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Wed 3 March 2021

The Government’s ‘free speech’ proposals aim not to invite conversation but to shut it down – an Orwellian allegory of epic proportions, says Jonathan Lis

Imagine a world in which a raging mass of intolerant left-wing academics have declared war on their opponents and amassed more political, social and cultural power than the coordinated force of an 80-seat majority Conservative Government and reactionary media establishment.

Every single part of the scenario sinks under its own absurdity. And yet, the Government has not only imagined it: it is legislating for it.

Last week, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson published proposals for formal regulation of free speech on campuses. This will come, primarily, through new regulations which require universities to respect academic freedom and actively promote free speech, with the appointment of a ‘Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion’ who will oversee compliance and investigate breaches.

Even by the standards of this Government – and of Orwellian allegory – it is on the nose: someone, quite literally, will police free speech.

As so often, the Government prefers to invent problems rather than to solve them. A minority of academics and students do have concerns about free speech, but this is not a good-faith response.

Free speech does not necessitate the equal distribution of microphones, and student unions who invite and then disinvite people should be judged by standards of philosophy and courtesy, not by a statutory body. Individuals should be free to say whatever they like, but they have no more right to a university platform than a weekly newspaper column.

Who, then, should be the judge of what is and what is not acceptable? Perhaps we should explore where the attacks on free speech are actually coming from.


The Culture of Government

Centuries of human history offer a basic lesson: the most serious attacks on free speech come not from civil society but from governments.

Those in authority have the most to fear from citizens speaking their minds and they normally target the least powerful the hardest. This Government is no different. Put simply: it is not interested in free speech. Indeed, it has gone out of its way to attack it.

The campaign group Liberty has argued that the biggest current threat to free speech on university campuses is the counter-terrorism Prevent strategy, which has drawn attention to a range of Muslim and other minority students suspected, wrongly, of holding dangerous views. Prevent has cast such a wide net against free speech that one police force suggested that even Extinction Rebellion might fall under its remit.

But it does not stop at the zealous or racialised policing of students in the name of counter-extremism – it is deeply embedded in the Government’s entire culture.

In September, the Department for Education classed anti-capitalism as an “extreme political stance” and directed schools not to use material from groups which promote it. Shamelessly, the guidelines claimed to be acting to protect free speech.

It is, indeed, the purest trick: erasing the past under the guise of preserving it.

In October, Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch went even further. She lambasted the notions of “white privilege and [white people’s] inherited racial guilt” and told the Commons that “any school which teaches these elements of political race theory as fact… without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views is breaking the law”.

In this upside-down world, ministers are compelled to suppress free speech in order to safeguard it.

The tinderbox for this ‘culture war’ was Brexit. Immediately after the 2016 Referendum, the Conservatives dictated a new narrative presenting its opponents as ‘Remoaners’, traitors and enemies of democracy. There was barely a squeak of protest when the Daily Mail declared High Court judges to be “enemies of the people” or when then Prime Minister Theresa May regularly accused Remainers of seeking to “betray the British people”. Her successor expanded such attacks to encompass civil servants, diplomats and the judiciary. The effect was to recast democratic opposition as opposition to democracy.

Of course it is not just about Brexit. The Government objects to historic wokery as well.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has, in effect, launched a campaign to authorise an official national history, criticising the National Trust for discussing Churchill’s views on the British Empire, and reportedly lobbying museums to downplay the more negative chapters of our past.

Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick, meanwhile, has confected a terrifying alternate universe in which statues face destruction at the “whim [or]… behest of a baying mob” and require fresh legislation to protect them. In what might be seen as a curious defence of free speech or democracy, popular plans to remove statues could be vetoed by ministers.


Johnson’s Hypocrisy

Naturally, institutional cultures are determined from the top, and the fiercest culture warrior of them all is the Prime Minister himself.

Boris Johnson knows only too well the power of speech, which is why he has spent his entire career lying to people. He knows, too, that free speech is not endangered. Celebrating Empire and attacking Muslim women does not get you cancelled, it makes you party leader.

Shortly after he resigned from the Cabinet in 2018, Johnson launched his leadership campaign by attacking Muslim women wearing the burka. He aimed, quite openly, to entrench himself on one side of the culture war in order to attract the support of grassroots Tories – almost half of whom, according to polls, believe Islam to be a threat.

Johnson, of course, boasted a long hinterland of racist and homophobic comments, which he interspersed with romantic nationalism and fogeyish nostalgia. In one column about Africa in 2002, he lamented that “the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more”.

As Prime Minister, Johnson has targeted free speech whenever he could. In 2019, he purged 21 colleagues from the Conservative Party for daring to vote against him, and unlawfully prorogued Parliament to stop MPs even having a vote. He refused to allow MPs subsequent votes on both Brexit and Coronavirus restrictions. And, at the height of the Brexit impasse, he repeatedly referred to an Act of Parliament as the “Surrender Bill” and dismissed the subsequent death threats to colleagues as “humbug”.

For most of last year, Downing Street ordered boycotts of the Today programme, NewsnightGood Morning Britain and Channel 4 News in revenge at perceived slights.

During the 2019 General Election campaign, the Conservatives accused Channel 4 of mocking Johnson and subsequently threatened it with a review of its broadcasting remit. That has coincided with repeated attacks on the BBC, including threats to the licence fee, and pledges from senior advisors to ‘declare war’ on the corporation. Last year, Johnson decried the “cringing embarrassment” and “wetness” when the BBC initially decided not to feature singers for Rule Britannia! at the Proms.


The Climax of the Culture War

The Government’s new plans have nothing to do with protecting people’s right to speak.

Like the attacks on ‘the PC brigade’ 10 or 15 years ago, this ‘War on Woke’ is an attempt to depict the left as intolerably unpatriotic, woolly or weak when it seeks respect for those with less power, or worse, seeks to rebalance that power.

That plays into a still more pernicious mythology that the voices most at risk are not the most marginalised in society, but the people fighting them. It toxically invokes a make-believe universe in which our lives are governed by Twitter, not by a hard-right Conservative Government of 11 years’ standing backed by an overwhelmingly conservative print media.

This culture war finds its nexus in a nationalist present and past. The only permissible response to history must be pride. It concedes no complexity and champions only one viewpoint. The Government’s plan is not to invite conversation but to shut it down. It is, indeed, the purest trick: erasing the past under the guise of preserving it.

The Government knows what it is doing. Its gaslighting and hypocrisy serve to protect its own power. Under the comforting umbrella of a culture war, our leaders seek to insulate themselves from criticism and neuter their critics, playing victims armed with the full machinery of the state.

This is not a plan to promote free speech but to impose one side of an argument. The only free speech Boris Johnson cares about is his own.

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