It started, as it often does, with some gibbering nonsense in the Sunday Telegraph. Government briefings to the newspaper revealed that there would be a new two-pronged attack in its ‘war on woke’ – a phrase so mind-bendingly stupid the brain starts to shrink upon contact with it.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson would be establishing a new position of “free speech champion” at the Office for Students to regulate things like no-platforming. Meanwhile, culture secretary Oliver Dowden would be convening a meeting of 25 leading heritage bodies, including the National Trust and National Lottery Heritage Fund, instructing them to defend British culture and history against the “noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.
The problems with the plans are as follows: They are cynical, nonsensical, internally contradictory, functionally implausible and work to perpetuate the exact phenomenon which they claim to undermine.
Much of the critical left-wing coverage of the government’s agenda starts with the idea that there is no crisis of free speech. We’re told it’s weird for adults to be worried about people being no-platformed in university and that commentators being cancelled online is nothing to worry about – it’s just a question of publishers deciding who they want to host on their platform.
This is all deeply complacent and misleading. Censorship is not just about the state knocking on your door in the dead of night and carrying you away with a hood over your head. It’s also about people silenced by the conformity of the crowd or frozen out of their career because of their unpopular opinions.
Every day you will see people online challenging people’s right to talk rather than the arguments they are making. The things they are saying may indeed be unpleasant or objectionable. Of course they will be. It’s typically minority views which are subject to censure by the majority. Sometimes they are perfectly reasonable, but have fired-up the targeted outrage of campaigners.
This problem is often portrayed as a left-wing attack on right-wing figures. In fact that is not correct, and it lets the culture war right off the hook. When sports players started taking the knee in a symbolic protest against racism before games in the US, then-president Donald Trump said National Football League owners should fire them. When journalist Sarah Jeong was hired by The New York Times to join its editorial board, conservatives demanded she be sacked because of tweets she had written such as “white men are bullshit”. Supporters of Johnny Depp after his recent court case with Amber Heard launched a social media campaign insisting she be dropped from the upcoming Aquaman 2 movie. Free speech is a universal value. And once you degrade it on one side, it’ll come up and bite you on the other.
This debate is not some kind of bubble. It plays out within national newspapers. The Guardian and the New York Times have recently had their own struggles with it. And that instinctive opposition to free speech is often nurtured in university, whose graduates feed into the media system. Free speech matters – online, in universities and everywhere else.
But Williamson’s plan, if you can call it that, fails on two central points: what it does and who does it.
It would allow individuals to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer a loss from a breach of the free speech rules – for instance if they’re demoted or expelled. Consider for a moment what that means. Let’s say an academic writes an article promoting Holocaust denial. Is the government’s position now that they must be compensated for losing their job? Presumably not. So it is now in the business of deciding which opinions are within the boundaries of free speech in university and which are not. In other words, it is itself the controller and arbiter of valid speech. We have taken a problem which operated at the institutional level and escalated it to the level of the state.
It is not for government to make these decisions. It is for institutions and the people within them. That is where the fight for free speech operates. Not in the corridors of Whitehall.
Once you turn to the other prong of the attack, the free speech argument falls away altogether. Dowden, spurred on by the lip-speckled inanity of the culture war hysterics in the Telegraph and the Spectator, wants to end the ‘rewriting of history’. This includes work by organisations like the National Trust highlighting our colonial past, which aggravated the so-called ‘Common Sense Group’ of Tory MPs, a gang whose only achievement is to have developed a name so embarrassing it stands out even in this period of parliamentary history.
His letter to arts bodies last year insisted that he did not support the removal of statues. Communities secretary Robert Jenrick wants to go a step further and change planning guidance to give himself a veto over their removal.
But history is rewriting. That is what it involves. We constantly reappraise and re-evaluate the past. Statues are not so much a comment on what came before but on what we value today. So a debate on which stay up, which are removed and which are erected literally is free speech. And not just any old bit of free speech, but a central one: the interchange between us as we are now and us as we were then.
The government’s position is that this debate can no longer be held. It is therefore crushing free speech as part of its free-speech agenda.
There is pedigree to this kind of government behaviour. It comes not from freedom-lovers but from authoritarians. In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orban absorbed the independent and well-respected 1956 Institute into the government-run Veritas Historical Research Institute and Archive. He did it for the same reason ministers in the UK are now taking action: because he didn’t like the stories they were telling about the past. It didn’t fit his narrative. So he silenced them, just as Dowden is trying to silence those heritage bodies.
There is no defence of free speech to be found here. It is an attack on free speech, motivated by right-wing culture warriors. This does more damage than that which is committed simply by its implementation. It consolidates the sense in activist left-wing circles that free speech is not a universal value: it is the Trojan Horse for an attack by reactionaries. It denigrates and corrupts precisely the principle which the government claims to want to uphold.
If ministers gave a damn, they would butt out. But they don’t, so they won’t. Their real aim is a right-wing cultural attack which undermines freedom of speech. They are as guilty as those online who try to silence their critics. But they are more dangerous, because they have executive power.