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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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage