Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Why You Should Support 'No Platform' for Kevin Scott at the Cambridge Union

The decision of the Cambridge Union Society to invite Kevin Scott, a long-standing regional organiser for the fascist British National Party (BNP), represents an atrocious failure of political imagination on the part of the Union’s elected officers. When Nick Griffin was invited to speak at the Oxford Union in 2007, students and anti-fascists broke up the meeting, breaking through the security cordon to stage a sit-in protest inside the chamber’s not-so-hallowed walls. Kevin Scott should expect the same treatment in Cambridge. Why?

It is no coincidence that Griffin’s invitation to speak in Oxford had been justified on the grounds of a debate about ‘free speech’. Now, the CUS hacks, under the stewardship of President Austin Mahler, have tried to use the same erroneous logic to invite one of Griffin’s erstwhile underlings to Cambridge. Scott recently left the BNP, but not because of a change of heart; he left to join the ‘management team’ for the newly-formed British Democratic Party (BDP) set up by fascist Andrew Brons, the MEP for Yorkshire and Humber, who also resigned from the BNP earlier this year to set up the BDP (formerly, and very briefly, known as True Brits).

The essence of the no platform argument is simple: to allow – indeed, to invite – fascist agitators to enter into the sphere of agonistic, rational debate is to give their ideology of violence, fear and hatred a cloak of legitimacy which it neither merits nor deserves. Doubtless the Union hacks think they have all the bases covered. The arguments of racists are easily defeated, so what’s to lose in subjecting Scott to a thorough grilling at the hands of UK PLC’s brightest-and-best squad? Such self-satisfied complacency overlooks the fact that politics takes place in the real world, which is a world away from the careerist hothouse of the Union Society. These people forget that when Nick Griffin was invited to speak on Question Time, a YouGov poll found that one in five viewers said they would be more likely to vote BNP after the would-be Fuhrer’s appearance.

More recently, the Greek fascist (and ex-special forces operative) Ilias Kasidiaris physically assaulted two female socialists in a televised interview. This descent into physical violence did not have quite the effect that myopic liberal commentators would hope for: the popularity of Kasidiaris’ party, Golden Dawn, has since risen in Greece, and Kasidiaris himself is still ‘at large’ (sitting in the Greek parliament). The complacent assumption that his violent outburst ahead of the June 17th elections would lead to an electoral wipe-out proved false, in part because the commentators who made such predictions fail to understand the true nature of the polarisation taking place in Greece, in a period of intense neo-liberal austerity, ongoing capitalist crisis, as well as continuing decomposition of key sections of the bourgeois state and its apparatus. It has since been made known that Golden Dawn members have infiltrated many sections of the police, which perhaps provides some explanation as to why the warrant for Kasidiaris’ arrest resulted in neither a conviction, nor, even, an arrest.

Turning to Kevin Scott’s previous record, we find that a BBC profile lists two previous convictions – one for assault in 1987, another for using threatening words and behaviour in 1993. In 2001, he penned an article for International Third Position – the journal of a neo-fascist BNP splinter-group – entitled ‘The Final Conflict’. You can guess what the conflict might look like. (The Southern Poverty Law Centre has a useful breakdown of this motley crew of crypto-Strasserites and self-styled revolutionary nationalists.) Apparently, this record makes Scott worthy of an invitation to speak at the Union. 

Why has he agreed to accept the invitation? He must know that he is hardly likely to win the debate, nor is he likely to win any new recruits (unless the Henry Jackson Society have yet to declare their maximum programme). Scott has agreed to speak to the Union so that he can go back out into the world and wear the free publicity given to him as a badge of respectability and normality. He can include the photos in electoral propaganda. He can trumpet his high-profile speaking engagement in mail-outs for his delightful little fundraising operation, misnamed Civil Liberty. The Guardian recently exposed Civil Liberty as a BNP front-group, set up to raise money from far-right nut-jobs in the US. Why should the Cambridge Union Society lend any material support to such an organisation, or its agitators and fundraisers? Such publicity-seeking, ill-reasoned and politically naïve invitations can only contribute to a culture in which fascist ideology is normalised and its advocates made to seem spuriously legitimate.

Especially in a period of neoliberal austerity, this process of creeping normalisation and legitimation ought to concern us all. Martin A. Lee describes in The Beast Reawakens (1997) how neo-Nazis rebooted their strategies in the early 1980s:

The jackals of the extreme right believed they found the crucial pressure point when they seized upon immigration as the main issue to rally around. While a network of ultra-right wing cadres continued to function as the violent vanguard of xenophobia, some shock troops from Europe’s neo-fascist underground split off to form mass-based political parties.
    One of the advantages of this dual-pronged effort was that it provided an electoral front for hard-core militants, who underwent an ideological face-lift and watered down their pronouncements to conform to electoral requirements.
    By the mid-1980s, a flock of radical right-wing parties had found a nesting place on the democratic landscape. The initial success of the Front National in France and its emulators elsewhere showed that large segments of Western European society were vulnerable to national populists and the totalitarian temptation they embodied.[1]

A public debate about ‘no platform for fascists’ took place in France in the 1980s, addressing the question of whether or not the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen ought to be accepted as a ‘normal’ part of French political life. The liberals won the day: Le Pen’s ‘shock’ breakthrough into the second round of the presidential election of 2002 did not take place in a vacuum. The liberal 'free speech' arguments paved the way for his success, but the real nature of the French National Front remains clear for those who care – or bother – to look. The National Front is now like a bad smell in French politics which refuses to go away; the liberals are responsible for having boiled up the sprouts.

As far as Scott’s invitation is concerned, the other speakers on the Union’s panel should also pause for thought. If, as the proposition will argue, hate speech is not a human right, how can the decision to share a platform with a fascist appear as anything other than a decision made in abysmally bad faith? On their own terms, they are hypocrites. If they actually believe that hate speech is not a human right – insofar its vocalisation entails the potential for politically dangerous material consequences – they would shun the possibility of sharing a platform with a fascist. One must conclude, instead, that the speakers for the proposition will simply temporarily assume the position for ‘the sake of the debate’, before moving on to give strenuous consideration to the relative merits of blue as opposed to green bottle-tops. The Union’s term-card is deliberately vague, but if Scott is proposed as a candidate for the proposition then the Union’s hacks are not only hypocritical, but suffering from an acute case of historical amnesia.

When dealing with fascist political organisers, such as Scott, the other side of the liberal argument (for which Voltaire provides the well-known locus classicus: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”) requires serious attention, not least because fascist politics has led – and could lead again – to the kind of the violence about which Voltaire offered only hypothetical speculations. François-Marie Arouet did not actually give his life to defend another person’s freedom of speech; but hundreds of thousands died fighting against fascists in the Spanish civil war and during the Second World War. We might do these young men and women the courtesy of remembering that fascism is not a normal, run-of-the-mill form of politics, nor should it be treated as such.

The BNP (and, now, the BDP), along with other neo-Nazi organisations in Europe, pose as legitimate, in order to be allowed to play the representative-democratic game – and they are very bad actors, so the fact that some liberals are taken in speaks volumes – but, as ever, their intention is to change the very rules and nature of the game itself. Theirs is a category of speech which does not merit protection, as the very terms of the Union’s debate seem to acknowledge, at the same time as Scott’s invitation undermines any real commitment to put this acknowledgement into practice.

It is currently left unclear whether any of the Union’s speakers will argue that hate speech is, in fact, a human right. Much will hinge on the precise definition of the category of hate speech. Scott will, one assumes, want to claim that the BDP and its ilk do not engage in types of speech which can be described as ‘hate speech’. Fascist agitators – the clever ones, at least – will know that there are laws which prevent them from giving vent to the full gamut of their political views, so they are forced to fall back on cannier tactics, such as accepting invitations to speak at high-profile public events (as and when the organisers are thick-headed enough to make the offer). Similarly, Nick Griffin knows he is legally disbarred from directly inciting racial hatred, so instead of talking about racial purity, he talks about identity: it is quite a cynical PR exercise; he has said so himself

As the little parable about Kasidiaris should demonstrate, however, when the political context changes, when the barbarism of capitalist crisis suddenly makes the foundations of bourgeois liberal democracy seem somewhat less secure, fascists gain the confidence to start acting out the desires they keep carefully (and not so carefully) pent up. One need only look to the strength of Jobbik in Hungary, an organisation whose members march with side-arms and conduct pogroms against Roma families; or Greece, where Golden Dawn street militias conduct sweeping raids against migrant traders. Why, the hacks at the Union might ask themselves, have they given any quarter to an organisation of this kind? Must they be reminded of the history and origins of the British National Party, an organisation to which Scott belonged for over twenty years? Can they not see that it, and the BDP, are parties which are different from the mainstream bourgeois parties, not only in degree, but in kind? Fascism is a qualitatively different form of political organisation. Those who retain any illusions in this regard need to disabuse themselves very quickly.

The real reason the hacks at the Union have invited this fascist to speak is because of the culture of short-term, big-splash spectacularism which prevails there; officers are elected for short periods of time, which encourages the courting of controversy for its own sake, in an attempt to boost membership, as well as in the hope of securing a few extra Curriculum Vitae nectar points. Enough people in the National Union of Students realise the dangers of allowing fascists to speak on University campuses, which is a why the NUS currently supports a principlied 'no platform' policy. On what democratic mandate did Austin Mahler decide to break from this important principle in the student movement?

Scott’s invitation should be immediately revoked; if it is not, students, trade unionists and all those whose interests are threatened by the fascist right should organise to intervene in the ‘debate’ – as if the proposition even needed to be debated in the first place. 

[1] Martin A. Lee, The Beast Reawakens: Fascism’s Resurgence from Hitler’s Spymasters to Today’s Neo-Nazi Groups and Right-Wing Extremists (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 388.


29/12/2012: A message on the Union's Facebook page subsequently confirmed that Scott is "UNABLE" to attend. Griping about the situation on his not-so-Civil Liberty blog, Scott vowed to "[stand] up to the cranks of the so-called 'anti-fascist' movement" and added that his organisation "intend[s] to do it on our own terms". These 'terms' are left unspecified, so they must left to the imagination.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

N14 and the return of the mass strike

Cambridge SWSS meeting

Monday 12th November // 7pm
Erasmus Room, Queens' College

N14 and the return of the mass strike

(with Sai Englert - Socialist Activist)

Facebook event -

IST statement on the N14 strikes

On 14 November more than ten million workers will be striking together in Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Malta and Cyprus. This follows a wave of youth revolts and election victories for the left. Resistance to austerity
has entered a new phase with this day of revolt against the austerity policies of the Troika.

In Greece there have been more than 20 general strikes that have shaken governments and transformed politics, but austerity continues. How can we explain this paradox? What does N14 mean for the development of resistance in Europe? Can general strikes smash capitalism?

In Britain today, the call for a general strike is widespread in the labour movement, yet many union leaders retreat from action. How can we overcome this, and make sure we are on board for the next ‘N14’?

Come and join the discussion. All welcome!

Erasmus Room @ Queens. Enter via Porters Lodge, over the bridge, across the courtyard and to the right up the stairs. Unfortunately the room is not wheelchair accessible. Ring 07821177250 if you need directions.