The free speech crisis at Britain’s universities

The massive left-wing bias on campus is putting conservative students at risk


Last August I was contacted by the president of the Durham Union to see if I’d like to speak in a debate on 29 November. The motion was “This House Has No Confidence in Her Majesty’s Government” and he wanted me to oppose it. I agreed, partly because I’m in the process of taking my 16-year-old daughter Sasha to see different universities and this was an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. 

But I often do this sort of thing, visiting about half-a-dozen student debating societies a year. In the event, I took Sasha and my 11-year-old son Charlie. The reason for including him was that Queens Park Rangers were away to Derby the following day and I planned to drive back to London via Pride Park so we could all go to the match. Charlie, like me, is a passionate QPR fan.

The debate kicked off at about 8.30pm on a cold winter’s evening. In my corner I had the ex-Ukip MEP Steven Woolfe and on the other side were Natalie Bennett, ex-leader of the Greens, and Charlotte Austin, a local Momentum activist. 

I’d never spoken at the Durham Union before, but imagined it would be a bit like the other debating clubs: that is, a fairly formal environment in which robust discussions take place in a convivial, grown-up atmosphere. I wasn’t expecting to be treated with fawning adulation, just a modicum of respect. That’s the norm, I thought. Otherwise, why would people like me give up their time and travel halfway across the country to talk to students, given there’s no financial reward? 

Durham University: Home of left-wing thugs

About 300 undergraduates packed out the chamber, with my two children sitting in the front row. Natalie Bennett spoke first and she was highly critical of Boris, as you’d expect. I spoke second and, predictably enough, was pretty scathing about Jeremy Corbyn. But neither of us were discourteous towards the other. There was a bit of joshing, but all very good-humoured

It was when charlotte spoke that things took a wrong turn. She didn’t approach the dispatch box, but simply stood up and began reading from a prepared script. Almost immediately, she started attacking me. This wasn’t light-hearted banter, but rancorous, personal stuff. Among other things, she accused me of being a “misogynist” and a “homophobe”. It was the kind of language you’d expect at a nasty, factional meeting of the local constituency Labour Party, not a debating society at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities. I was taken aback, not least because it was all happening in front of Sasha and Charlie. 

After Steven Woolfe spoke, students were invited to make speeches from the floor and that’s when things really got out of hand. A young man whom I later discovered was called Jack Pearce and is the co-chair of the Durham University Labour Club accused me of being a “paedophile” to cheers from some members of the audience. This was then echoed by Charlotte, who shouted out “nonce”. More cheers.

I turned to the president of the Union, expecting him to instruct the ushers to remove Pearce from the chamber or, at the very least, tell him and Charlotte to stop using such inappropriate language. But he did nothing. 

A Labour activist threw a plate at his head and hurled him to the floor

I asked the Labour Club co-chair why on earth he thought I was a paedophile and he embarked on a long, rambling explanation involving a jokey piece I’d written in the Spectator some months before in which I said that it was only because I was married to a sensible, no-nonsense woman that I’d avoided getting into the mess Prince Andrew had. I meant being interviewed by Emily Maitlis on Newsnight — she had asked to interview me when I was involved in a kerfuffle over a government appointment a couple of years ago and I had declined after my wife advised against it. 

I made all this clear in the article. I emphatically wasn’t talking about being friends with Jeffrey Epstein. But according to this young man — and the lead speaker for the proposition — that was tantamount to confessing I was a paedophile. This was mortifying. I had secretly hoped that Sasha and Charlie would be impressed seeing me holding forth at the dispatch box — look how good daddy is at arguing! — and now they were witnessing my public humiliation. This was the first time they’d ever seen me do anything like this and my fear was they’d come away thinking this is how their father is always treated when he appears in public — he gets called a “nonce” by one of the invited speakers. In fact, nothing like it has ever happened before.

After the debate, I parked the kids back at the hotel and went for a pint at the Union bar where I spotted Pearce out of the corner of my eye. He came marching up with about a dozen friends and started barracking me, accusing me of defending a government that had “murdered” 120,000 sick and disabled people and God knows what else. I asked him in a calm voice whether he had any qualms about accusing me of being a child rapist in front of my 11-year-old son. “No, because you’re a Tory tosser,” he said.

After he’d left, another student approached and I braced myself for a second onslaught. But this person was diffident and polite and immediately apologised for the way I’d been treated. It was from him that I learnt about Pearce’s role in the Durham Labour club. He then told me a heart-rending tale of how he’d been persecuted in his first year at the university when some left-wing activists had found out he held conservative views. I’ll call him John, but that’s not his real name.

A few comments John had made in an online chat room had been dug up — as a Catholic he had reservations about priests being forced to marry gay couples, for instance — and these had been circulated around his college, as well as on Facebook, in an attempt to brand him as a “homophobe”. He’d also committed the sin of defending Israel’s right to exist, so that meant he was in favour of “ethnic cleansing” too. He quickly found himself socially ostracised. 

Even the second-year student whom his college had assigned to him as a “mother” — every fresher gets a “parent” to look after them in their first few weeks at Durham — started mocking his religious faith. She encouraged a gay friend to make a pass at him as part of some cack-handed scheme to “expose” him as a “bigot”. Things then went from bad to worse. As John made his way from tutorials to the college library, abuse was hurled at him from all directions: he was accused of being a “racist”, as well as a “Catholic c***”. 

A Labour activist threw a plate at his head in the college dining room and hurled him to the floor. Another activist accused him of being a “transphobe” — because he’d questioned whether transwomen are women — and slapped him in the face. In the end, he’d been forced to start afresh in another of Durham’s colleges, and since then the left-wing Torquemadas had found a different Tory to pick on. But being targeted in this way had made John’s first year at Durham a miserable experience. He was the first person in his family to go to university and this wasn’t what he was expecting. Someone less psychologically robust could easily have dropped out.

As a conservative white male, I was aware that life can be pretty tough for people like me on university campuses these days, but I had no idea it was quite this bad. I asked John whether he thought Durham was exceptional, but he said no, not judging from the experiences of his Tory friends at other places. On the contrary, he thought Durham had more conservatives than most — 20 per cent of the student body, rather than 10 per cent. “We’re in the midst of something like the Chinese cultural revolution,” he said. “If you don’t toe the line on gay marriage or the Israel-Palestine conflict or if you challenge the idea that Britain is a cesspool of racism, misogyny and homophobia, life can get very unpleasant very quickly. There’s zero tolerance for dissent.”

John’s bleak diagnosis was corroborated by a recent piece of research done by Eric Kaufmann and Tom Simpson for Policy Exchange. They interviewed a representative sample of 505 British undergraduates and found that 61 per cent of Brexit supporters said they’d feel uncomfortable about expressing their views in front of classmates, compared to just 11 per cent of Remainers. It’s tempting to think the more conservative students are being cowed by a vociferous, hard-left minority, but Kaufmann and Simpson found that support for censorship on campus is quite widespread. 

Forty-five per cent of students agreed that “ensuring the dignity of minorities can be more important than freedom of expression”, with only 17 per cent disagreeing. Forty-eight per cent endorsed “safe spaces” and 67 per cent favoured “trigger warnings”. Twenty-seven per cent wanted Ukip banned from campus. 

Incredibly, 44 per cent thought Cardiff University had been right to stop Germaine Greer from speaking after she’d been branded a “transphobe” by activists, with only 35 per cent disapproving. Little wonder that when politicians and journalists with conservative views try and speak on campus they often find themselves no-platformed or, if their talks are allowed to go ahead, come face to face with violent mobs. That happened to Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was caught up in a scuffle when he spoke at the University of the West of England in 2018, and last year Peter Hitchens’s invitation to speak at Portsmouth University was rescinded when some students protested.

Section 43 of the Education Act (No. 2) (1986) requires university governors to take “such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured” and they’re expected to publish a code explaining how they’re going to do this at their universities. Unfortunately, the words “such steps as are reasonably practicable” gives administrators plenty of latitude, allowing them to cite “security concerns” and the cost of preventing outbreaks of disorder as a pretext for banning certain speakers from campus. 

And they were granted even more wiggle room by the Equality Act (2010), which imposes a legal obligation on universities to prevent the “harassment” of students and employees with various protected characteristics and “foster good relations” between them and their peers, which includes a requirement to “tackle prejudice”. So a group of activists wanting to stop Nigel Farage participating in a debate on campus about immigration could argue that allowing him to speak would be a breach of the university’s “public sector equality duty”.

The equality and human rights commission, which has statutory authority when it comes to advising public bodies on how to comply with the Equality Act, issued some guidance last year, pointing out that, in fact, allowing people with right-of-centre views to speak on campus wouldn’t meet the legal threshold for “harassment”. But few university vice-chancellors appear to have read it. Most are under the impression that they’re required to balance the right to free speech against the need for “emotional safety” on campus, with considerable discretion as to where they should draw the line. 

The only silver lining to my Durham trip was that QPR fought Derby to a very creditable draw the following day

That was the rationale invoked by the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Stephen Toope, when he rubber-stamped the decision of the divinity faculty to rescind its offer of a visiting fellowship to Jordan Peterson last year. “Some difficult decisions will always be necessary to ensure that our universities remain places of robust, often challenging and even uncomfortable dialogue, while balancing academic freedom with respect for members of our community,” he wrote. Peterson’s sin was to have been photographed standing next to a fan wearing a “proud Islamophobe” T-shirt.

Of course, inviting members of the far left to speak on campus is never considered a threat to the emotional wellbeing of students — it’s only “hate speech” if the speaker happens to be a conservative or a gender-critical feminist. For instance, the Labour activist and Guardian columnist Owen Jones has never been no-platformed, even though many of his views are anathema to conservatives. This double standard reflects the fact that the overwhelming majority of academic staff, including those tasked with “balancing” the duty to uphold free speech against other, more nebulous concerns, are left-wing. According to a poll in the Times Higher Education supplement on the eve of last December’s election, 54 per cent of university staff said they intended to vote Labour, 23 per cent Liberal Democrat, five per cent Green, five per cent SNP and only eight per cent Conservative. In other words, left-of-centre academics outnumber conservatives by almost nine to one.

A combination of this clear bias among university lecturers and the energetic persecution by activists of anyone identified as having right-of-centre views, as happened to John at Durham, helps explain why, in 2018, a whopping 70 per cent of students said they intended to vote Labour. That fell back a bit in the run-up to the last election, but only thanks to a surge in support for other left-of-centre parties, with 19 per cent saying they were going to vote Lib Dem and 18 per cent Green. Only about 10 per cent said they intended to vote Conservative.

The conventional wisdom is that young people have always been left wing, but that’s not true. In 1983, 42 per cent of 18-24 year-olds voted Conservative, compared to 33 per cent who voted Labour. As recently as 2010, Labour only had a one-point lead over the Tories in that demographic. But in the past 10 years, support for Labour has steadily increased as more and more young people have enrolled at universities, with 62 per cent of 18-24 year-olds voting Labour in 2019 and only 19 per cent Tory. 

Universities now function like left-wing madrassas, a fact which helps explain why a person’s level of education is now such a strong predictor of voting intentions in Britain. Labour has become the party of graduates and the Conservatives the party of non-graduates.

What can be done to protect people like John and ensure there’s more tolerance for dissenting views on Britain’s campuses? The recent Tory manifesto included a pledge to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”, but so far no proposals have emerged from Downing Street. In a follow-up report, Policy Exchange recommended introducing an Academic Freedom and Free Speech on Campus Bill which makes it clear that freedom of expression takes priority over emotional safety. In addition, it would create a National Academic Freedom Champion within the Office for Students and task him or her with overseeing a network of free-speech champions across the higher-education sector. Fantastic idea, but will it be followed up?

For my own part, I’m setting up a Free Speech Union — a mass-membership organisation that will protect the speech rights of its members. Students and academics are welcome to join (just email [email protected]), but it will be open to anyone who thinks their free speech is in jeopardy, such as the social worker being investigated by Social Work England for tweeting his support for J.K. Rowling after she was branded a “transphobe”. When John reported the activist who threw a plate at him to the university authorities, they did nothing. I like to think that if he was a member of my union, we could have brought some pressure to bear on Durham to do more to protect him. Not from intellectual challenge, obviously, but from physical intimidation and abuse.

After my appalling treatment at the hands of the Durham Labour club, some of the students who attended the debate complained and the president of the Union finally took action, suspending Jack Pearce from the society for two terms and forbidding him from setting foot on the premises.

The only silver lining to my Durham trip was that QPR fought Derby to a very creditable draw the following day. Hopefully, Charlie will remember that long after he’s forgotten seeing his father branded a “paedophile” by a gang of left-wing thugs.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover