I wanted to write about almost anything that wasn’t the Conservative Party and their inability to do anything useful or clever. But no. This week marks a new policy from perennial windbag Jo Johnson (interestingly, not everyone seems to know he’s Boris’ younger brother so if that’s you, then hey, the more you know). In their infinite wisdom, the Tories have decided that they need to ensure that free speech standards in UK institutions remain high.
I need to begin with a throat-clearing of sorts. I love free speech. Obviously. As does even the most censorious SU type. You don’t become President of Debate Society in the hopes it will make you cooler and more attractive to the opposite sex, or for the money, because on the former – I assure you it doesn’t, and on the latter – there isn’t any. You become President because you love Debate. Only reason. I mean, I didn’t even do it for my CV – that argument doesn’t fly – because let’s be real, you could all claim it, and who is going to check? So when free speech at University is truly under threat, I will be first to the barricade in order to defend it. But right now, it isn’t. And pretending it is under threat is unhelpful at best.
The debate around campus free speech seems to very often operate on a note of ‘chilling’ free speech. In other words, students are accused of creating an attitude where people don’t want to say things in fear of social condemnation. This conjuring of a de facto spectre is a rather weak argument, because frankly, until we start to see de jure restrictions, this isn’t a free speech violation. You’re free to hold whatever views you want. If you’re a social reactionary with views I find abhorrent, I’m free to privately call you an arsehole and not want to be friends with you. What’s interesting is that the supposedly liberal values championed by the free speech crowd are rapidly making way for a more authoritarian undertone – not all speech must be allowed, but rather my speech must be heard. The issue is that campus libertarians are now committing the same mistake that the campus left makes. For years the campus left has used words… weirdly. ‘Neoliberal’ became ‘anything a bit capitalist that I don’t like’. ‘Centrist’, recently, has become a weird word that means ‘anyone between Full-Blown Luxury Post-Scarcity Acid Corbynism and Actual Fascists.’ Campus libertarians frequently confuse the state with things they don’t like, and thus when lefty students rock up to shut a speaker down, they assume that it’s the state at work. A part of this is probably that it’s easier to claim that you’re being shut down by the big bad institution than it is to come to terms with the fact that most of your peers don’t agree with you. Simply put, students aren’t killing free speech – and if they were, it would be students doing it, not the University itself, and not the State.
So this brings us to the issue of how the policy is going to actually work. Because the only actor that the Government can pressure is the University itself, as an institution, with threats of deregistration or fines. And Uni activists do not give a shit about that. If you’re a University politico, you are, typically, one of three things:
1.You think student politics translates to a career in Actual Politics.
2.You have one thing (Trans rights or mental health are some examples) that you really care about and want to change. On the whole, these are good, wholesome people.
3.You’re a raging Trot.
Of those groups, 2 and 3 make up maybe 4/5ths of student politicos. Group 2 is already willing to give up their evenings in favour of their cause and are not going to care about University administrators getting rustled, and Group 3 are Trots who think that it’s all a big capitalist conspiracy anyway. In other words, this is a policy lever that’s attached to absolutely nothing effectual. The worldview of Tories who think this will work is utterly wrongheaded, because it requires students to really care about something other than their pet cause, and… well, no-one does this. Asking a student whose main motivation is improving mental health provision on campus to really care about something that isn’t that betrays a weird unwillingness to treat young people like the rest of the electorate. After all, there has been no attempt to convince people who really want Brexit that the economy will suffer from the Tory party.
There is, however, an element to this policy that does explain away this policy, and it’s one that Twitter and a whole variety of journalists have failed to grasp – there is a coalition for this, and it’s one that people outside of campuses simply don’t get. I’ve written about the existential issues facing the Tory party, and there is a need for them to attract young people. If they choose to go up against Corbyn they’re going to lose. What they need to is to attract the politically engaged yet anti-Corbyn youth crowd. Yes, this group is not particularly large, but it does exist (and I suspect is larger than most people imagine) and goes some way to explain this move. There is a Certain Kind Of Student who does believe that they’re being censored by the left – typically, they believe that their worldview is uniquely well reasoned, that they’re able to detach from ideological concerns shared by others – and by others, we really ought to read ‘the Left’. Theirs is not an opposition to the economic left per se, but rather a reactionary retaliation against the New Left ideals seen so frequently amongst campus radicals. This policy is red meat to this crowd, and will only serve to ensure that they feel validated – look, the state agrees with us! – and will likely be a haphanded attempt to ensure that these students bind to the Conservatives rather than another party.
The issue is that this crowd actually forms part of a coalition – the aforementioned young, and the sort of middle-aged to old chaps who form the editorial team at Spiked and the Spectator – the Brendan O’Neills of this world, who get immeasurably exercised by student politics and the concept of people being nice to women and minorities. May’s problem with this is twofold. The first is that the coalition is incredibly small. Most people know that when you give 18-21 year olds free time and a sterile environment they’ll come up with some wacky stuff, and no one is surprised. The second problem that May and the Tories will face is that siding with these types does nothing to counter the fact that she’s been making all the wrong noises in terms of getting most social liberals on side. Fact is, a casual glance at this policy looks like the Government is siding with Nazis rather than students, and that’s never a good look. The issue with social policy is that it’s very often reduced down to some key sticking points, and this one will be reduced down to the right of people like the BNP to speak on campus, so it will end up sounding like May is going to bat for racists. That’s before you get to the fact that Prevent has been a major sticking point for students and the Government, and declaring that free speech is valid is only going to rile anti-Prevent students, of which there is a sizable coalition.
An Addendum: One of the interesting things about writing stuff like this is that the ground will frequently shift beneath my feet. This piece began by looking at the parallel between the campus free speech movement and the Conservative Party. Just 2 paragraphs ago, I claimed that the policy was an attempt by Tories to gain the favour of this crowd. I stand by this assessment. However, the demands of everyone’s new favourite junior minister – demanding that Universities turn over their records of anyone who has mentioned Brexit, thought about Brexit, or eaten a croissant, change this. The Government has revealed a new side to this piece. Yes, the Conservative Party’s new free speech policy is a bid for the rag-tag coalition of forty/fiftysomethings who get terribly excited by student politics and a small group of students. Wading in on the culture wars is not a particularly sensible move given the Tories and their membership woes. However, it’s not an entirely incongruous combination. What this is revealing is that there’s a group of people who believe that my speech must be heard, and they’re not just the free speech crowd at Spiked and on campuses. It’s also a considerable part of the modern Conservative Party.