Listen to the reasons the government has given for introducing its Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, and a clear picture emerges. Universities have failed to protect free speech; the greatest threat is the danger of left-wing students no-platforming conservatives. In the words of the consultation document for the bill: “There is a growing atmosphere on campuses that is antithetical to constructive debate … This can sometimes translate into examples of no platforming of speakers”.
In the same document, Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson acknowledged that hardly any visiting speakers have actually been banned, but insisted that “even one no-platforming incident is too many.”
Here, I’ll explain where no platform comes from, and show that it is a better, more principled theory, than the government’s alternative.
As the historian Evan Smith has shown the phrase can be traced back to a front-page article in a magazine, Red Mole, published in 1972, “No Platform for racists”. The author, John Clayton, was worried by the growth of the National Front. He wrote: “the pernicious activity of the extreme right must be knocked on the head”.
In 1974, the National Union of Students passed a motion “recognis[ing] the need to refuse any assistance (financial or otherwise) to openly racist or fascist organisations or societ[ies] (e.g. Monday Club, National Front, Action Party/Union Movement, National Democratic Party) and to deny them a platform.” No Platform has been NUS policy ever since.
The motion was directed at student unions. Faced with the prospect of fascist speakers on campus, it rejected the common-sense tactic of students simply voting with their feet not to attend. It was adopted in the early 1970s when protest was widespread. Just as workers were fighting for control of their workplaces, so were students fighting for control over syllabuses, and to democratise the relationship between teachers and taught. They believed they had a right to decide which guest speakers were invited.
The list of groups prohibited under the motion contained three clear fascist parties (Mosley’s Union Movement, the National Front, and the National Democratic Party), and only one that was not. The Monday Club’s activities were causing increasing disquiet to its parent Conservative Party. Its member had held rallies against immigration which were taken over by the Front. Others boated to the press of their admiration for Mein Kampf. Most student radicals believed the Monday Club was in a de facto alliance with the NF.
The National Union of Students was not saying that all racist speech should be prohibited. In a society where racism was as endemic as 1970s Britain, when it was common in newspaper and TV programmes, how could students have removed all racism? Rather they were trying to prevent speech by fascists or those allied with fascism.
Since the 1970s, the meaning of the term “no platform” has been challenged: there have been instances of the tactic being applied to groups other than fascists. In the 1980s, for example, feminists debated whether anti-abortion campaigns should be no-platformed (when I was a student in the early 1990s, a broad activist consensus held that that would go too far).
The exact point at which the line is drawn is always changing, not least because the right changes. But every time the idea swells beyond its original use, there are always other radicals arguing that no, this tactic is only appropriate to fascists.
The reason why the focus of “no platform” is always being brought back to that starting point is because fascism is a different sort of enemy to other forms of right-wing politics. Under Brexit and Covid right-wing politicians may dream of a more authoritarian form of “managed democracy”, but the limits imposed of their own politics thwart them. The fascist groups, by contrast, really are planning a one-party state in which all other views are banned.
Within the range of “no platform” politics there is a second area of contest. No platform was meant to be a form of do-it-yourself politics. But in less heady moments than the early 1970s, there is always a tendency to look for shortcuts, to begin a campaign against one or another figure by demanding that university administrators – or social media platforms – silence them. Such top-down politics, I’d argue, isn’t no platform but something weaker and worse.
At the core of No Platform, is a necessary and simple idea – that students should be entitled to draw a line and refuse a platform to groups that cross it. It’s an idea, ironically, that even the Conservatives don’t contest, or at least not when it comes to fascists.
Think, for example of the trouble Education Minister Michelle Donelan got into after she went on Radio 4 last month and insisted that under her Bill Holocaust Deniers would be permitted to speak. “A lot of the things we would be standing up for would be hugely offensive, would be hugely hurtful,” she said. Ever since then, Donelan has been telling everyone who will listen that no, she didn’t mean what she appeared to say. And yes, of course, under any healthy system Holocaust Deniers would be silenced.
Unfortunately, she is simply wrong about the impact of her own bill. You can’t constitutionalise free speech in universities, make it an overriding duty – without at the same time giving opportunities to the far right.
The government’s ideological view of the world threatens to trap us all in a false dilemma. Free speech is a virtue – but to achieve it, we must give opportunities to fascists and Holocaust Deniers even if hardly anyone wants to hear from them.
The way out is to grasp the insight on which no platform was based. The generation who persuaded the NUS to adopt no platform didn’t want to see less speech, they wanted to see more of it. They had just lived through the Oz trial (the UK counterpart to the trial of the Chicago 7), and hated the idea of letting the government or courts decide who got to speak.
The alternative they grasped is that it is possible to demand both free speech on campuses and a specific exception limited only to fascists. That was the principled position in the early 1970s; fifty years later it is still the best answer.
(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my own next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).