Chris Newton: The Government’s Free Speech Bill won’t fix universities if viewpoint diversity isn’t addressed too

21 Sep

Dr Chris Newton is a military historian and a former defence policy adviser in the Conservative Research Department.

As universities start a new academic year, the Government’s Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill is going through Parliament. The bill strengthens and protects university freedom of speech and is desperately needed.

University cancel culture” is not just an American phenomenon (and Peter Boghossian’s recent resignation letter to Portland State University indicates it’s still a major problem there). One needn’t go back far to find examples of academics and students in the UK having their freedom of speech threatened as well.

Just this month, the media reported that the University of Bristol dropped Professor Steven Greer’s module on Islam and the Far East. This is despite Greer being cleared by a five-month investigation into complaints about his alleged views on Islam.

In Scotland, where the bill will not unfortunately apply, Neil Thin, a senior lecturer Edinburgh University who criticised the renaming of David Hume Tower, faced an investigation after students made unsubstantiated accusations against him. While the university dismissed the complaints, Thin has spoken about the “severe psychological and social damage that can be caused by…unnecessary punitive investigations”.

These are just a couple out of a whole litany of cases where academics have been subjected to event cancellations, petitions calling for their dismissal, or witch trial style disciplinary procedures.

Their views aren’t, on the whole, regarded as particularly controversial in the real world. Academics have been denounced for defending Brexit, arguing that British history contains good as well as bad aspects, and for saying that biological sex is scientific fact. These views have been met with cries of “xenophobe”, “racist“, or “transphobe, among other slurs.

Recent research indicates that there is a deeper cultural problem. A 2020 report from Policy Exchange found that 44 per cent of academics surveyed who identified as “fairly right” and 63 per cent of those who were “very right” stated that they worked in a hostile working climate. These concerns seem to be justified as only 54 per cent of academics indicated that they would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter at lunch.

The Free Speech Bill should at the very least prevent further noplatformings. Some have argued that universities will also have to create bureaucratic structures that will ensure legal compliance. The Free Speech Union will also keep defending its members and reminding universities of their legal obligations.

These are important developments, but Nadhim Zahawi, the new Education Secretary, should consider whether the bill as it stands is still a sticking plaster that only deals with the symptoms and not the root causes of the problem.

As has been pointed out by Policy Exchange and others, universities have been able to enforce an ideological orthodoxy because they are dominated by one side of the political spectrum. The Policy Exchange report found that under 20 per cent of academics voted for right-leaning parties in 2017 and 2019, while 75 per cent voted for either Labour, the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens. For all the preaching about “diversity and inclusion” that goes on in universities, political diversity is very much forgotten.

Fuelling the intolerance is also the growing influence of radicals. The past few years have witnessed the emergence of “critical theories” or “critical social justice”, once a fringe element, as a powerful force on campus, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

Critical theories” include postcolonialism, critical race theory, and critical gender studies, and are descendants of Marxism and Postmodernism. They believe that Western societies are structurally unequal, and ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals, and transgender people are systemically oppressed.

There is no room for individual agency; power dynamics are structural and pre-determined by group identity. An ideology that believes that those who question their claims regarding systemic oppression are “complicit” in the discrimination is not exactly going to be open to alternative views.

There has been an increasing expectation from university diversity officers that the whole institution should reflect this new orthodoxy. This is reflected in initiatives such as “decolonising the curriculum”, which seems to be more interested in deleting fundamental content than genuinely making courses more diverse.

Leicester University proposed to ditch Geoffrey Chaucer and Beowulf from the English curriculum in favour of more modules about race and sexuality. Exeter University’s library requested that lecturers decolonise their reading lists, “look beyond traditional textbooks”, and embrace “grey literature” such as tweets. Musicologist Professor Paul Harper-Scott has just resigned from Royal Holloway in London due to the “dogmatic” nature of the decolonising agenda.

The new government guidance does prohibit the imposition of political agendas like “decolonising the curriculum” on staff, but there are potential ways around it. One way is to simply hire believers. Many lecturing job adverts now ask for specialists in critical theories, or for a commitment to the “decolonisingagenda.

The Policy Exchange report also indicates that there is potentially some political discrimination in hiring. 37 per cent of academics who voted Remain said they are likely to discriminate against a Brexiteer in job applications. Leavers face an 80 per cent chance of being discriminated against on a four-person panel.

Moreover, half would rank a grant application lower if it came from a right-wing perspective. There is little use of a Free Speech Bill if almost everyone already believes in the same set of ideas. What is needed are measures that will restore viewpoint diversity.

What can be done? Potential options include, first, the Office for Students monitoring recruitment and grant approval practices, as well as providing incentives to ensure fair play and a degree of balance. However, some may be uncomfortable with such a degree of state intervention.

A second approach is to create new higher education institutions explicitly committed to philosophical pluralism. A key problem, however, is that the barriers to entry are exorbitant. The Government could remove some of these barriers, for example allowing small start-up organisations to offer masters courses initially to get themselves established, before offering other degrees later on. It could also, as the Cieo think tank suggested, help set up new “free universities”.

The Free Speech Bill is a positive step in moving universities back in the right direction, but it is only a first step. What we really need is not just a Free Speech Bill, but a Free Speech and Viewpoint Diversity Bill.

Ben Roback: When the southern border opens, trouble will brew for Biden and Harris

14 Jul

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

President Biden knows, just like his Democratic predecessors, that the immigration problem on the southern border is hard to solve. It almost certainly explains why he put Kamala Harris, the Vice President, in direct charge of the border, with one eye on re-election in 2024 and the possibility that his main Democratic challenger could be Harris herself. It is the most poisoned of chalices.

On this site before, I have written about whether controlling the influx at the border really matters to this administration. We are about to find out. The southern border is expected to reopen in a phased manner in the coming weeks.

While the thousands of miles that separate the USA and Mexico are often thought of as route to freedom for immigrants, it is also a critical trade artery linking two interconnected economies. The economic need to reopen the border has to be counterbalanced with concerns about security.

White House allies are worried that neither Biden nor Harris are ready for the logistical and humanitarian impact of opening the border. Politically, the real concern is the impact and optics of tens of thousands of migrants surging towards the border and claiming a right to live and work in the United States.

Currently and until restrictions change, the United States is limiting land border crossings from Mexico and Canada to “essential travel”. The list of what constitutes “essential” is not short, but what is clear is a shared desire to limit border crossings as much as possible over ongoing Covid concerns.

Restrictions are slated to remain in effect until 23:59 on July 21. Without an extension, legal land crossing for work and recreation will resume. Like night follows day, what will also resume is the attempted illegal border crossings that take place every year.

It is hardly a shock that the Biden administration will take a softer approach to immigration on the southern border compared to Donald Trump. Law and order, immigration control and border enforcement has been a Republican talking point and policy platform for decades. Democrats have tried harder to strike a balance between border control and creating a path to citizenship for children of immigrants.

The Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Since that date, DACA has allowed more than 800,000 immigrant youth who came to the United States as children to temporarily remain in the USA, get an education and pursue gainful employment.

On June 15 this year – “DACA Day” – Biden gave a speech continuing his support for deferred citizenship. The House of Representatives passed the American Dream and Promise Act in March, and a draft U.S. Citizenship Act creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals in the USA, including Dreamers.

Are Democrats walking into a Republican trap?

Democrats want to create a legal pathway to citizenship for child immigrants. The progressive left is especially passionate about this cause and wants Biden and Harris to soften their tone on migrant caravans travelling through central America and arriving at the border.

Republicans wants to solidify the southern border and protect existing communities. Building new and enforcing existing border fencing was a top priority of Trump on the campaign trail and when president. It remains a central issue for the GOP.

With the mid-term elections next year and a presidential election in 2024, Republicans sense White House weakness and a political opportunity.

At this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, Trump gave a vintage Trump speech. Among a long list of familiar gripes – stolen election, big tech, cancel culture – and some unfamiliar talking points – magnets, steam engines, toothbrushes – were repeated mentions of the “border”. Twenty three of them to be precise.

This matters because of how structurally central Trump is to the Republican Party. Trump comfortably outpolled the field in a straw poll at CPAC, with 70 per cent favouring him to run for the presidency in 2024. Trump’s approval rating amongst CPAC attendees was 98 per cent. Where he goes, others will follow.

Use the 45th president’s CPAC speech to better understand the themes on which Republicans want to fight the midterms and 2024 presidential election:

With the help of everyone here today, we will defeat the radical left, the socialists, Marxists, and the critical race theorists. Whoever thought would be even using that term. We will secure our borders. We will stop left wing cancel culture. We will restore free speech and fair elections, and we will make America great again. It’s very simple. Very simple.

Even if this White House take a gradual and phased approach to the border, the thorniest issues will persist. The ultimate dilemma is whether to hold immigrants in detention centres or release them as they await their court proceedings. The former results in a policy that progressives consider unacceptably inhumane and positively Trumpian. The latter can create a backlog which can take years to clear.

The Biden administration would do well to listen to voters, as well as its members

Biden is working hard to keep his Congressmen and Senators on side. With the Senate split 50-50, history dictates that the Democrats will lose their de facto majority in next year’s midterms. With that, the White House will lose the ability to get legislation approved in a simple up-and-down vote. So, keeping the caucus happy matters now more than ever.

A new poll by the National Republican Senate Committee and the Republican Governors Association showed 53 per cent of voters say they are less likely to support Democrats for Congress because of the increase in migrants at the border.

Can Biden keep his party happy while ensuring he does not gift political mileage on a favourite issue of his likely opponent in 2024, Trump? We will find out soon.

Ben Roback: If not Trump, then who will be the next presidential candidate for the Republican Party?

30 Jun

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

It is hard to think of the Republican Party without Donald Trump, such is his grip on the GOP. This is despite a clear culling of his reach of late. Banned by every mainstream social media platform and without even his own website to use as a blog – “From The Desk of Donald J Trump” flopped on launch – the 44th president has no form of direct communication with his supporters.

He has therefore made an eager return to the campaign trail, where big tech can’t “cancel” him. Speaking in front of a crowd of thousands in a small town in Ohio, a key swing state, Trump left the door wide open to running again: “We won the election twice,” he told supporters. “We may have to win it a third time.”

Obsessed with the size of his crowds since that infamous inauguration speech, Trump’s ability to draw numbers remains a useful measure of his support in the Republican Party. It is a bellwether, but not a science. Labour activists presumed Jeremy Corbyn would lead his party to victory in 2019 purely because he was adored at Glastonbury.

A presidential run by Trump in 2024 looks somewhere between obvious and entirely inevitable. Backroom operator does not suit Trump, whose obsession with attention means that it would not be enough to be the GOP kingmaker and have presidential hopefuls walk the gilded halls of Mar-A-Lago to kiss the ring.

Trump is still the Republican Party base’s favourite to run and win in 2024. If you follow the money, he is also the favourite with bookmakers. Having resumed in-person rallies in front of adoring crowds, and with a familiar script appearing that centres around a corrupt election, cancel culture and porous borders, the Trump 2024 campaign looks well underway.

Democrats hope to lay speed bumps on the road to the White House. Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues on Capitol Hill recognise that they have a political opportunity to use the riot at the Capitol on January 6 as a political tool against Trump. It is copied from the playbook deployed by Republicans who set up the Benghazi special inquiry that dogged Hillary Clinton in 2018.

Only 30 per cent of GOP voters blame Trump for the insurrection compared to 61 per cent of the wider population and Republicans argue that in order to “heal” the nation needs to move on from the attack on the Capitol.

Trump remains the darling of the GOP, but what about the others?

Nikki Haley

Haley boasts both an incredibly impressive CV and, crucially, worked for Trump in the White House but left the administration on good terms with her boss. While so many presidential appointments inevitably fell out with Trump and left in either embarrassment or disgrace, Haley resigned her post as US Ambassador to the UN popular with the president and his supporters. The former South Carolina Governor recently hosted Jared and Ivanka Trump at her home in Kiawah Island, signalling a desire to keep “the family” on side.

Notwithstanding the above, she has work to do to regain popularity with the Trump base. Having sided with Trump throughout his presidency, Haley pulled no punches in criticising his actions leading up the Capitol Hill riot in January. As a candidate, she will push her credentials and experience at the UN to further Trump’s “America First” mantra on the world stage. With a compelling background story that embodies the kind of diversity that the modern GOP lacks, in many respects she is the more developed and acceptable face of the Trump-wing of the Republican Party.

Mike Pompeo

The former Secretary of State will, like Haley, use his international experience as a springboard for greater ambitions. Pompeo lacks serious domestic political or policy experience to complement his track record abroad having only spent six years in the House of Representatives as a Congressman from Kansas.

Pompeo has effectively been running for the GOP nomination for months already. When it comes to fundraising and establishing a presence in the early-voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa, a head start is no bad thing. Pompeo left the CIA and then State Department having struggled to balance his deference and loyalty to Trump with the fact that his boss routinely turned against the US diplomatic and intelligence community.

Taken seriously in Republican circles, Pompeo lacks credibility beyond the core. If Trump runs in 2024, there would be few compelling reasons for the party to back Pompeo, a Trump-lite candidate without the showmanship or killer instinct.

Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis, the Florida Governor, is probably the most interesting Republican politician in the United States right now. He bucked the trend and rushed to open bars, barbers and businesses in his state when most other Governors were keeping the doors closed. As a result, he personified what “freedom” means in the context of the pandemic and Republicans elsewhere soon followed suit.

His willingness to engage in culture wars infuriates the Left and galvanises the Right. DeSantis has mandated patriotic education in schools and banned teaching critical race theory. DeSantis has ingratiated himself with the Trump base while remaining deeply loyal. When pressed about his own presidential ambitions, he is quick to back the former president, should Trump run. That had been reflected in the polling of Republicans, where Trump had consistently been the front-runner with DeSantis lagging in second.

At February’s Conservative Political Action (CPAC) conference, the biggest annual gathering of conservative activists and leaders, Trump was out front on 55 per cent with DeSantis second on 22 per cent. Not so anymore. In a straw poll of attendees at the Western Conservative Summit in Colorado last weekend, DeSantis edged Trump by three points with a slightly higher approval rating of 74 to 71 per cent.

A Trump-less GOP?

Thinking about a Trump-less Republican Party seems premature and perhaps moot given the former president’s busy schedule of interviews and rallies. The non-Trump candidates like DeSantis, Haley and Pompeo know they can only win the GOP nomination if Trump decides not to run. If he does, the best they can hope for is to balance the ticket as the vice-presidential nominee. If so, Haley and DeSantis are best placed given their home states of South Carolina and Florida respectively carry critical electoral college votes.

What odds then of Trump not running and opening the path to the also-rans of the GOP? Few have made money betting against Trump’s popularity in the Republican Party. If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prove unpopular and struggle to propel the US economy into recovery after the pandemic, while the crisis on the southern border gets worse in parallel, Trump will almost certainly consider the opportunity too good to pass up.