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Artillery Row

The paradox of free speech

If the Civil Service wants to retain its reputation for political impartiality, then it needs to exclude those who promote only certain kinds of politics

Do you think the Labour Party should pick candidates who are hostile to its aims and values? Would it be appropriate for the Conservative Party to invite speakers to its conference who think all Tories are nasty racists and need to be locked up? 

The natural and sensible answer to both questions is “No”. However, this doesn’t sit easily with our principle of free speech. Indeed it is a pretty obvious negation of free speech: a stance of restriction, of cancelling certain views that do not fit with a prevailing, dominant standpoint.

What about within organisations like the BBC and Civil Service, which are supposed to be impartial? The former is more obviously a platform for discussion and debate, which invites people with different political views, while also quite clearly promoting some types of views more than others notably those of progressive identity politics, around which it is increasingly organised now. 

Whitehall has moved quite a way since the reclusive world of 1962

The idea that the Civil Service might serve as a platform for political assertion and discussion in this way doesn’t completely fit its traditional reputation, or with Rab Butler’s description of it as “a Rolls Royce” and “the best machine in the world”. It seems that Whitehall has moved quite a way since the withdrawn, reclusive world of 1962, given last week’s report from the Guido Fawkes website that various departments, notably the Home Office, were inviting left-wing race ideologues to speak to their staff for Black History Month. 

Within a day of its original report, Guido Fawkes was claiming credit for the Home Office cancelling one of these talks, from the Cambridge Professor Priyamvada Gopal on 14 October. “A Home Office source,” it said, “tells Guido that Gopal was “cancelled for her having racist views”. Guide Fawkes attributed the action to Home Secretary Priti Patel herself, in the light of statements from Gopal such as:

“Priti Patel is also a reminder that many Asians in British Africa had ferociously anti-black attitudes and were used by colonial administrations to keep black populations in their place. An attitude she brings to government.”

Professor Gopal responded angrily to her cancellation, saying she had only been told that it was “due to unforeseen circumstances” and denouncing “the very right-wing and very racist blog, Guido Fawkes, which frequently showcases white supremacy and other bigotry”. She also complained about:

“the manifest double-standards on ‘cancellation’ and ‘no-platforming’. We have long known that in the hands of the Conservatives and the rightwing more generally, ‘free speech’ is selective, meant only to showcase racist, transphobic, misogynist, homophobic and colonial views”.

Prof Gopal published the gushing, barely literate invitation they sent to her

Some of her most prominent academic adversaries supported her, despite holding very different views. Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, tweeted, on free speech grounds, her talk should not have been cancelled. It’s one thing not to invite, but once you have invited, you should not use power to cancel a talk due to some people being offended.” Professor Matthew Goodwin agreed, adding, “I also think Home Office should have broadened debate out to include opposing views especially if it is being billed as masterclass for civil servants but that’s my personal view.”

Gopal pointed out that it was the Home Office’s staff network that had “reached out” to her and published the gushing, barely literate invitation they sent to her, which lauded her new book as “essential reading” that would help them “to value those who essentially helped to put the ‘Great’ into Great Britain and still do to a wide extent (despite ‘independence’).”

As she notes in her blog, criticism of politicians is an essential part of democracy. The question remains whether it is appropriate for an institution like the Home Office to be promoting and platforming the work of someone who has been so implacably hostile to their boss, publicly denouncing her in the strongest terms and invoking her racial background in doing so? 

A civil service trade union doing the same would not present the same issues, since it would take place via an external organisation. But a staff network doing so shows a public, political commitment representing staff inside the department, one that could hardly be more hostile to its democratically-elected leadership. 

Gopal is of course free to express her views. But for institutions to have any meaning and purpose, they need to stand for some things and not others. The Labour Party apparently stands for “Labour values”, which through a convoluted bureaucratic process ends up as a quite specific and distinctive form of politics. The Conservative Party functions likewise, albeit as a more flexible beast. 

The Civil Service is meant to be politically impartial

The Civil Service is meant to be politically impartial and to provide administration to support the Government of the day. This is its traditional meaning and purpose. Promoting and platforming progressive identity politics internally does not align with that. Indeed the prevalence of this sort of activity is changing the nature of institutions in this country from the Civil Service to the police, from education to the arts and from the charity sector to business. The non-political world has become a lot more political – and the form this has taken is broadly the same everywhere. This has involved a significant curtailing of free speech in many institutional settings for those who depart from the progressive consensus around systemic racism, transphobia, misogyny and the like. 

This is the reality of institutional life, however. 

If an institution wants to dedicate itself to the pursuit of social justice by the promotion of identity politics, then it needs to marginalise and exclude people who depart from these forms of politics. We may not like that. It may be damaging and inappropriate, but to be itself, it needs to retain boundaries and borders.

If an institution wants to retain its reputation for political impartiality, then it needs to exclude those who would use their position to promote certain kinds of politics and denounce others. 

This goes for those who want to promote free speech too Claire Fox’s remarkable Academy of Ideas being a classic example. Fox and her colleagues may use their organisation, very successfully, to promote free speech and include all sorts of different views, as at the recent Battle of Ideas. But in order to survive as what they are, they must exercise rigorous control and only employ people who believe in that mission. This means effectively suppressing certain types of speech within an organisation that is committed to free speech. 

There is a paradox here: to promote the free exercise of speech, you must at times suppress speech. To be something, you must guard against becoming something else.

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