Unapproved thoughts. The government and free speech

Unapproved thoughts. The government and free speech

Times change. And so does received wisdom. Fewer than 20 years ago, Boris Johnson saw no reason in principle to differentiate between gay marriage and consecrating a union between three men and a dog. This week, he clambered on the gay rights bandwagon, welcoming an MoD decision to return medals to military personnel dismissed for their sexuality (though actual financial compensation for their treatment seems to be beyond the current government). A virulently ambitious Conservative politician has found it necessary to perform a volte face in order to stay aligned with public opinion. 

Perhaps the government is concerned that you can’t talk out loud about tank-topped bumboys any more. Because it affects to be concerned that universities are becoming hostile to free speech. The Department for Education, apparently with time on its hands despite having made a complete balls-up of its response to Covid-19, has issued a report on the subject.  

The government doesn’t seem to be suggesting that the courses offered are of inadequate quality or biased. It doesn’t seem to be suggesting that academic careers are being blighted because of unconventional views (its report expresses vague concern on this front but acknowledges that employment rights guard against this and it provides no examples).  Mostly it seems to be upset because many of the views held by its voters are given short shrift in academia.

It acknowledges that there are plenty of laws already dealing with the subject.  Nevertheless, the government is proposing solutions to a non-existent problem.  It is proposing to create a new post of “Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion” (presumably “tsar” was thought to have the wrong connotations). Student unions are going to be brought within the remit of the Office for Students (I look forward to the squawks of protest if the next Labour government instructs local Conservative parties on who they are to invite to speak at their meetings). A clutch of entirely redundant legislative changes is going to be made.

Is academic thought being stifled? When challenged on Twitter, Professor Matthew Goodwin produced a list of academic victims of discrimination.  This list, however, is not particularly compelling on closer inspection, largely comprising figures who wandered into controversy with their views.  Some subject matters inflame passions particularly strongly. 

The debate around trans rights, for example, has become vitriolic with occasional threats of violence, but that’s as true outside universities as inside them. (Current criminal law looks to be entirely adequate to deal with that, if there is the will to do so, and indeed the government is not proposing any changes to the criminal law in this area, suggesting that it agrees.) Few actually seem to have suffered any detriment at all beyond elevated adrenaline levels and Jordan Peterson for example has undoubtedly benefited from controversy.  Several are not actually academics in the UK.

In reality, no one is stopping academics expressing their views.  The real beef is that they are not getting the respect and attention that they (and their political supporters) believe they deserve.  Respect, however, is earned not bestowed.  Evidently to date, it has not been, at least with this particular set of audiences.

And it’s hardly as if academic arguments have become more brutal in recent years.  Sayre’s law was supposedly formulated as early as the 1950s: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Wallace Stanley Sayre should have known: he was a political scientist.

But we don’t need to spend too much time scrutinising the government’s real motives, because it has made them crystal clear.  At the same time as looking to bully universities into giving its client base a platform, it is looking to stop charities giving airtime to other views.  Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, has called executives from 25 heritage bodies and charities in for a bollocking: he wants them to defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down.  The Department for Education may profess to believe that “Free speech is fundamental to liberty and underpins our liberal, democratic society”.  The Culture Secretary isn’t so niminy-piminy.  Culture and history is something to be defended, not investigated.

The government seems to see no contradiction between the two strands.  And there isn’t.  It is launching a war on woke, having been driven mad by political correctness.  The government is not really promoting free speech.  It is looking to amplify speech for those that it approves of.  

And if, along the way, it can create a sinecure to give to a friendly face (someone is going to be appointed “Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion” and if a betting market opens on this, I’d be making Toby Young – thwarted appointee to the Office for Students, creator of the Free Speech Union vanity vehicle and old friend of Boris Johnson who has openly humorously-in-deadly-earnest complained about his lack of a peerage – heavy odds-on favourite), so much the better.  

In practice, the main effect of this will be as chaff, allowing the Education Secretary to distract from the fact that he should long ago have resigned for his many failures.  None of these changes will make the slightest difference to the intellectual climate in universities.  But the announcement has filed a lot of column inches in newspapers this week.  So, job done.  

Alastair Meeks

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