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‘Free speech tsar’ is the government’s latest attack on universities

The Conservative Party has all but outlawed public protest. Now it wants to root it out of campuses, too

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
2 June 2023, 12.46pm

The government's 'free speech tsar' will do nothing to end the crackdown on protests, including on campuses


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The UK government this week appointed Cambridge academic Arif Ahmed as its ‘free speech tsar’. Of course, the obvious reaction is to laugh. What next? An ‘anti-death executioner’? A ‘liberty tyrant’?

It’s not just a ridiculous name. The idea that there is an assault on freedom of speech in our universities is also silly. Conservative journalists, politicians and think tanks panic about ‘no platforming’ on campuses. But whenever they are pointed to the six organisations no-platformed by the National Union of Students and therefore most students’ unions – the Islamist groups Hizb ut-tahrir and Al-Muhajiroun; the Muslim Public Affairs Committee; and the fascist groups the British National Party, the English Defence League and National Action – they struggle to say which of these they are so desperate to uncancel.

In 2018, as the right-wing press convulsed with panic over a supposed ‘cancel culture’ on campuses, research from the BBC’s Reality Check team found that, since 2010, no book had been removed from any library. Only four courses had been changed – in one case, to remove a photo of a scrotum from a presentation about dinosaurs. And there were only nine occasions on which universities had cancelled speakers after receiving complaints – one involving the BNP and National Front, and another because the speaker had been arrested on rape charges.

The appointment has come, in spite of all this, because the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act finally became law on 11 May. Aside from ‘championing free speech on campus,’ the job of the ‘free speech tsar’ will be to adjudicate claims from those who say they have been unfairly cancelled. But, in order for a student group to cancel a speaker, it must have invited the person to speak in the first place. Ahmed isn’t being asked to determine whether the full range of possible views on every subject is being debated on every campus – that would be impossible. His role will amount to looking at the occasional cases where someone is invited to speak at something, and then uninvited. Which seems like an oddly specific job for the government to create in primary legislation.

The real objection seems not to be to speakers actually being cancelled – which is very rare. It’s that speakers are sometimes met by protesters, as we saw this week when Kathleen Stock was invited to debate at the Oxford Union. But protesting isn’t an attack on freedom of speech. It’s a use of it – one that is increasingly hard to take advantage of.

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This is a government that’s pushed through an unprecedented assault on protest rights that saw republicans arrested simply for expressing their views during the coronation. Environmental protesters have been jailed for literal years under new laws. Whitehall has banned speakers who have criticised the government from addressing civil service conferences. The Prevent strategy has been shown to silence Islamic students. What’s really going on?

The last few decades have seen an astonishing increase in the number of people – particularly working-class people – going to university. By my sums, until the early 1990s, teenagers were more likely to join the armed forces when they left school than they were to go into higher education. The highly militarised society that produced was generally conducive to conservative ideas about rank, hierarchy and discipline. Today, 18-year-olds are about 60 times more likely to go to matriculate than they are to enlist.

This process has been an utter disaster for conservatives. The same generation that has benefited from the mass expansion of higher education has been the first in a century not to get more right-wing as it’s got older. While the last 15 years has produced plenty of explanations for this phenomenon – the obvious failures of capitalism in the face of everything from the housing crisis to climate breakdown – the right often ‘blames’ the fact that people are better educated than ever.

Universities (to some extent) bring people together across class and racial boundaries, and have become a space in which new, more loving and considerate cultures are born, where more inclusive identities are forged and where old bigotries are rejected and called out. And Conservatives can’t stand it.

Ultimately, their war on education is what the UCU strikes are about. It’s part of what the restriction on visas for international students is about. And it’s what the appointment of a ‘freedom of speech tsar’ is about. Because nothing screams liberty more than government-approved speakers forcing their way onto campuses.

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