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Monday, 15 February 2016

No Platforming Then and Now: from Enoch Powell to Peter Tatchell

I no longer have the archive I used to keep – it has gone to the Bodleian Library’s John Johnson collection – so I have to write from memory and quite successful Googling.

In London as a graduate student from 1968 – 1970, I certainly believed in what is now called No Platforming and, alongside that, in disrupting  meetings. The targets were very specific: political groups and political figures who articulated and focussed the strong racist currents in British society at that period and who consequently made daily life more insecure for non-white people: Enoch Powell and the National Front at the top of the list of who should be kept off the platform. There was also a subsidiary issue in London in the 1960s that several important university administrators were returnees from Britain’s colonies in Africa and were suspected of being soft on apartheid and other white rule policies, attitudes not really acceptable in the leaders of a multi-racial university.

It was not primarily an NUS or far left programme: there was a wider consensus that certain kinds of speech fell outside the protection argued for in books like J S Mill’s On Liberty. Indeed, Mill himself argued that speech loses its privilege when its context of utterance  turns it into incitement to violence or disorder. Among those who were on your side were those old enough to remember the 1930s and 1940s, including those who had fought against Nazism and Fascism or been refugees from them.

I can’t recall that we worked through the NUS and there were certainly no long, bureaucratic sub-claused resolutions,written by lawyers, like those that now exist as NUS policy. And you would have had to explain to a puzzled audience the meaning of “trigger warning”.

At University College London the Philosophy Society  did debate the issue in 1969 as something which involved consideration of first principles – I think the late G A Cohen was in the Chair and I would have been one of the speakers.

We weren’t just interested in what happened on campus. Life should be made difficult for the National Front anywhere – an attitude which crystallised into a long and effective campaign, stretching into the 1970s and 1980s, by the brave people of the Anti-Nazi league and others to keep it marginalised. That policy of marginalisation had a lot of  backing: the Establishment didn’t want the National Front on TV either. As for Enoch Powell, there may well have been some distinction drawn between participating in a closed, academic seminar and addressing a public meeting with Press present. I write that because I can recall listening to Powell give a talk to a seminar in Nuffield College, Oxford and at the same time recall trying to prevent a political meeting in London which he would have addressed. [ I made notes at the Powell seminar which was probably held under "Chatham House" rules and, if so, I broke those rules in passing my notes to Paul Foot, then writing a book on Powell and who was thus able to quote from them].

I did once walk off a platform. A large anti-racist meeting had been called at the Friends Meeting House in Euston Road. This would have been in 1969. There was a large top table which included a former Tory MP who had transitioned into a Labour Party member (Humphry Berkeley); I was there as some student representative - I think I was Chair of UCL Socialist Society. [ I have now added a photo below ].There were National Front members in the audience (and more in the streets outside) who began to interrupt and heckle. The Chair of the meeting responded by inviting one of the hecklers onto the platform where he was handed a microphone. At that point, I walked off and went to sit in the audience. I found a seat next to Jonathan Miller who chided me for walking off  - Why not let him have a microphone? He will only discredit himself.

I doubt I had a Mandate which required me to walk off in the circumstances I just described. I was more likely responding to a distinction which we regularly drew  between those racists with whom it was worth trying to debate and those hard-core racists who had no interest in debate themselves and who might well be backed up by heavies waiting to beat you up. The man who got the microphone had supporters not only in the hall but outside, some of them carrying offensive weapons and waiting for the chance to beat someone up, probably a lone black person straying into a side street. (I am pretty sure that the audience at this meeting was warned when the meeting closed to stick together in groups). So the man who had got the microphone was someone you didn't debate with and walking off the platform was just a symbolic expression of that view.

That is relevant to the Blog I posted yesterday:

I don’t for one moment suppose that Peter Tatchell has his heavies waiting outside  meetings and it is highly unlikely that he is beyond debate – indeed, he is currently in trouble precisely because he changed his mind on one question!

In general, if I think back to my time as a student in Oxford and London, 1965 – 70, there wasn’t really anyone who you would refuse to talk to personally or debate with. You might not go out of your way to sit next to someone from the Monday Club but if you ended up next to David Levy (1947 – 2004) you would probably exchange some words and maybe more than few. (Levy, in turn, after Christ Church, Oxford, made it his business to study under the Marxist, Ralph Miliband). And debating in the Oxford Union meant sharing platforms with people you profoundly disagreed with - I once spoke alongside the Rev Ian Paisley (and he, of course, alongside me...)

I think this is a big difference between that period and today with its absurd “trigger warnings” as if you will catch something if you sit next to an atheist or a TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), nowadays more demonised figures than the  Tories.

I also think that as the list of "-phobias" grows ever longer it will become more like a paranoid index of grievances than a guide to important questions of everyday life. Worse, having a -phobia attached to you risks becoming a group's proof of existence and badge of honour.

The other big difference is that we weren’t natural  bureaucrats who had a Rule for every situation and we weren’t looking to make careers out of what we were doing. In a few cases, people lost careers or remained permanent outsiders. When I looked at Fran Cowling’s CV in yesterday’s Blog, what disconcerted me most was the thought that here we have someone who thinks it will give her a leg up in the world if she won’t sit on the same platform as Peter Tatchell. That is chilling, not least because it may well do so.


I found three photographs. The first shows a meeting of the University College London Philosophy Society held on 17 February 1969 to discuss "Free Speech". At the table on the left G.A. (Jerry) Cohen lighting a pipe, on the left Ted Honderich, both UCL philosophy faculty; me in the middle.

The second dated the same day - so the events were clearly linked - the platform at the Friends Meeting House with the clock showing 7.15 pm. On the left, standing, Humphry Berkeley, me seated and looking down, the Chair John Shipley, John O'Keefe [ who must be the American post-doctoral student who later  became a Professor at UCL and Nobel Prize winning physiologist], Anthony Lester of the National Council for Civil Liberties, unidentified person on the far right but whose face I know ...

The third, also dated 17 February 1969, shows Althea Jones-Lecointe at a meeting on the same day. On the platform, I identify the figures now as from the right Nigerian writer and Black Power activist Obi Egbuna, Robin Blackburn and standing at the microphone Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett (who I knew from the Oxford Committee for Racial Integration OCRI of which he was a founder). The radical line-up here makes me think that this could have been a Socialist Society meeting and I would have been able to invite Dummett. So I may be somewhere on the platform to the right of Blackburn.

Google tells me that John Shipley - now the Liberal Democrat Lord Shipley - was President of the University College London Student Union in 1968 - 1969 so this event must have been a UCL-organised affair and given the three meetings on the same day, would have been part of a Day of Action.

And now I discover (thank you Google!) from a UCL Alumni publication of 2008 that it was indeed a day of action timed to coincide with a visit by Enoch Powell to UCLs Conservative Association:

I was studying History at UCL from 1966–69. I was inspired to become a teacher in reaction to Enoch Powell’s speech. In 1969 the Conservative Association invited Powell to speak at UCL. There was an outcry and anti-racism seminars were organised at UCL, culminating in a rally in the Friends Meeting House on Euston Road on 17 February 1969..... Peter Dawe (UCL History 1969)

Click on Images to Magnify

What strikes me now about these three photographs is that the  platforms are 100%  male and apart from Egbuna, white. I do not know who the photographer was but the three photographs must have been given me at the time and the one of Jones-Lecointe because it was the Socialist Society meeting.

I am now in some doubt about my original confident assertions: either no one (not even Soc Soc) tried to No Platform Powell's visit to the Conservative Association of UCL or else the attempt was unsuccessful and Soc Soc opponents then pooled its efforts along with others into this broad-based Day of Action (and then I think: which may even have had some support or  encouragement from UCLs Provost, at that time Lord Annan)

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