Why No Platform is illiberal and misconceived

As an adjoiner to my previous post on multiculturalism, I wanted to write a piece on why the No Platform Policy is illiberal and misconceived. It’s something I’ve had strong views on for a while – I spoke at my university’s Debating Society against the No Platform Policy three years ago (and we won, thanks for asking).

As some of you might have gathered from the comments of that multiculturalism post, I’m planning on writing something on multiculturalism and national identity. For now, here’s something on No Platform, which is also seemingly back in the news. There’s an interview here with a Birmingham student who argues that engaging with radical Islamic preachers is the best way to challenge their arguments.

No Platform has also been thrust back into the spotlight because of the of the English Defence League. There were a few No Platform tweets when the EDL’s leader was interviewed on Newsnight a few weeks ago. “Tommy Robinson” – actually a pseudonym – gave a spirited performance, but it wasn’t quite good enough. It’s hard to present yourself as an expert on the ways of Islam when you refer to “radical inams”.

As soon as the interview had finished, the EDL reported a surge in membership, and as a result more people kept coming out of the woodwork and asking why we had allowed the EDL publicity. We shouldn’t allow facist movements to appear on television to give them publicity and legitimacy, so the argument goes.

These people obviously have short memories. What helped kill off the BNP in the May elections, as much as anything, was Nick Griffin’s leering performance on Question Time. The moment when he pointed to an Asian man in the audience and said to him “You can stay”, was the most revolting thing I’ve ever seen on that programme. As you can imagine, he’s going up against some pretty stiff competition there.

What Griffin’s performance on Question Time does prove is that the best way to defeat abhorrent ideas is to confront them and defeat them in open debate. Banning extreme groups does not work, and in many cases would play into the hands of the extremists. The BNP and the EDL like to put forward the claim that there is a “politically correct conspiracy” of the “liberal media” or “liberal elite” to stifle debate on issues such as multiculturalism or immigration. Banning these groups only serves to add credence to this message.

Perhaps banning these groups would send a message that we consider fascism, or Islamic fundamentalism, to be immoral. However, is it really the place of governments to decide what is and what isn’t morally acceptable? That is potentially a very slippery slope.

I’m always amused by the fact that people of all political stripes consider that every group should have rights – apart from people they don’t like. That could mean gypsies, fascists, etc etc. A conversation I had a couple of weeks ago demonstrates this, that I shall relate hopefully without slipping into Liberal Dinner Party syndrome.

I was talking to one of the Guild of Students’ sabbatical officers, who said that she was in support of No Platform because she was “opposed to discrimination in all its forms”.

“Except discrimination against fascists?” I piped up. After I said that, she and Hannah, occasional Paperback Rioter, looked at me as though I’d just come out as a closet Orange Booker. But the fact is, you cannot pick and choose which people you want to grant rights to.

I can see the logic for wanting to ban these fascist groups: it comes back to Cameron’s idea of “muscular liberalism”, wanting to ban “preachers of hate” and be “intolerant of intolerance”. However, the simple fact is that not only would banning these groups be illiberal, and not work, it would be impossible to enforce.

It would also be a counter-productive thing to do. Do we really want to force groups like the BNP or EDL underground? Surely it’s best to have their dealings in the open, where they can be easily monitored? Also, the publicity associated with banning American “shock jocks” or people like Geert Wilders from entering Britain gives their movement much more coverage than if they had actually just been allowed to enter quietly in the first place.

Also banning these organisations just doesn’t work, because they will just end up operating as before, but under a different name. This can be seen by the banning of Anjem Choudary’s Islam4UK. In a testy interview on the Daily Politics – and let’s face it, what’s the point of banning the organisation if as a result its founder gets an interview on BBC2? – Choudary said that he probably would just set up a new organisation. After all,

If I gather together with my friends in the park and eat together and decide to write a leaflet and distribute it in the market, is that illegal?

Well, quite. And indeed Choudary has now set up a new organisation, called Muslims Against Crusades. Should we ban that too as well? Perhaps, you could argue, but then he would just set up another organisation. It’d be like herding cats.

Basically, the No Platform Policy can never be a credible policy of any anti-fascist movement. Saying that you are “in favour of freedom of speech, but…” is on the same moral level as saying “I am not a racist, but…” Add to that the fact that it’s unworkable, and you have a heck of a silly, counter-productive policy on your hands.

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7 Responses to Why No Platform is illiberal and misconceived

  1. BarkDag says:

    What open debate are you referring to? Question Time and Nick Griffin.Give over it was a bear pit he was nearly lynched. Oi he makes me laugh…

    • You’re right in the sense that the first half an hour was basically questions all about Nick Griffin. What was interesting was that when Griffin came off worst (like when he found two men kissing “creepy”, and in the question on the economy) when he was just taking part in a “normal” QT. So I don’t think that episode harms my argument. If anything, you should just ask him questions and give him rope to hang himself, as opposed to (as you put it) nearly “lynching” him when there’s the possiblity that he wins the audience’s sympathy.

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  3. I agree with you, one can not prohibit open discussion merely on the grounds that one finds the views of the far-right objectional in the extreme. As Rod Riddle once wrote “let the BNP drown in it’s own poison”.

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