Lembit Opik, former LibDem MP spoke first. He’s joining The Freedom Association's council in a return to the issue — free speech — that brought him into politics. His family’s background in Soviet Estonia is why he cares about the issue. He spoke of training he had at the BBC not to challenge climate change, even with facts. He was rebuked by producers for pointing out to a climate change campaigner that the polar bear population was at a record high. It was true, but not ever to be said. Cancel Culture is about suppressing all arguments — good and bad — against the “liberal” (ie left) establishment narrative.
He disagreed that cancel culture came from the US. Certainly the word “woke” did (a good word hijacked by bad people) but the ideas are thoroughly Soviet.
The next speaker, Matt Goodwin is a politics professor who has moved from advising Labour and mostly speaking to the left to mostly speaking to people on the right. He hasn’t changed. The left has radicalised and closed itself off. Radical progressives probably represent 10-15% of society. They’re focused obsessively on race and rewriting history and they are prepared to suppress opposition in pursuit of social justice. They concern him, but he’s more concerned by the failure of the moderate left to oppose them. He’s particularly concerned about its effect in education. These ideas are being pushed heard in primary and secondary education.
I asked him if the ideological imbalance in academia was really an accident. He insisted there was no conspiracy. The radical progressives were relentless and their opponents simply weren’t. Things are changing and non-woke academics are, for example, turning from the traditional universities and towards new institutions such as the universities of Buckingham and Austen.
There is an argument that radical progressivism is filling the gap left by religion. Once people signalled virtue by reference to their religious piety.
The surprise guest at the event was Jacob Rees-Mogg. Out of complacency — total confidence in our constitution — he said we’ve neglected to protect it. There have been creeping law reforms that undermined it — eg the evolution of a privacy law inimical to free speech.
He agreed with a questioner that the Online Safety Bill was a threat to free speech. It was almost impossible to oppose because it was presented as protecting children.
He presented himself as a victim of New Labour reforms that elevated quangos and over politicians and made it impossible to move away from left-wing policies. As he said, Brexit had removed all superior legal forces to parliament and created the opportunity to sweep bad laws away but no one challenged him as to why Conservatives had been in power so long without doing (as he said) enough or (as I would say) anything to do just that.
Eric Kaufmann, a professor much-cancelled at Birkbeck who has moved to Buckingham spoke about how woke our universities are. Only Buckingham in the UK has any academic diversity. Elsewhere his research shows leftists outnumber non-leftists in academia 9 to 1. Most professors would not hire a Conservative or (worse) Brexit supporter. He said only government could fix that (which made me, if anything, gloomier).
Charlie Bentley-Astor, a recent Cambridge graduate, spoke of the situation there. She felt there was a “poverty of bravery” that prevented students from putting their heads above the parapet. My own daughter who studied there too was clear that she would be penalised academically if she did so. With a dominant leftist majority in academia, I am not at all clear that legislation coupled with courage could make a difference. Students who speak up and go to Ombudsmen to uphold their right to do so may “win” only to lose when their degree is awarded.
The final session was about the limits on free speech. Tom Slater, editor of Spiked Online took the radical US style view, that all speech short of incitement, should be free. Lembit Opik was vaguer, but keen to advocate a push back.
I agree with Slater and was delighted to hear his view from the youngest person present, but can’t imagine any politician standing successfully on a platform to legalise hate speech.
Dr Alma Seghal Cuthbert, Director of Don’t Divide us, stood for the Brexit Party and experienced a “chilling effect” on her academic career in consequence. She spoke about being disinvited from an education conference because seven anonymous participants (from five hundred) claimed to be “scared” by Don’t Divide Us’s ideas on the subject of critical race theory. She thought the fundamental problem was the prioritisation of emotional safety — by the way on a selective basis.
At the end of the morning session, I remain — alas — pessimistic. I hope for better this afternoon.