The uprising against facism: Students storm Oxford Union debate

The principle that everyone is entitled to their say, however obnoxious their opinions might be, was put to the test at the Oxford Union last night as hundreds of protesters gathered to voice their disapproval of the two men from the extreme right whom the illustrious debating chamber had invited there to speak.

One of the guests, the BNP leader Nick Griffin, heads an organisation that wants to see millions of people deported from the UK because they do not regard them as truly British.

He was due to share a platform with the historian David Irving, who has courted notoriety for decades by claiming that Hitler did not give the order to commit genocide, that there were no gas chambers and that six million Jews were not killed by the Nazis.

Scuffles broke out as anti-fascist groups yelled "Shame on you" at members filing into the union building, and the police shut the gates with the chamber only half full. While a handful of students crushed against the main gate to create a diversion, 30 others scaled the wall and barged past the tight security, occupying the area around the debating table until they were persuaded to leave.

"I hope we're not giving Griffin further publicity by doing this," said Peter Simpson, a student at Essex University who stormed the chamber, "but history has shown that you need to draw the line with fascists. I think a lot of people are here because they know what happened in the Second World War and they don't want it to happen again."

Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP due to join the debate, criticised Thames Valley Police for "failing to put a cordon around the Union" , allowing the protestors to barge through.

"The failure of the police is outrageous," he said as he told students in the chamber of plans to split the speakers after the university authorities decided it was too dangerous to walk Mr Griffin and Mr Irving across the quadrangle to the debating hall.

"The police have failed to provide for the safety of this event; failed to provide for the safety of this going ahead as planned.

"I'm very disappointed. The police imply that they don't have enough resources to move people away from the perimeter or that it is not their job. "

In order to get the debate under way, the speakers were split into two groups, with Mr Irving, jailed last year in Austria after pleading guilty to Holocaust denial, speaking in the main chamber, and Mr Griffin, convicted of incitement to racial hatred over material denying the Holocaust in 1998, in a cramped room in the main university building.

Warned to expect a maelstrom of abuse, they had avoided the main demonstration by arriving in separate black cabs, 10 minutes apart and 90 minutes early. The debate – on how far the freedom of speech should extend – finally started more than an hour late at 10pm.

Mr Irving defended accusations that his publications and speeces denied the existence of the Holocaust. "I still refuse to be bowed. I am not going to write what they want me to write. I'm going to write what I find in the archives," he said.

Across the yard, Mr Griffin went head-to-head with two student debaters. "The majority of racist attacks are on white people by members of ethnic minority communities," he said. "Those people outside are a mob and they could kill. Had they grown up in Nazi Germany they would have made splendid Nazis.

"Any restriction on free speech is dangerous. You start by saying people should not speak and you end up with burning people at the stake. Free speech is an absolute, it is universal."

Mr Irving, reported to have left at 10.45pm to a chorus of jeers from waiting demonstrators, said that disagreeing with some elements of the " whole package" did not make him a Holocaust denier. He had been invited to speak at the Oxford Union seven times, he said, but security fears had put paid to any chance of appearing. Speaking at the Union was something he cherished, he added, saying that the most important thing that any student listening to him could do was to think for themselves.

The president of the Oxford Union, Luke Tryl, was unconvinced. "I think David Irving came out of that looking pathetic," he said "I said in my introduction that I found his view repugnant and abhorrent because I wanted that on record."

President of the Union Luke Tryl and other students discuss the debate row

To get involved in the debate, please click here

Outside, some protesters chanted "Kill Tryl", to which the Union president said: "I don't think they do their cause any favours by inciting violence. That is my only regret."

Last night's meeting breached an unwritten agreement observed for years by the mainstream political parties – not to give the far right a public platform. Instead, it fell back on a much older principle, summed up in a maxim attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Mr Tryl, who has been under intense pressure to cancel the event, defended the decision to go ahead. He said: "David Irving and Nick Griffin have awful and abhorrent views but the best way to defeat those views is through debate.

"I remain committed to the principle that free speech has to prevail. I really worry about how the far right has been able to portray themselves as free-speech martyrs and I hope that this sort of debate will help dispel that myth – to show that the liberal mainstream are prepared to take them on and beat them in debate."

A minority of the students gathered outside the building agreed with Mr Tryl. Kudzh Ranga, a black law graduate living in the city, said he supported the right of Mr Griffin and Mr Irving to speak. "Though I don't agree with [Mr Irving's] stance on racism and the Holocaust I think it is only proper to let him come and address the general public," he said.

But most students and protesters in the street vehemently disagreed. They included Jean Kaigamba, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. He said: " I'm flabbergasted that people who claim to be intellectuals invite extremists in the name of free speech to give them a platform and let them air their perverted view."

David Green, a former committee member of the Oxford Union, said he had resigned from the organisation in protest. "What the union is doing today is extremely irresponsible – namely giving prominence to Holocaust deniers, people who are completely discredited," he said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Administrator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'