The cancellation of Alice Weidel's visit to the Oxford Union is a victory and should help to push for a mass, anti-racist movement, argues Josh Newman
On Friday Alice Weidel, co-leader of the far-right German party Alternative für Deutschland, announced that she was cancelling her visit to Oxford to speak at the elite debating chamber of the Oxford Union.
The Oxford Union is not part of the structure of the University and a motion to condemn the invitation was passed overwhelmingly at the Student Union. Many students, along with activists from city groups like Oxford Stand Up to Racism and Unite Against Fascism were organising a protest outside the Union on St Michael’s Street in the centre of town on the evening of Wednesday 7th when she was to be speaking.
The visit was cancelled, citing security concerns. This is no doubt due to the efforts of those who were building for sizeable protests which would potentially have disrupted the event. It shows us that action, sometimes even just the threat of it, does work and can achieve its stated aims.
Alice Weidel herself has had a rapid rise to prominence as the co-leader of the AfD with the vile Alexander Gauland. She has presented herself as a moderate, denying links to extremist right-wing elements in the party or even that there are such elements.
As with many of the larger far-right parties in Europe at the moment, immigration is their watchword. She has used the relatively welcoming immigration policy in Germany as a stick to bash Angela Merkel and mainstream politicians with, suggesting that they wish to dilute the German people. Last year an email surfaced which appeared to be from Weidel and, as well as referring to Merkel and her government as ‘pigs’, used classic white nationalist rhetoric about infiltration by aliens and the breaking up of the native peoples.
Their strategy often appears to involve a member of the party saying something overtly racist and Weidel stepping in to clarify the remarks.
By inviting Weidel to speak at the Oxford Union, the Union would have gifted her an opportunity to do just this. No doubt she had prepared a polished, reasonable-sounding defence of the concerns of her party and those protesting would have been made out to be the irrational element.
The president of the Oxford Union commented on the calls from students, staff, and activists to rescind the invitation by saying that ‘we consider our invitations very carefully. We believe in free speech. That is not going to change because some student activists with very small mandates condemn us.’
This comment is extremely revealing about the structures in place at the Oxford Union. Firstly, the appeal to free speech here is as much of a red herring as it often can be. The Union’s justification for inviting Weidel is that she is a prominent public figure in the European political landscape. So which is it? Either someone’s free speech is at stake or they are a prominent public figure with an already large platform. You cannot have it both ways.
Secondly, the dismissal of quite a large group of activists including students, academic staff, and members of the public as a few students ‘with very small mandates’ is reminiscent of the dismissive way in which many parliamentary politicians talk about the concerns of ordinary people. That adds up since many of our MPs passed through the Oxford Union when they were students.
This is all unsurprising given the Oxford Union’s recent history. In the last few years they have invited Marine le Pen and Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s original campaign manager, to speak. At the turn of the century they were happy also to invite Nick Griffin, then leader of the BNP. In 2015 the Union chose to mark a debate about colonial reparations by creating a cocktail called ‘colonial comeback’, advertised with a picture of black hands in manacles. With a record like this we should not be surprised that this institution brushes with fascistic figures in the name of openness and free speech.
Oxford University is well known to have a wildly disproportionate representation in high public office in the United Kingdom. Effectively what the Oxford Union does with invitations like this is present potential politicians of the near future with the idea that it is reasonable to sit down and listen to people who rationalize white nationalist rhetoric.
The Oxford Union may well invite figures like Akala to speak about colonial whitewashing of black history but this rings hollow when they also provide the friendly faces of fascism with an open platform to make their ideas sound reasonable.
In true Oxford style, an academic at one of the University’s graduate colleges commented that ‘I take the classic liberal position that it’s better to have the open debate, have them be challenged, and then often that ends up demolishing and exposing their position much more effectively than anything else’. This ‘marketplace of ideas’ strategy is often used to justify having far-right figures on major television and radio shows but it does not work.
That is not to say that we should shut ourselves off from certain ideas because we do not agree with them. It is rather that this misunderstands the nature of fascist ideas and how they take hold. One of the principal aims of fascism is to destroy the freedoms of minority groups and the left. Sometimes this is promoted by an outwardly reasonable, well-spoken individual. Defeating someone like this in an isolated debating chamber does not make fascism go away. It is right to oppose invitations of this kind on campus, not to restrict freedom of speech, but to deny a group who wishes to forcibly close down freedom of speech and democracy for some the opportunity to promote themselves in a given space.
This is an important argument to make because, whilst the cancellation of this talk is a victory, it could be turned into further ammunition for the right about the supposed intolerant left who hate free speech and are taking over University campuses across the western world.
The AfD is a racist party with a fascist core and it should not be legitimised by polite invitations in this way. Members were involved in organising the recent far-right marches in Chemnitz which saw Nazi salutes and abuse towards non-white observers. This is the iceberg of which Weidel is only the public-facing tip.
It is important to build on victories like this and to push forward towards the Unity demonstration against racism in London on 17th November, for which Oxford Stand Up to Racism are organising coaches from Oxford. This is an opportunity for the left and anti-racist movements all over the country to solidify our own dominance against groups like the AfD across Europe.
Josh Newman is a teacher, musician, and writer from East Kent who now runs Counterfire and Stop the War branches in Oxford
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