Independent: The government’s obsession with provoking culture wars is embarrassing

This article was first published in the Independent.

Over the weekend, it was revealed that the Office for Students, a non-departmental public body of the Department for Education, will soon be empowered to fine student bodies for meddling with free speech. A new “free speech champion” will be appointed by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to oversee on-campus debate and punish universities, unions and societies, which they believe are guilty of “no-platforming”.

The theme of free speech being under threat in universities has been consistent in government rhetoric since at least the creation of the Office for Students three years ago, but this latest move marks a change in direction.

In 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published guidelines stating that no-platforming is “often misunderstood and misreported”. It said that, effectively, the government would only consider intervening where there is a clear conflict between two student bodies – say, a political society and a students’ union – in which an external speaker’s invitation has been forcefully blocked.

It would appear that, in the two years since that announcement, the EHRC’s advice has been shunted to one side in favour of the government’s preferences. The new “free speech champion”, due to be announced next week, seems to have an alarming amount of discretion over who gets fined and why.

The problem here is that the government is operating according to a narrative which it would very much like to be true, but has no actual basis in fact, no matter how many sensationalist news stories are published on the subject. As I have written before, Tory students like me are not censored on campuses in this country, however convenient it might be if we were.

The government is desperate for Conservative students’ free speech to be under attack, so it can swoop in and save us. But when asked for examples of no-platforming, the best it can come up with is the Amber Rudd controversy at Oxford, which was not a free speech issue.

As is so often the case, it was a cock-up, not a conspiracy. There was a last-minute panic among organisers that some promotional material might have been misleading. This triggered a hurried cancellation. It was an embarrassing mistake, awkward for everyone involved, but it ought to be clear from the last-minute fumble – and subsequent PR disaster for the society involved – that this was not a malicious, co-ordinated effort to stop a Conservative from speaking to students.

In fact, a 2018 report from the cross-party parliamentary human rights committee found that, apart from a few isolated incidents whose causes can be easily traced, there is no problem to be solved here. “We did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested,” it said.

No-platforming is a non-issue. Students, people who speak to students, and indeed everybody else, already have their right to freedom of expression enshrined in the law. What they don’t – and shouldn’t – have is the right to a platform. Students like me should be able to invite whoever we like to speak to us at university – which we are.

Campus debate is organic, as it should be, and that means it is often messy. Different groups disagree about which events should be held, when, where and with whom. But students are not children. We resolve those disputes when they occur and, for the most part, nobody sues anybody else. Sometimes, we even exercise our right to protest.

None of this is unusual. The only reason this is a news story is because big-name Tories like to leap on any appearance of pushback as evidence of a sophisticated conspiracy to shut them down. Take, for instance, the time an event with Peter Hitchens at the University of Portsmouth was delayed, and Hitchens took to Twitter to complain about being censored by “thought police”.

The state interfering with perfectly functional campus discourse is not a pro-free speech move.

Alongside paying lip service to the free speech of poor, victimised Conservative students for the purposes of its “war on woke”, the government is also reportedly telling heritage organisations to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”. Er… can we openly express our views about British history, or can’t we?

This, it seems to me, is the real issue. My generation is critically – and loudly – engaging with the legacy of the British empire in a way that none has before and many of my peers have reached conclusions that the government doesn’t much like.

That leads to ill-thought-out interventions from the top to amplify what it sees as pro-British narratives: traditional, socially conservative worldviews. In the minds of those in government, the fact that so few student voices are rising up to declare that colonialism wasn’t so bad after all is a sure sign that their side of the debate is being trampled by censorious lefties.

In addition to its sincere quest to drag thousands of non-existent 19-year-old paleoconservatives out from the shadows, in terms of electability and PR, the government has forgotten how to deal with a Labour leader who isn’t Jeremy Corbyn.

Its recent promise to protect Victorian street names from “baying mobs” is a great example of that. If there was a widespread, concerted effort to wipe out British culture and heritage, would road names really be the front line of that battle?

The government is trapped within its own culture war discourse. It sees imaginary woke militants everywhere it looks – from local councils to students’ unions. By insisting that universities are controlled by censorious rabbles, it is hurting, not helping, students – even Tory ones like me.

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