Owen Holland's case shows the crackdown on dissent

For daring to read a poem to David Willetts, the student has had his prospects ruined.

For daring to read a poem to David Willetts, the student has had his prospects ruined.

No combination in the world is more lethal than that of byzantine feudalism and gung-ho corporate technocracy. Cambridge PhD student Owen Holland ran afoul of it last December when he participated in a 'people's mic' where dozens of students and a handful of dons told the visiting minister for Universities and Science what they thought of his destructive policies.The group collectively recited at David Willetts: "You have professed your commitment/to the religion of choice/but you leave us with no choice . . . your gods have failed."

In the face of this poetic outburst, Willetts skipped class and flounced back to Westminster, his ego and, apparently, his right to free speech sadly injured.

While scores took part in the protest and were photographed doing so in a surveillance-heavy environment (another worrying development in this university), only Holland was charged with 'recklessly or intentionally' impeding free speech. He was brought before a University Court, the workings of which remain opaque to most dons and students.

His now internationally notorious sentence for reading aloud to the minister before he took the podium? "Rustication" for two and a half years. Back in the good old days, young Cambridge men were 'sent down' in disgrace to the family country pile to spend their suspension presumably shooting grouse and molesting the milkmaids. In Holland's case the intention is clearly to end his academic career.

The vindictiveness of this judgement in an institution of advanced learning is matched only by the familiar divide-and-rule crudity of singling out an individual for exemplary punishment in a collective peaceful protest. More than 70 students and dons turned themselves in and asked to be charged alongside Holland.

The sentence is absurd. But what should really concern us all is what this incident says about British democracy. It tells us that 'free speech' has become an inalienable right only for the powerful, for those who already have access to every newspaper and television outlet in the country. That citizens with fewer means should not find ways to express audible disagreement with the heavy-handed imposition of the profit principle across society at their own expense. That we are to worry about the abrogation of the rights of citizens only in countries we don't like.

What is shocking about the Cambridge decision is not that this sort of disproportionate use of judicial force is exceptional but that it is increasingly the norm. Ever since young people began to challenge this coalition's brazen marketisation and privatisation of everything from welfare and education to health and policing, the courts have sent out a single message: resist the relentless subordination of all aspects of human life and our society to the profit principle at your peril.

Apparently all clear and meaningful dissent is fundamentally unpatriotic: when not meek, young people are 'violent' and when they are actually peaceful -- it's difficult to imagine more calm forms of dissent than reading out a poem in a lecture hall -- then they are culpable of a 'reckless' violation of the rights of the powerful to impose their views and will on us all.

Our shock at Holland's treatment -- and that of many other principled protesters like Alfie Meadows, who comes up for trial next week -- should not obscure the issues they've been fighting to highlight: the deliberate transmutation of universities from spaces of debate which push the boundaries of knowledge into business-driven idea-free degree mills. As we metamorphose from citizens of a democracy into consumers in one large desolate supermarket, all of us are being disciplined. Resistance is not futile: it's the only option.

Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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