Posted tagged ‘British National Party’

The great free speech dilemma

October 15, 2011

So here is the news today: Trinity College Dublin has announced that it will not allow the leader of the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin, to visit the college to take part in a debate on immigration at the University Philosophical Society. The BNP leader had been invited to the debate, but after students groups (including one named ‘Students Against Fascism’) had said they would obstruct the visit the invitation was withdrawn. In a statement the College said:

‘The University Philosophical Society and Trinity College Dublin have decided to withdraw the invitation to Mr Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party. Mr Griffin was invited by the Philosophical Society to participate in a debate on October 20th next. After careful consideration of the matter, involving a series of discussions between the Philosophical Society’s officers and the College and taking all safety considerations into account, the decision was taken today (October 14th). The College encourages balanced debate and freedom of speech at all times. It is a very important part of academic life, particularly among students and their societies. As part of the education of our students, the College also promotes the autonomy and self governance of student societies.  These are important principles observed by the College. Following careful review of operational and safety issues, the Philosophical Society and the College are now not satisfied that the general safety and well being of staff and students can be guaranteed. Access to the College will not be given to Mr Griffin or members of the BNP.’

So what should we make of this? Let me first stress that I consider Mr Griffin’s views, and for that matter his party, to be odious. The party appeals to the worst instincts of its potential voters, and its activities undermine social cohesion in parts of England. Thankfully it has not managed to gain much traction in Scotland.

But bad and all though it is, should we curtail freedom of speech for its leaders and members? I remember an incident while I was a student when the participation of a conservative politician in a debate was made impossible by a group of students shouting ‘No free speech for Fascists’. The politician in question was undoubtedly not progressive, but he was hardly a fascist, and in consequences it seemed to me that the protestors were potentially more dangerous than the person they were attacking. Indeed the same group threatened to obstruct a visit by the British Labour politician Denis Healey, arguing that he too was a ‘Fascist’.

Freedom of speech is arguably the most important civil right. Without it no democracy can survive. But it doesn’t really exist if it is conditional, and in the end we must argue that all people, including those with odious views, must be allowed to speak provided they do so within the law. Otherwise we may be defending something that is already lost.

I am not criticising Trinity College Dublin – the College had to take a decision based on the situation as they found it. But the fact that they were forced to do this is a matter of regret. What is more, Nick Griffin is not a persuasive speaker; he would easily have been shown in the debate to have no views worth admiring. The opportunity to showcase the superiority of the liberal democratic tradition was missed.

Debating with the extreme right

October 16, 2009

An issue which has been the subject of some heated discussion in the United Kingdom over recent weeks is how to, or whether to, engage in public debate with the far right British National Party (BNP). For those who may not be familiar with it, the BNP is a party that bases its political outlook on what it says is the need to ‘secure a future’ for the ‘indigenous peoples’ of these islands. In other words, its raison d’être is a racial one: to advance the case for what we call ‘white’ people, and therefore by definition to oppose non-white immigration and policy measures to protect the rights and liberties of all those who don’t come from the racial groups it supports. This is reinforced by the fact that, until now at least, membership of the party has been restricted under its rules to those whose ethnic origin is ‘indigenous Caucasian’.

The BNP also promotes a number of other policies, some of which are also race-related, and some of which are presumably intended to resonate with those who favour traditional or semi-mystical views of the British people. It seeks a withdrawal from the European Union, deportation of immigrants who commit crimes, the restoration of traditional weights and measures, and so forth.

The BNP has been able to gain some electoral ground in Britain, albeit only in certain settings and locations. It entered the European Parliament for the first time at the elections earlier this year, and it has been able to gain seats on some local councils. The approach of all the established parties in the United Kingdom has been to denounce it and to oppose its policies as racist and unacceptable.

The current controversy has arisen because the BBC’s Question Time has invited BNP leader, Nick Griffin, to join the panel on next Thursday’s programme. After some uncertainty as to what the Labour Party would do (it has had a policy of never sharing a platform with the BNP), all the established parties have agreed to be represented on the programme; the government will be represented by Justice Secretary Jack Straw. This in turn has been condemned by other Labour Party politicians, and more generally there has been a very lively debate about what the right approach to the BNP should be.

One thing we all know, or at least should know if we have read and understood European history, is that the extreme right in politics makes use of economic uncertainty and in such a setting sows the seeds of racism, intolerance and bigotry, and that this can translate into major social unrest. It is I believe the duty of our societies to protect the values and principles that we have taken from the 20th century experience with fascism. However, when we encounter those who don’t share those values, what do we do? Do we ignore them? And if we take them on, do we allow them a pubhlic platform so that we can debate them?

I confess I am not sure what the correct answer is. I am uneasy about parties such as the BNP being given the respectability that an appearance on a prominent political television programme may suggest. On the other hand, I also hope that those who appear with them may be articulate enough to demolish them and their views. I think I shall be watching the programme, but will probably do so with a deep sense of uneasiness.