Later today, Paul Nuttall is going to replace Nigel Farage as leader of the UK Independence Party. This will be a strange experience for me. You will see in the coverage of his past career that Nuttall was once, briefly, a history lecturer. Before that he was a student, and in 1999-2000, I taught Paul Nuttall for a year. A year was long enough to get a good sense of a man who is going to be part of our lives rather more in future.
Nuttall was then studying at Edge Hill College on a History BA. I taught in the history department, where I was responsible for various courses including a one-year course teaching the history of fascism in Italy and Germany, for which he signed up. Nuttall struck me as bright and cynical. He was 23 years old – as old as the graduate students we taught, not our undergraduates, almost all of whom were straight out of A-levels. He seemed to have a stronger personality than any of his peers. While most of the students knew only what it said in the various course books, he had read more widely, in books and on the internet. He didn’t express his views openly but from time to time you felt he was testing the water to see what he could get away with.
In early December 1999, Nuttall’s cohort were set a standard essay on the causes of the Holocaust. I forget the exact title, but the question was something like whether the Final Solution was principally caused by Hitler’s anti-Semitism or by other factors related to the German economy or state. To my surprise, Nuttall’s answer worked in two footnotes to different books by David Irving. I wasn’t expecting this, because Irving wasn’t on the course reading list: this was after his libel trial and historians regarded Irving as an unpleasant, racist crank who was beyond the pale.
Moreover the references did not engage with the subject that Nuttall had actually been set: it felt rather as if he had written them in to see whether he could shoe-horn these views into an academic context and “get away” with them.
One of the quotes (for an essay about the Holocaust…) was from a book David Irving had written about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The message of the other Irving quote was that that anti-Semitism had been popular in Weimar Germany: the quote exaggerated the extent of anti-semtiism and carried the implication that it had been popular because it was deserved.
The incident was one of the oddest and most unwanted experiences I’d had as a teacher. I had taught fascism courses in different institutions over the previous three years including to A-levels students at Tower Hamlets college. Those students were under enormous and sometime contradictory pressures from their family, the mosque and the big trends in global politics that were heading in the direction of 9/11. But nothing they had ever written compared to this. I had never seen a student argue anything that could even remotely be characterised as “the Jews deserved it”. While Nuttall’s piece as a whole did not go that far, that seemed to be the message of the quotation he had used
I met Nuttall to discuss what he had written and he gave a tearful denial, saying that his girlfriend had downloaded the references to Irving’s book from the internet, blaming her rather than his own judgment. He accepted that the words could be construed as having an unpleasant, even racist meaning. But he denied that this had been his intention. He seemed shocked to be challenged about anything – like smug, arrogant, people everywhere he was most comfortable in a small bubble where no-one could disagree with him.