Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Every time you think woke students can’t get any more pompous, risible or absurd, they surpass themselves. The latest madness is a campaign by the “Birkbeck Students Anti-Racism Network” to remove Eric Kaufmann from his position at their college. Dr Kaufmann is one of the most original and brilliant political scientists of our age. He writes a great deal about identity issues, basing his work on original research and polling rather than on woke pieties.
His very rigour enrages his detractors. A lengthy charge-sheet is levelled against the Vancouverite professor, much of it in what Orwell called duckspeak: “He’s indistinguishable from the institutions that create, legitimise and perpetuate the ways of thinking that ultimately serve to install and preserve capitalism and colonialism alongside the social systems that sustain it: the patriarchy and white supremacy…”
Among other things, Kaufman has apparently committed the abominable sin of being “associated with Quillette, UnHerd, Spiked and many other far-right & bigoted magazines”. He is, hilariously, accused of being a white supremacist – I say “hilariously” because Kaufmann is of mixed Chinese, Latino and Jewish heritage. Worst of all, he is apparently engaged in “cancelling ‘cancel culture’.”
Such, I suppose, is the logical end-point of woke. Simply to argue against cancel culture is now considered grounds for cancellation. True, these Birkbeck blockheads are outliers; but less so than they would have been five years ago – even two years ago. Each stunt of this kind ends up dragging the centre of gravity further towards what would until recently have been almost universally seen as a lunatic fringe.
A straightforward vindication, you might think, of the Government’s plan to appoint a campus free speech tsar. Kaufmann himself has written on this website in support of government intervention, arguing that legislation will alter behaviour, as happened with the seat-belt law.
We should be careful, though, that our solution to the problem of illiberalism does not itself depart from liberal principles. Free association, like free speech, is a fundamental right. University societies are entitled to disinvite speakers. They can do so in a self-righteous, inconsistent and discourteous way without trampling on anyone’s freedoms. What they can’t do – or at least shouldn’t be allowed to do without sanctions – is to disrupt other people’s meetings, or use the threat of physical force to keep a speaker away.
The distinction matters. Legislation aimed at punishing universities that have deplatformed speakers is, as Steve Davies argued in a paper published yesterday by the Institute of Economic Affairs “an intrusion of political power into the internal affairs of a private body and would be rightly resisted if it were attempted elsewhere.”
The real problem, as Dr Davies correctly points out, is the lack of ideological diversity, not only on campus but in a number of graduate professions. The solution lies in lowering barriers to entry so as to encourage heterodoxy rather than yet more state bans.
That, though, is a difficult argument to make in the current climate. Wokery undoubtedly provokes an angry response. But that response is more often Trumpian than libertarian. Bans are met with counterbans, cancellations with more cancellations. You got one of ours sacked? Well we’ve dug up something silly that one of yours once said!
As the culture war becomes more vicious, we lose sight of what ought to be the elemental precepts of a liberal society: free contract, free expression, free association. A few months ago, I wrote a ConHome column making the basic case for liberty and property. Businesses, I wrote, should not be compelled to take customers. A restaurant should be allowed to insist that you wear a tie, a hotel to refuse to cater to children, Twitter to reject Donald Trump, Amazon to refuse to host Parler, a cruise ship to demand proof of vaccination. Whether they were wise to exercise these rights was a different issue; but our presumption should be in favour of freedom.
That case would once have gone almost without saying on the Centre-Right. Not any more. The comment section was filled with angry screeds, several of them from people who think of themselves as mainstream conservatives, complaining that I had gone over to the other side.
As so often, we are being pulled by American cultural currents. Republican state administrations have taken to banning vaccine passports – that is, making it illegal for private firms to set their own conditions on who can use their facilities. As David Frum points out, the tendency predates the Coronavirus: Oklahoma Republicans had already passed a law that made it a criminal offence for a company to ban employees from taking firearms into its parking lot.
To argue that, just as the state should not impose vaccine passports, neither should it prevent private companies from requiring tests, is an increasingly lonely business. To believe that people should have free speech, but others should be under no compulsion to give them a platform, is at odds with the authoritarian mood of the time. To aver that students have every right to be wrong and rude, and even to object to having teachers from outside the hard Left, but that universities should not indulge their nonsense, is nowadays an eccentric position. Liberalism is in retreat. No one cares about process when they happen to favour a particular outcome.
Yet take those precepts away and everything we understand by a free society – fixed rules rather than arbitrary rulings, the ability to innovate and invest without fear of confiscation, the freedom to speak your mind without being blacklisted, East Germany-style – suddenly becomes a lot more precarious. There was a time when conservatives understood that.