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What Ever Happened to Britain’s Freedom of Speech Bill? by Harrison Pitt

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What Ever Happened to Britain’s Freedom of Speech Bill?

Inside Duke Humfrey's Library, the oldest reading room in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.

Photo: Tim Wildsmith via Unsplash.

This time last year, there was an extraordinary development in British politics. It seemed as though the Conservative party, in office since 2010, was flirting with the idea of doing something conservative.

The government announced a proposal to reverse the decades-long march through the institutions that has turned the British university into a place where individuals are routinely de-platformed and students live under a regime of self-imposed, if not directly enforced, censorship. On 16 February 2021, the then-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson unveiled plans to legislate this intolerant campus atmosphere out of existence with a new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act

Having once been devoted to passing down traditions of knowledge and facilitating free inquiry, Western universities are now dungeons of political conformity and cultural self-loathing. Unless by some fluke students enrol on an exceptional course or benefit from the guidance of an old-school professor, they are no longer exposed to what Matthew Arnold described as “the best which has been thought and said,” far less taught to engage critically with it.

The bill contains all sorts of long-overdue measures. Universities would be required to meet free speech conditions in order to access public funding. New powers would be given to the Office for Students regulator to impose financial penalties if the conditions are violated, and student unions would be legally obliged to protect the free speech of their members as well as guest speakers. Most controversially, the government would appoint an Academic Freedom Champion tasked with investigating on-campus violations of free expression, from the politicised dismissal of academics to cases of no-platforming.

These landmark proposals caused some furor in early 2021, but they have since limped uninspiringly towards the statute book. The committee stage in which bills are subjected to expert scrutiny ended as long ago as September 23rd. Now, five months later, there have been no forthcoming details about when the government plans to restart the bill’s progress towards royal assent. Between then and now, the issue has, if anything, worsened. Only in October, Professor Kathleen Stock was hounded out of her job at the University of Sussex, accused of violating the ever-mutating speech codes of ‘trans’ ideology. Academic freedom at British universities is, in other words, a live problem. Plans to tackle it cannot afford to get bogged down in a mire of bureaucratic sludge.

The government has given no explanation for its foot-dragging. However, a department of education spokesperson did offer the following comment: “The Government remains committed to strengthening freedom of speech in higher education in line with its manifesto, and passage of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will continue as soon as parliamentary time allows.”

If somewhat vague about timing, this is a welcome declaration to which the UK government should be held accountable. The current universities minister Michelle Donelan has been noticeably quiet on the issue since acquiring the privilege to attend cabinet meetings last September. Donelan did allude briefly to the Freedom of Speech Act in a debate held on January 31st, boasting of the way in which the government is “honouring our manifesto and bringing free speech legislation to the House.” But again, there were no solid details about when Parliament would be able to do anything about it. The bill is no more than an eye-catching symbol until it is passed into law.

It is possible that fear of a backlash from left-wing media outlets has cowed ministers into staying silent on the issue. Even Boris Johnson himself is rumoured to be cautious about seeming to wage a culture war, as if such a conflict is not already underway in Britain and across the West. Timidity being a chronic problem among Conservatives, many within government are presumably quite happy to keep the controversial bill away from the front pages.

They will not be encouraged by memories of what happened when the policy was first announced in February last year. There was a predictably feverish reaction from the usual suspects and vested interests. The National Union of Students (NUS) instantly came out to deny the problem, declaring that there is “no evidence” of a freedom of speech crisis on campus. The esteemed Russell Group association of universities also kicked up a fuss, protesting that places of higher education need to preserve their “institutional autonomy” against government attempts to boss them around. They were somewhat more reluctant to assert any right to financial autonomy. Indeed, British universities are not detached entities, but depend on generosity from the treasury. It is only right that they fulfil their commitment to cultivating academic freedom and scholarly virtues in return. 

Behaving like aggrieved children when they are simply being held to their own high standards will not do. There is no need to be gratuitously bullish, but the government must ignore the noise and display more courage. Universities should expect to be held accountable if free thought and academic inquiry are allowed to corrode under the influence of a noisy minority. Conservatives, if they still go by that name, should not be bashful about re-asserting such a basic principle. If he wants to be taken seriously, Johnson must guarantee that the bill immediately resumes its journey to the Queen’s desk. 

Senior ministers should also remind themselves that there is nothing outrageous or unprecedented about their proposals, try as the Left might to compare them with Hitler’s ruthless measures to Nazify German universities in the 1930s. Parliament has always had a relationship with Britain’s seats of higher learning. It was not until Gladstone’s Universities Tests Act (1871) that Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham, formerly exclusive to Anglican gentlemen, were opened up to all students regardless of religious faith. As its text explained, the Act sought to make sure that “the benefits” of university education “should be rendered freely accessible to the nation.” The only difference between then and now is that whereas Gladstone wanted to expand access, the current measure—if ministers have the courage to persist with it—will ensure that “the benefits” are not watered down by an intolerant woke monoculture.

This should give Conservatives the confidence to persevere in their struggle to reclaim campus life on behalf of learning, debate, and free inquiry. Britain’s universities are not anarcho-syndicalist communes operating in some non-social wilderness. They are national institutions which rely on state accreditation and taxpayer funds. If they wish to enjoy the radical autonomy of an eccentric commune, they need only say so and then immediately renounce all ties, including financial connections, to wider society. Why should a university that tolerates disruptive outrage mobs, shows minimal commitment to ensuring liberty, be allowed to flourish or remain entitled to a single penny of tax-payer funding?

Engaging in culture wars should never be an end-in-itself, but here is a cause which makes fighting worthwhile. Other European nations could do far worse than borrow many of the provisions in Britain’s Freedom of Speech Act. However, they would also be well-advised making the case with more guts and gusto than has been shown by a gun-shy Conservative party over the last year.

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.

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