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The ‘Free Speech Champion’ acknowledges a problem, but is problematic

The government has announced it will be appointing a ‘Free Speech Champion’ who it says will defend free speech and academic freedom. Alongside this, the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden gathered 25 of the UK’s largest heritage bodies and charities to a summit where it was reported they would be told “to defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

This is a tentative step in the right direction, but I feel it is hitting wide of the point. Modern ‘cancel culture’ did not begin against the right, it began as a left-on-left war against people like Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell. The left was seeking its ideological purity and had finished with people who had not kept up. The right made some noise but felt safe on their island. 

But the machine picked up, ingrained itself even deeper, and gave those on the mainstream right a rude awakening when it knocked on their door. This country has seen a decline in freedom in all senses since the advent of the Blair machine. Every parliament since has been stuffed with Blairites or Blair-lites. The perniciousness of this group’s ideology birthed this modern titan, and many MPs have finally woken up to the fact that they now confront the machine they helped create.

It is not about doing Britain down, it is about piecemeal overhaul of the way we remember and use the past for the personal benefit and moral grandeur of those partaking

I also take issue with the language choice of stopping those ‘constantly trying to do Britain down’ – it is cringe-inducing and allows for disingenuous dismissal of the free speech defence by tying it to this flimsy reasoning on the history front. It is not about doing Britain down, it is about piecemeal overhaul of the way we remember and use the past for the personal benefit and moral grandeur of those partaking. 

So the government is missing the point: the rhetoric will play well to the north and the Tory heartlands, but the language somehow mischaracterises both sides in this ‘culture war’. The issue is that the opposition to these measures are those with voice and power; playing to the people will help with marketing but they have no voice and power of their own.

Ministers will get powers to sanction universities and student bodies which stifle freedom of speech and academic freedom. Law changes would mean they would be subject to duties to protect freedom of speech. This is the closest we have got to a first amendment in this country. Whether it is just performative, and an act of electioneering, is yet to be seen.

Matthew Goodwin, politics professor at Kent, has been a vocal supporter of the campaign after having to deal with such problems since he, as a Remainer, said we should respect the referendum result which led to staff and students hounding him. He, Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Professor Kathleen Stock, Sir Anthony Seldon and others signed a statement titled ‘Protect Academic Freedom’. They have hit on the reason I am sceptical of the government approach, that there could be too much focus on actions like de-platforming and other high-profile instances, and not enough on the academic culture at universities.

There could be too much focus on actions like de-platforming and other high-profile instances, and not enough on the academic culture at universities

They say ‘many academics who hold nonconformist views self-censor and do not feel comfortable sharing them on campus’. Rules are not the problem per se, it’s the issue of social norms as Goodwin explains. Lewis Goodall, in now deleted tweets, said that it is ‘clear there’s very little elimination of freedom of speech or censorship taking place institutionally’ with examples ‘exaggerated’. This counter is incredibly weak because it is not just about the actions, it is about the norms and atmosphere around them.

And as we have seen, it is not a purely partisan thing. It has gone after the left and the right, yet the former wish to downplay it now that the Twitter mobs are no longer focused on them, for now. The point is that institutions have taken actions against people like Selina Todd, Jordan Peterson, Tim Hunt, Amber Rudd, and even Jenni Murray, but the unseen hand of culture is the problem, it’s what isn’t heard and what does not happen that is the core of the issue.

The Lib Dems, who are meant to be liberal, put out a now deleted tweet saying “Should free speech at universities be a priority right now? “Absolutely not”.” With parliament having parliamentary privilege to say anything, why should they be free whilst they deny this for wider society? Speech is fundamental to being human. Culture and society rest upon it: that is why even small-scale free speech problems can snowball into larger matters. The government are late participants to the ‘culture wars’ but they have raised the stakes to all or nothing. It will be interesting to see if they pull it off, or if it ends up backfiring spectacularly.

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