Friday, 5 February 2010

Victory for anti-fascists: Durham University 'debate' with BNP cancelled

On Monday I reported the announcement of a Durham University debating society event involving two leading BNP members. Pressure during the last few days, including plans for a major Unite Agianst Fascism protest at next Friday's event, has paid off. Here is the good news.


Durham Union Society (DUS), with the support of Durham University, has today announced that it has had to cancel plans for a debate entitled
'This House believes in a Multicultural Britain' in Durham City, scheduled for Friday 12 February.

The DUS had invited political commentator and advisor, Kulveer Ranger, and Conservative MP Edward Leigh to propose the motion, and elected British National Party (BNP) representatives Andrew Brons MEP and Councillor Chris Beverley to speak in opposition.

The decision to cancel the debate was taken by both the DUS, a long-established, independent debating society, and the University, after extensive consultations with the Police on the issue of public safety. While the debate was to be open to DUS members only, evidence of an escalation in planned protests and violence outside the chamber from both anti-fascist and fascist groups had increased the risk of public disorder and intimidation to students and staff.

DUS President Anna Birley said: "There has been mounting interest in the debate with both concerned and very supportive feedback from students and staff. I am confident that the debate would have been intelligent and responsible and an opportunity for our membership to expose and challenge any offensive views. I am disappointed that the focus has been moved away from a debate about multiculturalism to a planned confrontation outside of the chamber.

"I respect the right of groups to protest peacefully, but when a minority of both fascist and anti-fascist groups use peaceful protests and a controversial debate as a pretext for threatening behaviour, we must prioritise the safety of students attending the debate. I'm particularly concerned that the National Union of Students (NUS), which the DUS has no affiliation with, had planned to go out of their way to bring coaches of students to Durham, putting both their students and our members between rival groups of impassioned demonstrators."

The University, which had initially given consent for the debate to take place on its premises after careful consideration of its code of practice and statutes which preserve 'freedom of expression' within the University's estate, was supportive of the Society's decision to call-off the debate when it became clear that the safety of students, staff and visitors outside of the debating chamber could not be guaranteed.

Carolyn Fowler, the University's Registrar said: "The welfare of students and staff has always been our first priority and the University statutes clearly state that any threat to public safety supersedes the importance of freedom of expression, so we fully support the decision of DUS to cancel the debate on these grounds. The University was not prepared to provide an occasion for external extremist groups to engage in provocative and intimidating demonstrations that could endanger people and property.

"The views of the BNP are diametrically opposed to Durham University's expressed ethos of cultural-diversity and tolerance. We welcome staff and students of all cultures and faiths and from all parts of the world."

Durham University has the highest percentage of international staff of any UK University and is proud to welcome more than 1800 international students from over 160 countries.


  1. I hope there are going to be protests about these statements. What they amount to is that condemn anti-fascist in the same breath as fascists, and that they are cancelling the debate, not because it was wrong of them to invite Nazis in the first place, but because of the threat of violence.

    In other words, they are taking the low moral ground. But, I'm glad Brons isn't going to be given a platform. I just think Anna Birley shoudl be made aware of just how disgusting her views are as well.

  2. jgw
    I sympathise with your comments. There still needs to be debate about the issues behind this, though this announcement is a major boost for our movement. Crucially, it's a shame (and surely unnecessary) that the debate is simply cancelled altogether. With a better question - and no fascists! - it could be interesting and worthwhile.

  3. @jgw... I think that's a bit unfair re Anna Birley. Her statement makes it clear that she believes in freedom of speech, not the BNP, so what views precisely of hers do you find so disgusting? Smacks of talking about someone you don't know...

  4. "[T]he word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless ... almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’". ~ George Orwell

    Anti-fascism in its extremist form - as exhibited by the threatening, bullying tactics that were employed by the NUS, anti-fascist groups, and all those who planned to demonstrate at this debate - is as damaging and threatening an ideology as fascism itself.

    A no-platform policy cannot work. This debate, had it gone ahead, would have resulted in the abhorrent ideals of these two disgraceful individuals being put up to the scrutiny of intelligent young students, and inevitably trashed, ridiculed and defeated. The knee-jerk and frankly rabid response to this debate - a debate that would have taken place only in front of the Union Society's members, remember, not the general public - has instead blown up a local issue into a matter of even larger national publicity for the BNP and their ideals.

    Organising the debate itself in the first place was a questionable decision. 'Mobilising' (really?) huge numbers of mouth-foaming lefties only serves to imply that the BNP are worthy of anything more than our disdain. Media attention and these dangerous practices of oppositionalism and extremism are only spreading the message that you have to be at the furthest point in either direction - and even if that leads to a swelling in your own ranks, for every person you attract, there will be someone that you alienate and repel to the other extreme.

    Anti-fascism is a fine response to a terrible problem. Anti-fascist extremism is just the creation of another problem.

  5. It says that you block comments if they are personal or abusive - I think that jgw's comment about Anna Birley are both and I think that you should either say that you are fine with abusive and personal comments or remove the post.

  6. The comment about Anna Birley is certainly not personal or abusive. Saying someone's views are 'disgusting' is entirely legitimate, whether you agree with that particular view or not. If a commenter labelled the person, rather than their views, in such a way I'd adopt a different approach.

    As for the statements... the most important thing here is the positive result - the BNP will now NOT be speaking at a university debating society - but it's still worth noting that some reasons for blocking the event are better than others (which is what I interpret jgw as commenting on).

  7. On the topic of no platform:

    The truth is that when the BNP get platforms they become more respectable and influential. All the evidence suggests they DON'T get exposed to ridicule and made to look terrible by these events. Most obviously, they gained from Griffin's appearance on Question Time - many people who are at least partly sympathetic to the BNP felt Griffin had been given a hard time by these London-based cosmopolitan elites, whereas Griffin was sticking up for people like them.

    These people are too clever to talk about fascist ideology - they present themselves as reasonable and respectable. And to some extent it works, especially if you are willing to 'debate' with them and therefore imply they are part of reasoned political discussion. The alternative is to isolate and ostracise them, and expose them for who they really are.