The Strange Death of Liberal Britain: Boris Johnson and the Threat to Democratic Values
Libertas article by Lucasta Bath, Interim Editor-in-Chief of LIBERTAS
You would be forgiven for thinking, given the current global challenges, that the British government had better things to do with its time than engaging in culture wars. Arguably, the Honourable Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip and his cabinet should be focusing on priorities such as – to pick a few at random – putting together a coherent plan for easing lockdown restrictions, supporting businesses struggling under a mountain of Brexit-induced red tape, or even attempting to preserve the Union with Scotland. Unfortunately, if you were to subscribe to this optimistic assessment of the government’s priorities, you would be wrong. The government has instead picked this time of uncertainty and instability to launch two new campaigns in its long-running war against the culture of ‘wokeness’.
The first offensive is against those infamous bastions of liberal tyranny otherwise known as universities. Gavin Williamson, the Conservative Education Secretary, has announced the appointment of what he euphemistically terms a “free speech champion”, whose role will be to investigate alleged infringements of the right to free speech by universities and student unions – notwithstanding the fact that universities have been under a legal duty to protect freedom of speech since 1986. Williamson has also announced his intention to table legislation which will allow academics, students or other visiting speakers who have been ‘no-platformed’ to sue universities and student unions for infringing free speech. Other reforms include bringing student unions under the control of the Office for Students, having previously been regulated by the Charity Commission.
These reforms may, on the surface, appear uncontroversial: after all, all liberals will recognise freedom of speech as one of their ideology’s core values. However, Williamson’s crusade against no-platforming fails to make an extremely important distinction between the right to free speech and the right to be heard: on the most basic level, the former is a fundamental (albeit qualified) human right enshrined in multiple national and international treaties and constitutions, while the latter is not. As the cross-parliamentary Human Rights Committee noted in a 2018 report, if a student union decides to ‘no-platform’ or uninvite a speaker from an event, this in no way constitutes an infringement on that individual’s right to speak freely or openly: it merely constrains their ability to address one particular audience at one particular time – or, in other words, their ‘right to be heard’. It is bizarre to say the least that a government which is so invested in tackling radicalisation among young people would at the same time seek to legally protect the right of anyone to be heard in any circumstance, no matter how controversial, or indeed dangerous, their views may be.
On top of that, Williamson and his department seem curiously unable to provide concrete examples of any actual free speech infringements, preferring instead to make generalised references to an epidemic of ‘cancel culture’ and ‘no-platforming’ by students obsessed with political correctness. The statistics do not bear this out: according to the Office for Students, in the year 2017-2018, 62,094 requests were made by students in English universities for guest speaker events. Only 53 of these were rejected by university authorities or student unions – a whopping 0.0853544626% in total. Clearly, the ‘threat’ to freedom of speech is little more than a government chimera, a useful means of stoking a vague moral panic about the role of universities in a society which is – so we are told – fed up with experts.
The irony of any government attempting to force free speech through the nomination of a politically appointed arbiter scarcely needs to be pointed out, but the government’s double standards and hypocrisy are thrown into even greater relief by the second offensive in the anti-wokeness war: the battle to dictate which versions of British history are acceptable, and which are not. Politicians such as Home Secretary Priti Patel and Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick have long made their disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement and the renewed focus on Britain’s colonial history clear, but Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden recently took things a step further when he announced a roundtable discussion with leading UK museums, charities and heritage bodies in he will lead a discussion about how such institutions should deal with representations of Britain’s colonial legacy. A source from Dowden’s department told the Telegraph newspaper that the Culture Secretary’s aim is to “defend our culture and history” from a “noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.
Such lazy appeals to British patriotism are a hallmark of the current government’s modus operandi: after all, the Brexit referendum was won at least in part by a heavily manufactured sense of outrage over the UK’s ‘stolen’ sovereignty, and its supposed need to ‘take back control’ over its laws and borders. Boris Johnson frequently reverts to this narrative when it suits him, boasting about the UK’s ‘world-beating’ coronavirus response and its ‘love of freedom’, and making thinly veiled references to the ‘Blitz spirit’ of the Second World War. It is hardly surprising that the government has now set its sights on anyone who is perceived to be challenging the orthodoxy of British history and ‘doing Britain down’ in the process.
The hypocrisy is striking: one the one hand, by the government’s logic, any contrarian who wishes to promote their views, no matter how unfounded or inaccurate, on UK university campuses is entitled to do so, and to sue for compensation if their right to be heard is not respected. On the other hand, any historian, museum curator, or heritage sector worker who wishes to exercise their right to free speech by critically re-examining the darker aspects of British history is to be heavily discouraged from doing so – for example, through the threat of withdrawal of funding.
The conclusion to be drawn from these contradictory proposals is that the government has no real interest in protecting true freedom of speech. Instead, its interest lies in stoking up public fears over ‘woke’ university students and historians, and continuing to perpetuate a post-Brexit narrative which is more concerned with national myths than with political realities. Rather than trying to re-unite the country after six years of acrimonious debate and division, Boris Johnson continues to borrow from the populist playbook which served him so well during the Brexit referendum: pitting different sections of society against one another and promoting a semi-nationalist, Britain-first rhetoric. In doing so, he seeks both to undermine his political opponents and to direct public attention away from his government’s shockingly poor handling of the pandemic.
It is all too easy to take the rights and freedoms enjoyed by citizens of democratic societies for granted. We forget how painstakingly many of these freedoms were won, and how fragile and easily corrupted they are. Boris Johnson’s shabby appearance, his frequent gaffes and chaotic private life make it easy to underestimate his capacity for destruction, but in his short time as Prime Minister he has already attempted to illegally prorogue Parliament; threatened to repeal the Human Rights Act; and most recently, tabled a bill which, had the relevant section been passed, would have broken international law. In other words, in spite of his outward appearances, Johnson and his cabinet have in just 18 months done more to undermine and destabilise British democracy than any government in living memory.
British liberals should take their warning from the rollback of abortion rights in Poland; the steady undermining of academic freedom in Hungary; and the appalling assaults on democracy in the final days of the Trump presidency in America. It is vital to see this Conservative war on ‘cancel culture’ in universities and museums for what it really is: a cynical attempt to manipulate the doctrine of free speech into serving a political agenda, all while diverting public attention away from the very real problems facing post-Brexit Britain. We must urgently defend the rights of universities to manage their own affairs, and the rights of museums and heritage centres to critically re-engage with and re-examine our past. Finally, we must recognise that the greatest challenge to freedom of speech comes not from student unions, but from a government which so flagrantly disrespects our democratic foundations, and which moves so eagerly to sanitise our history.
About the Author:
Lucasta Bath (UK) has been a member of the Young Liberals since 2016, and is currently the Policy and Training Intern at LYMEC, as well as the interim Editor in Chief of Libertas. Prior to this, she studied Modern and Medieval Languages at Oxford University, and Law at BPP University, where she wrote her Master’s thesis on European data privacy law. She is especially interested in European digital policy and the potential of technology to shape the future for all European citizens.
Education (No. 2) Act 1986