A campaign to boycott the Oxford Union has been launched in response to the Union’s decision to host far-right speakers, most recently Katie Hopkins.
The organisers accused the Union’s leadership of “attempting to use the dangerous rise of fascist and far right movements around the world to gain publicity and further their own careers.
“We do not see fascism as a spectacle to be exploited for the amusement of the Union’s elite membership.”
The campaign calls for a boycott of all Oxford Union events until the Union agrees to “cease hosting fascists and racists and to remove videos of the following fascist and/or racist speakers from their YouTube channel: Tommy Robinson, Steve Bannon, Marine Le Pen, Mahathir Bin Mohamad.”
The Union has attracted criticism and protests this year for hosting speeches by Steve Bannon, Alice Weidel and Marion-Marechal Le Pen, including a formal letter of protest from the City Council. The Council’s executive board criticised what they described as “the Oxford Union’s pattern of endangering community safety by inviting fascists into the city.”
Oxford East MP Anneliese Dodds wrote at the time that “[t]he Oxford Union’s pathetic courting of publicity by inviting racist after racist is deeply frustrating for local people. Our city is proud of its diversity and yet the Oxford Union seems determined to threaten this.”
The ‘Boycott the Oxford Union’ campaign said: “This term [the Union] are playing host to the far-right commentator Katie Hopkins, who has achieved minor fame by insulting and stoking hatred towards countless oppressed and marginalised groups.
“We pledge to boycott the Oxford Union until it ceases to appease fascism and removes videos of the following fascist and far right figures from their YouTube channel: Tommy Robinson, Steve Bannon, Marine Le Pen, Mahathir Bin Mohamad.”
The organisers did not clarify whether they were planning to organise a protest against Hopkins similar to those which greeted Bannon and Le Pen.
The open letter states that the boycott is addressed not just at the present Union committee, but at a “decades long pattern of inviting proponents of hate into Oxford. The Oxford Union has previously hosted the Holocaust deniers David Irving and Nick Griffin, and the former leader of the fascist English Defence League, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson).
“The Union has ignored repeated and widespread calls from Oxford students, staff and residents to withdraw invitations to such figures.”
Speaking to Cherwell, Union President Genevieve Athis said: “From its foundation, the Oxford Union has placed a high value on the voices of both its members and its guests.
“By inviting speakers that are sometimes considered to be controversial (not only on the right but on the left – for instance Slavoj Žižek in MT18) we aim not only to host them, but to challenge, explore and criticise their ideas.
“The Oxford Union is unique in that far from offering speakers a ‘platform’ from which to lecture its members, it always allows for time for its speakers to be questioned. Far from ‘applauding Steve Bannon’s hateful ideology’, members in the chamber at his talk were meaningfully silent as he entered and went on to pose question after question that sought to interrogate his views, not praise them.
In response to news of the planned protest, Athis said: “I recognise the right to peaceful protest and support this right but I would urge members who feel comfortable doing so to attend the debate so that they can interact with the speakers and see first-hand the discussion about No Platforming, which is so aptly related to this campaign.
“In November, there were some examples of protesters who chose to use violence or verbal abuse to intimidate those who did not wish to join in or were trying to attend the event. The Union supports the right to peaceful protest.
“This term, Katie Hopkins will be one of eight speakers in this Thursday’s No Platforming debate in which any member will be able to challenge our guests on their views, as has happened frequently in the past.
“Far from being a small and self-selectively elite membership limited to those who can afford our membership fee, the Oxford Union offers an access membership at a discounted price (which I myself took advantage of upon joining) and the option to pay in instalments so that we can make the institution accessible to everyone.
“The Oxford Union’s Standing Committee has recently voted unanimously to inform minority groups or societies that signal interest of potentially contentious speakers in order to improve the Union’s relationship with these groups in Oxford. I hope that this step illustrates the Union’s commitment to working with groups who may oppose the views of our speakers, not against them, while not compromising our commitment to upholding the free speech of both our members and our guests, as long as that speech is not promoting hate.”