Emilia Chambers, BAME Officer, responds to the York Tories' invitation to Sir Desmond Swayne MP


The invitation feels like a "micro-aggressive act"

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By Hannah Boyle and Juliette Barlow

On Monday 26 September, YUSU BAME Network published an open statement regarding the invitation to Sir Desmond Swayne, MP for New Forest West, to an event to be hosted this term by the University of York Conservative and Union Association (York Tories).

The statement expressed concern at the invitation to Mr Swayne following past comments related to the use of black face, practising blackface personally and comments made about protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

The statement stated that the BAME network had reached out to York Tories privately, on the 10 September to ask for a retraction of the invitation, however they had not received a response in over two weeks. The full statement can be read online, here.

Nouse correspondent, Juliette Barlow, sat down with Emilia Chambers, BAME Officer for YUSU to understand more about her concerns.

Emilia, advised that she worried about the impact of the event on the BAME community at York. She states that she is concerned about the potentially detrimental impact on the “mental health and wellbeing of students” and that welcoming people who hold these views into the University and student social space can be “damaging” as “it makes having these outdated views acceptable.” Chambers has also advised that she is concerned that the event could make BAME students feel “unsafe”.

Chambers elaborated, stating she was concerned about the impact on incoming students who may already be concerned about diversity at university- particularly when coupled with recent statistics. Annual data released by UCAS,  in which it was shown that in 2019, only 1.7 percent of 18 year old applicants placed at the University were black- more than three times lower than the national average.

She clarifies that the concern is not about him being physically on campus, it is the fact that the invitation feels like a “micro-aggressive act that is happening” and advised that she felt it is “indicative of the way that the mental health of BAME students is not taken seriously enough or given enough weight.”

Chambers revealed that the initial email to the York Tories provided the society with details of Swayne’s previous comments, as well as links to further information, and as a committee, the BAME Network had “seriously urged them to retract the invitation.” She was ‘frustrated and disappointed’ to not hear back from the society, and found it “honestly shocking that they did not feel the need to reply to such an urgent email.”

Chambers noted she hoped action on the issue would lead to the invitation to Swayne to be retracted, however advising if it is not, the BAME network would plan to host a “counter event” at the same time, with a focus on the health and wellbeing of BAME students, focusing on “mental health and wellbeing of BAME students in a positive light”.

Chambers advised that fundamentally, she hopes for an acknowledgement that this is a “serious topic that needs serious consideration”, and her “greatest concern” remains the wellbeing of BAME students at the University.

Speaking on the matter of support the BAME network had received from other students, Chambers stated it was “brilliant” to see support from YUSU representatives such as  Activities Officer Rohan Ashar. Chambers stated “overwhelming support from other students” and encouraged them to “continue to rally against this kind of behaviour on campus.” She also encouraged other societies and colleges to support the YUSU BAME Network by releasing their own statements condemning the event and calling for the invitation to be reconsidered.

Chambers advised that if the event goes ahead, she would encourage other individuals, societies and colleges to not engage or collaborate with a society that is “promoting such harmful views.” When pressed, Chambers made clear that this does not just apply to events hosted by the Tory Society, but any society that may host a future event that would put the “mental health and wellbeing of marginalised students at risk.”

Chambers stressed she was concerned about the invitation of Mr Swayne when there are “so many positive figures who could be invited instead” who would “positively impact and inspire students.” Her primary concern is the effect of “these types of events” on all minority and marginalised groups of students, and is “concerned” that inviting controversial figures with “harmful and problematic views” is “going to be a trend.” The invitation follows the controversial visit of Julie Bindel to campus last year, which resulted in protests at the event.

In conversation, Chambers argued that even if the event were to be held in a ‘debate-style’, this would still not put her mind at ease as “ultimately you cannot debate matters of human rights, specifically the right to live in a world without racial discrimination.” She argues that even if there were to be a mediator, and someone speaking for and against these kinds of views it “legitimises” them and is “beneficial to no-one.” Ultimately, Chambers argued that she ultimately finds the idea that some students may resonate with the views promoted by Mr Swayne, “very worrying.”

Free Speech legislation prevents YUSU and the University from blocking the event from going ahead, which Chambers acknowledges, stating that she understands that “as an organisation bound to legislation and rules they are limited with how they can act.” She stated that.  As neither YUSU or the University have jurisdiction to cancel the event, it is “unproductive to keep criticising them for this when it is out of their domain,” although she calls for them to “take some sort of action or speak out against the event.”

On the matter of the event, a University of York spokesperson said: “When one of our Students’ Union societies organises events on University premises and requests external speakers to attend, there is a comprehensive process to follow - with YUSU, and if appropriate, the University - before anything goes ahead.

“In general, there are legal limits to what the University could do to stop events happening, especially one being held off campus at a hotel.

“We know many of our students disagree with society invitations, and in this sense, we appreciate the limits placed on us legally - including the duty to uphold lawful free speech - can create tensions with our ethos of being an inclusive and welcoming community.

“We recognise this particular event is causing upset, and having been alerted to these plans, we will work with YUSU and its societies to address the impact of any such event going ahead.”

In a response to the BAME network, York Tories stated: “The executive committee of the University of York Conservative and Unionist Association apologises for the delayed response to your concerns.

“We acknowledge and understand the concerns raised by you in regard to the actions and comments made by Sir Desmond Swayne MP in the past. As a society, we take all issues relating to race very seriously. If any member of our society is made to feel as if they have suffered from any form of discrimination while attending a society event, we will respond appropriately and following all YUSU guidelines.”

This committee has never had any concerns raised by members in relation to the issue of race. The committee has also actively tried to make the society more inclusive towards all members and all those considering joining the society. The purpose of the Mighty Oak Dinner is to provide our members with the opportunity to debate and discuss a range of issues with a member of parliament. As an experienced member of parliament with government experience, we wanted to create an opportunity for our members to debate with and challenge Sir Desmond Swayne on the current issues facing our country. The subjects of debate were intended to concern the future of the British constitution following the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the cost-of-living crisis and the other challenges that the new government faces.”

“While hosting the Mighty Oak Dinner, we will continue to uphold our adherence towards the

guidelines set out by the YUSU constitution and we will ensure that all attendees are made to feel welcome at the event. We are in regular contact with YUSU in regard to the running of this event and your concerns.”

“The Mighty Oak Dinner is not being held on campus, therefore there is no risk to the students at the University of York. Although we would like to reassert our acknowledgement of your concerns, we will not be retracting the invitation to Sir Desmond Swayne. We share your wish for this situation to be addressed in a mutually respectful manner.”

In response to Nouse, York Tories said “In regard to inclusivity, we will be actively upholding all YUSU guidelines to ensure all attendees feel welcome at the event. It is to the discretion of all individual members as to whether or not they decide to attend the event.”

“If any attendee raises a concern due to anything said at the event, we will treat this matter appropriately and in line with all YUSU guidelines. We are taking matters of security very seriously and all necessary measures will be put in place to ensure the safety of all those attending the event. We are in regular contact with YUSU in regard to creating a safe and secure environment.”

“As a society, the issue of racism, and any other form of discrimination, is treated with the upmost respect.”

Nouse has approached the Office of Desmond Swayne MP for comment.