. 1.

[40]Ibid.

[41]University of Bristol Newsletter, 16 October, 1986, p. 3.

[42]Ibid.

[43]Ibid., p. 2.

[44]University of Bristol Newsletter, 16 October, 1986, p. 1.

[45]Ibid., p. 1.

[46]Ibid., p. 2.

[47]Bacus, 24 October, 1986, p. 1.

[48]Ibid.

[49]Ibid., p. 2.

[50]Daily Express, 28 October, 1986, p. 8.

[51]Ibid., p. 1.

[52]Socialist Worker, 25 October, 1986, p.

[53]Bacus, 24 October, 1986, p. 2.

[54]Ibid.

[55]Ruth Levitas, ‘Tory Students and the New Right’, Youth and Policy, 16 (1986) p. 4.

[56]Leeds Student, 5 June, 1986, p. 3.

[57]Ibid.

[58]Bacus, 24 October, 1986, p. 12.

[59]Ibid.

[60]Ibid.

[61]Ibid.

[62]Bacus, 7 November, 1986, p. 1.

[63]Ibid.

[64]Ibid., p. 2.

[65]Ibid.

[66]University of Bristol Newsletter, 27 November, 1986, p. 1.

[67]Education (no. 2) Act 1986, s43.