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Freedom of Speech at the Oxford Union


After Ann Widdecombe's impassioned address, the Oxford Union voted by a huge margin (224 to 49) to affirm the principle of free speech. 

widdeouHello, Oxford Union!  Here I am, right back where I started from fifty years ago.  And do you know what the subject of my first Paper Speech was?  It was CensorshipPlus ça change… (the more things change, the more they stay the same.).

Now, tonight is crucial.  This is not just any old Thursday debate at the Oxford Union.  There was a moment in the past when what happened here had reverberations around the world, and that was when this House decided that it would not fight for King and Country, and it gave immense comfort to a rather nasty regime.  And tonight it is crucial that this House, this bastion of freedom, this renowned historical organization that has always been devoted to free speech, does not go the other way and make a decision in favour of censorship.  What we are debating here tonight is crucial.

Now, I speak with feeling.  When I was growing up, it was in the immediate post-war period, when people had lost sons, husbands, fathers to the Nazis.  They had lost limbs and faced a life of disability.  They had lost homes.  They had lost them to a vile regime called National Socialism; and yet, Oswald Moseley and Colin Jordan and other such charming souls were allowed in law to hold their rallies in this country.  You think how much offence, how much hurt, how much insult that caused to people who had made such major sacrifices.  But, the devotion to free speech and the recognition that we had spent six years fighting for liberty led us to believe that it was preferable to have free speech than not to be offended.

And then a few years later, when I was here, we were right at the height of the Cold War.  And it is difficult to remember thirty years after the Berlin Wall came down, but we were actually at a stage when, all along the borders of what were then the Warsaw Pact countries, the Soviet Union had stationed weapons pointing straight at us.  And yet, you could still stand for Parliament as a Communist — you probably wouldn't get in, but you could still stand.  You could stand on street corners and sell the Morning Star.  You could subscribe openly to the Communist Party.  And I expect that gave a lot of offence, and that caused a lot of hurt and probably also alarm, but we believed that free speech was more important. 

Now, only two sorts of people oppose free speech, and they are at opposite ends of the scale:  snowflakes and totalitarians.  (Applause).  So there!

Nobody has the right to live their lives being protected from offence, or from insult, or from hurt feelings.  It is an occupational hazard of living in society…

Celeste said there's nothing wrong with being a snowflake.  No, you can be as snowflake-ish as you like, providing you don't try to impose that on other people. 

I am offended, upset, insulted at least thirty times a day — tough!  Celeste upset me, Celeste wounded me, Celeste has caused me trauma.  She poured scorn on my Paso Doble.  And does she realise that in fifteen years' time I am still going to be traumatized, and I am going to form a movement, (hashtag)MeTooDancers, who were insulted at the Oxford Union?  Oh, come on!  Nobody has the right to live their lives being protected from offence, or from insult, or from hurt feelings.  It is an occupational hazard of living in society, and if you really can't take it, become a hermit.

But, more seriously, on the opposite end from the snowflakes (poor little darlings), on the opposite end from them are the totalitarians.  And that was how Hitler was so successful, because he did not allow any free speech whatever.  And if you spoke out against that sickening regime, or indeed against the Soviet Union (bell rings...Two minutes more?  No, I need at least five) you would end up in prison, if not worse.

Totalitarians like to curtail your right to disagree with state orthodoxy.  Now, for state orthodoxy, substitute the words social orthodoxy, as exemplified by social media, Twitter, and other such places, where people decide what is and what is not acceptable. 

Now, I would love to stand in the Union and oppose and argue with and take to pieces a Holocaust denier.  But, if we say, "No, we can never have the holocaust denier, because his views are so offensive that he cannot be accorded a platform", then what happens?  That sort of viewpoint is driven underground, where it can quite often flourish.  And people whisper behind their hands, "Oh, you know there is something in what he says, but we are not allowed to hear it."  Let's hear it, and by hearing it we can destroy it.  We should also remember that today's heresy can become tomorrow's credo.  How fortunate we were that the Wilberforces of this world, the Pankhursts, the Martin Luther Kings, and everybody else who has, over time and with massive effort, changed society, how grateful we may be that they were not no-platformed because it offended the society of their time!

And just remember this: You may feel virtuous today in what you will not hear, but tomorrow somebody may feel virtuous in not hearing what you have to say. Free speech is for all, not for the privileged few.

Now, I recently was asked if I objected to sharing a platform with somebody who had spoken in favour of (had not been involved in, but had spoken in favour of) the IRA.  Now, I lost a friend in the Brighton bomb.  I missed the Brighton bomb by less than twenty minutes.  And I looked at this person and I said, "So, you wanted to blow me up", and she said, "Well, I didn't want to do it myself".  I do not object to sharing a platform and arguing with her, because by arguing with her I can expose what is wrong.  It is absolutely right that we should allow people, no matter how profoundly we disagree with them — I hate to utter cliches in this august debating hall, but I am going to utter one — that no matter how much we may disagree with somebody, we should defend to the hilt their right to say it, and that is something I have believed all my life.  That you succeed by defeating your opponent, not by wishing him away.  You get nowhere by trying not to hear what is being said, not to hear the arguments.

As I said at the beginning, and I do passionately appeal to you tonight, this is not about which side wins.  This is about whether the Oxford Union, of all bodies, will vote in favour of the diminution of free speech.  Whether we will agree (and I say "we" because I am a life member of this place) that somebody else may decide what we can and can't hear.  And just remember this:  You may feel virtuous today in what you will not hear, but tomorrow somebody may feel virtuous in not hearing what you have to say.  Free speech is for all, not for the privileged few.



widdecombe7Ann Widdecombe. "Freedom of Speech at the Oxford Union." The Oxford Union (July 10, 2019).

Reprinted with permission of Ann Widdecombe. 

The Author

widdsaAnn Widdecombe is a British politician and author serving as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for South West England since 2019. She previously served as the Conservative Member of Parliament from 1987 to 2010. Widdecombe read Latin at the University of Birmingham and later studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. As an MP, Widdecombe expressed socially conservative views, including opposition to abortion; it was understood during her time in frontline politics that she would not become Health Secretary as long as this involved responsibility for abortions. Widdecombe became an Anglican in her 30s, after a period of being an agnostic following her departure from religious schooling. Widdecombe is now a practising Roman Catholic; she converted in 1993 after leaving the Church of England. She is the author of Strictly Ann - The Autobiography by Ann WiddecombeSackcloth and Ashes, and other novels. Her website is here

Copyright © 2019 Ann Widdecombe
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