From Rachel Sylvester in THE TIMES, 9 October 2018:
It is a year since the Eurosceptic Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris, then a government whip, wrote to universities requesting a list of the names of professors involved in the teaching of European affairs “with particular reference to Brexit”, together with copies of each syllabus and links to the course. He was accused of a “McCarthyite” attempt to undermine academic freedom with his “sinister” demand for information, which was sent out on House of Commons headed notepaper.
Lord Patten of Barnes, chancellor of Oxford University and former Tory chairman, described it as “offensive and idiotic Leninism”. David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, condemned the letter as “the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak”.
Mr Heaton-Harris has since been promoted to minister in the Department for Exiting the EU. Many of the universities complied with his request — of the 59 institutions that responded to his letter, 28 provided him with most or all of what he asked for. But now Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, has made a significant ruling warning that disclosing discussions about Europe could harm academic independence and undermine rigorous debate.
In response to a freedom of information request following Mr Heaton-Harris’ letter, she concluded that the vice-chancellor of Worcester was right to refuse to release emails containing the word “Brexit”.
“If the university is required to put this information into the public domain,” the ruling states, “the commissioner agrees that those views would be likely to be much more cautious and risk averse in the future and those concerned would be inhibited from providing a free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.”
As politics turns into a culture war, universities are finding themselves on the front line, under fire from left and right. On one side, academics are accused of pro-European bias, on the other they are criticised over their attitudes to gender and race. Trevor Phillips, the former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said at the weekend that the hounding of Nigel Biggar, the Oxford University professor who suggested there were some good elements to the British Empire, showed a worrying slide towards “Stalinism”. The feminist writer Germaine Greer and the veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell have both been “no-platformed” by student groups over their supposedly “transphobic” views.
One researcher, James Caspian, was refused permission to study cases of people who have surgery to reverse gender reassignment because his university thought the thesis could be “politically incorrect”. Angelos Sofocleous, a philosophy undergraduate, was sacked by his student newspaper after retweeting a comment that “women don’t have penises” — an opinion that his critics said could “belittle trans experiences”.
Perhaps not surprisingly there has also been a rise in “silent seminars”, where students refuse to express an opinion on controversial issues for fear of causing offence. Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at Kent University, says young people are self-censoring because, unable to differentiate between critiquing an argument and criticising a person, they believe that disagreeing with someone may be a “cultural crime”.
Instead of encouraging diversity of thought, the education system seems to be narrowing the scope of acceptable opinions. At the Tory conference in Birmingham last week, a secondary school teacher told a fringe meeting that she did not dare to admit she was a Conservative at work because the staffroom had become a “socialist convention”. One minister says: “Left-wing identity politics has provoked right-wing identity politics. There’s an unhealthy situation where both sides feel that people can only speak from the silos into which they’ve been put in the culture war. It’s about facts rather than emotion and it’s narrowing the scope within which you can have a proper free exchange of ideas.”
The phenomenon has also infiltrated the arts world. The novelist Rose Tremain says it is increasingly difficult for authors to write from their imaginations: she is convinced that the BBC recently turned down a television series based on The Road Home, her award-winning novel about immigration, because she is not a young Polish man, so her text cannot be “authentic”. If writers can only draw on personal experience, then literature will become narcissistic and narrowly focused, she says.
The bitter row over the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice in the US is symptomatic of a wider trend on both sides of the Atlantic. Politics is about whose side you are on rather than what you believe. The liberal protests against his confirmation following allegations of sexual assault were mirrored by a surge of support for the Republicans among conservative voters ahead of the midterm elections, in what Donald Trump’s allies are already calling the Brett bounce.
From Trump to Brexit, Scottish independence to climate change, politics is increasingly polarised along identity rather than partisan lines. Margaret Thatcher used to talk of cabinet ministers approvingly as “one of us” and now social media divides everyone into tribes. Virtue-signalling to friends is combined with vicious denunciations of enemies. The language of “mutineers” and “saboteurs” on the right is matched by attacks on “traitors” and “melts” on the left. MPs who refuse to conform face deselection or even death threats. There is a lack of civility that derives from the fact that people are playing the man (or woman) and not the ball.
If politics is no longer about persuasion but personal identity, then it is much harder for anyone to change their mind. But a liberal democracy depends on rational debate rather than emotional allegiance. It is based on constantly questioning, challenging and testing ideas. The “will of the people” should be an expression of these freedoms, not an excuse to divide and rule.