The past decade has seen a surge in the global far right, with increased blurriness between the extreme right and the mainstream. At the same time, there has been renewed discussion about ‘no platforming’, seen by some as a necessary anti-fascist tactic and by others as evidence of ‘cancel culture’ and left-wing intolerance of controversial ideas. So what is ‘no platform’ and why does it matter?
‘No platform’ is the concept that fascists should not be allowed to organise, recruit or speak their ideologies in public, such as on the street, university campuses or town halls. The phrase was first used in the early 1970s in Britain by the Trotskyist International Marxist Group in response to the rise of the National Front and became enshrined as National Union of Student policy in 1974. But it has its origins in much earlier confrontations with fascists in the 1930s and 1940s.
In the 1930s, Britain witnessed its own fascist movement. Led by Oswald Mosley, the British Union of Fascists emerged out of the Great Depression in 1932, offering a fascist solution to the country’s problems during the interwar years. While many establishment figures were unsure of how to handle the BUF, anti-fascists from the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Independent Labour Party and the Jewish community argued that Mosley and his men needed to be confronted.
In 1934, anti-fascists infamously tried to disrupt BUF rallies at Olympia and Hyde Park, while attempting to get local councils to deny the fascists space to hold meetings and organising counter-demonstrations against the BUF in the streets. The most well known of these was the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in October 1936, when over 100,000 anti-fascists occupied the streets of London’s East End to deny the BUF a route to march down. Cable Street became an important lesson for the British left – that fascism needed to be challenged publicly and in great numbers before they reached power.
From Mosley to the National Front
After the Second World War, Mosley’s new outfit, the Union Movement, attempted to rebuild British fascism, again in the East End of London. A small number of communist and Jewish activists, primarily organised around the 43 Group, took the tactics of the 1930s and applied them to the Union Movement. This meant physically occupying spaces, such as on Hackney’s Ridley Road, to prevent fascists from convening in these areas. As David Renton has pointed out, this was literally denying the fascists a platform.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Mosley garnered invitations to speak at universities, where he was often seen as a powerful yet controversial public speaker. These university engagements may have been attractive to Mosley as the audiences were deemed to be less hostile than the Union Movement experienced on the streets (Mosley was assaulted several times when he tried to speak in public in the early 1960s). But students also protested Mosley speaking on campus and caused disruptions on a number of occasions, including hitting the fascist leader in the face with a jelly at the Cambridge Union.
By the 1970s, a new fascist threat had emerged – the National Front, who heavily emphasised opposition to immigration and Britain’s entry into Europe, as well as a defence of the British Empire and strict law and order agenda. In 1972, as the NF attempted to make political capital out of the Conservative government’s acceptance of Ugandan Asian refugees, the International Marxist Group proclaimed in their newspaper, ‘NO PLATFORM FOR RACISTS’. The IMG argued that the National Front should not be afforded freedom of speech because the NF intended to wield it to curtail the freedoms of others. Instead, they should be resisted by curtailing opportunities for the NF to grow in public.
Bigotry and hatred need to be confronted and maligned, rather than engaged with and debated
The IMG, alongside the International Socialists (soon to become the Socialist Workers Party) and the Communist Party, all had influence in the student movement in the 1970s and in 1974, the National Union of Students took up ‘no platform’ as official policy. The NUS were particularly concerned about the presence of fascists on campus who had been disrupting student events and harassing protesting students in recent years, as well as student clubs and societies inviting fascists to speak or debate, who often fed on the subsequent controversy.
For the advocates of ‘no platform’, the presence of fascists at universities in any situation ran the risk of legitimising them as a political ideology, thereby making campuses unsafe for minorities. Fascism was not to be debated, but smashed.
At the time, this policy was controversial and was portrayed as an end to free speech on campus and opposing figures, particularly those of the Federation of Conservative Students and other right-wing student groups, were given ample space in the press to voice their disapproval. A cartoon in the Times Higher Education Supplement portrayed a student daubing a wall with the slogan, ‘No free speech for anyone who disagrees with us’, watched on approvingly by Hitler and Stalin. An editorial in the Daily Telegraph called them ‘jackboot students’.
Despite this opposition, the policy remained in place (save for a few months in 1977-78), thanks in no small part to its acceptance in wider society. By the late 1970s, the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism popularised anti-fascism in Britain and there was broad agreement that the National Front was to be confronted wherever they went. In his influential ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, Stuart Hall called the ANL/RAR ‘one of the timeliest and best constructed of cultural interventions’; one that achieved a popular anti-fascist consensus.
After the collapse of the National Front in the 1980s, some students and activists suggested that other forms of bigotry should likewise be shunned. At the London School of Economics in the early 1980s, feminist activists encouraged the student union to enact a ‘no platform for sexists’ policy as part of a wider campaign for women’s safety on campus. Other student unions sought to bar homophobic speakers and groups.
At the height of Britain’s AIDS crisis in 1987, activists disrupted a talk by a local Conservative councillor at Swansea University as he was known for making offensive and homophobic comments about a ‘gay plague’. This was also the time of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and there were campaigns against allowing representatives of the South African government to speak on campus.
The right appeals to the liberal ideal of freedom of speech, not because they are invested in such things, but because they can be used to hoodwink the centre
A turning point for ‘no platform’ came in the mid-1980s, when several right-wing politicians, including Enoch Powell and the pro-South Africa Tory MP John Carlisle, had several speaking engagements at universities cancelled or disrupted. In some instances, the policy of ‘no platform’ was invoked, while on other occasions, student activists were more spontaneous in their reactions to these visits.
All of these protests were lumped together by the press and politicians, and by 1986, the Thatcher government had declared that it would introduce legislation to ‘protect’ freedom of speech at universities. This would eventually be the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 which required universities take ‘reasonable steps’ to ensure free speech. However it was unclear whether this applied to student unions and some believed it to be a loophole for activists to continue with their censorious policies.
No platform today
This was the holding pattern for the next almost 30 years until the mid-2010s when the dam walls broke. In the last decade, there has been a sustained moral panic about an alleged free speech ‘crisis’ at universities, not just in Britain, but across the English speaking world. This coincided with the global rise of the populist and extreme right, buoyed by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
On both sides of the Atlantic, far right personalities and student groups colluded to invite these figures onto campus, such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Steve Bannon. One reason for these invitations is to court controversy and ‘trigger’ the left, while another is to present their ideas as worthy of debate. As I have written in my book, No Platform, there is a symbiotic relationship between the far right figures who crave legitimacy and student groups who seek to outrage people (typically left-wing students).
When there have been protests against these kind of speakers, there has been a response decrying a lack of free speech on campus. Similar to refrains in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the trope of the overzealous left-wing student as Stalinist censor is raised, but this time, these protestors are denounced as ‘woke’ and supposedly fuelled by identity politics.
The right appeals to the liberal ideal of freedom of speech, not because they are invested in such things, but because they can be used to hoodwink the centre and turn it against the left, particularly a younger generation of activists who are willing to challenge the orthodoxies of the last 40 years.
Unfortunately large sections of the media landscape are willing to indulge this framing, framing it as one of ‘polarisation’ when not buying into it entirely. This has created a feedback loop where controversial figures have stoked the idea that any challenge to certain figures appearing on campus is a fundamental threat to freedom of speech. The constant stream of articles on such controversies does not suggest that we’ve entered a new period of intolerance, but rather that every little incident now garners days of attention, forgetting that these tropes have been in play for over 50 years.
As we watch the rise of a populist far right with universities in their sights, it makes sense that the idea of ‘no platform’ has been revived by a younger generation of activists. The underlying premise is that bigotry and hatred need to be confronted and maligned, rather than engaged with and debated. In the 1970s, the National Organisation of International Socialist Societies reminded people that ‘Fascists don’t obey debating club rules’ and anti-fascists shouldn’t either.