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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 November 2007, 08:53 GMT
Angry scenes greet Oxford debate
Nick Griffin (l) and David Irving following the debate
The invitations to Nick Griffin (l) and David Irving were controversial
A controversial debate at the Oxford Union was disrupted when protesters forced their way into a building.

The BBC's Paul Moss, from The World Tonight, witnessed the angry scenes ahead of talks by BNP leader Nick Griffin and historian David Irving.

It was a far cry from the normal image of Oxford and its students.

Not a gown in sight, studies left behind for an evening, as hundreds of protesters besieged the Union Society, furious at the decision to invite the leader of the far-right British National Party to speak there, along with a historian who has denied that the holocaust ever happened.

Nick Griffin was bustled in surrounded by a phalanx of heavy set security guards.

David Irving's arrival was more low-key, but the presence of both set off a furious reaction among many students: "This has nothing to do with free speech," argued one protester, "it's about giving credibility to fascists, making them appear to be part of the mainstream."

Diminished audience

Another insisted, perhaps more improbably that "I would rather be at home writing an essay," but, he added, "an institution which I'm a member of is giving a platform to fascists and that is totally unacceptable."

Banners were draped over the walls surrounding the Union Society, bearing anti-racist slogans, while chants reverberated through the narrow streets outside: "BNP - off the streets" and "Nazi scum - go home."

Many had travelled from other cities to join the demonstration. A student down from Birmingham said it was important to have more people outside than among the audience.

In fact, the audience for the debate was diminished because many Union Society members were not able to get in.

Police blocked both entrances to the building to hold the protesters at bay, but that prevented even some of those with tickets from entering.

I think fascism is awful and abhorrent, but the way to take on fascism is through debate
Luke Tryl
Oxford Union

The result was an odd collection of mini-debates breaking out in the surrounding streets, with protesters engaging Union Society members on the finer points of political theory.

One group supporting the event held a banner aloft bearing Voltaire's famous dictum: "I disapprove of your views, but would fight to the death for your right to express them."

The woman carrying it insisted she had no time for the BNP, but wanted the chance to hear its leader explain what he stands for: "It's exactly the kind of thing that university is supposed to be about," she said.

But not everyone would settle for verbal jousting alone.

About 50 protesters managed to break into the debating chamber, delaying the event from starting.

Police eventually managed to remove them, but with the audience also having trouble getting in, the debate did not get going until just before 10pm, an hour and a half later than scheduled.

Qualified success?

Even then, the organisers decided to break it into two groups "for safety reasons."

So the BNP's Nick Griffin spoke in one room, while David Irving addressed students in another.

Nonetheless, the Oxford Union Society is insisting the event was a success, albeit a qualified one.

President Luke Tryl said: "I think fascism is awful and abhorrent, but the way to take on fascism is through debate.

"We had David Irving and Nick Griffin, both challenged and subjected to the proper scrutiny of students."

But Waymen Bennet of the organisation Unite Against Fascism said they had succeeded in all their aims.

He said: "I am proud to have stood with black people, white people, Jewish, non-Jewish, gay and straight, to stop a debate that had nothing to do with democracy."

Eyewitness reports of the debate and protests

MP quits union over BNP speaker
25 Nov 07 |  Oxfordshire
BNP to speak to Oxford students
24 Nov 07 |  Oxfordshire
Rally over Oxford Union speakers
21 Nov 07 |  Oxfordshire
Profile: Nick Griffin
10 Nov 06 |  UK Politics
Profile: David Irving
20 Feb 06 |  UK


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