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NATFHE and the BNP

The background :

NATFHE (The University & College Lecturers’ Union) Conference unanimously passed policy to give full support to members who are refusing to work with, or teach, known members of the BNP. The 13 May 2003 edition of the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) published comments from Patrick Harrington arguing against this policy.

Paul Mackney the General Secretary of NATFHE responded in the 20 June 2003 edition of the THES. Patrick Harrington responded to his arguments in a letter published subsequently in the THES.

Searchlight magazine (graduates of the Stalinist school of falsification) reprinted the article by Mackney but not the response to it from Pat Harrington.

For the record — and to enable Internet users to have the full facts — Pat’s reply is reproduced below, unedited.

I see that in the latest THES (June 20) Paul Mackney, the general secretary of NATFHE has been forced to attempt to justify his policy of supporting lecturers who refuse to teach students on political grounds. This follows critical comments made by me in an interview with the THES the previous week. How different from the “unanimous” backing for it at the NATFHE AGM. How disappointing the real world must seem to him.

Paul starts by criticising the paper for giving coverage to my views. THES wanted to report my opinions due to the fact that attempts had been made to exclude me at the Polytechnic of North London in the 80s and a number of legal precedents were set when I took my case to court. Is this not a legitimate subject for a journalist to write about? Paul seems to think not. He suggests other things that THES journalists might do with their time like “conducting a survey of universities of universities to see what actions they have taken to eliminate racism in recent years”. Worthy but dull. A career in journalism would not have met with success.

He also attacks the newspaper on the basis that they quoted me as saying I did “not regret” my past NF membership. THES is therefore portrayed as being in league with the devil! It’s certainly true that up to 1989 I was a member of the NF. It’s also true that I left it because of political differences. When asked by the paper if I “regretted” or “repented” I gave a more complex reply than the one printed. I said that I did not regret it because it was part of what made me think the way I do now. I explained that I felt I had thought more deeply about subjects because of a process of negation of some of my previous views. Not a soundbite I know but if I’m going to get criticised I hope it’s on the basis of the full version. THES seem to have made a rod for their own back by not being clear on this point.

For the record I’m now a member of Third Way http://www.thirdway.org that made clear in its 2001 manifesto “the goal is a non-racist society” and has an explicit equal opportunities policy.

Paul then goes on to detail harassment he suffered in the early 1980s. He says the NF printed names and addresses of opponents at the time. This is true. It’s also true that the opponents of the NF printed the names, addresses, photographs and workplace details of NF members and candidates. In fact the first publication to use this tactic was a publication called “Forewarned Against Fascism”. Paul doesn’t mention any of this. No one would know from reading his account that there was a game of tit-for-tat being played out. It’s a game where no one wins – ask the people of Northern Ireland. Nor does he say whether he is against this sort of intimidation in general or just when it is used against him or his friends.

Paul also makes a point of printing details of my current employment. Could this be because he is trying to cause trouble for me at my workplace? Do I have the “right to work and study free from fear”? Do I have the right to “work in an atmosphere free from intimidation”? He is a hypocrite. He also seems to be questioning the statement that I’m a qualified teacher. I am. I have a PGCE(FE) from the University of Greenwich and have taught Computing and Basic Education in the Voluntary Sector. I currently work outside education like many other qualified teachers. Paul is snobbish and condescending but I am proud of the job I do and the people I work with. Paul displays only his own anti-working class prejudices — strange for a Union bureaucrat…. or maybe not.

Paul tries to confuse behaviour with political opinion in order to justify NATFHE policies. No one is saying that if a student is disruptive in class or harasses a lecturer disciplinary action should not be taken. What others and I object to is that someone should be labeled, bullied or excluded on the grounds of political opinion or activity. Our academic institutions should invite dispute. If debate and free expression induce a condition of unrest, create dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or stir people to anger then that might be a good thing. The alternative is far more frightening – a standardisation of ideas. We all encounter people whose views we find objectionable but we are all supposed to be part of a civilised society with rules, which govern our behaviour towards one another. The rules NATFHE want to add are neither commonly agreed nor particularly functional.

To try to present a refusal to teach someone on grounds of their political opinion as some kind of health and safety issue, as Paul does, is certainly an unusual approach but is entirely unconvincing. If a lecturer feels unsafe or threatened there are established procedures which can be followed. Steps can be taken to modify the behaviour of an unruly or disruptive student. The law also protects lecturers, like us all.

Paul points out that “the policy does not preclude universities from making alternative arrangements to fulfil their contractual obligations”. This appears to be an acceptance that BNP members cannot be excluded from education on political grounds. My point exactly. He suggests that educational institutions should try to find work rounds to accomodate lecturers who refuse to teach students on political grounds. What messages will this send out regarding our democratic values and how we value civic society? It might also prove an onerous and unwelcome task for administrators. Lecturers should have the good sense to see that a positive commitment to democratic values is the best answer to “political extremists”. Thankfully, as Paul himself points out, no lecturer has as yet refused to teach a member of the BNP on political grounds. Let’s all hope none do and that this unwise, tokenist and anti-democratic policy is eventually either reversed or left to gather dust.

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