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Tue 20 October 2020
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The Education Secretary’s ‘freedom’ crusade is a rhetorical smokescreen for the Government’s instinctively authoritarian policies, argues Sam Bright

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has been missing in action.

Until his ministerial statement earlier today, Williamson had barely communicated with the public, not tweeting since 10 September. This is despite the second scandal in a matter of months embroiling his department, with hundreds of university students forced into COVID-19 quarantine units – herded like cattle, unable to leave their accommodation, guarded by police.

Williamson claims he simply wants to ensure freedom of speech, yet his campaign is unashamedly authoritarian.

After the recent ‘A’ level fiasco, which saw an algorithm downgrade the results of high-performing students from poor areas – prompting a red-faced U-turn – there is a major political incentive for the Education Secretary to prevent yet another catastrophe.

However, flouting this logic, Williamson appears to be more concerned about a separate subject: free speech and censorship at university. Speaking at a virtual Conservative Party conference event yesterday, he talked about a perceived hostility in academia towards conservative figures and their ideas.

“We’ve got to make sure we have that freedom of speech in universities,” he said. “And that voices are heard whatever background they come from.”

This has been an obsession of Williamson and those on the right of politics for a number of years: that cultural Marxists have occupied campuses across the land and are censoring conservative thought, banning speakers and terrorising Tories.

Therefore, back in July, the imperilled Education Secretary insisted that universities needing Government cash to survive the economic impact of COVID-19 must prove their commitment to “freedom of speech”.

The idea of campus censorship is a source of passion for the right, yet it is almost entirely without basis. Cooked up pretty much exclusively by Brendan O’Neill through a series of articles for Spiked and the Spectator, the notion has circulated that universities are places of left-wing intellectual conformity and repression.

There are of course isolated incidents of right-leaning speakers being no-platformed – refused the opportunity to speak – by university societies. For example, last year, former Home Secretary Amber Rudd had an offer withdrawn to speak at Oxford University, after organisers reflected on Rudd’s responsibility for the Windrush scandal and the creation of the hostile environment.

However, these decisions are rare, and tend to impassion angry middle-aged men who last experienced university life in the 1970s. These people also tend to ignore the fact that Tommy Robinson spoke at the Oxford Union in 2015, and that right-wing provocateur Peter Hitchens has turned university debating into a part-time occupation.

Williamson claims he simply wants to ensure freedom of speech, yet his campaign is unashamedly authoritarian. He is rejecting the right – the freedom – for the majority of students to hold left-wing views and to choose who they want to speak on campus. Under the guise of freedom and under the duress of a conspiracy theory, Williamson is using the power of the state to bully universities and their students.


Conformity to the Culture War

This attitude is not merely reserved towards universities, however. This week, Amnesty International accused the Government of clamping down on freedom of speech after Williamson banned teaching materials that call for the overthrow of capitalism.

“The only extreme view here is the one which suggests that it’s somehow illegitimate to even consider the validity of socio-economic systems other than the prevailing one,” Allan Hogarth, Amnesty’s head of policy and government affairs, said in response.

In the culture war maintained by Boris Johnson’s Government, academia, the media and the judiciary are all unfairly dominated by the left. Yet, instead of accepting that conservative thought cannot reign supreme in all areas of life, the Government is rigging the system to make sure it does.

It is rumoured the Prime Minister is about to appoint a right-wing chair of the BBC and a former Daily Mail editor to lead the regulator Ofcom. This comes amid an effort to demonise lawyers who represent asylum seekers, with the Government investigating how their powers can be limited.

The current university quarantine fiasco is a perfect example of the Government’s strategy: deploying the saintly principle of ‘freedom’ as rhetorical cover for what is actually a form of tyranny.

As mentioned, students at multiple universities are now confined to their barracks, after outbreaks of COVID-19 on campus.

Caught in the rush of the Government’s “get back to work” drive, many universities promised a mixture of online and face-to-face teaching, prompting their students to return.

However, Johnson’s great liberation of lockdown rules has now been reversed as the country rushes headlong into a second wave of the Coronavirus. Universities are unsure when they will be offer in-person lectures and the freedom promised to students has now suddenly morphed into solitary confinement.

Students have been stripped of their social lives, the quality of their education has been downgraded, and the Government is even contemplating stopping them from seeing their families over Christmas. All the while, unable to take the bar jobs that paid past generations through university, they are still on the hook for rent and extortionate tuition fees. Not forgetting of course that a “mutant algorithm” nearly wrecked the life chances of these very same students, or at least a significant proportion of them, just a few months ago.

The Coronavirus crisis requires us to temporarily sacrifice some civil liberties in order to preserve the ultimate liberty: the right to life. The nation understands and accepts that. But this Government is doing something much more sinister: parading itself as a freedom-loving regime while flirting with authoritarianism. In no department is that more apparent than Gavin Williamson’s.


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