Are UK politicians tone deaf when it comes to free speech?

Are UK politicians tone deaf when it comes to free speech?


No offence to current British cabinet ministers, but I can’t keep track of what they stand for. They’ve been pro-austerity and anti-austerity. They’ve been pro-Trump and anti-Trump. They were against customs checks in the Irish Sea, then meekly accepted them.

So it’s helpful to hear that education secretary Gavin Williamson and prime minister Boris Johnson believe strongly in free speech. They will enshrine universities’ commitment to free speech in law, which means it’ll be at least several months before they threaten to break it.

Remember: Williamson was sacked as defence secretary after being accused of leaking confidential discussions about Huawei. You can’t get more pro-free speech than that. Even Voltaire wouldn’t defend your right to say what happened in the National Security Council.

Johnson too is a standard bearer for free speech. Just this week, he used a televised press conference to practise pronouncing a new anti-coronavirus drug. “What’s the name of that drug again, Chris? . . . Toc- tociz- We’re going to get this right. Toc. Is it toczilumab? . . . Toc- tocilizumab.” If that’s not the uninhibited expression that John Stuart Mill had in mind, I don’t know what is.

In short, Johnson and Williamson are ideally suited to defending free expression. Or are they? Does this government really, as its policy paper says, support “the widest possible definition of free speech”?

Last year it tried to block the historian Mary Beard from becoming a British Museum trustee because of her pro-EU views. Since then, the home secretary has called Black Lives Matter protests “dreadful”. The housing secretary has proposed a new law to prevent “woke worthies” tearing down statues. Ministers claim they don’t want protesters to erase history. But after the National Trust reported on its properties’ link to empire, the culture secretary told charities to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

You can defend free speech or a sanitised version of British history, but you can’t defend both. Likewise, you can stand for media freedom, or you can try to hobble the BBC over its impartial coverage, but you can’t do both. Does anyone think that Paul Dacre, the former Daily Mail editor who has accused the BBC of “cultural Marxism”, is being lined up to chair media regulator Ofcom to protect free speech?

Meanwhile, Williamson is proposing a “free speech champion” within the Office for Students watchdog. Yet the government has just appointed a new OFS chair — a former Tory MP with no experience of higher education. The independent appointments commissioner complained the selection panel was “pack[ed]” with political allies. If you’re serious about defending free speech on campus, this isn’t how you go about it.

This is a shame, because there is a problem with free speech. It is found in universities, companies, and social media, and centres on an intolerance for opposing views. You can support trans rights, and still feel that accusations of “transphobia” are used too widely to discredit some feminists. You can believe in structural racism and unconscious bias, and still believe it’s the right — even the duty — of academics to question the robustness of these concepts.

Some people argue that hearing such views jeopardises their mental health and puts their rights at risk. It’s one thing to say a speaker should not be allowed to address an event because they would incite violence. It’s much riskier to say that they should not be heard because some people say they would feel broadly less safe.

Universities, students, companies and others need to stand up for the right to dissent. Because if free speech has to rely on the support of Williamson and Johnson, it really is in trouble.

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