Max Hastings: The Oxford Union was after easy publicity when it invited David Irving and Nick Griffin - but the debate can do no harm

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Max Hastings is a British military historian.]

On the Richter scale of notoriety, Harold Davidson, rector of Stiffkey, still rates near the top. Having been defrocked in 1932 for conducting a sex life exotic even by modern Church of England standards, he resorted to increasingly desperate methods to retain the attention to which he had become addicted.
His final gambit, in 1937, was to appear in a cage of lions at an amusement park in Skegness. One of the beasts, named Freddie, took exception. It mauled him before a large audience, which must have gone home feeling that the show had been worth twice the ticket money. The rector died two days later.

I have no idea whether Luke Tryl, the current president of the Oxford Union, has heard of Harold Davidson, but he favours the rector's methods. Tryl's society yesterday achieved priceless column inches in the Sunday papers, under the headline "Row as Oxford Union votes to hear Irving".

The Irving in question is, of course, David, recently liberated from an Austrian prison in which he served a sentence for Holocaust denial. The Oxford Union has invited him, along with the British National party leader Nick Griffin, to address a meeting tonight on free speech. A vote of the entire Oxford Union Society membership endorsed these invitations by two-to-one, at the cost of seeing several other prominent speakers withdraw.

The union, and for that matter all student debating societies, nowadays finds it difficult to generate publicity and lure audiences. In consequence, like TV broadcasters, it resorts to increasingly desperate measures to achieve sensation. The Irving invitation has induced the national media to take notice of tonight's Oxford event, in a fashion unthinkable if instead Harriet Harman or David Davis were the featured attractions.

It is hard to doubt that the union's motive in providing a platform for Irving and Griffin is a cynical one. Yet this still leaves me unconvinced that their appearance is heinous. Griffin leads a political group that possesses significant public support, chiefly for its opposition to mass immigration.

One of the most plausible charges against liberal Britain, and indeed against the government, is that they ignore the view of a host of people, especially in traditionally working-class areas, who are enraged by what is happening, and believe their own interests are being sacrificed to the incomers. Last year's book The New East End, by Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Young, coolly but vividly illustrates the phenomenon.

It seems good for Oxford students to be exposed to the views of Griffin and his BNP, rather than spend their educational lives in a warm bath of Guardian decency. Members of the Union Society must be a sorry lot indeed if they are likely to catch the plague of intolerance and racism from a single evening's exposure to Griffin.

David Irving is interesting in a different way. Because I write books about the second world war, I have read almost everything he has published. Back in the 1970s, I applied to him for assistance in making contacts in Germany, and received this in full measure.

When I turned up at the doors of old Nazis, including Hitler's most intimate surviving aides, bearing an introduction from the sage of Duke Street, my welcome was ecstatic. "Ach, Herr Irving! A wonderful man. And what may I do for you, Herr Hastings?"...

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