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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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