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“Where they burn books, they will in the end burn people too” – Review of Andrew Doyle’s ‘Free Speech’

  • 21 February 2022
  • By Nick Hillman

As new legislation on free speech and academic freedom continues its passage through Parliament, HEPI Director Nick Hillman takes a look at one recently published book on the issue.

Andrew Doyle has studied at three British universities but he became famous under the pseudonym Titania McGrath, who sends out a stream of witty or unfunny Tweets, depending on your point of view and – possibly – your political persuasion. These lampoon the ‘identity politics’ that are considered by many people to have affected society, particularly the Labour Party and universities. One popular example of a Titania McGrath Tweet is: ‘If all opinions that I disagree with were made illegal, fascism would be over.’

Doyle’s latest incarnation is as a talkshow host on GBNews, where I suspect he is the only presenter with a PhD from Oxford in early Renaissance poetry.

His short book Free Speech And Why it Matters (2021) is an easy read, coming in at under 100 pages (excluding endnotes), but there is plenty of room for some powerful points:

  • Doyle notes the overlap between societies that restrict free speech and societies that limit the rights of minorities.
  • He rightly makes the case that free speech is an historical oddity, in that it has been denied to most humans who have ever lived, which may help explain why it needs to be treasured and protected.
  • And he attacks the fashion for describing some words as acts of ‘violence’, drawing a contrast between ‘barbed words’ and ‘barbed wire’.

Above all, his thin volume seeks to show free speech is ‘the seedbed of all our freedoms.’ The conclusion claims: ‘Without it, there can be no education, no means to defend ourselves when maligned or misrepresented, no exchange of ideas, no artistic expression, and no safeguard against indoctrination.’

A fleeting acquaintance with Doyle’s work might leave the impression that he supports free speech in its purest guise to the hilt. In fact, a careful reading of this book shows this to be false. As with most of us, his support for free speech comes with some limits. He argues, for example, that ‘companies are entitled to insist on speech codes’. He also has warm words for the early days of political correctness when, he says, the goal was encouraging politeness rather than prohibiting things.

HEPI readers will perhaps be most interested in the chapter on the imaginary no-platforming at a made-up university of a fictional speaker

HEPI readers will perhaps be most interested in the chapter on the imaginary no-platforming at a made-up university of a fictional speaker who opposes gay marriage. The tale is included ostensibly to show why people should engage with arguments they disagree with rather than block them. But it adds little to the overall argument, as the same points are made elsewhere in the book, and I can’t help feeling it may have been included to have a pop at students – in which case it might have been better to have used one of the rare but real instances of no platforming that have occurred (such as David Willetts at Cambridge in 2011).

The short and snappy chapters make for an easy read, but not always a persuasive one. While I stayed with Doyle for much of his argument – particularly on his claims about the Orwellian nature of the police recording ‘non-crimes’ – I departed from his train of thought in the chapter on incitement, a little before his logic crashed into the buffers (or so it seemed to me). This is the longest chapter, at nine pages, and includes two passing references to the Rwandan genocide, yet neither proves beyond reasonable doubt Doyle’s contention that there is no meaningful connection between propagandists and perpetrators. When set aside some of the propaganda I saw on visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the case disintegrates, at least for me. 

Where Doyle is on the firmest ground is at the very end when his paean to free speech sounds like a defence of the academic method: ‘Debate is not, as some have asserted, a “fetish”. It is the means by which we forestall the closing of our minds.’

Although Doyle’s words are essentially a right-wing takedown of current attempts to limit free speech, they remind me of nothing so much as a HEPI report from 2019 by someone from a different political persuasion. At the time, the author Corey Stoughton worked in a senior position at the human rights organisation Liberty (and she is now the Attorney-in-Charge for Special Litigation at the Legal Aid Society in New York). Her conclusion was: ‘recognising that not everyone has equal access to speech, and that some people are disproportionately harmed by speech, doesn’t justify giving powerful institutions more power to censor speech.’

For both Doyle and Stoughton, free speech must be protected because the advocates of restrictions may find they eventually become the target of those same restrictions. Perhaps the similarities between the arguments of Doyle and Stoughton are not surprising because, as Doyle notes near the start of his book, free speech is not a traditional left/right issue. He notes the main threats to free speech used to come from the right but now come from the left.

I started this review by noting how many people regard universities and the Labour Party as particularly susceptible to the temptation to police people’s speech. The Brexit vote was, in some ways, a scream from people who felt their views had been ignored by such institutions. Six years on, the leadership of the Labour Party is responding by refocusing itself away from identity politics and concentrating instead on accepting Brexit, supporting NATO and raising concerns about the rising cost of living. The result has been a sustained lead in the polls, though the Government’s travails have clearly helped secure that too.

Some people would claim universities have not yet made a similarly significant shift in response. The rash of headlines on trigger warnings for children’s books and old classics fairly or unfairly paints a picture that suggests the gap between the higher education sector and the general public has continued to grow. In one sense, that is a ridiculous claim, given higher education directly touches more and more people’s lives: since the referendum, we have surpassed the point at which half of young people in England attend higher education. But on the other hand, recent polling by HEPI and the UPP Foundation shows the overwhelming majority of people have not knowingly been on a university campus in either the past five years or ever.

That feels like a slightly vulnerable position to be in, given culture wars continue to be stoked up and Ministers continue to polish their long-awaited response to the Augar report. Could a more robust defence of free speech be an important part of the fightback?

HEPI’s past work on free speech issues includes:

We hope to add to this output later in 2022.

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