“If universities can’t defend free speech, the Government will”, said Williamson in February. He meant it.

20 Jul

For a long time, the UK’s silent majority has been quite clearly concerned about “cancel culture” – which describes when people are demonised or sacked for having “the wrong views”. This concern partly explains why Labour suffered such a big defeat at last year’s election. The result was not only down to its confused stance on Brexit, or Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but the party’s woke worldview.

Unfortunately, cancel culture since seems to have accelerated, particularly during lockdown, when the nation watched statues toppled, innocuous TV shows like The Mighty Boosh removed for being “offensive” and an author even fired from her agency for Tweeting support for JK Rowling.

There have been growing calls for the Government to intervene before it gets too late; something which it’s not always easy to do, but last week Gavin Williamson announced a policy that could make a sizeable difference. 

Titled the Higher Education Restructuring Regime, it essentially incentivises English universities – many of which are struggling as a result of the Coronavirus crisis – to tackle censorship on campus in order to receive a Government bailout.

Williamson’s restructuring regime is broadly focussed on three areas. First, it asks universities to reduce administrative costs, including vice-chancellor pay, to focus resources “on the front line”. Second, it asks them to cut courses that lead to poor employment outcomes –  with the Education Secretary wanting to strive for “great value for money” as part of his commitment to levelling up Britain. And third, it requires institutions to “demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech”.

An independently-chaired Higher Education Restructuring Regime Board will be established, and Williamson will draw on its expertise to assess which universities should receive bailouts, by way of repayable loans.

Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union, has strongly criticised the move, suggesting that the Government is exploiting Covid-19 to “impose evidence-free ideology”, and there have been similar objections. But one suspects that this will be an incredibly popular policy with taxpayers, for a number of reasons.

For starters, it has been said repeatedly that there are now too many young people going to universities, due to Tony Blair’s target for 50 per cent attendance (the figure hit 50.2 per cent in 2017-2018). Williamson has said he will stand up for the “forgotten 50 per cent”, paying more attention to skills training, and other parts of the further education sector

This is great news; the UK needs qualifications and training to be better tailored to the economy, and there’s increasing evidence many undergraduate degrees aren’t providing a return on investment. As Neil O’Brien has written for ConservativeHome, “poor-value degree courses… waste taxpayers’ money, but don’t actually increase opportunities for students.”

Then there’s the universities’ free speech issue. Censoriousness has become so prevalent that Amber Rudd was “no-platformed” at the University of Oxford in March. There are numerous examples of universities banning speakers, as well as political hostility to those who hold Conservative/ Brexiteer views. Last year I wrote for The Telegraph about the amount of insults young people had been subjected to on campus because of these.

Williamson’s intervention is clever because it doesn’t tell universities how to combat this problem, and they have the option to do nothing; it simply motivates them to promote free speech. One way they could do this is by adopting the Chicago Principles, which are widely recognised in the Government and elsewhere, as best practice in this regard.

These were developed in 2014 following a series of incidents at different universities in which students tried to ban speakers deemed controversial. Academics at the University of Chicago drafted a statement that made an “overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.”

Another way universities might tackle this is by trying to improving safety measures for speakers – so that they cannot be no-platformed, or maybe even interviewing students on their attitudes to free speech before offering them a place. There’s lots of ways in which the issue can be approached.

Some will not be surprised about Williamson’s announcement. In February he wrote for The Times that “If universities don’t take action [to promote free speech], the government will.” Strangely enough, it was the Coronavirus crisis that allowed him to stick to his word. Let’s hope that his policy gives other ministers some ideas for how to fight cancel culture too.

Neil O’Brien: The New Puritans want to tear down our liberal settlement. Here’s who they are, what they think – and why they must be resisted.

29 Jun

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Consider recent news.

JK Rowling criticised the expression “people who menstruate,” leading to accusations of “transphobia”, numerous authors quitting her literary agency, and staff at her publisher refusing to work on her new book.

Various controversies have followed the Black Lives Matter protests. Liverpool University will rename a building named after Gladstone.  UKTV deleted an episode of Fawlty Towers making fun of a racist character. The RFU is reviewing the singing of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.

These stories illuminate a new division in our politics. It’s not left vs. right, but is uniting conservatives and liberals against something new, which we need to give a name to.

“Woke” is the most common term, and laughing at its excesses is part of the cure. But we also need to take it seriously. Paul Staines calls it “Neo-puritanism”, which captures the absolutist, quasi-religious nature of it – the urge to “police” others behaviour.

Like puritanism, it’s strongest in America, but powerful here.

So what is Neo-puritanism?

First, Neo-puritans want to change the balance between free speech and censoring offensive speech.

The embodiment of liberalism is the slogan: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Neo-puritans feel a duty to “call people out”, often pressing for people to be sacked or shunned.

Don’t debate JK Rowling – “cancel” her. They see debate not as a chance to test and exchange ideas, but as unwelcome, wearying, maybe impossible.

Neo-puritanism has tightened the boundaries of free speech. Like Amber Rudd being “no platformed” by Oxford students. The NUS trying to block Peter Tatchell from speaking. A school dropping plans to name a house after JK Rowling. A DJ sacked (now reinstated) for denying he has “white privilege.” An Oxford professor given security guards after threats from transgender activists. Sheffield University paying students to police “micro-aggressions”. Hundreds of Guardian employees attacking Suzanne Moore’s “transphobia” for writing: “Female is a biological classification.”

Second, Neo-puritans believe in “hard” quotas and targets.

Conservatives and liberals often support increasing numbers of women or ethnic minorities in certain roles. They favour outreach programmes, mentoring, open days, etc.

Neo-puritans want quotas and sex/racially defined scholarships which other groups can’t enter. For example, Reni Eddo-Lodge argues that “when there are no hard targets for programmes of positive discrimination, they will always run the risk of looking like they’re doing something without achieving much at all.”

Examples include Cambridge University’s scholarship scheme (worth £18,000 a year) solely for black British students and Oxford’s  Arlan Hamilton scholarships for Black undergraduates. UCL has scholarships for BME postgraduate students. The Bank of England has scholarships for African Caribbean students.

Third, Neo-puritans (i) think people are defined by their group, (ii) say people have “false consciousness” about our society and (iii) attack the liberal idea that people can be neutral.

A wave of bestselling books by Neo-puritan authors ramp up the importance of group differences Whether we’re talking about “White supremacy”, “White privilege”, or “White Fragility”, it’s not that some people are racist, but society.

For Neo-puritans, not only are people defined by their race, but race is defined by behaviour in an almost mystical way. The founder of “decolonise the curriculum,” Pran Patel, said: “Priti Patel is the perfect example of whiteness inhabiting a different coloured vessel”.

Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge academic, tweeted: “White lives don’t matter. As white lives” and “Abolish whiteness.” This isn’t just divisive and unhelpful. The concept of “whiteness” – that there are certain ways of behaving that are “white” – is intrinsically racist.

This explains why Neo-puritans think it’s OK to attack Conservative MPs from ethnic minorities as “coconuts” or “bounty bars” Robin DiAngelo argues there is deep false consciousness in our society: “Our racial socializatition sets us up to repeat racist behaviour regardless of our intentions.”

Neo-puritans see the “colour-blind” ideals of liberals as part of this false consciousness.

Reni Eddo-Lodge argues: “Colour-blindness is used to silence talk about structural racism while we continue to fool ourselves with the lie of meritocracy.”

A headteacher in Sheffield agrees, writing to parents: “Our society is built upon white supremacy… the world’s systems and structures are built on this bias, and this therefore creates White Privilege.”

Finally, Neo-puritans have a particular take on history, with the emphasis on criticism.

The self-styled “leader” of the BLM protests says Churchill’s statue is offensive and should be taken down.  A university lecturer argues: “Churchill must fall”, because he was an “imperialist racist,” “hated” by the working class. Maya Goodfellow argues: “The way Churchill is remembered in the UK has always been tied up with ideas of white superiority.”

Nor is it just Churchill.

Take the student union leader who vowed to paint over a First World War memorial: “Mark my words – we’re taking down the mural of white men in the uni Senate room, even if I have to paint over it myself.”

Or the Oxford lecturer who hopes Oxford researchers don’t invent a coronavirus vaccine first because: “it will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence.”

So what’s the problem with Neo-puritanism?

First, I worry hard quotas lead to resentment; undermine those who succeed (am I only here because of my race or gender?); and lead to unfair, arbitrary decisions: can a scholarship for black students be awarded to a mixed-race person?

Second, there’s an abuse of language here. Apartheid South Africa and the Confederacy were states with an ideology of “White Supremacy”. Britain isn’t.

Third, relentless emphasis on group membership plus tighter boundaries on speech will lead to a society not at ease with itself. Instead of the colour-blind world liberals hope for, we’ll end up in a world walking on eggshells, where more and more we’ll see each other primarily as members of groups.

Fourth, I worry about the counter-productive effects of this conversation. If the “core function” of the police is racism, why should anyone non-white join up?

A 13 year old boy recently pleaded guilty to kicking a police officer on the head as he lay on the ground because of protests he’d seen on TV. Ideas have consequences.

If you claim our society is built on “white supremacy”, this will be heard by some people with fragile mental health. I know of a case of a young person who feels oppressed by all around her, seeing offers of friendship and help from white people as disguised attempts to hurt her.

Compared to a world in which you tell kids – ‘you’re all just the same, you just have different coloured skin’ it makes it more difficult to have natural relationships, and friendships without hangups.

Overemphasis of group differences is disempowering. Katharine Birbalsingh, head of one of the country’s top performing state schools says it: “undermines much of the work we do at school in trying to empower our children to take personal responsibility and grab life by the horns.”

Finally, healthy countries need a balance of self-criticism and self-confidence. Self-loathing is unattractive, but might also have bad practical consequences. People are often called on to do things for the greater good of the nation, from paying tax to fighting for their country.  If Britain is basically shameful, why bother?

Neo-puritans sometimes highlight important problems. But though there is more to do, the big picture is one of progress. Sexism is down, racist attitudes are declining and ethnic minorities are steadily getting better off. Neo-puritanism won’t accelerate that, but instead risk a whole set of new divisions.