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Free speech in an uncivil society

A climate of intolerance is threatening the pursuit of reason.

Ten days ago I was among a congregation of hundreds who packed Malmesbury Abbey for the funeral of my dear friend, and inspiration, Sir Roger Scruton. Roger wrote around fifty books on subjects as diverse as conservatism, Wagner and the nature of Englishness.

Roger called a spade a spade but he always treated his opponents with respect, even when he violently disagreed with them. This is the increasingly unpleasant contrast between the Scruton way of dealing with ideas and arguments, and the way now increasingly adopted in our public discourse – whether in partisan debate or in those places considered the nurseries of political thought, our universities.

The effects of that contrast are having a poisonous effect on our most fundamental of liberties, our right to exercise free speech. What is truly shocking is that such damage to our freedom of speech is allowed to happen, and yet too few people with the power to do so wish to raise a finger to stop it.

For discourse is, in the end, the means by which rational and civilised people arrive at the truth. In recent days we have seen the absurd lengths to which some will go to crush freedom of speech, and equally absurd ways in which those who ought to be defending it go readily down on their knees before the onslaught. In 2017 one of the country’s most distinguished academics, the Reverend Professor Nigel Biggar, wrote an article in The Times. Professor Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Philosophy in the University of Oxford. He is Canon of Christ Church Cathedral.

His offence was to write in defence of Bruce Gilley, a political scientist at Portland State University, who had made what Professor Biggar termed a “courageous call for a balanced reappraisal of the colonial past.” To make matters worse, Professor Biggar also asserted that “the history of the British empire was morally mixed.”

It is the job of historians constantly to make balanced reappraisals of all historical questions, even those dealing with colonialism, in order to help us arrive at the truth.

It is hard to deny that in India the agents of the Raj patronised and misunderstood cultures and civilisations centuries older than our own, and for decades denied self-rule to a country perfectly capable of running itself. It is equally hard to deny that the basis on which self-rule was denied – when, at the same time, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and white South Africans were allowed to rule themselves – was one based at best on a narrow idea of kinship, at worst on downright racial prejudice. Yet look at Southern Rhodesia under British rule until 1965, and Zimbabwe under the rule of Robert Mugabe forty years later, and only a fool or a liar could claim that the colonial era provided fewer liberties and a lower standard of living than that of the tyrant who led the country for the first 35 years of its independence.

The rabid denunciation of Professor Biggar was led by other academics, whose own institutions are too afraid to restrain them, and was conducted largely on Twitter. The vilification of Professor Biggar has encouraged academics with a fraction of his intellectual powers or originality of thought to distort the curricula in their institutions, jumping on a bandwagon that indulges them but offers little in the way of genuine, useful learning to the students who have the misfortune to be in their care.

In history faculties, the talk is all about ‘decolonising’ the curriculum; about removing the focus from the British and European history that has been the basis of our shared past, and the key to answering the question of why we are where we are, and putting it on to abstruse studies of colonial cruelty and exploitation, or of the role of women and working class people within our domestic history. Anyone who attempts to look at historical questions in their own context, to evaluate why what happened at the time happened, is regarded as a reactionary. By their behaviour they override the fundamental principle of learning, which is to arrive at the truth. But they also, by creating an atmosphere within academia of hostility and hatred, make an important part of the expansion of knowledge nearly impossible, by restricting civilised discussion between those of differing views.

Anyone who attempts to look at historical questions in their own context, to evaluate why what happened at the time happened, is regarded as a reactionary.

This hijacking of academic disciplines for the purposes of thought-policing and the propagation of leftist tropes is not restricted to the discipline of history. English literature has long been given similar treatment, though some of the texts that have to be read are now, famously, issued with ‘trigger warnings’, because there is so much in Shakespeare, even beyond what Alastair Stewart found, that could upset the sensibilities of the average member of what is cruelly called ‘the snowflake generation’.

Arguments that, to quote L P Hartley, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ no longer hold any sway. And the teaching of modern languages is similarly derailed; feminist texts and novels or films depicting the squalor and oppression of Hispanophone or Francophone people in the third world are de rigueur, with minor talents such as Cervantes, Balzac and Flaubert being sent to the margins. It is little wonder that, in their spare time, the students who endure what passes for this sort of teaching now try to close down expressions of opinion with which they disagree, usually for the preposterous reasonthat those expressions might cause offence: as if being offended is, to use another unfortunate modern expression, a hate crime – which many people think causing offence seriously is.

Five years ago Germaine Greer was no-platformed at Cardiff University because she wished to state her opinion that just because a man had had a series of operations to turn him into a woman did not make him like someone who had been female from birth. The University ordered the students to let the meeting go ahead, but said it would not condone ‘discriminatory language’. Professor Greer retorted that this stand by the university was ‘weak as piss’; she was not discriminating against anyone, merely hurting their feelings. Well, she said, her feelings were hurt all the time, and she just got on with it; but she refused to speak in an atmosphere of such unpleasantness, and cancelled her meeting altogether. Then Peter Tatchell – one of the most principled men I have ever met, demonstrated in his repeated and courageous demonstrations against Robert Mugabe – was no-platformed at Canterbury Christ Church University for speaking out in defence of Professor Greer. For defending her right to express her views openly, Mr Tatchell was denounced as ‘racist’ – the catch-all chant for every bigot these days – and ‘transphobic’. But then there are now many views that it is simply unacceptable to hold in our society today.

Professor Greer was inciting no-one to persecute transgender people; therefore Mr Tatchell was not defending a right for her to incite such people, for no such right exists or can exist in a civilised society; and saying one has a philosophical objection to the notion of same-sex marriage is nothing like saying you dislike homosexual people, let alone that others ought to go out and make their lives a misery.

Selina Todd, a professor at Oxford who specialises in the study of the lives of working-class women, and who describes herself as a feminist, has had to be assigned bodyguards for writing on her website that the rights of women are sometimes harmed by the activities of transgender people. It doesn’t actually matter whether she is right or wrong, but the fact that she now lectures with two men who look like nightclub bouncers in her lecture hall because of the threats of violence she has received from people who disagree with her is abominable.

The point at issue is about the access of men who identify as women to what Prof Todd calls ‘women-only spaces’, such as lavatories or changing rooms. Complaining about this, can be deemed by ‘activists’ to be guilty of a hate crime to which violence is the only answer. People who choose to change sex have every right to do so; but, equally, women have every right not to be intruded upon and made to feel discomfort by people they do not regard as women, in places where women have historically been able to be themselves. And no-one in this country, or any other civilised country, should be stripped of the right to say so. When I last checked, Oxford University had refused to comment on Prof Todd’s specific case. It reinforces the point that even great universities prefer to be intimidated by half-educated student obsessives who in many cases have yet to grow up than to be vigilant not just of the rights of their teaching staff but of the whole idea of freedom of speech.

People who choose to change sex have every right to do so; but, equally, women have every right not to be intruded upon and made to feel discomfort by people they do not regard as women, in places where women have historically been able to be themselves.

There is also what I have heard anecdotally from several universities in recent months of the pressure applied by the Chinese government, whose surveillance operations are plainly more than we imagine, on Chinese students studying in Britain not to engage in activities of which Beijing disapproves. Equally, Chinese money has helped develop facilities in some of our universities, but has from time to time occasioned the benefactors to seek to influence aspects of the curriculum. I believe those latter attempts have largely been resisted; but I hope any Chinese student in Britain who is put under pressure about his or her own activities should be able to tell the university authorities, and the authorities should give their full support. Sometimes students may feel their families back in China are at threat if they don’t conform. Universities have to think very carefully, before they accept Chinese money, about what they might be expected to do, or not do, in return.

In recent days we have seen another example of ignorant bigotry. Rebecca Long-Bailey, who may win the Labour leadership, said the other day that she had no friends who were Tories, and would dispense with the friendship of any of her friends who admitted to her that he or she had voted Tory.

Let us put aside for the moment the state of mind of someone whose sole criterion for friendship is how a person votes in elections; how can we ever expect civilised political discourse to be restored in this country if we treat as pariahs people whose only qualification for our ostracism is that we disagree with them?

I had been slow to realise how much this feature of our democratic life had changed until nearly three years ago, when one of my closest friends, who had been an MP for 30 years, was liked and admired by his local Conservative association and who commanded a sizeable majority, suddenly announced he would not be standing at the 2017 election. He loved the House of Commons and was highly regarded there, and I was so stunned by his decision that I feared he must have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, as I could think of nothing else that would have persuaded him to leave. Happily, he had not; but the reason he gave me was in some ways just as appalling. He showed me his Twitter feed; it was full of streams of vile abuse that shocked me, even after a lifetime in Fleet Street. He said he just couldn’t stand it anymore; day after day, people he had never met and who for the most part did not appear to be his constituents, showering him with vicious insults and threats purely because he was a Tory MP. That, now, is how we conduct political debate in our society.

Pertinent to Mrs Long-Bailey’s painfully closed mind was something I saw on television last May. On the 40th anniversary of Mrs Thatcher’s first election victory the BBC, over a weekend, replayed on the Parliament Channel its coverage first broadcast on 3 and 4 May 1979. I had seen it all before, as a boy of 18; it was the first election in which I could vote; but I had not appreciated just how dramatically things had changed since then in the way we conduct our political life.

Two episodes stick in my mind. Robin Day was interviewing Norman St John Stevas just after dawn on that  morning when Mrs Thatcher won her victory, and news came in that after recounts Labour’s Shirley Williams had lost her seat at Hertford and Stevenage. Stevas diverted for a moment to say what a terrible thing it would be for public life that Mrs Williams would no longer be in the House of Commons, because of her intellectual quality. Now I know even then there were many of us who felt Mrs Williams’s contribution to public life – carrying on the closure of grammar schools and trying to fix prices in what is said to be a free-market economy – was simply wrong-headed, but we could also note her sincerity, her belief in public service, her reasonableness in debate and her courtesy towards opponents. Who can imagine a Tory MP today lamenting the loss of the seat of a Labour opponent, never mind the opposite?

Then, later in the BBC’s 1979 coverage, Merlyn Rees, who had been a courageous Northern Ireland Secretary and a very competent Home Secretary, came on to discuss, in frank terms, his party’s defeat and the inept governance that had led to it. He made a point of wishing Mrs Thatcher well in the parlous situation she had inherited. Did we hear any senior Labour figure on the morning of 13 December 2019 wishing the Conservatives well in running the country, recognising that we are all in it together? We did not. The Long-Bailey school of political thought, in which your opponent is in fact your enemy, and that decrees that anyone who doesn’t agree with you is ipso facto morally deficient to the point where they become untouchable and are, indeed, stripped of their basic humanity, prevailed heavily in Labour’s defeat.

In such a situation, how can we continue to have the political discourse essential to a civilised country? Cannot James Brokenshire, who when he was Housing minister last year indecently rushed to sack Roger Scruton from an unpaid post on a commission dedicated to improving urban housing on the basis of a journalist’s dishonest misrepresentation of his views (without troubling to first verify the evidence) see that all they are doing is assisting those whose object is to vilify conservatism and Conservatives in the Long-Bailey style? Because all such an attitude achieves in the end is making people afraid to speak out on matters of common sense, and allowing ignorance and bullying to prevail. And when students in our universities see their elders and supposed betters in parliament behaving in this way, doesn’t it just encourage them to search for reasons to deny platforms in what ought to be these nurseries of discourse to people whose only offence is to challenge their blinkered way of thinking?

Have we really reached the stage where opinion must effectively be nationalised, with a norm created from which no-one may vary for fear of being ridiculed and abused, not least thanks to the mob rule allowed by the medium of Twitter? And while I do not wish to be rubbished as yet another of those non-leftists who makes a knee-jerk attack on the BBC, the corporation must take its share of blame for the current state of discourse in this country. Lord Hall himself, the outgoing Director-General, has criticised the attack-dog style interview that has become the norm for any meeting between a BBC journalist and a politician, and has referred to the effect it has had on the civility of discourse.

Have we really reached the stage where opinion must effectively be nationalised?

I happen profoundly to disagree with the continuity Corbynista ethos that currently dominates the Labour party and that seems likely to prevail in its current leadership election. But I am delighted to give its practitioners and adherents as much airtime as possible. Surely this is right: if your opponents’ articles of faith are preposterous, let them advance them so that everyone knows to give them a wide berth.

This is why I find it so hard to understand why so many of our students hate having the conservative viewpoint put over in their universities – if our views are as bonkers as they think they are, then what do they have to fear from them being aired on their campuses? Could it be that they are so insecure about their own ideas that they fear the broadcast of those that expose the weaknesses of them? People have to understand that there is a difference between expressing a strong opinion that may cause offence to those who think entirely differently and someone who is inciting violence or hatred against the group they are criticising. In a free society, we just have to put up with the first; but we can never tolerate the second.

if your opponents’ articles of faith are preposterous, let them advance them so that everyone knows to give them a wide berth.

We must stop putting out into adult life former students who have grown up thinking it is normal that people with the temerity to disagree with them should be silenced. Then such people sometimes end up as Members of Parliament who think their opponents are evil simply by dint of being their opponents. And that minority of MPs then encourage, by their vicious sectarianism, the Twitter mob. So it starts with the university authorities, who in some cases do not take their responsibility to uphold freedom of speech anything like seriously enough; but our elected representatives bear a heavily responsibility too, not just in fostering the kind of ugly sectarianism of which Mrs Long-Bailey seems so proud, but in giving in cravenly to the corruption of discourse in the way that Mr Brokenshire did last year in the case of Roger Scruton.

Since notionally leaving the EU last Friday – notionally because I am awaiting the final severance of our ties with the European Court of Justice, the removal of the EU’s rights from our fishing policy, for example, and the undoing of the disgraceful ‘deal’ that now leaves a part of our United Kingdom in a separate customs arrangement from the rest of the country – we ought to have put an end to the divisions in our country that have been obvious since the referendum.

Those divisions were made worse by the utter refusal of a minority of people to accept the result. Now we really do have to move on: and the way to do so is not to seek new divisions by having a standard of discourse that becomes steadily uglier and uglier, and demonises groups whose only offence is to have minds of their own and not to accept the leftist orthodoxy. It is to stand up for freedom of speech, to cherish it, but above all to exercise it and to express the political differences evident in any free society with reason, civility and decency. After all, we really are all in this together.

This article is based on the third annual Jillian Becker Lecture delivered by Professor Heffer to the Freedom Association on 3 February 2020.

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