Weak governments control public speech because they are fearful.
The Tory government, in constant need of distractions from its disastrous Brexit and its purposeful (corruption enabling) mismanagement of the response to Covid-19 pandemic, persists with its culture war invention. Daily dollops of affectations of gammonism from Tories, and from their ilk in media, think-tanks and academia, posture support for the conservative comfort blanket of flags, statues and rose-tinted history. Such inducement of stupefaction distracts momentarily and drips into a stagnant pool of vacuous contrarianism that can be accessed later whenever need arises.
There are also political aims for promotion of attachment to trappings of inherited symbolism and victors’ accounts of history. If people can be persuaded that state accoutrements are worthy of personal commitment then they might also be comfortable with supporting continuity of elite governance regardless of competence. When commitment becomes reliance it is easier to cast alternative political philosophies as aligned with destruction of the objects of that reliance. That is the simplicity of the Tories’ fake culture war: Childlike symbolism and castrated history encouraging pro-elite political attachment versus historical accuracy and balanced criticism associated with inquisitive political philosophies.
Thus, like Graham Chapman’s absurdist Monty Python characters, politicians appear on TV in their Covid bubbles, at home or in the office, with a fresh-from-the-factory union flag on a pole to their left while the government threatens to change the law to “protect statues,” and universities and schools are under attack for daring to teach accurate concise history and for refusing to allow platforms for swindlers and bigots.
Flag-onanism and fornicating with statues might elicit derisory smirks but interference in education reveals insidious intent. Independence of universities has worried governments for centuries. The weaker the government, both intellectually and its faith in its longevity, the more likely it is to want to control what is said, taught and thought. In crisis times weakness is amplified. Today, despite an eighty seat majority in parliament, the Tory government is infused exhaustively with weakness.
In December 2017 Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson said universities would be fined if they prevented some speakers from performing for money on university property. Reasons for denying access for speakers include concerns that rhetoric of a speaker is designed specifically to incite and/or that she or he has no worth as a contributor to university life. Universities make decisions every day regarding what is or isn’t suitable and they are generally capable of such decisions. Discussions and debates between administrators, staff and students about such decisions are part of the education provided.
Johnson’s fallacious argument for removal of universities’ autonomy over use of its venues was a claim of denial of “free speech.” Free speech at universities is more than a necessity, it is intrinsic. Free speech as a undeniable facet of education includes discussion of the validity of an invitation for a speaker. Free speech does not include filling floorspace with cranks, time-wasters and charlatans spouting frequently debunked garbage. Johnson was not worried about free speech; he was perturbed that intelligent people with balanced and informed perspectives could decide that idiocy should be eschewed.
Concomitant to Johnson’s declaration of fines was the artificial creation of Office For Students (OFS), a Tory tool of interference in academia presenting itself entirely deceptively as acting in the interest of students. Initially, Johnson wanted eugenicist Toby Young to lead OFS but the latter’s tenure lasted barely a fortnight before being removed due to his long history of extremely offensive comments. Two years later in 2020 Young and like-minded far-right grifters formed The Free Speech Union (FSU) with similar aim as OFS to seek to impose mendacious drivel on education and other public institutions.
Johnson’s fines were not authorised and OFS was quiet for two years but today (February 16th 2021) Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced he will appoint a ‘Free Speech Champion’ (FSC). FSC will be imbued with power to fine universities that “restrict freedom of speech unlawfully,” according to Zoe Tidman in Independent, and anyone who chooses to claim their free speech was denied or restricted by a university will be able to seek “redress.” The latter power is also the key tactic of FSU via its army of barristers.
Williamson said (quoted in Guardian) “I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring. That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached” and added “what must not happen is that universities decide whose words will be heard and handed down to the next generation and whose will be unheard.” Universities decide every day whose words are heard; staff guide students via lectures, seminars and recommended reading lists. It is an important part of teaching. There are no institutions more able to issue such guidance than universities. Williamson’s comments were wilful misunderstanding of the role of university education, or indeed of education.
The Tory government is the least able body to oversee how free speech is administered. On 24th September 2020 it issued guidelines for schools that included instructions on the use of teaching materials:
“Schools should not under any circumstances work with external agencies that take or promote extreme positions or use materials produced by such agencies. Examples of extreme positions include, but are not limited to:
- promoting non-democratic political systems rather than those based on democracy, whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise
- promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society
- selecting and presenting information to make unsubstantiated accusations against state institutions“
Four days later at a Blue Collar Conservatism conference its founder Tory MP Esther Mcvey said “I think you need to remove all of that [anti-Brexit rhetoric] from the classroom. I think [it] needs to be removed from the whole educational system.”
As shown above, Tory policy toward education combines claiming to be campaigning for free speech while simultaneously actively denying it. This policy is a subset of a general policy of seeking to always be in control of the narrative. Tories are keen that speech space is invaded by perpetrators of free-market racketeering and by dead cat chuckers and they are equally keen that political philosophies opposed to conservative recklessness and destruction are hidden from children and students.
Control of education is a factor of late-stage fear in the psyche of weak corrupt authoritarian governments. It sits beside the Tories’ selective approach to engaging with TV and radio broadcasters, its policy of releasing important information late on Friday evenings to its favourite newspaper, its overblown reactions to journalists or editors who dare to challenge government statements or behaviour, the refusal to answer questions in parliament, threats of censorship of social media activism, arrests of journalists and photographers covering political protests, appointment of a peer to investigate Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, appointment of an islamophobe to review Prevent, threats of removal of funding for heritage bodies that publish research into British empire’s colonialist crimes, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources bill, etc.
University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said “the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power” and she described the appointment of Free Speech Champions as “job creation in pursuit of a culture war.”
Williamson’s complaint about “chilling effect” of “silencing and censoring” was an act. What is chilling is the Tories multi-tentacled assault on free speech, press freedom, academic freedom, political assembly and online activism.
Richard Murphy from Tax Research UK elucidated Williamson’s plan: “This is, of course, straight out of the fascist playbook. Create an issue where there is none. Promote a victim, in this case the racist or misogynist who cannot express their views freely whilst working in a university, and then find someone to blame – in this case those who think racism and misogyny unacceptable.”
Nafeez Ahmed for Byline
Jo Grady statement
Will Hazell for iNews
Adam Bychawski for Open Democracy
Tory government directing political education in schools
Tory education policy: Book-burning and indoctrination
Oxford privilege, white supremacism and cowardice
Prevent Jo Johnson: Office For Students, Toby Young
Blue Collar Conservatism
The Free Speech Union
Robert Jenrick, planning permission and statues
John Woodcock investigates Black Lives Matter