In the House of Commons yesterday, the Tories’ Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was debated. Labour MP Alex Sobel, who attended Leeds University, told the story of Mark Collett and Chris Beverley, who were BNP members that tried to overturn the ‘no platform’ policy at Leeds in the early 2000s, via the Free Speech Society. This story is quite interesting in how the far right sought to exploit the notion of free speech to undermine it. Below is an extract from my book, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech, which briefly tells this story.
In early 2001, two young BNP members, Mark Collett and Chris Beverley, took over the Free Speech Society at the University of Leeds. Collett explained in an interview with The Guardian:
When I came to Leeds University I joined the Free Speech Society to fight against political correctness. Then a BNP speaker got expelled, which I thought was absurd. He invited me to a BNP meeting in Burnley and I felt right at home. They were my kind of people – families, not loony Nazis of media hysteria.
The Free Speech Society had existed for at least few years prior to Collett and Beverly joining the society. There have been suggestions that the Free Speech Society was connected to the Living Marxism network, which existed after the Revolutionary Communist Party dissolved itself in 1996, but whether this was actually the case is unclear. In October 1998, one of the previous presidents of the Free Speech Society wrote an opinion piece for the Living Marxism website on the pulping of GQ magazine at Leeds University. The former Treasurer of the Free Speech Society, Rosemary Schofield, wrote in the student newspaper, Leeds Student, that she was from ‘the Mick Hume school, editor of Living Marxism, in that I believe that, “The best way to deal with prejudice is through more speech, not less…”.’
When Collett became President of the Free Speech Society, it attempted to overturn the student union’s ‘no platform’ policy, just as his ties to the BNP were confirmed by Searchlight. However, as Leeds Student reported, many students ‘were scared that if the No Platform policy was abolished racism and fascism would threaten minorities on campus every day’. According to Searchlight, between 600 and 700 students attended the AGM, but Collett and Beverley could only muster 15 votes for their motion to overturn the ‘no platform’ policy, with a further 15 abstentions. But this did not end the battle between Collett and anti-fascist students at the university, as well as in the student union and student press.
Rosemary Schofield, who had left the society when Collett took charge, wrote in the student newspaper that while she opposed the policy of ‘no platform’, the society under Collett ‘no longer stood for free speech in action, it only stood for the abstract right of racists to speak freely, minus criticism.’ While refusing to confirm or deny his BNP membership, Collett spoke at a BNP rally in March 2001. Although the student union overwhelmingly voted in favour of retaining the ‘no platform’ policy, the student union also decided not to exclude Collett from the union. Ruth Clarke, the student union’s Communications Officer, stated, ‘the No Platform Policy does not apply to what members do in their spare time or political parties they affiliate to.’
The same month, the Free Speech Society invited Nick Griffin to speak on campus, but, as reported in Leeds Student, ‘the University refused permission for the possibly volatile meeting to be held on University premises on what Roger Gair, University Secretary stated were, “grounds of public safety”.’ According to the student paper, the meeting did go ahead, despite permission not being granted, with a ‘spontaneous meeting’ happening to avoid protestors.
Members of the Socialist Workers Party and Anti-Nazi League applied pressure within the student union to maintain the ‘no platform’ policy as Collett and Beverley refused to budge. When the Free Speech Society attempted to hold its AGM in May 2001, it was picketed by about 80 students, with Christian Høgsbjerg from the SWP and ANL declaring that ‘it [was] up to the students’ to fight the BNP and uphold the ‘no platform’ policy. Other students tried a different tactic, ‘joining the Free Speech Society just before the AGM to utilise their vote against Collett when the elections for the new president went ahead.’ But the student protests allowed the police to call off the meeting, with the society members escorted off campus.
When the new academic year started in October, there were renewed calls for Collett to be excluded from the student union, with an open letter by a number of student union officers being published in Leeds Student. The letter proclaimed:
We… are shocked and appalled that a student at Leeds University, Mark Collett, is now the fuhrer of the youth wing of the British National Party. While the BNP may be currently trying to cultivate a veneer of respectability, the fact is that they remain a neo-Nazi group whose members admire Hitler, deny the horror of the Holocaust, and stir up race hatred wherever they organise. We therefore demand the following,
- That Collett is expelled from Leeds University Union (LUU).
- That Leeds Student adheres to the LUU policy of No Platform for racists and fascists.
- That Leeds Student takes a stand and supports our campaign to rid our campus of the BNP’s politics of fear and hatred.
Collett responded with his own letter to the student paper, calling his critics ‘politically correct fascists’. Arguing that he had ‘never harassed anyone… [or] broken the law’ and belonged to ‘a 100% legal and fully registered political party’, Collett claimed that there were no grounds to exclude him from the student union and that the ‘whole farcical No Platform policy is an invention to stifle any ideas or speech that can pull apart the warped ideology of Socialism’.
In February 2002, there were further attempts to exclude Collett from the student union, as Collett was announced as a candidate for the BNP in the local elections. Collett was eventually suspended by the union pending an investigation in March 2002, ‘following an alleged attack by him on members of the anti-Nazi league’. Collett failed to win his council seat in the May local elections and in November of that year, he was temporarily expelled from the BNP following a documentary titled Young, Nazi and Proud being aired on Channel 4.
While Collett and Beverley’s reign of the Free Speech Society ended and the issue died down at the University of Leeds, invitations by student groups to the BNP’s Nick Griffin continued throughout the 2000s, which saw significant anti-fascist campaigns mounted by students, coinciding with broader anti-fascist actions led by groups such as Unite Against Fascism.
 The Guardian, 1 May, 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2002/may/01/studentpolitics.education (accessed 27 May, 2019).
 See: ‘Workers Against Racism’, Powerbase (last modified 4 October, 2013) http://powerbase.info/index.php/Workers_Against_Racism (accessed 27 May, 2019).
 Brendon Craigie, ‘This Wasn’t Hardcore…’, Living Marxism Comment (6 October, 1998) http://web.archive.org/web/20000229064746/www.informinc.co.uk/LM/discuss/commentary/10-06-98-HARDCORE.html (accessed 27 May, 2019).
 Leeds Student, 23 February, 2001, p. 11.
 Leeds Student, 9 February, 2001, p. 3.
 ‘Fascist Campus Defeat’, Searchlight (March 2001) p. 12.
 Leeds Student, 23 February, 2001, p. 11.
 Leeds Student, 16 March, 2001, p. 6.
 Leeds Student, 27 April, 2001, p. 7.
 Leeds Student, 1 June, 2001, p. 1.
 Ibid., p. 2.
 Leeds Student, 5 October, 2001, p. 9.
 Leeds Student, 12 October, 2001, p. 9.
 Leeds Student, 1 February, 2002, p. 2.
 The Guardian, 1 May, 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/may/01/students.politics (accessed 27 May 2019).