Culture

Gavin Williamson’s free speech proposals are fanning the flames of the culture war

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Gavin Williamson’s recent ‘landmark’ proposals to strengthen free speech certainly paint a dystopian picture. In a statement evocative of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, the education secretary earnestly claimed that UK Universities were failing to prevent the chilling effect on campuses of ‘unacceptable silencing and censoring.’

Williamson’s measures are just the most recent in a string of government initiatives aimed at tackling what has been dubbed, a ‘free speech crisis’ at UK Universities. This ‘crisis’ was perceived to have become urgent enough to warrant a pledge in the 2019 Conservative party manifesto. Acknowledging the supposed severity of the situation, the Tories promised to ‘strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities’.

Such concerns regarding potential infringements of free speech on university campuses are not entirely baseless. Last year for instance, the former home secretary Amber Rudd was disinvited to an event hosted by UNWomen Oxford, just 30 minutes before it was scheduled to go ahead. The society justified their actions by citing Rudd’s role in the Windrush scandal.

Undoubtedly, Rudd was shabbily treated. As well as simply being rude, the behaviour of UNWomen Oxford demonstrated an inherent unwillingness to engage with a woman that had been active in mainstream frontline politics for almost a decade.

And yet, an isolated incident such as this hardly amounts to the pervasive culture of silencing and censoring referred to by Williamson in his statement. In fact, YouGov published polling data in 2018 showing that British students were, on average, no less tolerant of opposing views than the general public. 

Additionally,  The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) conducted an inquiry into free speech in universities in the same year and concluded that there is no major crisis of free speech on campus. In short, instances of censorship and no-platforming at UK universities are generally rare.

Viewed through this prism, the truth of Gavin Williamson’s ‘free speech’ strategy is laid bare – yet another chapter in the Conservative party’s ongoing war against ‘woke’ culture. Indeed, by sensationalising what is in reality a small problem, the Tories and their allies in the media are exploiting political divisions to their own ends.

Take the example of Lola Olufemi. In 2017, the former Cambridge student sent a letter to the literature faculty, requesting that non-white authors be added to the curriculum. In response, The Telegraph published an article which alleged that Olufemi was attempting to ‘decolonise’ English literature by replacing white authors with black writers. Inevitably, this provoked a heated debate, with Olufemi’s demands widely being labelled as political correctness gone too far.

Such a deliberate mischaracterisation of what was in effect, a mere effort to introduce some new writers into the syllabus, serves to demonstrate how right-wing media outlets have fuelled the erroneous narrative that UK Universities are engaged in an exercise of censorship.

This is not to suggest that, where threatened, freedom of speech should not be zealously protected. To this extent, Williamson is correct: free speech does indeed ‘underpin our democratic society.’ Student unions and societies apt to forget this should be held to account.

The government’s heavy-handed and frankly unnecessary intrusion, however, is patently not the best way to go about this. Ironically, by imposing measures designed to police what students can and cannot say, Williamson himself is guilty of the very crime about which he makes an accusation.

Quite clearly then, the education secretary’s motives are insincere. Let’s remove the facade and call his policy proposals what they really are: a cynical and divisive display of identity politics.

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