Gavin Williamson began last night’s second reading debate on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill by inviting us to stop, and think:
I wonder how many of us here ever pause to reflect on how very fortunate we are to be able to do what we are doing right now”.
If I felt like that at 5.12pm, Gavin, I was perhaps less enthusiastic by 10pm.
To kick off with, we were invited by Gavin to imagine how awful it would have been if Charles Darwin had been cancelled. It didn’t matter that there aren’t many examples of bans – just one would be a problem. The question of whether Charles Darwin had ever tried to book a room with less than 24 hours’ notice, or promote a pyramid scheme to a student society sadly didn’t come up.
A terrific Fabian Society pamphlet (remember those) emerged last week on “how to resist the culture wars”. It suggested that critiquing campaigns against cancel culture or statue removal as the “wrong priorities”, arguing they are out of touch with “real” people’s views, questioning the evidence base, or even denying that there even should be a debate at all are all major mistakes.
If Labour had read the pamphlet over the weekend, you’d never know it from the four hour debate. Shadow Secretary of State Kate Green led off opposition with the “home for haters” frame, kicking off a night of repeated “grey area” over “legal but harmful” speech points:
Conservative Members have no response on how existing laws will prevent harmful conspiracy theorists – such as anti-vaxxers – who could be protected on campus. Does the Secretary of State’s Bill protect the misinformation that causes damage and concern about vaccines and their efficacy, such as was spread by Professor Andrew Wakefield?
Later the Conservatives’ James North did, in fact, have an answer – although it mainly appeared to be “if we say we didn’t mean it now then it won’t be a problem”:
When a court interprets legislation, it interprets the intention of Parliament. The intention of Parliament is clear. The Secretary of State has said that no university can justify welcoming or allowing on to its campus anybody who is going to talk about holocaust denial.
Labour’s next line of attack focussed on the evidence base – with both OfS and Wonkhe figures on cancelled events repeated several times through the night. But Williamson’s answer – contrasting the Bill with what legislation is usually for – wasn’t quite the defence he thought it was:
So much of the legislation that goes through this place is the nuts and bolts for things that the Government must do to ensure good government and the delivery of all the things that we wish to see. However, we must not be blind to the fact that this place is also about principle, and the principle of free speech needs to be defended.
Labour’s most successful lines tended to be about the selection of the issue for legislative attention at all, and comparisons with the lack of attention on other matters affecting students and the sector. Jess Phillips asked Williamson about the students silenced by badly handled sexual harassment and assault cases (later followed up by a speech describing the experiences of an alternative “six silenced” students), prompting that mock incredulity that he does so badly:
I am sure the hon. Lady was about to come on to the amazing work that the Office for Students has commissioned to ensure that all universities take the action required, including looking at whether that is a condition of registration for universities, which, as she will understand, is absolutely fundamental for universities to be able to operate.
There are many ways to describe OfS’ work on sexual harassment and assault, but even for Gavin, “amazing” was a stretch.
Labour’s Paul Blomfield reeled off a list of things the government could have been focussed on – everything from lost learning to mental health – but John “Common Sense Group” Hayes was having none of that. I’m not making this one up:
Make no mistake: this culture war is the issue of our age. It is the struggle of our generation. Nothing matters more. This is our battle of Britain.”
For much of the night, the Conservative side indulged us in policy making by anecdote – and anecdotes that the legislation would struggle to address at that. Congleton’s Fiona Bruce regaled the house with the story of a career councillor who’d given (bad) advice to Christian students to expunge all mention of their faith from their CV. North West Durham’s Richard Holden said he’d met an [unnamed] academic in the politics department at Durham that was castigated by colleagues for teaching John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”. “I found that absolutely astonishing”, he said. Didn’t we all Richard.
Lee Anderson (Con, Ashfield), fresh from his big unboxing weekend, argued the freedom line:
The champagne socialists, the Islington elite and the trade unions may agree with the Labour party, but most of the country do not. We fought and won a war to protect our freedoms, and freedom of speech, to my mind, is the most important freedom that we have.
But Kevan Jones (North Durham, Lab) was having none of that:
This is actually about trying to use the so-called woke agenda in a political manner. It is amplifying the message, so we get a situation where anyone who dares to question what happens or who votes against this Bill tonight is said to be against freedom of speech.
Lots of speakers tried to crowbar in the football – but line of the night went to Daniel Zeichner (Lab, Cambridge):
Our universities and our country deserve so much better. They have, of course, glimpsed a better way, a decent way, and I would hazard a guess that in about nine months’ time we will have a glut of newborn children called Gareth, but not many Gavins.
Although Paul Blomfield ran him a close second:
A new director for freedom of speech at the Office for Students, with a full time responsibility to keep the issue alive.”
“Gender critical feminism” appeared a few times, but its proponents were split on whether the Bill would help or hinder their cause. It was perhaps notable that few spoke on Trans students feeling silenced on campus – and fewer still noted the threats to anti-racism work that Williamson had signalled in the Telegraph earlier in the day:
Time and time again we hear of instances where policies and practices have been adopted which have a chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom, such as systems that allow lecturers or students to be anonymously reported for unwittingly causing offence, or charging student societies security costs to invite mainstream speakers; where students or staff have been silenced or threatened with a loss of privileges or even dismissal for airing views or opinions that others find distasteful or provocative.
On the Conservative side, there was a lot of railing against straw men, and several speeches seemed to be against “online cancel culture”. The problem with that is the phenomenon has little to do with universities and SUs – and in those scandals you get more non-students, bots and trolls than students.
There is a solution to that – the government’s impending “Online Safety Bill” will behove social media companies to crack down on “legal but harmful” speech. None of last night’s contributors seemed to notice the contradiction that this Bill would seemingly protect “legal but harmful” speech on campus.
Just a handful of speakers recognised that the Bill will likely have a chilling effect on proactive efforts to make controversy happen on campus. More seemed determined to demonstrate that “debate” alone often doesn’t change minds and can feel like the opposite of “educational”.
Most disappointingly, not a single conservative speaker tried to recognise that what SUs and universities are usually trying to do is balance their duties and protect students from harm – even if in their view some go too far. Understanding of why SUs and universities might be causing some of the anecdotes they saw was generally as sophisticated as conspiracy theories about secret marxists.
Also notable – with lots of references to Jewish students and some references to Muslim students – was reference to harassment on campus. One side says the Bill will make it worse (giving license to nasty people) and the other says it stops it (by halting cancel culture). One side says the Bill will give “teeth” to the IHRA definition of antisemitism, the other side says it would undermine it. And so on. They can’t both be right.
And much of the night seemed to be about finding ways to make some views more popular. You can’t legislate to make ideas fashionable, I’m afraid.
Perhaps the most interesting speech of the night came from Labour’s Alex Sobel, who told a story about Claire Fox, a free speech society at Leeds and the way in which that agenda ended up hijacked by notorious fascists:
My point is that if this law had been in place, the student union and the university would never have taken any action against these radical, far-right fascists, whose only intent is erasure of diversity on the planet: the erasure of people like me, Charlotte—I am sorry, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols)—and others in this Chamber. That is why people need to be really careful about how they use free speech. Free speech is something that we all defend—we all talk about pluralism—but it can also be a cover for something much deeper and much more unpleasant, with the consequences that we all know and speak strongly against in this Chamber every year. Yesterday we marked Srebrenica Memorial Day. This Government need to be very careful on the dark road that they are taking us down.
It was interesting to hear the story – because for a few years now I’ve been explaining the “frames” used in the “debate” through the medium of this opening speech to a debate from Spiked stalwart Brendan O Neill. It pretty much provided the blueprint for Williamson’s opener and plenty of the echoes for the rest of the night. How on earth large swathes of the Conseravtive party’s agenda for legislation ended up as botched versions of Spiked blogs is surely a puzzle for the ages.