no platform

‘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!

Free speech at Australian universities: Learning from the British experience

I wrote this for an outlet, but it has not been published, so I am posting here.

BettinaArndtprotest_resized

Last month, the Minister for Education announced that former Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French, would conduct an inquiry into free speech at Australian universities. Although the scope of the inquiry seems to be wide, Tehan seems to be have been driven to launch this inquiry after concerns were raised in the press about students protesting against certain speakers at events on campus. Students protesting against speakers, such as Bettina Arndt, have been accused of shutting down debate and using the threat of public disorder to force event organisers to pay a substantial amount of money for security or to cancel the event.

At a time when Tehan and his predecessor, Simon Birmingham, were being heavily criticised for their intervention in the grant awarding process of the Australian Research Council and denying funds to 11 projects that had been recommended to receive funding, an inquiry into freedom of speech and academic freedom at Australian universities seemed a perplexing choice. For many in the higher education sector, it seemed like another culture war tactic by a government that was appealing to its conservative base.

Speaking about the inquiry, Tehan suggested that one of the outcomes of the inquiry may be an adoption of an Australian version of the Chicago Statement, an initiative by a small cluster of US universities to commit to the maintenance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. Focus on the Chicago Statement has been a recent development in the discourse on freedom of speech at universities in Australia, although the statement was first adopted by the University of Chicago in 2012. Professor Kath Gelber from the University of Queensland has argued that an adoption of the principles of the Chicago Statement by Australian universities would be ‘unlikely to be of benefit in resolving the issues with which the minister appears to be concerned’, and called the whole inquiry ‘expensive and unnecessary’.

The Chicago Statement was given significant attention in the Institute of Public Affairs’ two recent reports into free speech on campus, with the IPA’s ‘audits’ of free speech at Australian universities inspired heavily by similar reports on US and UK universities by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and spiked! respectively. The recent interest by both the IPA and the Liberal government in the Chicago Statement could be seen as another indicator of the importing of culture war tropes from the United States and the United Kingdom, particularly around the issue of free speech on campus.

As the discourse of free speech at Australian universities seems heavily influenced from other countries, it would be wise to consider how the debate on free speech and ‘no platform’ has recently developed in the UK, where the then Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, launched an inquiry into this topic late last year.

The concern over free speech at universities has existed in Britain for a long time, with complaints about violent students shutting down freedom of speech on campus since the late 1960s. When the National Union of Students implemented a policy of ‘no platform’ for fascists and racists in 1974, many commentators and politicians viewed this a form of ‘left-wing fascism’. The ‘no platform’ policy has existed more or less in tact since the late 1970s and is routinely held up by conservatives and libertarians as an infringement upon the freedom of speech, portraying controversial speakers as hostage to the proponents of ‘identity politics’ and ‘grievance studies’.

The Thatcher government attempted to legislate against this in 1986 by mandating that universities had a duty to ensure freedom of speech, with possible disciplinary actions taken against universities which failed to comply with the legislation. However student unions were, and are, separate legal entities to the universities and the legislation did not apply to them.

Although there have been controversies over the application of the ‘no platform’ policy at British universities since the 1970s, media attention around this subject seems to have grown in recent years, possibly exacerbated by social media. Amongst the possible reasons for this is the resurgent far right across the globe and greater opposition to this, including actions to keep racists off British campuses. Another is that there has been growing opposition to the presence of trans-exclusionary feminists, such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, on campuses and there has been a significant spotlight on the application of the ‘no platform’ policy by individual student unions and groups to these speakers.

At the same time, the Conservatives under David Cameron significantly revised the Prevent strategy, which was first devised after the July 2005 bombings to stop the propagation of radical and extremist ideas, including at universities. As a 2015 House of Lords Library Note shows, this was the main concern about the infringement upon freedom of speech until recently. It has been contested by a number of scholars and commentators that Prevent is much more damaging to free speech and academic inquiry than ‘no platforming’.

In October 2017, Jo Johnson called for the newly established Office for Students (OfS) to ‘champion free speech in UK universities’ and the following month, he announced that a parliamentary inquiry would be held. With over 100 pieces of written evidence submitted and over 35 people presenting oral testimony to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the inquiry went from December 2017 to March 2018. In comparison with the discourse surrounding the Australian inquiry, there was little, if any, mention of the Chicago Statement by any those giving evidence.

The inquiry’s report found that while there had been incursions on ‘lawful free speech’, the committee ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate which media coverage has suggested’. The report did, however, call for greater intervention by the Charity Commission against student unions that ‘inhibit lawful free speech’ and recommended that ‘[e]ffective action should be taken against protestors’ who attempt to disrupt or shut down events. It was suggested that the OfS take over from the Charity Commission in regulating student unions and publish an annual report on the topic of free speech at universities.

In October 2018, a BBC Reality Check story, using FOI documents, showed that the number of incidents where free speech was curtailed at British universities was very small. Receiving responses from 120 of the 136 universities in the UK, the BBC reported that since 2010, there were only six occasions ‘on which universities cancelled speakers as a result of complaints’.

The outcome of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry, as well as the figures provided by the BBC, suggest that the concern around freedom of speech on university campuses is being promoted by conservatives and libertarians amidst a wider culture war and not driven by what is actually concerning both students and academics in higher education. Although Dan Tehan has launched a similar inquiry into free speech at Australian universities, the UK experience indicates that such an inquiry is not needed and reveals a government intent on unwisely interfering in the university sector.

British fascists and the notion of free speech

Since the days of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, the far right have presented themselves as the defenders of free speech. Mosley argued that free speech was almost non-existent due to violent Marxists and that his paramilitary forces were the only thing defending free speech in Britain. Despite many politicians and journalists arguing that Mosley should be debated, he complained that there was a conspiracy to silence him. Recent rhetoric by the far right has a history going back to the 1930s and it is one that we should be wary of. The following is based on an excerpt from my book project on the history of ‘no platform’. 

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Since the days of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), the far right in Britain have attempted to portray themselves as the defenders of free speech. As meetings of the BUF were interrupted by anti-fascist activists, the BUF complained that ‘the Reds’ were trying to deny them their freedom of speech. In the first issue of The Blackshirt from February 1933, Oswald Mosley’s front page article, quoting from the BUF’s 1932 manifesto The Great Britain, claimed that the anti-fascist campaigns against the newly established BUF had indicated that ‘we have reached a point in this country in which free speech is a thing of the past’.[1] Mosley complained:

Organised bands of “Reds,” armed with sticks, bottles and razors, attend all important meetings which threaten their position in areas where they are strong, with the declared object of breaking them up.[2]

Only the fascists, Mosley claimed in his newspaper, could ‘hold open meetings in such areas without police protection’, suggesting that the reason for this was that the ‘Fascist Defence Force has been organised to protect free speech’ which had ‘often met and defeated “Red” violence’.[3] From the very beginnings of the BUF, Mosley embraced militarism and violence as part of his political movement, with the Fascist Defence Force being used as a ‘shocktroop’ to confront anti-fascist opposition.[4]

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The trope of the far right being silenced by left-wing violence, which continued across the twentieth century and into the present, was first used by Mussolini and Hitler in the 1920s and explicitly used again by Mosley in the 1930s. The portrayal of the paramilitary Fascist Defence Force as an organisation built to forcefully respond to the threats from the left indicates the early embrace of violence in the BUF, confident of its own strength and not needing to rely on the police. It was only after the disturbances at Olympia in June 1934 that the BUF moved to explicitly calling for the police to intervene against anti-fascist activists.

These were continued themes in the BUF propaganda throughout the 1930s. In the 1936 publication Fascism: 100 Questions Asked and Answered, Mosley made a distinction between indoor meetings, where BUF stewards were allegedly allowed ‘to preserve order in accordance with the Law’, which meant ‘[i]f the Chairman orders the removal of a persistent interrupter, it is [the stewards’] duty to eject him with the minimum of force necessary to secure his removal’[5] – even though it was evident from disturbances at Olympia and elsewhere that the BUF did not use ‘the minimum of force’ and brutally beat a number of hecklers. On the other hand, Mosley stated that for outdoor meetings, ‘it is the duty under the Law of the police alone to preserve order, and Fascists do not attend for that purpose’.[6] However various clashes between fascists and anti-fascists on the streets show that the BUF did not leave the police to preserve order.

In March 1936, Mosley asserted that when the BUF first emerged just over three years earlier, ‘free speech in Britain had virtually come to an end’.[7] He complained that in Britain’s industrial cities, ‘Socialism could not be vigorously attacked from the platform without the break-up of the meeting by highly organised bands of hooligans.’[8] For Mosley, the BUF were the antidote to this alleged socialist intimidation.

He declared that the Blackshirts ‘with their bare hands’ had ‘overcome red violence armed with razors, knives and every weapon known to the ghettoes of humanity’, and thus pronounced, ‘Their bodies bear the scars, but free speech is regained’.[9] Once again, Mosley portrayed the BUF as the defenders of free speech against communist violence and suggested that it was only through violent self-defence that free speech was preserved.

Mosley complained elsewhere that the BUF were hindered in their pursuit of free speech by the government and the police who increasingly prevented BUF rallies and marches from occurring out of fear of violence. A few weeks after the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in late 1936, Mosley lamented in BUF weekly Action that the government did not use the law ‘to deal with the assailants [ie the anti-fascist activists] but with the defenders of Free Speech’, objecting:

If trouble takes place at a meeting, Government and law now regard as the guilty party, not those who assemble with violence to prevent an opinion being stated, but those who peacefully assemble to state that opinion.[10]

However Iain Channing has argued that the opposite was often the case, writing that ‘it appears more common that it was audience members who heckled and showed their contempt for fascism to end up before a magistrate.’[11]

Elsewhere in their propaganda, the BUF argued that ‘freedom of speech does not exist’ and seemed nonplussed to actually hold up this freedom, especially if they came to power.[12] Mosley suggested that while ‘anyone can carry a soap box to a street corner and… make any moderate noise that he sees fit to emit’, there was no ‘effective action following from his words’.[13] In the eyes of Mosley, only the press and the party machine had a voice and wrote, ‘in actual practice under this system freedom of speech is the freedom to be the servant of the financier.’[14] While the BUF claimed to be defenders of freedom of speech, the BUF programme envisaged ‘freedom of speech’ to be accessed via Corporate Life, the alleged ‘machine for putting into practice the principle of freedom of speech’.[15] Mosley’s convolutedly explained this process in Action in 1936:

Every man and woman with any industry, profession, or interest in this country will be able to enter into the work of his or her corporation. There they will not only be permitted but invited to express their opinions. The ordinary man and woman drawn from the great majority, who cannot or do not care to talk at street corners, will be invited to express their opinion. They will be encouraged to do so because the expression of their opinions will affect the work of the Corporation, and through that definite machinery the opinion of the people will affect Government.[16]

So even though the BUF stressed the idea of free speech when discussing their public meetings and claiming that anti-fascists threatened their freedom of speech, the BUF did not foresee in their programme any freedom of speech outside the fascist corporate state.

This reinforced the idea for the Communist Party and other anti-fascist activist that the real threat to free speech and democracy was fascism, with them pointing to what had happened to the working class, trade unions and socialists in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Arguing against the BBC giving airtime to Mosley, the Daily Worker put that ‘Fascism is the same in all countries – there is no special British brand – it is a creed of murder and violence’.[17] Then in 1937, discussing the fascist breaking up of a Labour Party meeting being addressed by Clement Atlee, the same paper stated:

Fascism, wherever, and in whatever form it raises its head, aims to destroy free speech, democracy, and every liberty which centuries of working-class endeavour have wrestled from the ruling class.[18]

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The Communist Party lambasted the Labour Party for its pleas of allowing ‘free speech’ for Mosley and the BUF. For example, the Daily Worker criticised the short-lived Labour MP Fielding West for writing to the Daily Herald that ‘the Labour Party do not fear the effect of Mosley’s speeches. In any event, let him be heard, for free speech is still precious to-day’.[19] The Communist newspaper retorted that ‘[w]hile even Tory MPs were horror-stricken at the brutalities of Mosley, this Labour MP comes out attacking the Communists and pleading with the workers to give freedom to Fascism.’[20] The following month, Rajani Palme Dutt wrote in Labour Monthly that the Labour Party leadership was too ready to defend the bourgeois concept of ‘freedom of speech’, but explained that this meant:

the workers must listen like docile, obedient sheep in regimented silence whenever a noble, respected bourgeois chooses to get on his hindlegs to air his caste-theories and generally put them in their place.[21]

Dutt claimed that ‘freedom of speech’ was allowed for proponents of ideologies that sought to inflict violence upon the working class, but often trade unionists and socialists were denied freedom of speech and on occasions, charged with sedition.[22] To prevent Britain allowing a fascist movement to rise, like in Italy and Germany, meant practical opposition to Mosley and this meant opposition to Mosley’s ability to broadcast his message in public.

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[1]The Blackshirt, 1 February, 1933, p. 1.

[2]The Blackshirt, 1 February, 1933, p. 1.

[3]The Blackshirt, 1 February, 1933, p. 1.

[4]Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism(London: Penguin 2007) pp. 189-190.

[5]Oswald Mosley, Fascism: 100 Questions Asked and Answered(London: BUF Publications, 1936) p. 56.

[6]Mosley, Fascism, p. 56.

[7]Mosley, Fascism, p. 57.

[8]Mosley, Fascism, p. 57.

[9]Mosley, Fascism, p. 57.

[10]Action, 24 October, 1936, p. 9.

[11]Iain Channing, ‘Blackshirts and White Wigs: Reflections on Public Order Law and the Political Activism of the British Union of Fascists’ (University of Plymouth: Unpublished PhD thesis) p. 170.

[12]Oswald Mosley, Tomorrow We Live(London: BUF, 1938) p. 20.

[13]Mosley, Tomorrow We Live, p. 20.

[14]Mosley, Tomorrow We Live, p. 21.

[15]Mosley, Tomorrow We Live, p. 22.

[16]Action, 24 October, 1936, p. 9.

[17]Daily Worker, 11 June, 1934, p. 3.

[18]Daily Worker, 28 September, 1937, p. 5.

[19]Cited in, Daily Worker, 11 June, 1934, p. 3.

[20]Daily Worker, 11 June, 1934, p. 3.

[21]Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, Labour Monthly, July 1934, pp. 398-399.

[22]Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, pp. 399.

 

From Olympia to Hyde Park: British anti-fascism in the summer of 1934

On 9 September 1934, a BUF rally at Hyde Park was opposed by a massive anti-fascist counter-demonstration, coming a few months after anti-fascists attempted to disrupt a BUF rally at Olympia and after a summer of similar confrontations across a number of metropolitan areas in England. This post is based on an early chapter from my book project on the history of no platform, to be published by Routledge’s Fascism and Far Right series.  

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The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was formed by Oswald Mosley in late 1932 and it grew exponentially in its first years, with nearly 50,000 members allegedly joining.[1] Enjoying support from Lord Rothmere’s Daily Mail and other sections of the Conservative right, Mosley attempted to establish the BUF through a series of public meetings, demonstrating its supposed mass support at rallies, inspired by Mussolini and Hitler. There were frequent mobilisations by anti-fascists against these public meetings and rallies in the early years of the BUF, culminating in two events in 1934 that solidified the militant anti-fascist approach of physical confrontation and also revealed the violent nature of the BUF.

Robert Skidelsky suggested ‘[f]or both fascists and anti-fascists Olympia was the epic battle of the 1930s’, explaining:

Fascists looked back with satisfaction on the ‘beating’ they had given the ‘Reds’ and claimed that it had restored ‘free speech’ in Britain. Anti-fascists regarded it as the moment when they unambiguously exposed the brutal face of fascism and condemned it thereafter in the eyes of all decent Englishmen.[2]

Olympia was to be a demonstration of the strength of the British Union of Fascists. As mentioned above, its membership growth had been strong throughout its first 18 months. After several well-attended meetings at the Albert Hall, Mosley believed that a larger venue, such as that of Olympia Stadium, was necessary. Around 10,000 people filled the stadium, with anti-fascists (primarily members of the Communist Party) securing around 500 tickets. The Communist Party portrayed Olympia as a chance to build the anti-fascist movement and confront the growing BUF. Regarding threats made in the run up to the meeting by Mosley, the Daily Worker declared:

Already the Blackshirts have used provocative threats against the workers…

They have made such threats at many meetings, but [past] events have shown that all their thuggish methods were unable to prevent the workers having their say. To-night will again prove this rule…

[T]he workers’ counter-section will cause them to tremble. All roads lead to Olympia to-night.[3]

A counter-demonstration by anti-fascists was held outside the venue, while anti-fascists heckled the speakers, including Mosley, and sought to disrupt the meeting. These disruptions were staggered over the evening, so to ensure the maximum disruptive effect. As The Times reported the following day, ‘The campaign of interruption had been well planned so that it should affect every part of the meeting in the course of the evening’.[4]

BUF bodyguards violently ejected the anti-fascist protestors, with The Times stating the constant interruptions were ‘countered with similar thoroughness and with a uniformity of treatment which suggested a prescribed technique of violence’.[5]The newspaper continued:

Stewards at once made for the offenders. If they resisted ejection the incident at once became an affair of fisticuffs and, if the victim remained standing at the end of his resistance he was seized ju-jitsu fashion and dragged out. Quite a number were borne out limp bodies after the frays.[6]

Once ejected, there were a number of arrests of anti-fascists outside the venue, where further violence was meted out by the police. The Daily Workerreported that outside Olympia, ‘seething crowds of thousands of workers kept up a continual anti-Fascist uproar, despite the enormous special concentration of police forces which had been gathered… for the Blackshirts’ protection’.[7] The following day, the newspaper stated that 24 anti-fascists had been arrested, compared to one BUF supporter, claiming that this was ‘a striking fact, which [spoke] volumes’ about the differing treatment by the police towards the BUF and the CPGB.[8]

Mosley and the BUF complained about the tactics used by the anti-fascists, described as ‘highly organized groups of Reds’, to break up the public meeting. Quoted in The Times, Mosley claimed:

For over three weeks certain Communist and Socialist papers have published incitements to their readers to attack this meeting. The result was that a large Red mob gathered outside the hall for the purpose of intimidating those who entered, and very many of the audience were in fact jostled before they managed to enter the meeting at all.[9]

In the BUF press, the violence was blamed on the Communists, but the fascist response was also celebrated, with A.K. Chesterton declaring it a ‘fascist victory’ and the ‘Red Terror Smashed’.[10] On the other hand, the Communist Party also claimed a victory as Olympia, with the Daily Workerdeclaring the following day:

Terrific scenes were witnessed at Olympia last night, when the workers of London staged a mighty counter-demonstration to the Mosley Fascists. Mosley’s carefully-planned arrangements were turned into a complete fiasco.[11]

There was an outcry by some in the press and some politicians at the violence witnessed at Olympia, which has been documented by a number of scholars. For example, The Times quoted Conservative MP Geoffrey Lloyd as declaring, ‘I am not very sympathetic to Communists who try to break up meetings, but I am bound to say that I was appalled by the brutal conduct of the Fascists last night’.[12] Although a number argued that the tactics of the anti-fascist protestors was just as deplorable as the actions of the BUF stewards. The Timesreported on debates in the House of Commons in the aftermath of Olympia, summarising that ‘members were about equally divided between unqualified condemnation of alleged Fascist brutality towards interrupters, and the feeling that allowances must be made for those who had been sorely provoked by Communists’.[13] Rajani Palme Dutt, a leading CPGB figure, wrote in his editorial for Labour Monthly that it was only because of the anti-fascist demonstrators that ‘the eyes of millions’ had been opened ‘to the real character of Fascism’.[14] Dutt proclaimed, ‘It is solely thanks to their stand that the present universal outcry against Fascism has developed, where before there was silence or indifference or amused toleration’.[15]

Scholars have debated whether the violence had a negative effect on the popularity of the BUF in 1934. David Renton has written that after Olympia, Lord Rothmere withdrew his support and that ‘BUF membership fell from 40,000 to 5,000 by the summer of 1935’.[16] Both Martin Pugh and Stephen Dorril have shown that some were put off by the violence on display at Olympia, but to some BUF supporters, the violent confrontations with the Communists solidified theirdedication to Mosley.[17] The columns of the mainstream newspapers were filled with both expressions of horror at the violence and letters of praise for Mosley’s tactics. As Pugh has explained:

The truth is that while the violence alienated some people, it also added to the appeal of the BUF among the young and militant anti-Communists, with the result that the organisation experienced a major turnover of membership during 1934-35.[18]

Whether the violence turned people away from the BUF or attracted them to it, it was clear that violence was an inherent part of the BUF’s programme.

The violence meted out to anti-fascists who broke up the meeting at Olympia roused the anti-fascist movement. Dave Hann wrote, ‘[a]nti-fascists had certainly taken a beating at Olympia but their growing movement responded in force, with an increase in the number of BUF public appearances interrupted by anti-fascists and the number of people involved in anti-fascist activity.[19] By the latter months of 1934, the anti-fascist movement was confident of disrupting the BUF’s staged rallies and while expecting fascist violence and police intimidation, were also confident that popular sentiment (particularly amongst workers) was turning against Mosley.

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After Olympia, there had been in-roads made by the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party and some trade unions to form a broad anti-fascist front. The Communist Party, transitioning from the ideas of ‘social fascism’ and ‘Class Against Class’ of the previous half decade to the Popular Front against fascism and imperialism of the mid-to-late 1930s,[20] sought to lead the anti-fascist movement and work with the ILP, while criticising the timidness of the Labour Party and the TUC.[21] As the General Council of the TUC debated its approach towards fascism in September 1934, the Daily Worker rhetorically asked, ‘who was it that had led the struggle in Olympia? Who was going to lead the struggle at Hyde Park on September 9?’[22]

On September 9, 1934, the BUF planned to hold a massive outdoor rally in Hyde Park, London. Taking the initiative seized at Olympia and continued through the summer of 1934, the CPGB and ILP attempted to mobilise a large contingent of workers and anti-fascists to Hyde Park. In the lead up to the event at Hyde Park, the CPGB warned:

Incitement to violence and the carrying out of the most bestial brutality is the stock-in-trade of the Blackshirt thugs of Mosley.

Olympia showed this plain for all to see.[23]

‘Should any violence take place on Sunday with regard to the great anti-Fascist demonstration’, the Daily Worker editorial declared, ‘then the responsibility dfor this rests on Mosley’s gang’. With the experience of Olympia in recent memory, the CPGB readied itself for potential violence, while at the same time, it warned against unnecessary violence. Jon Lawrence has suggested that this was part of the CPGB’s attempts to build the United Front with the ILP and a general shift away from violent confrontation by the Party leadership.[24] However it could also be argued that the CPGB (and the ILP) had learnt the lessons of Olympia and did not want individual anti-fascist protestors from suffering the same level of violence at the hand of BUF stewards or from the police. In the end, there was a massive turnout against the BUF at Hyde Park (between 60-150,000), with ‘much booing, heckling and ridicule from anti-fascists’, but ‘no serious disorder’.[25] Two days later, the Daily Worker reported that 18 people had been charged with a variety of offences after being arrested at the Hyde Park demonstration,[26] down from around 24 after Olympia, but with much larger number of anti-fascist demonstrators.

The Daily Worker called the demonstration at Hyde Park a ‘great blow against fascism’ and that Mosley’s rally had been ‘an utter fiasco’.[27] Despite the Labour Party and the TUC not supporting the demonstration and the police presence to maintain order (or to protect Mosley’s Blackshirts), the large crowd swamped the BUF rally ‘in a sea of organised working-class activity’.[28] On the other hand, the BUF claimed this was ‘the most remarkable display of the strength of Fascism ever seen in Britain’, but complained about the ‘intimidation of the opposition and the most definite attempts to create an impression that there would be considerable disorder in the Park’.[29] Even if the large crowds were not dedicated anti-fascists as the CPGB proclaimed, the BUF were vastly outnumbered and failed to win over those who had assembled in Hyde Park.

The momentum shifted away from the BUF after 1934, towards the anti-fascist movement, but also towards the National Government. As a number of a scholars have shown, the events of 1934 had led the National Government to debate laws regarding the policing of political meetings and public order, but shelved at the time. This was partly due to a reluctance by some politicians to curtail the freedom of political expression and partly because the BUF began to co-operate with the police.[30] Martin Pugh also suggests that the BUF avoided large urban cities where there was more likely to be an anti-fascist mobilisation, preferring to hold meetings across provincial England.[31] It was not until 1936, when Mosley and the BUF shifted tactics towards explicit anti-Semitism and trying to attract more working class supporters in the East End of London, that confrontations between anti-fascists, the police and the National Government reached a new crescendo with the ‘Battle of Cable Street’.

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The mainstream media’s take on events at Hyde Park

[1]Michael A. Spurr, ‘“Living the Blackshirt Life”: Culture, Community and the British Union of Fascists, 1932-1940’, Contemporary European History, 12/3 (2003) p. 309.

[2]Robert Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley (London: Papermac, 1990) p. 365.

[3]Daily Worker, 7 June, 1934, p. 1.

[4]The Times, 8 June, 1934, p. 14.

[5]The Times, 8 June, 1934, p. 14.

[6]The Times, 8 June, 1934, p. 14.

[7]Daily Worker, 8 June, 1934, p. 1.

[8]Daily Worker, 9 June, 1934, p. 1.

[9] The Times, 9 June, 1934, p. 11.

[10]The Blackshirt, 15 June, 1934, p. 3.

[11]Daily Worker, 8 June, 1934, p. 1.

[12]The Times, 9 June, 1934, p. 11.

[13]The Times, 12 June, 1934, p. 14.

[14]R. Palme Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, Labour Monthly, July 1934, p. 390.

[15]Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, p. 390.

[16]David Renton, This Rough Game: Fascism and Anti-Fascism (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2001) p. 139.

[17] Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism (London: Penguin 2007), pp. 298-301; Martin Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars (London: Pimlico, 2005), pp. 156-163.

[18]Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’, p. 162.

[19] Dave Hann, Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2013) p. 46.

[20]See: Matthew Worley, Class Against Class: The Communist Party in Britain Between the Wars (London: IB Tauris, 2017).

[21] Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain (London: Routledge, 2017) pp. 21-24.

[22]Daily Worker, 5 September, 1934, p. 1.

[23]Daily Worker, 8 September, 1934, p. 2.

[24]Jon Lawrence, ‘Fascist Violence and the Politics of Public Order in Inter-War Britain: The Olympia Debate Revisited’, Historical Research, 76/192 (May 2003) pp. 259-261.

[25]Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 26.

[26]Daily Worker, 11 September, 1934, p. 1.

[27]Daily Worker, 10 September, 1934, p. 1.

[28]Daily Worker, 11 September, 1934, p. 1.

[29]The Blackshirt, 14 September, 1934, p. 1.

[30]Richard C. Thurlow, ‘The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back: Public Order, Civil Liberties and the Battle of Cable Street’, in Tony Kushner & Nadia Valman, Remembering Cable Street: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Society (London: Valentine Mitchell, 2000) pp. 83-84; Lawrence, ‘Fascist Violence and the Politics of Public Order in Inter-War Britain’, p. 263,

[31]Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’, pp. 169-170.

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.