'There is a real feeling that this is just a publicity stunt'
For just the briefest of moments yesterday, David Irving and Nick Griffin must have thought they had got away with it – that despite the outcry, their debate at the Oxford Union was going to be a breeze. When the controversial speakers rolled up at the famous debating society's headquarters on St Michael's Street in separate black cabs shortly after 5.30pm, the media scrum outnumbered the protesters.
Maybe it had something to do with traditional student time-keeping, but the crowds of anti-fascist and minority rights campaigners simply hadn't turned up yet. But an hour in student politics is a long time and when the protesters finally did show up they nearly succeeded in doing what they had promised to do: cancelling a debate with two people that many believe stand for little more than intolerance and bigotry.
To say that the hierarchy of the Oxford Union were taken by surprise at just how controversial their event was would be a gross understatement. But no one was more caught out than the union's eloquent and now notorious president, Luke Tryl. The confident smile he had worn all afternoon as he smoked cigarettes and chatted outside the union disappeared once the protesters turned up in force. In its place, a look of flustered exasperation took over as he fought to find a way from stopping his evening from going under.
By 7pm, one and a half hours before the debate was due to take place, St Michael's Street had turned into an impassable bottleneck as protesters converged in their hundreds. Within 30 minutes, they began blockading the small wrought iron gate that was serving as the only entrance to the 100-year-old building.
As one of the protesters, a second-year chemistry student called Max Tzard, said: "I'm absolutely appalled we invited these people in the first place, no good can come of this. There is a real feeling that this is just a publicity stunt and we as members of the union are paying a price that most of us are not willing to pay."
Cheered on by the crowd, a small group of hardened anti-fascism activists pushed through the gate and over the walls to rush the main chamber where the original debate was to take place. A sit-in ensued and the building went into a lock down.
Even after the speakers were separated, just getting to the cramped, oak-panelled room with the BNP leader Nick Griffin for the start of the debate was a Herculean task, after a day of farce that would make a Charlie Chaplin day out look organised.
But by 9.45pm the academic jousting could begin and a small crowd of approximately 150 students sat on the floor to hear him speak.
Flanked by two shaven- headed heavies, Mr Griffin swept into the room wearing a well-cut suit finished off with a red tie and beige scarf. As the temperature in the room rose, one of the heavies retrieved a perfectly folded paper fan from the inside of his jacket pocket and began fanning himself – the academic heat was on.
Two university debating stalwarts were up against Mr Griffin: the 23-year-old Jess Prince and the 25-year-old James Dray. Ms Prince was the first to speak. A Canadian national who said she had been debating for 11 years, she opened by saying she relished the opportunity to debate against a man she described as "abhorrent".
Beginning a rapid fire assault on why free speech should have its limits she evoked the memory of her grandfather, who had fought against the Nazis in the Second World War. "Never did he think that his granddaughter would have to stand in the Oxford Union debating against someone like Mr Griffin," she said. "What this man stands for is disgusting and abhorrent. You ask how far is too far? This man is too far."
Mr Griffin wasted no time in reeling off his own family's war history. "My father fought in the RAF and my grandfather in World War One, so we're quits on that one," he retorted.
Never one to shy away from bold statements, the BNP leader's speech was littered with the sort of soundbites that have made him such a controversial figure – but a method to his arguing was hard to come by.
From supporting the rights of indigenous people living in the rainforest to "cut off the heads and stick on poles" those loggers and miners who would steal their natural resources, to stating that immigration was bad for the environment – "Every time someone from Africa comes over here, think of the carbon footprint" – Mr Griffin's arguments verged on the obscure.
But the one area where he could not help but win grudging agreement from his audience was on the subject he was asked to defend – the fundamental right to free speech. "The moment you have an establishment or an elite saying 'This is wrong' your heading towards a totalitarian state. Every generation has its sacred cows, its certainties, but very often they are wrong," he said.
It was an argument the audience spent little time trying to defeat. Instead they concentrated on dismantling the BNP, which Mr Griffin had a much harder job defending. Told by a self-confessed "integrated British Asian" that he would have no intention of "going home" were the BNP to win an election and try to force him to, Mr Griffin simply stuttered: "Well stay then."
Unlike most debates at the Oxford Union, however, there was no official motion and therefore no vote. The union decided to label last nights debate a Free Speech Forum and, while the discussions took all the forms of a debate, there was no way for the audience to express whether they liked what Mr Griffin had to say.
Sitting downstairs in the union library as he signed a guestbook that has the signatures of luminaries such as Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama, it was clear that Mr Griffin felt good about how the event went. "How do I feel? I think it went pretty well," he said to the dying chants of the protesters outside. "At least it wasn't called off. Now we just have to find a taxi." Told by a union member to have a safe journey, the BNP leader looked slightly unsure of himself for the first time that evening. "I guess we'll have to see," he said.