A violent reaction

June 20, 2003

Coverage offers former National Front member undue public standing, argues Paul Mackney

I am frankly astonished that The THES should have given front-page coverage with a colour photo to Patrick Harrington last week, who, as you say, does "not regret his past National Front membership". This is either crassly naive or grossly irresponsible.

Harrington was a key member of the NF directorate in the 1980s and is desperate to create a portfolio of respectability. It is neither surprising nor headline news that such a person would criticise Natfhe's policy on the British National Party.

In the early 1980s, I personally experienced telephone harassment from people who identified themselves as NF members. They threatened physical violence to me and my wife and arson to our house and car. They told me this was because Birmingham Trades Union Council, which had a high profile on equality issues, was calling for a re-examination of the convictions of the so-called "Birmingham Six". I was president of Birmingham TUC at the time.

I was a relatively powerful white person with good connections with all the local people in authority. But I was frightened - not least because some houses in East Birmingham had been set alight and the socialist bookshop next to where I worked was torched with a blazing car, killing a kidnapped female motorist locked in the boot. The person responsible was caught in the classroom where I taught trade union education courses.

It is well documented that Harrington was a rising star in the NF in London during this time, when the party was printing the names and addresses of anyone perceived as an enemy, including teachers who campaigned on anti-racist issues.

The issue here is not about polite debates or even academic freedom; it is about the right of people to work and study free from fear.

Of course, issues of race and racism should be discussed at university, but there is a line to be drawn. The THES needs to acknowledge that some lecturers feel threatened by the presence of activists from far-right organisations and that a few have had their names and contact information posted on race-hate websites.

Many lecturers, but particularly those of African, Afro-Caribbean, Asian, Chinese and Jewish origin, find it intimidating to teach people who are in far-right groups organising for an all-white Britain. So far, not one Natfhe member has refused to teach such students. But Natfhe maintains lecturers' rights to work in an atmosphere free from intimidation.

We have said for some time that we will support any member who refuses to work with or teach organised fascists in the same way as we insist that a building is safe from hazards.

Natfhe's annual conference merely gave this policy unanimous endorsement. It is not a "knee-jerk reaction" to a few BNP election successes.

The policy does not preclude universities from making alternative arrangements that will allow them to fulfil their contractual obligations, so the prospect of "a profile-boosting legal victory" is quite unlikely.

The problem would not be so great if universities were less complacent on these questions and had fulfilled their legal requirement to promote good race relations and equality of opportunity under the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000.

The THES could promote good practice in an area where very few institutions give even minimal instructions to staff on how to deal with a racist incident - one of the key recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report.

This is probably the first time The THES has given such prominence to someone who, although described as a "qualified teacher", actually works as a GNER conductor. Perhaps The THES 's resources could be more usefully deployed conducting a survey of universities to see what actions they have taken to eliminate racism in recent years.

Lecturers often ask to be taken away from or to swap teaching commitments, and unions sometimes support them in this. It is interesting that this attracts interest only when fascism is involved.

It is dangerous to play with fascism. This is one of the key lessons of the 20th century. We do not want a repetition of the unhappy story of the collapse of academia in central Europe before fascism in the 1930s.

Incidentally, we are not encouraging our members to write to The THES about this issue because it could result in their being listed on race-hate websites.

Paul Mackney is general secretary of the lecturers union Natfhe.

Is it right to refuse to teach racist students? Join the debate at www.thes.co.uk/commonroom

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