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What if…? Thoughts on Gavin Williamson’s ‘Landmark’ Proposals to Strengthen ‘Free Speech’ at Universities

  • 26 February 2021
  • By Nigel Copsey

This blog was kindly contributed by Nigel Copsey, who is Professor of Modern History at Teesside University and the author of Anti-Fascism in Britain (2nd edition, 2016) and co-editor of the Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right series.

For all his lofty ideals about the need to protect democratic values, free speech and liberal society, it is hard to escape the feeling that the key driver behind the recent proposals presented by the Secretary of State for Education is the notion that British universities are being stifled by a ‘politically-homogeneous culture’ that primarily impacts upon ‘Conservative, or more right-leaning opinions’. ‘There is’, Williamson writes in the Foreword, ‘evidence that a minority of students and academics may be having a disproportionate influence on censoring expression on campus’. His use of the word may (my emphasis) is revealing here: should central Government intervene on a ‘problem’ for which the evidence for its seriousness is not sufficiently compelling?

Despite the conclusion of the Joint Committee on Human Rights in 2018 that the imposition of obstacles to freedom of speech on campus was not a ‘widespread problem’, Williamson’s report contends that there are ‘too many reported instances of freedom of speech and academic freedom not being adequately protected within higher education and of students and staff being intimidated or harassed as a result of their views’ (p. 17). This, of course, begs the question, what exactly constitutes ‘too many’ instances? In Williamson’s mind, this is something of a zero-sum: ‘even one no-platforming incident is too many’, he says (p. 6). Presumably this would extend to ‘no-platforming’ a speaker with a previous conviction for incitement to racial hatred, such as former BNP leader, Nick Griffin. 

Yet the real issue lies not with the prominence of certain cases reported in the media (Glasgow University being accused of capitulating to ‘wokeism’ being the most recent ‘egregious’ example). More worryingly, we are told (p. 5) are:

more significant concerns […] the rise of intolerance and “cancel culture” upon our campuses is one that directly affects individuals and their livelihoods. Students have been expelled from their courses, academics fired and others who have been forced to live under the threat of violence.

So where is the evidence for such extravagant claims?

There are no numbers forthcoming when it comes to evidencing the volume of student expellees, staff dismissals, or those living under the threat of violence. Instead, Williamson is drawn to research from the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange that suggests that only 4-in-10 Brexit-supporting students felt comfortable about expressing that view in a classroom (although given the febrile atmosphere at the time this is perhaps no surprise). There is also citation of the King’s College report that suggests that 59 per cent of those identifying as Conservative agreed that those students who held right-leaning opinions were reluctant to express them at their university (p. 18). Unsurprisingly, as the Policy Exchange report showed in 2020, much of academia ‘leans left’: it found that only 9 per cent of UK academics self-located on the right (p. 52); and that 50 per cent of those with right-leaning views in the social sciences and humanities chose to self-censor, refraining from expressing their views in teaching and research for this might result in in their grant applications, promotions and publications being disadvantaged (p. 55).

But is this problem of self-censorship on the right so widespread, so pervasive, so serious, that it really demands central government intervention? Should it not give the Education Secretary cause to reflect on the structural reasons for the prevalence of left-leaning opinions within neo-liberalised academia in the first place?

Williamson wants higher education providers to be legally required to actively promote free speech and to stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’ on campus. ‘All staff and students’, the executive summary says, ‘should feel safe to challenge conventional wisdom by putting forward and discussing ideas that may be controversial, unpalatable, or even deeply offensive’ (p.7). The same should be true for visiting speakers, provided that their speech is lawful: ‘As long as speech is lawful, HEPs should stand up for the rights of people to express their lawful views, even if there is potential for negative reaction’ (p. 21).

Yet from the perspective of a historian of British fascism and anti-fascism, Williamson’s statements can only give succour to those further to the right who sneer at British universities as bastions of ‘cultural Marxism’ and who project themselves as ‘free speech’ martyrs. For them, Williamson’s recommendations, which would protect their freedom of expression, extend an open invitation.

So, what if…? What if a far-right speaker who denies the Holocaust (denial of the Holocaust is not unlawful) is invited to speak? Let’s say that this invitation falls close to Holocaust Memorial Day. What of the presence of far-right speakers who might seek to make some bogus differentiation between being ‘anti-racist’ and yet, at the same time inveigh against ‘anti-white racism’? What of those far-right speakers, such as Yiannopoulus, that trade in (lawful) misogyny and anti-intellectualism?

Williamson’s report commends the ‘Chicago Principles’ as best practice. But this is the UK not the US. Across the Atlantic, we have seen the emergence of the ‘Groyper’ phenomenon: far-right activists who try to silence and shut down conservative speakers. I wonder how Gavin Williamson might feel if an attempt to silence him on campus came not from the left, but from those further to the right, emboldened by his lofty commitment to protect freedom of expression?

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