On Tuesday 9th February, NUS President Wes Streeting came to Durham to answer students’ questions about the cancellation of the Durham Union Society’s (DUS) proposed debate on multiculturalism.
The debate involving two British National Party (BNP) politicians was scheduled to take place on Friday 12th February. In response to threats of violent protests, the DUS was forced to cancel the debate, unleashing a wave of further unrest amongst students.
The forum, which took place in the DUS debating chamber, attracted a high level of interest from students, staff members and the local press.
In his opening speech to the chamber, Streeting reiterated the fundamental beliefs and policies of the BNP, highlighting that the only effective label for them is as a “racist Nazi party” and voiced his concerns about their increasing number of voters in certain areas of the country.
Despite being met with jeers and heckling on numerous occasions, Streeting remained composed. He remarked that giving the BNP the “oxygen of publicity” was not the way to deal with the situation and that instead they should never be given a platform to speak.
Although he stood by the NUS’ No Platform Policy, Streeting admitted that the Officers Bellavia Riberio-Addy and Daf Adley had acted impetuously in sending a letter to DUS, DSU and the University which threatened a “colossal demonstration”.
He described the “hugely unfortunate” incident as a “classic example of a huge, monumental cock-up” and apologised unreservedly to students for the threatening tone of the letter.
Streeting’s apologetic performance was in contrast to his defiant attitude when he spoke to Palatinate last issue and denied any threat of violence had been implied in the NUS Officers’ letter: “I resent the implication that NUS has somehow threatened students in Durham. I think it’s preposterous to suggest that NUS would condone any threatening behaviour or activity”.
In the days that followed, the strength of feeling amongst Durham students must have become clear to Streeting as he presented an entirely different attitude at Tuesday’s forum.
The NUS President also expressed regret that the actions of the NUS officers were “massively self-defeating” and had fundamentally undermined the fight against the BNP. He stressed that Riberio-Addy and Adley had accounted for their actions and “deeply regretted the misunderstanding” caused by the words of their statement, although many students questioned why the officers had not come up to Durham to apologise in person.
When Streeting had finished giving his opening speech, the floor was opened to questions from members of the 300-strong audience, many of whom clamoured to ask questions or put across their point.
The initial anger quelled as the former Cambridge student responded to questions and put forward reasoned arguments for the NUS’ stance regarding the BNP.
After the debate had finished, protestor Danni Reece-Greenhalgh reflected: “the debate did seem to do its job insofar as protesters were able to ask the questions they wanted of the NUS and, to a large extent, get satisfactory explanations”.