Jo Johnson’s announcement that the Government will require universities to guarantee freedom of expression on campus – as James Frayne suggested some months ago – has not been universally well-received, as we might have been able to predict.
Over at the New Statesman, Stephen Bush argues that Johnson’s proposal is wrong-headed both practically and politically. He makes a number of different points, starting with the suggestion that the ‘perceived problem’ of restrictions on free speech at universities doesn’t really exist:
‘The actual evidence, to the extent it matters in debates such as these, is that the young are actually more supportive of free speech and other liberty issues than the old in the main.’
That’s entirely possible, but if true it doesn’t in itself disqualify the concerns. The suggestion is not that all students are raving censors – most have better things to do, like drink – but that those who are tend to be those with a degree of power over university institutions, namely student unions and, through them, direct influence with universities themselves. Most student elections have pitifully low turnouts, allowing the unions and the resources and policy powers they wield to be captured by the most energetic minority activist groups. It’s undoubtedly the case that in various instances, those positions are then used to restrain free speech. At best that limits the freedoms of other students, and at worst it creates an environment which promotes and propagates opposition to free expression.
More importantly, Stephen argues that even if it is right and effective, Johnson’s plan is electorally unwise:
‘…here’s the political problem: the blunt truth is that student politics exercises only two groups: a small minority of earnest students who will move on to other things once they graduate, and a freakish slice of the over-50s, for whom there is no cure. A government that wants to convince voters it has its eye on the ball wouldn’t wade in on either side and it certainly wouldn’t do so with a policy lever as misconceived as this one. But in siding with the eccentric old against the idealistic young, it adds to the general smell of distaste towards the under-40s that the Conservative Party has begun to emit…’
This is serially mistaken. For a start, if ‘the young are actually more supportive of free speech and other liberty issues than the old’, as he previously claimed, then this isn’t ‘siding with the eccentric old against the idealistic young’, is it? It’d be siding with the idealistic young against a disproportionately powerful minority of their peers who threaten freedoms that they value. It’s strange to begin by asserting that there’s no issue, only to conclude that proposing freedom of expression on campus will make the Conservatives ‘appear to hate’ young people.
That inconsistency aside, there’s also an issue of principle. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right. It is a universal value, and one that we ought to champion regardless of calculations about electoral dividends. If the polls came back and said forbidding free speech would be popular, then we should still refuse to do so.
If you do want an electoral justification, though, I’d also dispute Bush’s logic on this front.
For a start, it’d be a mistake to think that ‘young people’ and ‘students’ are identical groups – they aren’t, as James Frayne recently argued, for the good reason that many young people don’t go to university. They may not have as much of a voice in the media, but they are citizens and voters, too, and there’s a good case to be made that they have little reason to have much truck with the political agenda pushed by some of their student peers. The fact that voters who are less well-off and who haven’t gone to university tend to feel increasingly detached from the modern radical left was visible at the election, and there’s no reason why it should not be the case among 18-25-year-olds
Then there’s the fact that the Conservatives are starting from a distinct minority position among student voters – so low that the only way is up, really. It would be a mistake to think the best route to winning new supporters is to try to pander to the left-wingers who are pushing these speech restrictions. If anything, this group is the one least likely of all to ever vote Conservative in their lives, never mind while at university. If there’s a group to go for, it’s those who simply wish the weirdos at the union would stop banging on all the time about what they can and can’t do, what they can and can’t say, and why they ought to fall in line and do what they’re told is progressive and revolutionary. That won’t win over any NUS officers any time soon, but we’d be stupid to imagine that’s a possibility under any circumstance.
Aside from the underlying principle or the electoral considerations, there’s a practical purpose for Conservatives in opposing censorship at university: these restrictions on free speech are explicitly targeted at people and ideas on the right. We’ve already seen attempts to ban UKIP branches from universities, for example, and to brand supporting leaving the EU as a form of ‘hate speech’. You don’t have to search very far to hear the innocuous concept of the state balancing its books described as murderous, racist and misogynistic, or to find people who believe proposing ideas that they disagree with is a form of ‘violence’, and that real violence is a merited response. If we want young Tories to be able to flourish and recruit, as we all say we do, then as a first step we must not allow them to be hounded into silence – or, worse, out of universities altogether.
The issue on which Bush does have a point, however, is in referencing Prevent as a Government-caused threat to free speech at British universities.
It’s perfectly reasonable to forbid preachers and radicalisers who contribute to terrorist threats from being allowed to do so. But, so far, most attempts to define what it’s reasonable to forbid have risked catching completely legitimate, non-violent, views in the same net. Any excessively vague definition will either allow over-zealous authorities to abuse their powers, or offer a tool to the very censors whom the university minister is criticising to officially tar their mainstream political opponents as extremists.
If Johnson is going to properly address freedom of expression, his colleagues must at some point come up with a proper definition of extremism on which to base the Prevent programme. The failure to do so offers cover, – at best – or new tools of censorship – at worst – to the very people he is trying to take on.