Matt Smith was the Parliamentary candidate for Cardiff West in the 2017 General Election and has stood for the Welsh Assembly. He currently works as a lawyer.
Free intellectual inquiry and critical thinking are intrinsic to universities. But these qualities are undermined by a lack of political diversity in the humanities and social sciences, and they are threatened on campus by a minority of censorious left-wing agitators.
Shortly before the 2015 General Election a Times Higher Education (THE) poll found 84 per cent of academic respondents supporting leftwing parties. Only 11 per cent said they backed the Conservatives.
THE conducted another poll in June 2016 examining voting intentions for the EU referendum. Almost 90 per cent backed Remain and only 10 per cent backed Leave.
There is nothing more obstinate than a fashionable consensus and this is profoundly true of academia, where left-liberal axioms dominate what Roger Scruton called the ‘leftist academic complex’.
The academic left is a reflection of the politics of the British intelligentsia. George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn that “the really important fact about so many of the English intelligentsia [is] their severance from the common culture of the country’, and that ‘In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought.”
After the student protests of 1968 many leading lights in the social sciences and humanities came to prominence because of their ideological pedigrees.
The soixante-huitards follow Antonio Gramsci in their belief that power resides in cultural hegemony. They see education as a front in the ‘war of position’. ‘Cultural subversion’ is the stage before ‘open insurrection’ in the ‘war of manoeuvre’ against the ‘dominant class’.
The student activist and Gramscian Marxist Rudi Dutschke saw the ‘long march through the institutions’ as a means of subverting bourgeoisie culture by capturing the commanding heights of society.
The long marchers are now the academic establishment. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose funeral Ed Miliband attended, was even made a Companion of Honour to Her Majesty the Queen. By contrast, we on the right, as Keith Joseph observed, ‘…never got an LSE – far from it – and we never got a New Statesman’. The left got both more than a century ago.
Group think matters because it can render dissent professionally terminal. The anonymous author of a Guardian article titled ‘I voted for Brexit why do academics treat me as a pariah?’ asked: “…if established academics at elite universities like Cambridge need bravery to simply state a contrary view, what must it take for a lowly PhD student?”
When a leading professor at the University of Sussex thinks it is appropriate to organise a workshop for colleagues titled ‘Dealing with right wing attitudes and politics in the classroom’, the left is sleepwalking into intellectual complacency. This was reflected in Cathy Newman’s car crash interview with Jordan Peterson, during which her cross-examination came unstuck in the face of intelligent and polite counter-arguments.
Yet the right shouldn’t underestimate or dismiss the influence of the uninvigilated academic left in shaping the wider intellectual climate. Friedrich von Hayek observed in The Intellectuals and Socialism that the ‘professional second-hand dealers in ideas’ filter the views and opinions that form the language of politics.
Thinkers of the New Left such as E P Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Ralph Miliband have percolated from the universities and the café intelligentsia into the mainstream left and beyond.
The capture of the commanding heights of academia by institutional long-marchers has paved the way for a small minority of left wing firebrands on campus to impose their authoritarian language diktats. Well-organised activists have succeeded in hijacking campus bodies and the National Union of Students in order to impose their agenda on pusillanimous university bureaucracies.
They are downstream from Herbert Marcuse, a Frankfurt School Marxist who argued that free expression is a form of ‘repressive tolerance’ when it allows counter-revolutionary opinions to ‘oppress’ the ‘overpowered’. Marcuse demanded ‘new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in educational institutions’.
Thus the academic principle of free speech is rejected by a loud-hailing minority of students who demand ‘boycotts’, ‘trigger warnings’, ‘safe spaces’, the ‘right to feel comfortable’, bans on disagreeable newspapers, and the ‘no-platforming’ of dissenters.
Their chilling effect on the wider student culture was reflected in a 2017 opinion poll discovering only 46 per cent of 18 to 21-year-olds in Britain think people should ‘say what they want’. While Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings 2018 found that 54 per cent of universities actively censor speech.
Ironically, there is no room in the safe spaces for centre-right and Brexiteer dissidents. In a BBC News feature Brexit-supporting students getting abuse on campus, one contributor said: “People have been abusive… I did hear someone say ‘Oh I just want to punch that Brexit-supporting bitch in the face’.”
The grown-up left should remind their charges that free speech works and that’s why it hurts. Otherwise the revolution will consume its parents, as Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell, and Linda Bellos have discovered.
Hoping these attitudes are life-cycle contingent, that campus firebrands will be ‘mugged by reality’ and grow-up, risks placing the right at long-term political disadvantage. So what should we do?
Conservatives must stand for freedom of speech in universities. Jo Johnson, the former Universities Minister, nudged universities in the right direction by setting out sanctions and a blacklist for institutions that fail to protect freedom of speech. His successor Sam Gyimah convened a Free Speech Summit where leaders from the higher education sector agreed to collaborate on formal guidance to protect free speech in universities from political intolerance.
We must also challenge the left for the intellectual high ground on the campuses. After Corbynistas tried to ‘no-platform’ Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative Party announced a ramp-up of it speaker programme for universities.
There is every reason to be optimistic. Millennials growing up with technologies empowering choice at the click of a button are a germane audience for Conservatives who believe in freedom and autonomy. Similarly, Brexiteers argue that leaving the corporatist and bureaucratic EU will result in a more democratically empowered citizenship. Both are pushing on open doors.
By contrast the left is fundamentally negative. It tells young people they are helpless victims who should retreat into safe spaces rather than going out in to the world to discover the meaning of life. It thrives on differences, from which it can cultivate a sense of Nietzschean ressentiment.
Joseph knew the importance a Conservative ‘counter-ideology’ to the intellectual ratchet of socialism. He wrote in 1974: ‘We must fight the battle of ideas in every school, university, publication, committee, TV studio even if we have to struggle for our toe hold there’.
We must now engage the left more closely in the battle of ideas lest we abandon students to indoctrination by the ‘professional second-hand dealers in ideas’ and the virtue-signaling firebrands of the campus left.