Shouting down David Willetts

Last night a lecture at Cambridge by the minister for higher education was cancelled following a stu

The minister had scarcely stood up before the shouting began. "Dear David Willetts" announced a student protester, at the top of his voice, as he began to declaim a lengthy prepared statement. His every sentence was repeated by a chorus of fellow enragés seated strategically throughout the hall. There were three of them sat behind me, all shouting at the top of their voices. It was a decidedly uncomfortable experience.

Initial amusement at the unexpected interruption turned to annoyance and then exasperation as the protesters (who called themselves Cambridge Defend Education) droned on and on. Their "epistle" was low on facts and heavy on pretentious verbiage and painfully mixed metaphors. Its theme was the opposition between genuine knowledge and the marketplace -- "you cannot quantify knowledge" -- something that would have made a good subject for debate after Willetts had finished speaking. But there was to be no debate. Instead, rant (for the time being) over the protesters started up a shout of "Willetts Out!" and occupied the stage.

A few minutes later, the chairman Professor Simon Goldhill -- who appeared completely wrong-footed by the turn of events -- announced that the lecture was cancelled and that David Willetts had left the building.

Introducing the lecture, part of a series on the theme of "the idea of a university" organised by Cambridge University's Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, Professor Goldhill had stressed that it was to be a robust exchange of views. "Things will be said on both sides that will be difficult to hear," he predicted. After a fairly short address by Willetts there would have been a longer question-and-answer session at which the minister's thoughts would surely have been subjected to intense scrutiny by students and academics in the audience.

It's unlikely that minds would have been changed in the process. Government policy is not made in public meetings. But the event nevertheless represented a valuable opportunity to examine the consequences of the planned changes to university funding and student finance. As a recent Guardian profile by Decca Aitkenhead suggested, Willetts is a politician with a genuine (and sadly rare) passion for intellectual debate. In an era when most political events are phoney, stage-managed affairs with hand-picked audiences and pre-arranged questions, here was a minister willing to take part in a live, unpredictable and well-informed public meeting. Even if you disagree with his policies, this is surely something to be welcomed.

Instead we were subjected to a tedious monologue by a bunch of self-satisfied protesters unwilling to listen to any point of view other than their own. A supporter of the protest, Lawrence Dunn, said afterwards that beause the government had ignored previous protests "it was therefore time to ignore what Willetts had to say". He is of course at liberty to ignore Willetts. But the people who were ignored last night were the majority of the audience who had come to listen to -- and challenge -- the minister. Their views and wishes were swept aside by the actions of an immature and intolerant minority. No doubt they genuinely care about education. But they appear to have no understanding of or interest in the process of democratic debate.

I contacted Professor Goldhill afterwards for a comment. He told me that while protests had been expected, no one anticipated that the lecture would have to be abandoned, something that "did not happen even in 1968". He regarded the events of last night as "an extraordinary opportunity missed" -- an opportunity for many of Willetts' "most articulate critics" to challenge him directly. He also described the form that the protest took as "an absolute abuse of the freedom of the university".

The university is nothing if not a place for the free and frank exchange of critical ideas. This was an attempt to stop the exchange of ideas, and was done against the overwhelming wish of the majority of people in the hall. It was made in the name of the values of the university, but distorted and destroyed those values. It was politically not just misguided by giving all the strong lines to Willetts, but the sort of totalitarian behaviour that we all should hate. In the name of giving voice to their so-called non hierarchical and open views they refused to let anyone who disagreed with them speak. You cannot shag for chastity.

Of course Goldhill is right, as is Cambridge Students' Union president Gerard Tully who released a statement accusing the protesters of violating "one of the founding principles of University education", that of freedom of expression. It was not Mr Willetts' freedom of expression which was pointlessly disrupted last night: he is, after all, not short of platforms on which to speak. Rather it was the freedom of everyone in the audience who had their own questions to ask him or who were interested in what he had to say.

It was a sad day for Cambridge and for the principle of peaceful protest, which in a democratic society we all rightly value.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.