Censuring students while censoring history

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

You could hardly make it up.  At the same time as government plans to appoint a ‘free speech tsar’ to stop students cancelling controversial speakers it also intends to summon heritage groups to be told by a minister what they can and cannot say about British history. It’s ludicrous but at the same time deeply sinister.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, a reliable mouthpiece for government policy, “Ministers will fine universities which stifle freedom of speech and tell heritage groups ‘public funds must never be used for political purposes’ in a major new bid to torpedo efforts at rewriting Britain’s history” .

So, on the one hand they plan to appoint a ‘free speech champion’ to the Office for Students and grant them powers to defend free speech and academic freedom on campuses. According to the Telegraph, colleges or student bodies that cancel, dismiss or demote people over their views will be sanctioned. 

On the other hand, the culture secretary Oliver Dowden has summoned 25 of the UK’s biggest heritage bodies and charities to a summit where they will be told “to defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.  There will no doubt be threats to public funding and charitable status. Dowden has form in this respect.

It’s easy to point out the staggering level of inconsistency. Student bodies must not restrict free speech. Heritage bodies must not even try to exercise it. What sort of logic is that?

To look for logic, however, misses the point.  Even though the contradiction may not be picked up by blindly-loyal readers of the Telegraph or brainwashed followers of the Daily Express, the authors of this policy know exactly what they are doing.  It serves to divert attention away from difficult issues like growing inequality or the need to invest in our crumbling public services and to avoid scrutiny of government incompetence and allegations of corruption.

Conservative concern about student activism has a long history.  My student days are long gone but I well remember Tory ministers seeking to stop us voting in the towns where we studied or using student union funds to support groups like the African National Congress. Indeed, one can go back to the 1930s when Conservatives got themselves in a lather about students in the Oxford Union voting that they would not fight for ‘King and Country’.  I suspect that the difficulty Conservatives have with students in part derives from the impossibility of producing a highly skilled workforce without also producing educated citizens. It is a battle they cannot win.

Despite the recurrent bouts of outrage there is little foundation to scare stories about left wing students threatening free speech. Research by Kings College in 2019 found that the attention paid to the issue was disproportionate to its incidence and “is seldom informed by what students themselves actually think about the issue”. Nevertheless, it has been a staple feature of the Daily Telegraph ‘reporting’ for years.  Here is a story from 2019, another from 2018 and  2017.Here is a reference to one from 2005. I suspect that one might find a Telegraph article on the subject every year of this century and long before.

Although hysteria about left wing students has been commonplace in the Telegraph and other conservative media, attempts to censor the work of museums and similar bodies is more recent and more alarming. Articles in West Country Voices by Virginia Button in relation to Museums and Eric Gates concerning the National Trust have catalogued the pressure that is being brought to bear on these institutions to subscribe to a state sanctioned version of history that presents a simplified and sanitised version of our past.  I don’t propose to repeat their analyses but simply highlight what a truly alarming situation this is. 

Even a few years ago most ordinary conservative voters would have recoiled in horror at the idea of a ‘Ministry of Truth’ telling us what to think.  That was what happened in the Soviet Union or North Korea.  Now it is accepted here in the UK with little sign of dissent.

I have argued elsewhere that our institutions are too weak to protect us from the sort of coup that Trump and his supporters have attempted in the USA. It seems also to be the case that our culture has bred complacency. ‘It couldn’t happen here’ we think while the slide to authoritarianism occurs in front of our eyes.

I have just one question for our local Conservatives. If state censorship of history is OK with you what will you agree to next? Burning books?