Picture two recent scenes at British universities. In one, university staff stand huddled in the cold on picket lines, striking for the second year in a row to protest the sustained deterioration of their working conditions. In the second, students walk out of a college Christmas dinner where they are being subjected to a bigoted tirade by a sleazy tabloid columnist. Their principal and his wife label them “pathetic”, “inadequate” and “arses”.
Who in this scenario can count on the British government’s support? Hint: it is not the students who had paid to attend a festive meal, not listen to misogynist and anti-transgender ranting. Nor is it the university staff who may face up to a 40 percent cut in their already modest pensions and an increasingly large number of whom earn low wages on precarious and even zero-hour contracts.
Instead of addressing a very real crisis in teaching and learning conditions that threatens to seriously degrade British universities, Boris Johnson’s ministers have thrown their energies into manufacturing a campus “free speech crisis”. Having deliberately excluded higher education from COVID-19 support, they have spent the pandemic making nonsensical claims about campus “cancel culture” and crafting legislation to protect exactly the kind of hateful speech Durham University students exercised their right not to listen to. The point is less to enshrine freedom of thought than it is to force discredited ideas upon young people.
The Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill now progressing through Parliament seeks to prevent invitations to speakers from being rescinded if they are discovered to have peddled discredited or hateful ideas. The legislation targets the tactic of “no-platforming” which was adopted by the National Union of Students in 1974 to stop fascist organisations, like the National Front, from using universities to disseminate their views.
Despite media and political hype, very few have actually been denied platforms in recent years. A 2018 Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights investigation found that there was “no wholesale censorship” at universities. In a crucial piece of analysis, the independent think tank, Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) notes that a 2021 Government White Paper on free speech and academic freedom in higher education preceding the bill ignored the lack of evidence, insisting there was a problem on the basis of “a small number of anecdotes, press reports and unspecified concerns”.
Is this fake crisis just a classic “dead cat” distraction to draw attention away from a more substantial attack on a severely underfunded higher education sector also reeling from the damage of Brexit? It is obviously easier to decimate the higher education sector after painting it as intolerant and partisan.
While Universities Minister Michelle Donelan harumphed in outrage about a “gender critical” professor leaving the University of Sussex of her own will, pursuant to student protests, scores of staff have been made redundant at Goldsmiths University, eliminating entire humanities subjects. That is real cancellation on a scale which deserves our attention.
While gravely concerning, this is only part of the story, for what is at stake for the political right here is the opposite of freedom of expression. As draconian laws effectively criminalise political protest, the goal of the fake crisis is to foist retrograde and discredited ideologies like race science and climate denial upon universities which are among the few remaining spheres where knowledge is valued. An appreciation for truth, critical thinking and facts is therefore deemed “indoctrination” of students by the left.
Of a piece with the rise of fake news as a vehicle for the rise of right-wing populism, moral panics around free speech aim to legitimise academically unsound or hateful beliefs by giving them the veneer of “brave” and “challenging” ideas. Since universities also have a statutory obligation, alongside academic freedom, to uphold academic standards, repudiating specious thought is a scholarly duty, not cancel culture.
Tellingly, the same people who loudly denounce putative “silencing” on campus have a very good line in cancelling threatening ideas themselves. In late 2020, the Department for Education (DfE) issued guidance deeming anti-capitalism an “extremist” stance that should not be included in teaching materials for English schools.
In October 2020, Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch declared that the “Government stand unequivocally against critical race theory” in education. Since critical race theory is simply a disciplinary framework for talking about race, this restricts discussions of race in schools and colleges.
Last year, then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson warned English universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism in its entirety or face sanctions despite widespread concerns. My own university has adopted the IHRA document wholesale even as scores of its academics have warned that some of the examples it gives conflate criticism of the policies, constitutional doctrines and laws of the State of Israel with anti-Semitism, and will silence those who work or speak on the topic of Israel and Palestine.
While universities are hectored like this and told they will be fined if the proposed Free Speech Champion finds them not to have defended free expression robustly, no such strictures seem to apply to the government itself. Shortly after the Home Office abruptly cancelled a speaking engagement with me on colonialism and anti-colonialism for Black History Month this year, a leaked memo warned civil servants to vet speakers’ opinions and to not invite anyone speakers who had “spoken against key government policies”. My disinvitation was claimed as a victory by right-wing website, Guido Fawkes.
The sharpest end of governmental cancellation is reserved for those who assess Britain’s imperial past critically. Attempts to undo silences and amnesia around empire and slavery, or question mindless glorification are frequently met with enraged denunciations of “town hall militants”, “woke worthies” and “baying mobs”, to use Communities Minister Robert Jenrick’s epithets.
Heritage organisation National Trust has also come under attack. Its “Colonial Countryside” project which sought to modestly illuminate some colonial and slavery connections for properties in its care was met with political fury from Conservatives. A particular red rag was Winston Churchill’s family home, Chartwell, in relation to which his imperial connections, hardly a state secret, were mentioned.
After tabloid attacks, academics who had done research on the project were met with verbal abuse and threats. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden condemned turning the wartime leader into “a subject of criticism and controversy”. Dowden’s warnings to heritage bodies to act in line with government policy or face funding cuts have rightly worried museum staff about political interference in the sector.
Right-wing cancel culture in Britain is at its most implacably repressive when it comes to any mention of Winston Churchill that does not unconditionally glorify him. I have personal experience of this as well, having helped set up a series of talks to examine Churchill’s links to empire and race at Churchill College Cambridge, the national memorial to him, where I am a fellow.
After only the second event, pursuant to a ferocious and baseless denunciation of the discussion by Policy Exchange, a think tank co-founded by government minister, Michael Gove, the planned series was halted by the college. Policy Exchange – rightly described by the HEPI as “a partisan think tank with a clear political agenda that mirrors that of the Government” – was openly jubilant.
The case of Policy Exchange raises questions about the extent to which the concocted free speech crisis is influenced by far-right forces in the United States and their culture war agenda. An exposé by Open Democracy last year found that the freedom of speech White Paper, not only cited Policy Exchange (complete with false claims) liberally but also the US-based Alliance for Democratic Freedom International (ADF), a Christian anti-equality organisation which has been classified as a “hate group”. This organisation has spent £410,000 ($542,000) on lobbying in the UK since 2017, also getting involved in campus disputes.
The Byline Times has just published a report which also raises very serious questions about the shadowy presence on British university campuses of powerful conservative American billionaires who may be funding an anti-equality agenda which includes rehabilitating racist doctrines and gender hierarchies. With a history of supporting extreme right causes in the US, these entities also appear to have influence on UK government higher education policy which now shows a pronounced anti-diversity bent.
British universities are currently nurturing a generation not inclined to toe the conservative line and therefore pillories as “woke snowflakes”. That they are being targeted, in a Tory reprise of former US President Richard Nixon’s dictum, “Professors are the enemy”, is no surprise. Behind the fabricated cultural battles and false flag “free speech” campaigns, a real battle is now unfolding, a fight to defend critical thought, robust scholarship, and the right to challenge the line that wealth and power would have us all acquiesce to.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.