For the purposes of this column, I remember two things about that period towards the end of the Dark Ages when I was president of the National Union of Students. The first is the pestering we got in those days from UJS on the subject of Soviet Jewry. So much so that I began to believe that either almost all Soviets were Jews, or else that almost all Jews were Soviet.
The second recollection (or series of recollections) was that on every day of every conference (and we had two a year) someone would try to get someone else banned. The demand would be raised on some point of order at the beginning of a session. This group had organised a fringe meeting with speaker X whose very existence was contrary to the union’s policy on Y. Or that sect had put out a leaflet which could clearly be construed as racist or sexist, according to the complainant’s idea of what was racist or sexist. There would be a thunderous denunciation, boos, hoorays and clapping, and then we would try and refer it to the steering committee, whose technocratic impulses might ensure that the issue was resolved without requiring further stormy debate.
Fairly soon, however, some of the more right-wing Tories realised that there were hours of almost cost-free fun to be had from deliberately doing things that would lead to other people demanding that they should be banned. As I recall, wearing stickers calling for the hanging of Nelson Mandela was the most successful of these stunts.
It gradually became clear to me, even at a tender age, that such rows were symbolic, in the sense that they were never really about the issue itself. Unable suddenly to end racism, to command sexism out of existence or to resolve the problems of the Middle East, we could instead spend hours discussing who should and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near our smoky, acrimonious youth club.
Jacqui Smith, I imagine, knows exactly how I used to feel. We have, as a nation, a long and slightly irregular record of excluding certain people from entering even as visitors who intend no more than a couple of speeches, a photocall and a quick return to their own shores. So, naturally, every time it looks as though someone who offends the house rules might be let in, a group of citizens will be agitating for them to be kept out. And, just as naturally, there may be another group who demand with (almost) equal vehemence that they should be allowed past the doors.
Very rarely, though, do such controversies allow of an almost perfect symmetry as has just happened. First the “controversial” (ie scapegoating) Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, is turned back at the airport, and prevented from showing his anti-Islamic film, Fitna, in person. Hurrah, say the Muslim organisations and people who care about sensible hairstyles. Boo, say many others. Nevertheless Wilders is banned.
Then, last week, it looked as though Hizbollah’s propaganda chief (psst! Copy of the Protocols? Very cheap! Very true!) Ibrahim Moussawi, would be paying us a visit. Boo, say many of the people who wanted Geert Wilders to be allowed in. Hurrah, say many of the people who wanted Wilders excluded as a racist. So Jacqui Smith, who has no steering committee to refer this stuff to, takes the pragmatic British road and bans Moussawi too.
In one way I agree with the Home Secretary’s exclusions. It sometimes seems to me that, what with Nick Griffin and Al Muhajiroun already being here, we don’t really need to clutter the place up with outsiders who are just as bad. It’s not as though we’ll be missing anything. Like any club, if some of the members don’t like the cut of your jib, then why aggravate them by giving you temporary membership? Wilders and Moussawi out!
But this argument, you may have noticed, is not very principled. Strong believers in freedom as we are, shouldn’t we presume that people ought to be admitted unless there are overwhelming reasons against doing so? And I don’t mean just whether this or that group will be very cross about it. I mean that the excludee might actually do something illegal. In which case Wilders and Moussawi would be in. If we want to balance things off, maybe we could even arrange a swap of Moussawi for playwright Caryl Churchill, whose muse might benefit from a period on secondment to Hizbollah’s Al Manar television. I challenge you, Caryl.
However, I am revisited by my old NUS feeling that much of the indignation and passion about these two men is symbolic rather than real. Whether or not either of them spends a few days here, and then leaves again, will make very little difference to the issues that they partly represent. Those issues, it seems to me, require altogether more serious debate.