David Irving at Oxford
zgrams at zgrams.zundelsite.org
zgrams at zgrams.zundelsite.org
Thu Nov 29 07:03:08 EST 2007
The debate at the Oxford Union: an eyewitness account
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
by Jonny Wright
I'VE just returned from tonight's Free Speech Forum at the Oxford
Union. It's been a strange night, and to some extent, a really
unpleasant spectacle. I believe I've seen the very best and the very
worst of political thought and activism on display tonight. I'll try
to describe things as I saw them, rather than go on another big rant
about free speech.
The anti-fascist demonstration was scheduled for 7pm, so I arrived at
the Union at quarter-to, hoping to get in safely before any trouble
started. The Union consists of a main building (with the bar and the
library), the imposing Victorian debating chamber opposite, and a
garden in between. The whole thing is surrounded by a high brick
wall, with one small gate giving access to St Michael's Street.
There's a back entrance too, but for tonight, it was barred and
shuttered: that small gate was the only way in or out.
St Michael's Street is a small, largely pedestrianised road just off
the Cornmarket, and the demonstration was taking up the entire road.
The police hadn't set up a cordon between the protesters and the
Union gate, and it was pretty evident that as soon as the crowd built
up, it was going to be impossible to get in and out. I made it in
just in time. Within fifteen minutes, the anti-fascist demonstration
was filling up the only route into the Union, and a row of
demonstrators were sitting down, deliberately blocking the gate.
I went into the bar with Micah, a fellow Jewish Society member. We'd
corresponded over Facebook about the event -- we'd disagreed over
whether or not the debate should take place, but now it was happening
for certain, Micah had decided he'd rather be in the chamber arguing
with the speakers than outside it demonstrating. He'd had to leave
most of his friends on the other side of the barricade. We were both
hoping to speak in the debate, so we had a beer together, compared
what we'd both written, and chatted about lines of argument. We were
both concerned that since the motion was about free speech, it was
going to be difficult to challenge either speaker on their more
controversial views. We compared incriminating quotations and
disgusting BNP policies, and decided that if Tryl told us off for
speaking off-topic, we could always invoke freedom of speech as a
At about 7.30, there was a serious commotion outside -- we rushed out
into the garden to see. Students with tickets for the event had
arrived en masse, and were being forcibly prevented from getting in.
Cameron, a friend from my college, stuck his membership card and his
event ticket between his teeth, and vaulted over the wall. Others
pushed or jumped their way through the gate, with anti-fascist
protesters trying to drag them back. There were cries of "shame on
you", lots of very fuzzy megaphone rhetoric, and anti-BNP chants. We
stood in the gardens, the hundred or so that had made it, out of over
four hundred that had tickets.
Around 8pm we went into the chamber and sat down, with the debate
scheduled for 8.30. We were checked through individually, and our
membership cards were scanned one by one. By this time, there were
serious worries about the event going ahead, as anti-fascist
demonstrators had climbed onto the Union's wall and were overlooking
the gardens. It was pretty obvious that security had been very
heavily compromised. In the chamber, there was no sign of Irving or
Griffin; we were told to sit tight and stay away from the windows.
Then a group of 20 or 30 anti-fascist campaigners got through the
gate and into the gardens, and tried to storm the debating chamber.
Apparently the security guards had tried to let some Union members in
through the gate, but a surge of demonstrators had muscled their way
through. Most students in the chamber stayed sitting, but group of
around 20 debate-goers stood against the doors and stopped
demonstrators from coming in. The standoff continued for 10 or 15
minutes; then a few of the event organisers in the chamber decided it
would be best to let the demonstrators in. There were a few scuffles
as they came through, and I saw some grabbing and shoving from both
sides, but no punches thrown.
Micah commented to me: "I've never felt so threatened by my own side!"
The group staged a sit-in on the floor of the debating chamber,
singing anti-racist songs, chanting, and megaphoning us. A few Union
members tried to talk to them, but they seemed far more interested in
shouting us down than in discussing the issues. I cobbled together a
makeshift banner in blue fountain pen and bits of A4 paper. It said
"FREE SPEECH IS YOUR BEST DEFENCE. One of the photographers snapped
it; I don't think anyone else noticed.
Around 9pm, the police finally arrived, -- where had they been up
till now? -- and herded everyone upstairs into the gallery, checking
everyone's membership card on the way. They rooted out the
protestors, escorted them out of the building, and a few minutes
later brought us back down into the chamber, checking all the
membership cards a second time. They obviously didn't do a great job,
because I found myself sitting next to two students from Exeter who'd
come to demonstrate, but were now curious to hear what Irving and
Griffin had to say, and asked me not to rat on them.
At ten to ten, Lib Dem MP Evan Harris came in. He was one of the
scheduled speakers for the event. He explained that another large
group of Oxford students was in the main building; they'd been
brought in via another entrance -- I heard anecdotally that they'd
come in via the fire escape that leads to the Union's underground
nightclub. They couldn't be brought into the debating chamber,
because the demonstrators on the wall were making it impossible to
cross the garden between the two buildings. Apparently, the forum was
going to be split into two halves, with Irving speaking at one, and
Griffin at the other.
Five minutes later, Luke Tryl arrived, repeated what Harris had said,
and asked us specifically not to applaud, jeer, or make any other
loud noise throughout the event. He didn't want to give the
demonstrators an impetus to storm the building again; it was clear
they could swarm over the wall given half a chance.
He went out for a few minutes, and came back accompanied by David
Irving; apparently the other group had the dubious pleasure of being
addressed by Nick Griffin. Evan Harris and Anne Atkins were also
The seating arrangements were interesting. Tryl was in the centre, at
the speakers' table, where you'd expect the President of the Union to
sit for a discussion forum. Harris and Atkins sat right next to him,
on the benches to his left. Irving was on the other side, on his own,
right in the middle of a bench. Nobody was sitting anywhere near him.
He looked like a pariah; he looked very gruff and very sullen.
As Tryl introduced the speakers, he made it very clear that he was
distancing himself from Irving. ("Like all of you, I abhor his views,
but ...") He called him "despicable" and "abhorrent". It wasn't quite
as eloquent as Lee Bollinger's introduction to Ahmadinejad, but it
was heading in that direction. His introductions of Harris and Atkins
were very matter-of-fact by comparison.
Evan Harris kicked off the debate. He was his usual self -- very
slick, very personable, a decent public speaker. He said that he
would be fully behind the protesters if only they were arguing
against Irving's and Griffin's views; but since they were arguing
against their right to express those views, he couldn't back them. He
slammed the police for failing in their duty to protect the debate,
and asked why they hadn't formed a proper cordon around the Union. He
also told us a bit about his decision to speak: he'd been invited to
the forum before it became public that Irving and Griffin were going
to speak, but once he found out that they were coming, he decided
that it would be very unprincipled to drop out.
IRVING was up next. I have to say that I was very surprised by him. I
expected an angry diatribe from a stern-looking hatemonger. Irving
comes across far more like an academic, with a clipped and slightly
soft accent, very English. He spoke quite calmly. He started off by
thanking the Union for the chance to speak -- this was his seventh
invitation, and the only one that hadn't been cancelled. He expressed
his hope that the demonstrations were largely aimed at Nick Griffin
rather than himself.
He began his argument with the words "I'm not a Holocaust denier --
but you've never had the chance to find that out." He insisted time
and time again that he published what he believed to be the truth,
and that he was being victimised because his view didn't correspond
to the orthodox one. He peppered his speech with references to the
Holocaust, and it sounded as if he was doing it rather
self-consciously, almost defensively. He paraphrased Animal Farm,
claiming that he was "less equal than other historians".
At this point, the two demonstrators from Exeter who were sitting
near me got up, and stomped out of the hall in disgust.
Irving then went on a bit of a general rant about free speech. I felt
extremely uncomfortable as I found myself agreeing with much of his
rhetoric on the subject, although I was well aware that in every
sense, he had utterly failed to live up to what he was preaching. He
said "freedom of speech means the right to be wrong sometimes" -- I
doubt he's admitting that his views are wrong, but in truth, it
shouldn't be a crime to lie (or, more likely, to delude oneself)
about historical facts.
His parting shot should be a serious warning to the anti-fascist
demonstrators: "Every time I'm banned from another country, I regard
it as a victory ... it means there's no-one there who can debate
Anne Atkins was next up. She took much the same line as Harris on
free speech; it's noteworthy that as a Christian writer, she argued
for the repeal of the blasphemy laws ("God doesn't get offended!").
She also told us that the protestors outside had been chanting "Kill
Tryl", which in her view very much fell outside the limits of
legitimate free speech: it was incitement to murder; how ironic. She
spoke about people in the past who had been killed simply because
they spoke against the view of the majority -- her main example was
of course Jesus, whose views were considered dangerous and worthy of
suppression by the Roman rulers of the time.
By this point, the constant din of anti-fascist protesters outside
had almost entirely vanished. It sounded like they'd given up. It was
almost 11, close to the time limit for the debate, and neither Micah
nor I got to make our speeches. Tryl decided that instead of opening
the debate to the floor, he'd allow questions and answers instead.
Predictably most of the questions went to Irving.
Wasn't he a hypocrite to defend free speech when he had sued Lipstadt
in order to silence her? No, he said, he had agonised for a long time
over whether or not to take legal action, but did so ultimately
because "she had amassed a landslide against me", and because "free
speech doesn't mean a licence to smear". He did, however, agree that
"it looks hypocritical". There was, apparently, a "fine line".
He also said that the trial took place seven years ago, and that if
anyone accused him nowadays of being an active Holocaust denier, they
were slandering him: "I don't buy the whole package, that's all --
but it doesn't make me a denier." No jeers -- people reluctantly
obeyed Tryl's request - but there were hisses, muffled expletives,
and very audible intakes of breath.
Micah got his hand in, and asked about Irving's infamous racist poem,
which he'd written for his young daughter:
I am a Baby Aryan
Not Jewish or Sectarian
I have no plans to marry an
Ape or Rastafarian
The reply wasn't very edifying. Irving admitted to writing it, told
us how it had been used against him in his trial, and pointed out
that it was only 19 words long, and was found after people had
trawled through hundreds of thousands [in fact millions] of words of
his diaries. "Whatever that poem represents, it's a very small
percentage of who I am ... I told that to the judge, and he wasn't
impressed." Nor were any of us, and the under-the-breath hisses told
It was about quarter past eleven, and Tryl called time on the debate.
Irving was escorted out of the room; we were told to stay put until
it was safe for us to leave. Anne Atkins and Evan Harris kept us
amused by taking more questions and answers, until at about 11.30pm
we were told we could go. The protest had dispersed by then; just
banners strewn all over the floor. St Michael's Street looked like a
total mess. I took my little makeshift banner on the way out;
somebody patted me on the back as I held it up. Coming onto the
Cornmarket, I walked straight back to college, and made a beeline for
the computers, which is where I am now. Writing it all up.
It's too late, and I'm too tired, to formulate any sort of coherent
response to what's happened today. I'll just set out a few quick
thoughts, in the order that they ooze out of my brain.
* Firstly, it's ridiculous to claim to be anti-fascist when
you're blocking a public right of way, and stopping people from
getting to a legal meeting, however much you disagree with that
* Secondly, the argument we heard time and time again about the
threat from BNP activists being so great that it trumped the right to
free debate. I didn't see any BNP people at all (although I'm willing
to admit I wasn't in a position to see everything that happened, and
they may well have been there). What I did see was a large group of
so-called anti-fascists prepared to use physical force to stop people
getting to a debate, use large amounts of amplified noise to try and
drown the debate out, shout abuse and intimidation at students going
about their lawful business, and call for the death of a 20-year-old
young man with pretty mainstream political views.
* Thirdly, I felt sickened by Irving's constant references to
the Holocaust, coupled with his constant efforts to underplay the
scale and meaning of it, and his noxious suggestion that Britain
should have done a deal with the Nazis in 1940, and pulled out of the
war -- it would have meant the subjugation of the entire continent
and the eradication of European Jewry, but Irving maintains it would
have been in the best interests of Britain. As an internationalist
and as a believer in universal human rights, that sickens me.
* Fourthly, I'm immensely glad that I was able to hear Irving
speak. I don't think it endangered me or put me at risk of
corruption. It broadened my horizons and let me find out something
about a man who up till now had only ever been a sort of bogeyman --
and some of the things that I found out were genuinely surprising. I
don't see why I should have been barred from going to this talk
because of somebody else's arbitrary judgement. I'm also quite glad
that Irving's views were shown up and challenged very strongly by
students in the audience.
* Fifthly, I'm physically and mentally shattered, it's quarter
to two in the morning, I'm not sure I can stomach any more of this
whole saga which has dominated Oxford life for the past two months,
so I'm going to bed!
David Irving comments:
I CAN only congratulate Jonny Wright on his objective account. He is
now doomed if he wants a Fleet Street career.
More information about the Zgrams