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 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 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, 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 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 no–platformings. Some have argued that universities will also have to 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.