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Comment: Tommy Robinson, the EDL and the Oxford Union

05th July 2013 14:45:36

Simon Blackaby thinks that you can’t have a debate about nationalism without inviting the leader of a violent and reactionary gang of racist thugs. We disagree.

Comment by Tessa Frost (Oxford, @tessafrost) & Orlando Lazar-Gillard (Cambridge, @lazargillard)

Tommy RobinsonThe Oxford Union’s Simon Blackaby has extended an (as-yet-unofficial) invitation to Tommy Robinson – leader of the EDL – to speak for a motion on nationalism. Simon has wildly misunderstood the UAF and NUS ‘No Platform For Fascism’ policy, claiming that people have criticised the invitation “because it’s easier to win an argument if you don’t let your opponent speak”.  

This is no surprise. Whenever Oxbridge debating clubs invite a saucy, controversial speaker, a high-pitched, identikit defence in the name of free speech is sure to follow. The Union’s president, Parit Wacharasindhu, appears to be even more confused by the concept, insisting that “no speakers are ever given a platform”.

There are good reasons to value No Platform, and good reasons to resist the invitation of speakers like Robinson. But why does the Union want him there in the first place? 

Blackaby claims that his only desire is for an “open and interesting debate” with a “variety of different views”. 

Firstly, don’t tell us that this couldn’t be achieved without inviting the leader of the EDL. More importantly, hearing Tommy Robinson speak is not interesting. Watch any interview with him from the last year. Watch as he refuses to engage with the reality of the actions of his group. Watch him lie, and deny that his group is violent, that there is widespread incitement to racial and religious hatred at the group’s demonstrations. 

He says that his members are not racist – in fact, his group doesn’t even have membership. Laurie Penny’s interview with Robinson is a good example of his flat-out denial of, well, everything. Try to engage with Robinson in a debate and you will get nowhere.

 What the audience will be treated to is Robinson’s PR machine. Over and over again, he peddles a thin veneer of moderate anti-extremism. He claims that the EDL is a pressure group, designed to get radical Islam on the political agenda. 

He is against Sharia law. He is against suicide bombings. He is against paedophile rape gangs. Who doesn’t hate paedophile rape gangs? 

He will be moderate to the point of banality, and reasonable to the point of triviality.

And this is what it boils down to. Tommy Robinson doesn’t have to say anything. His very presence at the Union is enough. Blackaby is giving the EDL a chance to stand with legitimate and mainstream commentators, and allowing them cultivate an image of moderation and respectability – giving them a chance to paint themselves as an organisation that has something important to say. Something that should be heard. 

After all, why else would this prestigious institution want them to speak? 

The far right is on the rise in Europe and at home. So lets be clear about why we need a No Platform policy. Starving hateful, far-right organisations of the legitimacy and respectability they crave keeps them very much on the sidelines of mainstream politics. If he speaks, you get nothing, and the EDL get what they want – another platform. Rescind the invitation.

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