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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.