Debates disrupted by hail of boots and bigotry

Sophie Wettern & Rebecca Bailey 5 November 2009

Cambridge Union: heated debate and drama continue

The ex-Prime Minister of Australia narrowly avoided being hit by a hiking boot launched at him when speaking at the Cambridge Union last Friday.

John Howard was entering the room when a cry of “Go home, you racist!” was heard in the Chamber. As the ex-Prime Minister began to speak, a young man in the second row stood up and interrupted him, claiming he had “never been more ashamed to be Australian”  during Howard’s term in office.

When cautioned by members of the Cambridge Union Officers to be seated, the young man took off one of his heavy hiking boots and threw it at Howard.

Haydn King, a first-year engineer from Jesus College, said: “I was shocked by how rudely and inappropriately Mr Howard was treated – even before he had said anything.” The man was promptly removed from the room by the Union security staff. Howard was unhurt by the incident, the throw being described by one witness as “pathetic” and “easily stopped.”

The President of the Cambridge Union, Julien Domercq, said later that the Union “admire the good grace with which handled the incident.”

He stated that “the Union is a forum for open discussion and debate, offering members a safe environment in which to express their opinions freely. We of course hope that these channels of discourse remain mutually respectful and take place in an intellectual and rational way. We cannot condone this kind of behaviour, and hope that our members will not be discouraged from engaging in reasoned dialogue in future events.”

The Union was unable to comment further on the identity of the would-be assailant. The Cambridge Union Press Secretary, Lauren Davidson, assured The Cambridge Student (TCS) that the Union has “robust procedures in place, which are implemented by experienced professionals, to ensure that all our high profile guests are safe when they speak at the Union.”

The Cambridge University student who intercepted the boot, Andrew Chapman, told Masons News Service: “The thrower had a perfect opportunity to discuss his issues with Mr. Howard as a question-and-answer session after the speech was advertised but he just wasn’t interested.

It was clear from the start he had come deliberately to heckle and as he stood up it was equally clear what he intended to do. I didn’t want him to get a clear shot at Mr Howard so I stood up to put myself between him and the former prime minister and when he threw the shoe I caught it.”

There was more controversy at the Union last week after one of the speakers, Denis MacShane Labour MP, was involved in a heated discussion with a speaker from the floor in which he demanded that the student apologise for the Jewish lives lost because of Hamas.

The debate, held on Thursday 29th October, proposed that Israel demands too much and gives too little in the peace process. Although this is a contentious issue, the debate remained restrained until the incident between Dr MacShane, and the speaker from the floor.

Dr MacShane argued that the wall between Israel and the Gaza strip is necessary as it protects Jewish lives when he was questioned by the student who asked him “What about the Arab lives?” He responded that “Your Arab life is worth as much as a Jew’s life” and then went on to say that “this is the Cambridge Union, you’re not a Hamas representative”.

When the student requested an apology for Dr MacShane referring to him as a Hamas representative, Dr MacShane replied “Sir, when you stand up and apologise for every Jew killed by Hamas and Palestinians . . .”

However, Dr MacShane denies intending to cause offence, saying that “I did not accuse him – how could I – of anything”. He told The Cambridge Student (TCS): “If he feels insulted by anything I said I am sorry” and in a letter to the President of the Cambridge Union hoped that the student had not been “too upset at the rough and rude style of Parliamentary debate because the exchanges in the Commons are much cruder and insulting!”

Dr MacShane is the Labour MP for Rotherham and was Minister of State for Europe from 2002 to 2005. He was chair of the inquiry panel of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Anti-Semitism and is an advisory board member of Just Journalism, an independent organization promoting accurate and responsible reporting in the UK media about Israel.

He defends his actions, saying that “I will not resile from criticising the jew-hate and jew-killing politics of Hamas which need exposure and rejection not defending and endorsement”.

The Cambridge Union President, Julien Domercq, told TCS: “We do not feel it is appropriate to pass any sort of judgement on Dr MacShane’s comments”. He went on to explain that it is “the nature of the Cambridge Union Society to promote free debate and discussion between students in Cambridge”.

Dr MacShane argued that he would be happy to meet with the student for a chat, saying that he would have done so had he not had to leave the debate early. However, there was widespread disgust at what many regarded as racist remarks.

Angharad Thain, a first year History student from Peterhouse College, who was among the audience at the Union debate, told TCS that she was “shocked by the blatant racism of Denis MacShane likening all Arabs to Hamas supporters”.

Sophie Wettern & Rebecca Bailey