This is an opinion piece. An news article on this event is available here.
16:02. A Facebook message asking me to “guarantee to not leak details” and telling me that I will be taken “to the location”. No, this isn’t an episode of 24, this is what happens when a student-organized husting is cancelled at the last minute by administrators at UWE.
Derya Khalilpour, president of the UWE Debating Society, pulls up in his car at the agreed meeting spot just outside of Frenchay Campus, and signals to me to get in. As we start to drive, I meet treasurer of the society, James Pearson, who chuckles when I ask to where we are driving — I still don’t know where we are going. I’m told we’re going to a hotel in the centre, but I’ll have to wait until later until I find out the exact location.
If you think that this sounds clandestine in nature, you’d be right; as I would later find out, I would make up just a sixth of those in attendance, including Carl Benjamin as the sole speaker, and his assistant.
As we drive to the centre, I ask Khalilpour about how it got to this point. He tells me that the proper procedures were followed for inviting external speakers to the university campus, with plans submitted to the Students’ Union prior to the deadline of fourteen days in advance, and everything was approved up until three days before the event. As the university did not have the contact details of the society, Khalilpour was informed of the cancellation around the same time as the public statement went live.
Having predicted something like this would happen, Khalilpour knew now was the time to go rogue. As we’re driving in the car, Pearson is frantically editing a logo for the new page he is setting up to stream the event, it’s the UWE Debating Society’s logo, but with the colours inverted and the word “NOT” superimposed: the disgruntlement towards the university is palpable.
Khalilpour tells me that the UWE Debating Society is an “incredibly diverse society, politically”, and that many don’t know what people’s politics are.
I ask Khalilpour what he thinks of Green party candidate Carla Denyer’s call to boycott the original hustings: “[she] should respect us as a debating society to uphold platforming. If she believes the propagation of the views that [Benjamin] holds would be detrimental to society then she, by dropping out, has given him a larger platform — now we are also exclusively platforming Carl [Benjamin].”
After some trouble navigating Bristol’s new Temple Gate and the associated roadworks, we arrive at the Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel. Eight chairs have been laid out for the event, enough for seven speakers and the chair, but everyone knows only Benjamin will be in attendance.
Benjamin arrives at 18:42 with his assistant in tow. They set up their own camera separate to that of the “Not UWE Debating Society” to film the event.
Benjamin introduces himself, stating that UKIP are “the only Brexit party that are an actual party”, and that the manifesto “hit[s] all the major notes, subjects that my activism does revolve around”, he explains his disagreement with the manifesto’s pledge to reinvigorate the coal industry, proposing increased use of nuclear power, and concludes his introduction with a speech concerning Article 13 and internet liberties, probably the only two points that even I can agree with.
Views on Islam
What came next was much more sinister.
Benjamin said he thinks that there is too much “pussy-footing around” in European Parliament, and that an MEP should use the “minute or so on the floor to raise issues that are not being talked about in the direct way that need to be spoken about”.
Benjamin then launched in to a seven-and-a-half minute tirade on his views of Islam, including the supposed high prevalence of “abaya”, a traditionally Muslim dress, commenting that he thinks it’s “the wrong message to send that this is the kind of Islam we want in Britain”. When asked how to stem the proliferation of Islamic terrorism, he stated that the “British state is going to have to choose a form of Islam that it finds socially compatible with the country”, with certain types “prohibited from being taught in mosques”. When questioned as to how this was compatible with Benjamin’s own descriptions of himself as a “free speech activist” and “civil libertarian”, he was quick to deflect, saying that he would still wish to allow this in private reading, just not in mosques.
Benjamin then praised the oppressive state of Saudi Arabia, where women only recently gained the ability to legally drive, saying that “in every mosque in Saudi Arabia, they have cameras to monitor the Imams themselves to make sure they’re not teaching anything that would be considered revolutionary, if it’s good enough for Saudi Arabia then […] I think that could only benefit everyone”. Despite attempts by Khalilpour to steer the discussion back on track, Benjamin was quick to return to discussion on Islam, referring to the “indigenous population” of the UK at one point in his answer.
At one point, Benjamin stated that the Liberal Democrats had been subverted by socialists and associated the party’s notion of equality to communism; despite this, I asked him afterwards, were he a Remainer, which party he would be a member of, he said the Liberal Democrats, presumably due to his perception of himself as a liberal.
Benjamin continued the interview criticizing censorship online, saying “I think censorship radicalizes people” seemingly unable to see the irony between his criticism of the erasure of freedom of speech and freedom of expression and his calls to ban certain types of religious teaching and dress.
After calling LGBT rights a “political issue”, Benjamin was asked if there was anything that social justice movements had achieved that he agreed with, to which he responded “what have they achieved? Well, they’ve achieved a great deal of censorship”. Benjamin is clearly unable to identify with the plight of anyone beyond himself: due to the suspension of his Twitter account, he believes that he is subject to censorship. If Benjamin had been able to come up with an answer, he may have mentioned same-sex marriage, legalized in 2014, surely a milestone contribution to Benjamin’s earlier assertion that there is “no difference between the rights of a gay man and a straight man in this country”.
Asked whether “students engaging politically is a positive thing”, Benjamin said he thought “students should get on with their studies”, after an incredulous look by Khalilpour, Benjamin redoubled saying “I’m serious, you don’t need to be involved in politics, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re like twenty-one years old, I’m thirty-nine and I still don’t know what I’m talking about.” “You’ve been fed half a narrative from your Marxist professor and you’ve been given a bunch of false information that’s led you to believe everything you disagree with is fascism, and you just don’t know, just get on with your studies”.
Well, at least Benjamin got one thing right: he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Of course, when turn out is lower, right-leaning parties succeed at a higher rate, so as young people are one of the groups that turns out to vote in the lowest numbers, of course he would be appear more than happy to see them disenfranchised.
I queried Benjamin on his views about the recent story where a man covered his face and received a £90 fine, and whether he thought that the man had a right to cover his face. His response: “of course he did”, when I asked why he would restrict the rights of a Muslim woman to cover her face with a burqa, and its impact on civil liberties he seemed unfazed, saying that it was not a contradiction, and that we already restrict what people can wear in certain places, and that “we do have to compromise in certain regards”, saying that a ban “doesn’t have to be restricted to any one religion”, and that it could be restricted to certain places.
The “Not UWE Debating Society”, as an independent group of students, could not use society funds could for any of the re-organized event, so it looked like they would be out-of-pocket. After the event was over, with questioning complete, Benjamin became aware of this, and offered to cover the cost of the hotel room booking. From my point of view this seemed to be an offer to a group of students out of kindness, rather than a conflict of interest; this would not have been necessary had the original husting gone ahead as planned.
My final thoughts
Benjamin seemed more concerned with opinions relating to Islam and censorship online than on his party’s Brexit strategy, but this is to be expected considering that a recent YouGov/The Times poll puts UKIP at 3%, below even that of Change UK (5%). Clearly Brexit is not helping them remain relevant, so why not try something else? His assertions that students should not be involved in politics, that LGBT rights are a political issue, and his inability to find a single good achievement of the social justice movement show that Benjamin is either unable or unwilling to see outside of his bubble, despite criticizing others for the same. There are many legitimate reasons for leaving the European Union, even if I may disagree with it, but it received little attention from Benjamin in the entire hour he was given to talk with no opposing candidates.
Had the original husting gone ahead, Benjamin would have had to contend with the opposing candidates, but due to the withdrawal of support by UWE, he had nothing but a chairman and a woefully inexperienced student journalist in myself to contend with. This constitutes a failure by the university.
Luckily, if the polling is correct, Benjamin’s views, like UKIP, will one day be dead in the water.
It is here that I’d like to urge people to vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections in order to help keep people like Benjamin from gaining office. With a more proportional voting system than General Elections, your vote really does make a difference, and tactical voting is not as necessary.
The Green Party’s Carla Denyer refused request for comment.