No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech, by Evan Smith

Nick Hillman assesses the arguments for and against banning certain speakers from campuses

July 23, 2020
A proctor speaks to a protester holding a "No platform for fascism" placard
Source: Getty

Despite the controversies they raise, “no platform” policies sound cut and dried. Under the one followed by the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS) since the 1970s, for example, you either have a right to speak or you don’t. Yet Evan Smith’s book shows that it is much more complicated than that.

The original NUS no platform policy was adopted in 1974 and aimed “to refuse assistance (financial or otherwise) to openly racist or fascist organisations or societies”. Sympathisers of such groups were to be prevented “from speaking in colleges by whatever means necessary”.

Ever since, there has been controversy over what this should mean in practice. Which groups should come within its scope? To what degree should local students’ unions and radical student groups follow the NUS’ lead? Should people only be stopped from speaking in students’ union premises or should they be disrupted when speaking elsewhere, too?

In particular, over the years, some people have called for no platform policies to be extended – to cover sexist, homophobic and anti-abortion speakers as well as, more recently, transphobic ones.

Smith’s clear sympathy for the no platform cause stems partly from its apparent flexibility. “‘No platform’, as a tactic and a policy,” he writes, “has shifted and changed with the politics of the time, and from the very beginning was altered by individual student unions and student groups to contest different forms of prejudice and oppression.”

The inherent fuzziness of no platforming allowed it to be interpreted in an expansive fashion from the off. For example, the students’ union at the London School of Economics opposed a 1978 speech by the senior Tory Keith Joseph after combining its no platform policy with its view that migration controls were racist. The Economist responded by warning students to “tighten their belts for a thin gruel of speakers from the fringe left”.

No platform is not just a vague policy masquerading as a clear one; it is also a policy claimed to favour free expression while masquerading as a ban. Supporters believe that it protects people’s rights by limiting the freedom of their oppressors, thereby guaranteeing safe spaces. As a students’ union spokesperson at University College Cardiff said in 1986 of a visit by the Conservative politician Enoch Powell, who was notorious for his inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric, some speeches can deny “the rights of blacks, Jews and Overseas Students to study in an environment free of intimidation and prejudice”.

One challenge is that this argument about rights is circular. The idea that I can protect your rights only by removing someone else’s is like saying “I have values, you have opinions, they have prejudices”. In 2018, the cross-party parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, chaired by Harriet Harman, largely accepted the NUS’ no platform policy but still noted: “Protesters who attempt to prevent viewpoints being heard infringe upon the rights of others.”

Smith’s book starts in the 1930s, decades before the NUS adopted its no platform policy, with the growth of British fascism and its opposing force, anti-fascism. It canters through flashpoints such as the British Union of Fascists’ disrupted meeting at London’s Olympia in 1934 and the infamous Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when anti-fascists and police fought each other while the fascists went home. It then briefly considers the under-researched re-emergence of British fascism in the 1940s and 1950s, when a smattering of groups provided a link between the pre-war fascism of Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and post-war neo-Nazism.

Universities come to the fore only when the book enters the early 1960s. At the time, support for British fascism briefly flickered at some universities, thanks to people such as Max Mosley, Sir Oswald’s son, who was secretary of the Oxford Union. Broadly speaking, right-of-centre students sometimes invited extremist speakers to campuses while left-of-centre students opposed their presence – although the close-up picture drawn in this book reveals that it was more complicated than that. At the University of Cambridge, for example, the future centre-right chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke wanted Mosley to speak while the future Conservative leader Michael Howard opposed the idea.

Moreover, it was sometimes university authorities rather than agitated students who opted to no platform invited speakers. The first vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, Sir Charles Wilson, banned Mosley from speaking in 1960 by overturning the decision of his students. They had voted to reject their students’ union council’s previous decision to disinvite him.

These antecedents and others in the late 1960s and early 1970s – including disrupted university visits by Powell, when his anti-migration campaign was at its height – show that the NUS’ no platform policy did not suddenly emerge from nowhere. Rather, it was an attempt to adopt a formal approach to controversial speakers after, in Smith’s words, numerous “ad hoc”, “localised” and “arbitrary” protests.

The NUS has always been an outward-looking body, and it is striking that the no platform policy also emerged in part from a desire to protect international students. This tends to be forgotten now – which is distinctly odd, because the government, universities and students all have a shared interest in ensuring that today’s international students, who have been worth £20 billion each year to the UK, remain safe. (The current row about whether Chinese students are safe in Australia confirms the continuing relevance of this issue today.)

The author also ascribes the adoption of the no platform policy to the emergence of an increasingly radical student movement frustrated by domestic politics and events such as the Vietnam War. This is standard fare and no doubt true. But it is far from the whole story. Given the generosity of student finance after 1962 and the fact that a high proportion of students hailed from upper middle-class backgrounds, the protests also resulted from students having the time and financial resources to be disruptive.

My own more recent experience working for a right-of-centre minister for universities who increased undergraduate tuition fees suggests that universities with a large proportion of wealthy students remain more susceptible to protest than those that mainly educate poorer students from under-represented groups. It was only at Cambridge that David Willetts was shouted down in 2011 to the extent that he could not deliver his prepared remarks. Less wealthy students at less prestigious institutions are more likely to be doing part-time work than disrupting invited speakers.

The idea of a free speech crisis in British universities is regularly exaggerated, including by government ministers. As Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, has written: “The perception is that we are witnessing a widespread ‘chilling’ of free speech on university campuses. Look closer and you will see that the evidence for this is vanishingly small.”

Corey Stoughton, a lawyer who has worked in the UK human rights organisation Liberty as well as the New York Civil Liberties Union, has gone further when discussing the Prevent duty of higher education institutions to stop people from being drawn into terrorism: “There is a substantial irony in the Government spuriously accusing today’s students of threatening free speech when, in fact, the true threat to free speech on campus is the Government’s own policies.”

So much of the ire expressed about the NUS’ no platform policy is baseless. Nonetheless, the opposition to no platform is as old as the policy itself, and the main problem with this book is that the author’s deep sympathy for the idea leads him to downplay the arguments against it. There are five powerful ones.

First, a no platform policy can increase the focus on a group because people’s interests are stoked by controversy. A sure-fire way for a far-right activist to gain sympathetic media coverage is for them to secure an invitation to speak to students and then either to have the invitation rescinded or for the event to descend into chaos. We too readily forget the story of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Their song Relax sold moderately well until it was banned, when it started flying off the shelves. Today, it is the sixth best-selling single in the UK ever.

Second, restrictions on free speech have a tendency to come back and bite you on the bum. Banning what you don’t like enables others to use your own rules to ban what you might like. Although no platform has always been designed to counter racism and fascism, in its early days it was used occasionally to enable racist acts, such as banning Jewish societies.

Third, the more individuals and groups that fall foul of no platform policies, the more people can throw the “red fascism” claim back at the policies’ proponents. The advocates of no platforming then come to look as if they are the ones restricting legitimate free speech in a liberal society. This in turn quickly leads to accusations about the loony left and snowflake student that have a horrible tendency to stick, while increasing the divide between policymakers and those inside educational institutions.

Fourth, while supporters of no platform policies believe certain opinions should not be part of the spectrum of legitimate debate, opponents believe that the best way to fight bad ideas is by exposing them to good ideas rather than driving them underground. Smith rejects this, warning pretentiously against “fetishising the performativity of debating”. While he sees anti-fascist activity as successful in battling extremism, he rejects outright the idea that Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party from 1999 to 2014, was hoisted by his own petard when he appeared on the BBC’s Question Time programme in 2009, saying, “It has become somewhat of a liberal myth that Griffin’s poor performance on the show revealed the true nature of the BNP.”

Fifth, and most important, no platform has not eradicated the problem it was designed to solve, of extremists engaging with students. So there is a reasonable claim to be made that it has failed on its own terms. Almost 35 years after the NUS adopted its no platform policy, Nick Griffin and the Holocaust denier David Irving spoke to University of Oxford students, just as Oswald Mosley had spoken to them long before.

Yet despite these weaknesses, the NUS collectively, individual students’ unions and the societies and clubs within a students’ union surely have the same right as the rest of us to decide who they do and who they do not want to hear from. Moreover, more than three-quarters of students backed the NUS’ no platform policy when the Higher Education Policy Institute asked them about it. So in the end, the arguments against no platforming are not killer blows.

Moreover, as one academic quoted in the book asks, “Is there anyone who honestly believes in an unqualified right of free speech?” Alongside threats to free speech from within universities and students’ unions, recent governments of different colours have also been willing to impose them from outside, particularly through their Prevent duty guidance.

Indeed, the oddest thing about all the recent heated debates around free speech on university campuses is how unpopular Prevent is among people who simultaneously support no platforming and vice versa. Yet they are drawn from the same well.

There are only six organisations currently named by the NUS as coming within its no platform policy: Al-Muhajiroun; the British National Party; the English Defence League (EDL); Hizb-ut-Tahir; the Muslim Public Affairs Committee; and National Action. The first and last of these organisations are also proscribed by the Home Office as “terrorist organisations”, and the others do not engender any sympathy in Whitehall either. For example, Conservatives have previously proposed acting against Hizb ut-Tahrir (their 2010 manifesto even promised to ban the group), and David Cameron’s memoirs say that, as prime minister, he regarded Tommy Robinson of the EDL as “an enemy of Britain”. In short, both Prevent and no platform target a combination of far right and Islamic groups.

That is why, even when the NUS was bringing tens of thousands of students to the streets of London to protest against higher tuition fees, the Cameron-Clegg coalition government was funding some of their anti-extremism work.

This serves as a useful reminder that the interests of society and the student movement are actually aligned – even if, tactically, it does neither the NUS nor centre-right administrations any good to admit it.

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. His research on political extremism has previously been published in the journals Contemporary British History and Patterns of Prejudice as well as the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. He has also previously written about free speech in universities here.


No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech
By Evan Smith
Routledge, 240pp, £120.00 and £34.99
ISBN 9781138591677 and 9781138591684
Published 30 April 2020

The author

Evan Smith, a research fellow in history at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, was born and raised in Adelaide and did both his first degree and his PhD at Flinders. His doctoral research, he recalls, was on “the British left and anti-racism”, which “meant that [he] spent significant time in Britain during the mid-2000s, which coincided with the revitalisation of the anti-fascist movement against the British National Party. This fusion of academic research and political activism has been central to the questions I have been asking in my research ever since.”

Over the course of his career, Smith has worked in Australia’s criminal justice sector as well as within the academy and has found the experiences mutually enriching. They have, he says, “taught [him] to view history through an interdisciplinary lens and that a better understanding of criminal justice processes can be formed by looking at the past”.

The coronavirus pandemic has inevitably attracted huge attention within universities as they are forced to rethink their teaching methods and fret about their financial futures. So what would Smith say to the claims that debates about “no platforming” and controversial speakers have become something of a sideshow?

“The current Covid-19 crisis has not stopped the controversy surrounding universities and freedom of speech,” he replies, “even though speakers are not able to be physically invited on to campus. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford University and its detractors in politics and the press, as well as the reaction by academics and students to David Starkey’s racist comments, are examples of this.

“The right have continued their culture wars unabated by the current crisis, and the far right have sought to exploit it further (witness the demonstrations to ‘protect’ statues in central London recently). Universities won’t shut forever, and when they return, students can expect an emboldened far right looking to make their presence known on campuses again – in Britain and elsewhere across the English-speaking world.”

Matthew Reisz

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Can’t speak! Won’t speak!

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