There is nothing new about attempts to deny free speech to Conservative politicians visiting universities. It was something Sir Keith Joseph and others regularly faced in the 1970s. One difference that applies now is the dismay that such attacks are condoned by elements of the Labour Party leadership. I am told the attack on Jacob Rees-Mogg in Bristol was not lighthearted high spirits but a thoroughly unpleasant instance of intimidation – albeit that there were no injuries.
The event was hosted by the Politics and International Relations Society, although the University’s Conservative Society assisted with the arrangements. William Bates, the Vice-President of the University of West England Conservative Society, stresses that the problem was caused by a “small number” from “outside the university”.
He told me:
“Jacob made genuine attempts to engage in conversation with the protestors. But in response they decided to shout “Nazi Scum” at the top of their voices. I was hit on the arm by a protester who wanted to stop me from filming their disruption of the event, and as such I contacted the police as I believed there was a possibility of this escalating. Fortunately, after an unpleasant disruption from a handful of non-students for about 20 minutes, they were escorted out by university security, and the event continued. While I understand that there were a few minor physical altercations, nobody was hurt as far as I am aware. We intend to hold a full schedule of events this term, and will not be intimidated by the events of yesterday evening.
“Students of all political parties and of all political views were enjoying the chance to engage with such an exciting speaker, and the audience of 300 people fortunately had the chance to speak to him after the violent protesters had been removed by security.”
Bates has also provided some photographs – reproduced here – which emphasise his message.
There has been some criticism of the university authorities. The organisers had requested security arrangements be put in place to maintain order. The presence of TV cameras should have given the university a clue that the meeting would be high profile. Of course hindsight is an advantage but the security staff from the university that dealt with the disorder could have prevented it occuring in the first place had they intervened earlier.
Colleges, of all places, should be where open enquiry and debate flourish. The University of West England has allowed itself to suffer needless reputational damage by failing to make upholding free speech a proper priority – although it did give a strong statement that it was “absolutely appalled” by the attack.
The rest of us also have an interest in the matter. Universities are granted taxpayer funding of £3.7 billion a year from the Higher Education Funding Council. It is reasonable to expect that proper safeguards are made to allow full discussion at such institutions to take place in a safe and orderly manner.
Finally, there is a responsibility to the Conservative Party. Every encouragement must be given to having a thriving network of university Conservative associations. Conservative MPs should make every effort to accept invitations to speak. I hope that Rees-Mogg will undertake many more such engagements. That is the best response to the enemies of freedom.