Oxford votes on whether Irving and Griffin should address Union

Jenni Woolf spent all day trying to get Oxford University students to see what she saw as the broader picture. "A lot of people here are white and middle class and so the general attitude before speaking to them about the issue is that it is not such a bad thing," she said. "But the safe haven and ivory tower that is Oxford will start to break down, especially for the ethnic minorities who are most likely to be affected."

The issue at stake was whether an invitation to the Holocaust-denying historian David Irving and the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, to address a forum on free speech at the Oxford Union on Monday should be withdrawn.

Their presence on the list of speakers has already elicited a series of high profile withdrawals from the platform next week, among them the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, the TV presenter June Sarpong and the Labour MPs Austin Mitchell and Chris Bryant.

Such was the anger stirred by the inclusion of the controversial right- wingers that the Oxford Union president, Luke Tryl, a former chairman of the Halifax branch of Conservative Future, formerly known as the Young Conservatives, decided to put it to a vote.

And yesterday voting was brisk as students and former students cast their ballot papers to decide whether the event should go ahead with or without the presence of the two men. The result, not due until the early hours of this morning, was all sides agreed, too close to call.

Ms Woolf, a 21-year-old Cambridge graduate had travelled to the Other Place in her capacity as a national campaigns field worker for the Union of Jewish Students, who are vehemently opposed to the inclusion of Mr Irving and Mr Griffin.

She said a visit to her university by the French far-right politician Jean Marie Le Pen in 2003 had led to an upsurge in racial tension. Earlier threats of violence between the Anti Nazi League and the BNP led to the cancellation of a debate involving Mr Griffin and the radical Muslim preacher Abu Hamza, organised by the Cambridge Forum.

Ms Woolf feared it was too easy for morally repugnant views to be cloaked in apparently moderate language by skilled speakers.

"Some people are quite surprised that Nick Griffin went to Cambridge and that he is quite intelligent while Irving is an eloquent speaker and writer," she said.

Mr Tryl insisted yesterday that it was possible to abhor the views held by the likes of the BNP and Irving, while still upholding the right for them to be heard. He said: "This is a very important decision that should not rest in my hands. I find these people awful and abhorrent but they have to be defeated in debate. I don't want them to become free-speech martyrs."

The Oxford Students Union president, Martin McCluskey said there had already been one report of racial abuse directed towards an Asian person campaigning against the invitation. Mr McCluskey said: "We have been behind all term but in the last few days we have bought a lot of people on to our side but whether it is enough to win I don't know. I'm not against free speech but why not ask people here who are really denied it – someone like Morgan Tsvangirai or an Iranian blogger?"

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