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The Tragic Decline of the Cambridge Union

The Cambridge Union Society

Last week’s Sunday Telegraph included a quite shocking statement from the Union. ‘Nigel Farage’, The Telegraph revealed, ‘would not be invited to speak on a solo platform’. However, crucially, ‘a solo platform’ – which would, by the Union’s own admission, be denied to Mr Farage – had been offered last term to ‘the openly anti-Semitic Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, whose comments that he had “Jewish friends...they are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends,” drew laughter from some quarters of the audience’.

The first issue here is that of free speech. Laughably, the Union claims to be a defender of this essential freedom, its – now bitterly ironic – motto being ‘defending free debate’. In reality it is now one of the primary perpetrators of its destruction in our university, with a highly politicised committee intent solely on promoting their own left-think, not even bothering to offer a token nod to views which – no matter how mainstream in the real world – challenge, in even the slightest sense, their world view. In what planet could multi-time European election winner Mr Farage, who – whether you are for Leave or Remain – is undeniably one of the most significant and influential politicians in modern times (perhaps even in history) be beyond the pale? Is not the whole point of the university and the Union to allow students to grapple with the primary issues of our era? What actually is the point of the Union even continuing to exist – and students continuing to pay the outrageously high membership fees – if it is going to actively deny us the right to hear as many different points of view as possible, if it is to bar us from listening to the people who – for better or worse - shape our society?

Even if you accept the (in my view incorrect) proposition that Mr Farage is a ‘racist’, as some on the left have accused him of being, and therefore argue that he should not be offered a platform, then there is a worrying hypocrisy in the Union’s behaviour. After all, they are clearly content to host the openly racist Mahathir Mohamad, who – even before his disgraceful comments in Cambridge – has a long, troubling track-record of extreme anti-Semitism. Earlier this year, his government banned Israeli athletes from competing at the World Para Swimming Championships due to be held in Malaysia (luckily, following rightful outrage, the championships took place in London). He has previously deployed highly anti-Semitic tropes regarding the supposed financial prowess of the Jewish people by stating that ‘Jews are inclined towards money’. As far back as 1970, he claimed in his book The Malay Dilemmathat ‘the Jews are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively’ – a statement he defended in a BBC interview last October. He has disputed how many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Another of the Union’s guests last term, Al Sharpton, incited violent anti-Jewish riots – in which a Jewish man was murdered – in New York, branded Orthodox Jews ‘diamond dealers’ and peddled a false, incendiary myth that New York’s Jews were operating an ‘apartheid ambulance service’ as a means of inspiring anti-Semitic sentiment.

In their statement after the furore following Holocaust-denying Mahathir Mohamad’s comments, the Union insisted that ‘The Cambridge Union has at its core, a tradition of promoting free speech’. This is demonstrably false. If true, why not give Mr Farage the chance to address the Union instead of explicitly stating he is not welcome? They went on to justify their invite to anti-Semites by saying that ‘we ensure that the speakers we invite are challenged and held to account’. Fine – but why not invite Mr Farage and then ‘challenge and hold him to account’? Even if you consider him disagreeable as some do, can you really sensibly argue he is as bad or worse than an open Holocaust denier? It doesn’t add up.

I don’t actually have a problem with the Union inviting highly unpalatable individuals such as Mahathir Mohamad along, provided they are robustly challenged and exposed as the racist anti-Semites they are. Their defence of the invitation on the grounds of free speech is, in itself, fair and reasonable. What I do have a problem with is the hypocrisy: hosting an anti-Semite whilst simultaneously barring Farage. You are either for free speech or you aren’t. You can’t be in favour of some free speech, that is a paradox. The Union, as declared brazenly by their own President, is self-evidently not a defender of ‘free debate’ as their motto claims.

A once great debating society has become a sham. It defends anti-Semites by claiming to defend free speech whilst denying a platform to one of the most influential politicians of our age on dubious claims of ‘student comfort’, perhaps in the process revealing a blind-spot to anti-Semitism which has infected much of the modern left. I would urge any incoming Fresher to not make the mistake I made, to not fork out 150 quid on a society which will use your membership fee to put on expensive dinners for Holocaust deniers whilst denying you the chance to hear from some of the most prominent thinkers and politicians in our country so that – rather than allow you to make up your own mind – they may advance their personal agendas. The Union must dramatically reform – or cease to exist.

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