National Union of Students

‘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.

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Two new opinion pieces on the history of fascism and anti-fascism

A quick post to let people know that I have had two opinion pieces published this week on the history of fascism and anti-fascism in Britain and Australia.

Firstly, the Times Higher Education website published a piece on the pre-history of ‘no platform’ and the protests against far right speakers on university campuses in the 1950s and 1960s.

Secondly, in response to the debate over whether those who attended a far right in St Kilda earlier in the month were Nazis, Overland published a longer piece on the history of neo-Nazism in Australia and the far right.

Now back to the book!

In defence of no platform

Last week I debated Harvard University’s Lawrence Summers on free speech at universities and the tactic of no platform for The Economist. My opening statement was edited for word length, so I am posting the longer version below. 

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The principle of ‘no platform’ is that speakers or organisations that publicly espouse violent, racist or fundamentally anti-democratic ideas, as well as others forms of hate speech should be prevented from doing so. Although not limited to university campuses, student organisations across the global West have attempted to implement a policy of no platform to deny explicit racists and fascists from publicly speaking, organising or recruiting on campuses. As a defined policy, no platform began within the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK in the mid-1970s in reaction to appearances by the fascist and populist far right (particularly the National Front and the Monday Club) on British university campuses. The policy meant that invitations for far right and racist speakers would be withdrawn and prevented, venues would be off-limits to these speakers and that these organisations would not be allowed to have a physical presence on campus. This would often be enforced bureaucratically, but elements of the student movement also argued that physical confrontation might be necessary to prevent these speakers from speaking or assembling on university grounds.

Since the mid-to-late 1960s, the growing student movement in Britain, as well as across the world, had attempted to prevent certain people from speaking at universities, often representatives of the government or supporters of the Vietnam War or apartheid South Africa (as well as other controversial speakers like psychologist Hans Eysenck), but this was on a much more ad hoc basis. The policy of no platform was formulated in a period of crisis, when the forces of the far right were starting to mobilise more confidently.

Physically confronting fascists did not simply emerge as a tactic in the early 1970s, but was influenced by the anti-fascist traditions of the inter-war period. Militant anti-fascism existed across the global West in the 1920s and 1930s and although it was not as violent as in Italy or Germany, anti-fascism in Britain (and the United States) was indeed physical and confrontational. The anti-fascist movement of the 1970s, instrumental in developing the no platform policy, built upon the tactics fostered in the 1930s (and again in the late 1940s), primarily encouraging venues not to allow fascists to speak or organise in them and physically occupying public spaces where fascists attempted to congregate.

The policy of no platform, first explicitly pronounced in Britain, spread across the global West and was embraced by anti-racists in the student movements in the United States, Canada, Australia, West Germany and France, amongst others. For instance, from the mid-1970s onwards, the phrase was being used in the US by Trotskyist activists (such as those in the Spartacist League) against the National Socialist White Peoples’ Party and the Ku Klux Klan from organising on university campuses or appearing on television. In the mid-1980s, university campuses across Canada saw student activists disrupting speaking engagements of the South African Ambassador Glenn Babb. In Australia, student groups mobilised to drive far right groups, such as the Australian National Alliance and the Progressive Nationalist Party, off university campuses around the country.

As it was originally devised, the principle of no platform meant preventing violent and organised racist groups and speakers from appearing on university campuses. It was not intended to apply to the Conservative Party and other socially conservative groups. The reasoning was that these fascist organisations were anti-democratic and sought to remove the democratic rights of others, so they could not rely upon the democratic principle of free speech if it was to be denied to people they demonised.

However because the principle relied upon combining grassroots political activism with bureaucratic measures, it was extended by certain student groups to others, infamously to student groups supporting Israel and to sexists, as well as to some right-wing Tory MPs (such as Keith Joseph and John Carlisle). In more recent years, some activists have attempted to no platform radical feminists who they believe are transphobic.

The widening of the scope for no platform has led to controversy within student and activist circles since the 1970s, but while many agree on applying the principle to explicitly racist and fascist organisations and speakers, it has been individual student unions or student groups that have sought to extend it. No platform is a tactic that needs to be negotiated with regard to its immediate context and requires democratic debate over it use in any given campaign. At the moment, the NUS only applies the policy of no platform at the national level to several openly racist or jihadist groups, such as the British National Party, National Action and Hizb-ut-Tahir. Individual student unions can apply the principle to other groups depending on the local situation. No platform is about preventing what is colloquially known as ‘hate speech’ rather than speech that is merely offensive. In many Western countries, unlike the United States, this opposition to hate speech is in line with broader human rights legislation that protects people from hateful or harmful speech (although these laws are often portrayed as against ‘free speech’).

The question as to whether universities should or should not host speakers who propound offensive ideas does not fully grasp the situation. Students and activists are not simply mobilising to prevent those propounding offensive ideas, but harmful speech that is often linked to harmful actions. As institutions, universities promote the notion that they are neutral venues where competing ideas are debated and for the most part, attempt to excuse themselves from taking any action that prevents people or organisations from publicising their ideas on campus (although critics point out that anti-extremism programs, such as Prevent in the UK, have been implemented to a degree that curtails freedom of speech). With the case of the UK, universities are not allowed to hinder free speech under the Education Act no. 2 1986. However this does not apply to student unions or individual student bodies that exist as separate legal entities to the university. It is predominantly a democratic decision by the student bodies at the grassroots level to allow or not allow speakers that may engage in harmful or hateful speech, rather than the university administration.

Free speech absolutism often proposes that, above all else, university are a marketplace of ideas where students should be intellectually challenged and while students are presented with a range of ideas on campus, students also have the right not to be subjected to hateful or harmful speech and can forcefully reject proponents of these ideas. These forms of hate speech call for taking away the rights of certain sections of society and are thoroughly anti-democratic, and cannot be tolerated as within the realm of democratic ‘debate’.

When figures of the fascist or populist far right are invited to speak on university campuses (and in other public venues), these speakers do not present their ideas into a vacuum and often a broader coterie of far right forces are mobilised to attend these events, which can lead to intimidation, harassment and violence. Many students are unwilling to allow this to happen and organise to prevent these forces from coalescing on campus. In the past few years, various ‘alt right’ figures and groups have attempted to hold public events, campaign or recruit on university campuses in the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada. As the far right forces gain notoriety in an era of populism, many people, including students and other younger activists, are worried about what these forces might lead to. The battle for the university campus is part of a wider resistance to what they see as the zombie march of a regressive and reactionary right that should have been left behind by now.

No Platform book project: An appeal for sources

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I am very excited that my book project on the history of the NUS policy of no platform in the UK is moving forward. At the moment, I am on the lookout for further primary sources from no platform campaigns from the 1970s to the present (particularly from the 1980s and 1990s). So if anyone has any material relating to specific campaigns, please send an email to hatfulofhistory@gmail.com.

I am especially interested in any material relating to campaigns to prevent Enoch Powell and representatives of the apartheid regime in South Africa from speaking on university campuses in the mid-to-late 1980s.

In the meantime, you can also read this book chapter which gives an overview of the no platform policy in the 1970s and 1980s.

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New book chapter on ‘No Platform’ out now

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Sorry for the radio silence (a brief trip to Canada for a workshop on transnational communism interrupted my blogging), but here is a quick post to let you know that I have a new book chapter on the history of ‘no platform’ out now. The chapter, ‘The National Union of Students and and the Policy of “No Platform” in the 1970s and 1980s’, is part of an edited volume by Jodi Burkett titled Students in Twentieth-Century Britain and Ireland. You can order a copy of the book here or buy the individual e-chapter here. Tell your institutional library!

Announcing the chapter list for ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

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Image source: Getty Images

Now that we have entered the copy-editing phase, Matthew Worley and I are happy to announce the chapter list for our forthcoming volume with Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956. It is the second volume that Matt and I have co-edited for MUP (the first being Against the Grain) and we are very excited to showcase new scholarship by a range of established and upcoming scholars (including a number of activist-scholars). Like the previous volume, we have tried to cover a wide variety of different groups and movements and hope that these chapters inspire further research into the British (and international) far left. So here is chapter list:

Introduction: The continuing importance of the history of the British far left – Evan Smith and Matthew Worley

1          Revolutionary vanguard or agent provocateur: students and the far left on English university campuses, c. 1970–90 – Jodi Burkett

2          Not that serious? The investigation and trial of the Angry Brigade, 1967–72 – J. D. Taylor

3          Protest and survive: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Labour Party and civil defence in the 1980s – Jacquelyn Arnold

4          Anti-apartheid solidarity in the perspectives and practices of the British far left in the 1970s and ’80s – Gavin Brown

5          ‘The Merits of Brother Worth’: the International Socialists and life in a Coventry car factory, 1968–75 – Jack Saunders

6          Making miners militant? The Communist Party of Great Britain in the National Union of Mineworkers, 1956–85 – Sheryl Bernadette Buckley

7          Networks of solidarity: the London left and the 1984–85 miners’ strike – Diarmaid Kelliher

8          ‘You have to start where you’re at’: politics and reputation in 1980s Sheffield – Daisy Payling

9          Origins of the present crisis? The emergence of ‘left-wing’ Scottish nationalism,      1956–79 – Rory Scothorne and Ewan Gibbs

10        A miner cause? The persistence of left nationalism in postwar Wales – Daryl Leeworthy

11        The British radical left and Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ – Daniel Finn

12        The point is to change it: a short account of the Revolutionary Communist Party – Michael Fitzpatrick

13        The Militant Tendency and entrism in the Labour Party – Christopher Massey

14        Understanding the formation of the Communist Party of Britain – Lawrence Parker

We hope that the volume will be available by the end of the year, or in early 2018. Further details will be on this blog as they come to us.

For those attending the Modern British Studies conference at the University of Birmingham in July, Matt and several of the contributing authors will be speaking about the collection. More details to follow soon.

‘By whatever means necessary’: The origins of the ‘no platform’ policy

Recently the concept of ‘no platform’ was in the news again when there were attempts to cancel a talk by Germaine Greer at Cardiff University. While there is no doubt that the use of ‘no platform’ has expanded since its first use in the 1970s, the term is bandied about in the media with little definition and understanding of how it was developed as a specific response to the fascism of the National Front (and later the British National Party). This post looks back at the origins of the term and how it was developed into a practical anti-fascist strategy.

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In the early 1970s, the term ‘no platform’ was first used to describe the anti-fascist strategy of denying fascist organisations the public space to organise and disseminate their propaganda. The denial of public space had been an integral part of the militant anti-fascist movement since the 1930s, employed by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), various Jewish groups and other assorted anti-fascists. Fighting Oswald Mosley’s BUF, these anti-fascists broke up meetings, occupied spaces to prevent the BUF gaining access and mobilised massive demonstrations to physically confront the fascists in the streets. This continued after the war with various groups, such as the 43 Group, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and the Revolutionary Communist Party, joining the CPGB to combat Mosley’s Union Movement. As well as physically confronting the UM, part of the anti-fascists’ strategy was appealing to the local councils, particularly in boroughs where the Labour Party was in charge, to deny the UM (or its various aliases) access to any council property. The anti-fascist movement was quite successful in its approach and Mosley fled to Ireland in the early 1950s. Until the emergence of the National Front in late 1960s, the fascist groups in Britain remained small and the anti-fascist movement gradually faded away.

Forming in 1967, the National Front brought together a number of disparate fascist and anti-immigration groups and by the early 1970s, it was making headway by attracting disaffected Conservative Party voters who felt that the Tories were ‘too soft’ on immigration. Particularly when the Ugandan Asian controversy emerged in 1972, the NF publicised its opposition to letting these British citizens into the country after the Heath government acknowledged that it had legal reason to deny them entry. The first use of the term ‘no platform’ (that I have been able to find) comes from that year. The Red Mole was the newspaper of the International Marxist Group (IMG), a Trotskyist organisation that built quickly amongst the student and anti-Vietnam War movements in the late 1960s. In the issue for September 18, 1972, the front page headline declared ‘NO PLATFORM FOR RACISTS’. It described the NF and the Monday Club (a pro-empire and anti-immigration grouping within the Conservative Party) as ‘mortal enemies of the working class’ and stated that these two groups ‘must be stopped in their tracks’. The newspaper argued that these groups needed to be confronted and were ‘not going to be convinced by rational argument’, calling for ‘a concerted counter-attack’ at meetings of both groups.

The IMG proposed that groups like the NF could not be afforded ‘free speech’ because ‘their racist campaigns are a means to destroy the organisations of the working class which defend such bourgeois democratic rights’. The same issue claimed:

the only way to deal with fascist type organisations like the National Front is to break up their activities before they grow to a size where they can begin to smash the activities of the working class.

While acknowledging that ‘[w]e are nowhere near a threatened Fascist coup yet’, but said ‘the methods necessary on preventing such a threat must be explained and demonstrated in practice now… We must begin to adopt the right tactics right from the start.’

The IMG was one of the most influential leftist groups amongst the student movement in Britain in the early 1970s, but competed with the International Socialists and the CPGB (who were part of the Broad Left group with students associated with the Labour left). The NUS in 1974 was under the leadership of Steve Parry, a member of the CPGB and the Broad Left, and were in agreement (in principle) that a policy of ‘no platform’ should be applied to NF and other fascist organisations attempting to recruit students on university campuses. At the Liverpool conference in 1974, the policy of ‘no platform’ was devised as part of a wider stance against racism. Amendment 4 of the resolution on the fight against racialism 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).

Student unions were called upon to ‘prevent any racist or fascist propaganda being displayed, sold, distributed, or propagated through meetings by whatever means may be necessary’.

Although agreed in principle the concept of ‘no platform’, the Communist Party, the IMG and the IS differed on the details of the resolution and how the strategy should be applied. The IMG felt that the joint action suggested in the resolution would not transfer into practice and declared that the other left-wing groups were unwilling to be involved in such joint practical action. Steve Webster wrote in Red Weekly (the renamed paper of the IMG):

The fascists will not be defeated by resolutions or statements alone. There are three specific issue which face us immediately: the activity of the right in the colleges, the campaign against the reactionary anti-abortion group, SPUC [the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children), and the fight against racism. The other groups of the left rejected joint action around these issues. But it is only by such joint mobilisations, by confronting the right wing head-on, that the fascists and racists will be routed.

The LSE branch of the International Socialists put together a newsletter called The Red Agitator which stated that they believed that the policy was ‘fundamentally correct’, but took issue with the lumping together of racists and fascists in the resolution as there was a difference in approach to fascists and those in the mainstream who promoted racist ideas. The IS raised the point of the racist claims made by the psychologist Hans Eysenck who toured universities in the early 1970s, espousing the idea that there were significant differences in mental capacity between the races. Eysenck was a racist, but not a fascist, and the IS suggested approaching his meetings in a slightly different way than the employment of the ‘no platform’ strategy:

To debate with Eysenck, to treat him as a genuine scientist, is thus to indirectly legitimise Powellism. This is not to say that we should go out to break up meetings which he addresses – the real threat lies in organised fascist groups – but rather that we should picket them and organise counter-meetings in order to show up the real nature of his ideas.

But dealing with the openly fascist NF, the IS agreed with the IMG. The Red Agitator newsletter finished with this:

The racists and fascists of today are not something that we can ignore. They are a growing menace. The liberties we have today are worth defending, small though they are. Fascism aims to smash, racism creates the conditions for their destruction. We cannot allow the open fascist, or the concealed fascist working in the Monday Club or some similar organisation to gain a hearing. Every meeting that they hold gives them confidence. Every apologist for racism lends them comfort. Every liberal who debates with them gives them aid – much against their will.

Every time they are stopped from meeting, every time their meetings are broke up, their task becomes harder and harder. The moral of the fascists fall. People turn away from them as a miserable and pathetic group with nothing to offer. Every success that we have demonstrates to the waverers that we are a better solution. That is the only way to fight fascism and racism.

The Communist Party’s National Student Organiser Dave Cook also took exception with the broad nature of the ‘no platform’ resolution devised by the NUS. Cook, writing in the CPGB’s Morning Star, argued that the second part of the resolution calling for the prevention of those speaking who espoused ‘similar views’ by any means necessary endangered support for the NUS policy because of its broad interpretation and could have potentially isolated the more moderate and centrist elements in the NUS. Cook proposed that there should not be all-applying response set at the national level, but allow each individual student council to decide whether to implement the policy of ‘no platform’. Like the Party’s wider anti-fascist strategy in the 1970s, Cook also warned against the vanguardist approach of breaking up meetings by a minority of students, writing ‘It is important that direct action does not become a substitute for the often more difficult task of winning the majority.’

In the Party’s internal documents, the broad and all-applying response of ‘no platform’ was criticised further. The Communist Party was particularly concerned with making the distinction between the fascism of the National Front and the racism of the Conservatives (and other right-wing groups), which nonetheless operated within a democratic framework. The Political Committee stated:

It is important to state from the start that the resolution is not a threat to the right of the Tory party to politically operate in the colleges. The resolution clearly and correctly differentiates between the expression of a Conservative viewpoint and organisations whose declared objective is racist. This is not to say that racism is an attitude that stops at the boundaries of the Conservative Party. On the contrary. Certain Tory leaders are more potent symbols of racism than anyone in the National Front… However it id important to draw the distinction between individual Tory racists, and organisations that are part of the Tory party like the Monday Club on one hand; and organisations whose declared objective is to further race hatred on the other – not because our opposition to them is any less intense, but because they are often best fought in different ways. It is so that it can more effectively fight them that NUS policy must hinge on this distinction. (‘The Fight Against Racism and Fascism, 22 May, 1974, CP/CENT/PC/13/05, LHASC)

The Party also felt that the resolution could be used to enact the ‘no platform’ policy against individuals, rather than organised fascist groups, and that this went past necessary anti-fascist activism and contravened the idea of ‘free speech’. Another internal document made this clear:

No matter how nauseous we find the views of individuals who are not members of such [fascist] organisations, e.g. [Hans] Eysenck and [William] Shockley; or the views of the right wing of the Tory Party, e.g. the Monday Club; the fact is that both of these differ significantly from organisations whose aims is declaredly fascist. (‘The Fight Against Racism and Fascism, n.d., CP/CENT/PC/13/05, LHASC)

While the NUS resolution, as well as the IMG and the IS, all saw the Monday Club to resemble a proto-fascist organisation that should be barred from meeting and organising on university campuses, the CPGB stressed that the Monday Club (from which there was a conveyer belt of recruitment into the NF in the early 1970s) was merely a group within the Conservatives and thus should be allowed to organise publicly.

Furthermore, the CPGB was worried that the phrase ‘by any means necessary’ could be interpreted in a number of ways and was concerned about physical violence at public events involving sections of the non-fascist right wing, such as Eysenck’s university tours. This had already occurred the previous year when the tiny Maoist group the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) (featuring the future leader of the Workers Institute for Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, Comrade Bala) broke up a presentation by Eysenck at the LSE.

The resolution was heavily criticised in the mainstream media, with even The Guardian’s John Fairhall describing the move as a denial of free speech, voted for by student ‘under the spell of Mr Parry’s oratory’ (April 9, 1974). Fairhall predicted that ‘[t]rouble and violence seem inevitable’ and warned:

Students should perhaps remember that frustration which leads to a denial of the right of one section of society is not something new. It is classic pattern of fascism.

Parry replied in a latter to the newspaper (April 16), arguing:

Our members overseas have been singled out for abuse, threats and outright economic attack by powerful extreme right-wingers during the time of the last Government. All our conference agreed was that at least they should not be subject to that abuse in our own student union.

Parry further addressed his critics in the press in an article in the journal Labour Monthly (June 1974) which had been run since the 1920s by CPGB stalwart, R. Palme Dutt. Unlike the position taken by Dave Cook, Parry saw the Monday Club and the National Front as very similar and posed the question, ‘What is the difference between the ideologies of the National Front and the Nazi party?’ Responding to the claim that the notion of ‘no platform’ put restrictions on ‘free speech’, Parry answered at length:

One must accept that to deny racists and fascists a platform is to ‘limit freedom of speech’ but one cannot see this freedom as something which exists in the abstract. It is a freedom which is already limited by such laws as the Race Relations Act and the law of libel, and must also be seen in the context of a class society in Britain which limits the freedom of speech for the vast majority of people… In refusing to assist the spread of racism the NUS is fighting for a freedom of even greater importance: the freedom to live without discrimination on the basis of race. It is only in relation to reality that principles of freedom can be seen. It is not an abstract intellectual exercise.

Because of the controversial nature of this resolution, the NUS held a special emergency conference in London on 15 June, 1974. This was the same day that the NF attempted to hold a meeting at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square and a counter-demonstration was held by Liberation and other anti-fascists, including the IMG. The resulting melee between anti-fascists and the police led to the death of Warwick University student Kevin Gately.

At the June conference, the debate was over the application of resolution. Dave Cook, writing again in Morning Star (21 June, 1974), said that the IMG and the IS wanted to maintain the resolution as it was passed, ‘which dictated a common response to all racist and fascist organisations in all situations’. The Communist-affiliated Broad Left group opposed this arguing that ‘the best way to implement national policy was for decisions to be made by each individual union in accordance with its local situation’. Put to a vote, the amendment suggested by Broad Left failed to get over the line and the resolution remained as it was, despite the Federation of Conservative Students seeking the opportunity to defeat the resolution in its entirety. But 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.

By this time, the National Front were starting change tactics. For most of the early 1970s, the NF had played up its ‘respectability’ and tried to attract disaffected Tory voters (and members) who were anti-immigrant, pro-empire and anti-Common Market. ‘No platform’ was probably at its most controversial, but also very necessary, during this period, when a determined anti-fascist movement was needed to break the respectable veneer that the NF was putting forward while trying to woo the Tory right.

It reached its highest membership during this period and concentrated on electoral politics. The NF continued to contest elections from 1974 to 1977, but switched to an attempt to siphon off right-leaning Labour voters. However the small electoral fortunes of the NF kickstarted the anti-fascist movement against them and the years from 1977 to 1979 saw increasing confrontation between the NF and anti-fascists on the streets. By the late 1970s, the idea of ‘no platform’ seemed fairly straightforward – occupy the streets and the places where the NF seek to publicly assemble. Colin Sparks, from the SWP, explained in a 1978 pamphlet, Fascism and the National Front:

We do not engage in this sort of activity because we like violence or because the NF are reactionary. There are many other reactionary organisations around, for instance the Tory Party, which we do not attempt to smash up. The National Front differs from the Tories because their aims are precisely to control the streets, to build a mass fighting movement. In this, they need the marches and rallies. (p. 41)

The Communist Party, which was largely critical of the SWP’s ‘adventurist’ approach, also recognised the need to confront the NF, but argued that this needed to be done on a mass scale. But they also advocated using the Race Relations Act to combat the NF and their ‘claim to have a democratic right to flaunt their racism’. In the 1978 pamphlet, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, Dave Cook, now the CPGB’s National Organiser, wrote:

Communists support, and will defend to the utmost, the right of people to freely speak their mind. But to attack people because they are black is not a political argument. People form their political views on the basis of conviction. They are born with their colour. That is why to attack someone because of his or her race is to attack that person as a human being. Their political views can change, colour cannot.

To permit the NF the ‘freedom’ to be anti-human can end up destroying the freedom of us all. That is why incitement to racial hatred must have no place in a civilised society. (p. 28)

Even the Labour Party accepted a form of ‘no platform’ for the National Front, when the Party’s National Executive Committee in 1978 declared:

Labour candidates should not share platforms at meetings or appear on constituency programmes on radio or television with candidates or other members of the National Front.

Despite the original NUS resolution targeting specifically openly fascist and racist organisations, such as the NF and (perhaps controversially) the Monday Club, there were fears that the policy could widened to be used against any political organisation and individual that fell foul of the NUS leadership. In their 1974 pamphlet, Fascism: How to Smash It, the IMG gave instances where ‘no platform’ had been applied to political ‘enemies’ who were not fascists:

Racists like Powell or Harold Soref – who are not fascists – have often been driven off university campuses. This is because the effect these people can have is similar to fascists – that is, terrorising black people or others chosen as scapegoats for capitalism’s social ills, and encouraging social violence, legal or otherwise, against them…

‘No Platform’ has been applied to many people by the workers’ movement. Trade unionists, for example, would generally expel employees who attended their meetings. Print workers sometimes censor by blacking a newspaper editorial attacking the unions. When Mr. Godber, Tory Minister for Agriculture, [was] sent to Birmingham one day last year to do a public relations job for Tory price policy, he was mobbed off the street by angry housewives. All these actions are against ‘free speech’ and sometimes involve a physical struggle.

Throughout the 1970s, the ‘no platform’ policy was challenged at the NUS annual conference. At the 1977 conference, concerns were raised about demonstrations against Sir Keith Joseph speaking at Essex University. In The Guardian (March 23, 1977), John Fairhall wrote that the NUS Executive Committee felt that actions, such as the one against Joseph, were ‘against the interest of the union, and damage an anti-racialism campaign’. Alan Elsner, a member of the Union of Jewish Students, wrote in the New Statesman (May 13, 1977) that the Joseph incident ‘heightened the fear that “no platform” policy could be used as a means of silencing people whose views might be controversial or unpopular’. Elsner also raised the controversy over the use of ‘no platform’ against organisations that were explicitly Zionist or supporters of Israel.

Fairhall reported that some on the NUS Executive Committee wanted to change the policy from ‘no platform’ to ‘no invitation’, allegedly supported by the Communists in the Broad Left coalition, but this was defeated, 182,333 to 154,033 (with 33,948 abstentions) (The Guardian, April 1, 1977). Future Labour MP Charles Clarke was, at the time, NUS President and a member of the Broad Left, but after the vote, defined the existing policy of ‘no platform’ as:

A student union would do anything it could physically – such as picketing and demonstrating – to prevent people whom the student union decided by a general meeting vote were racists or fascists from speaking on a campus. But prevention would stop short of violence.

The Times’ Ian Bradley stated that the policy was dropped by the NUS in December 1977 but reinstated at the 1978 NUS conference just four months later (April 7, 1978). Although the moderate NUS leadership opposed it, the far left, including the National Organisation of Labour Students, managed to get the policy reinstated. Trevor Phillips, the incoming NUS President and who was personally against the policy, maintained that the policy would be used against the National Front, but ‘would oppose any attempt to use it against Mrs Thatcher or other members of major political parties’. The outgoing NUS President, Susan Slipman added, ‘The new policy will not mean the infringement of the democratic right of any members and it will definitely not mean reraising the question of banning Jewish student organisations.’

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By 1979, the NF had fallen into disarray, marginalised by the growing anti-fascist movement from one side and by the right-wing shift of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher from the other. However the ‘no platform’ policy was maintained and many would argue, succumbed to the newly developed interest in ‘identity politics’. Writing in Socialist Worker Review in 1986, Lindsey German said:

the policy often means little in confronting racism and sexism on more than an individual level. But what is more, it broadens the definition of no platform to an almost unworkable degree. The original no platform went for stopping organised fascists and racists, because their organisation was such a threat. That is not the case with individual members of the rugby club, however noxious they might be. Those people have to be defeated politically, in open and hopefully large union meetings.

German defended the policy, but argued that it needed to be limited to its original intent – against the National Front and other fascist organisations, such as the emerging British National Party. She warned that there were two things that were to be avoided if the NUS was to maintain the policy:

The first is to widen the policy far too far, and therefore allow the right wing to make capital from particular issues. The second is to get trapped into allowing the right to pose as defenders of free speech. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It seems that student activists at British universities have not heeded German’s warning and that the strategy of ‘no platform’ employed against political opponents far removed from the original targets, the organised fascist far right. ‘No platform’ was developed as a specific tactic to prevent the encroachment of the National Front (and the Monday Club) onto university campuses in the mid-1970s. However it seems that almost from the time of its implementation, it has been open to misinterpretation and abuse by certain student groups. This post has sought to show that before it became a widely used tactic by various student groups, ‘no platform’ had a discreet and specific context to be used in an explicitly anti-fascist framework. Contemporary discussions in the media of the tactic often ignore this origin story, but do so at their own peril.