Smurthwaite, whose comedy gig at Goldsmiths University was cancelled yesterday.
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Why did Goldsmiths comedy society cancel Kate Smurthwaite's gig?

Safe spaces and security concerns. 

On Sunday evening, a London university's comedy society cancelled a gig. The organiser had received some complaints about the chosen comedian, and there were rumours that a feminist society might picket outside the event. So the organiser posted a cancellation notice on the group's Facebook event. Only around 35 people had clicked "attending".

Is this newsworthy? On its own, no, not really. But the Goldsmiths comedy society's decision to cancel the show of feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite fits neatly into an ongoing debate about universities and who they allow to speak there, and for that reason, Twitter went mad:

So what actually happened?

The event was to be the last stop of Smurthwaite's tour, "Leftie Cock Womble", which focused on the subject of free speech (the irony of which hasn't escaped the cancellation's critics). On Sunday afternoon, Smurthwaite mentioned the possiblity that students may picket the event to the head of the comedy society. That night, the gig was cancelled.

In her message to the event's attendees, the head of the comedy society cited complaints from students about Smurthwaite's "position on sex work, religion and Trans issues," and the "possibility of a picket line".  In a separate statement released today through the Student Union, she says:

Despite many complaints from students about the content of Kate’s act in the past we were planning to go ahead with the gig until Kate told me 24 hours before that there was likely to be a picket with lots of students and non students outside the venue. I couldn’t verify this. Up to this point we had only sold 8 tickets so I decided to pull the plug.

There is some confusion here. According to Smurthwaite, the organiser said the Student Union's security raised concerns about their ability to deal with protesters, but this hasn't made it into any of the comedy club's statements about the cancellation (we have approached the organiser and SU President for comment on this). Equally, while only eight tickets were told, the event was offered free to members of the Comedy and Feminist societies, so it's reasonable to assume that more than eight would have shown up.

That aside, Smurthwaite's politics and the content of her comedy seems to have been the main bone of contention. Smurthwaite is vocal about her support for the Nordic model of sex work, in which paying for sex is criminalised. When I spoke to her today, she said this was probably the "main disagreement" she had with Goldsmiths students (this particular show didn't actually contain any mention of prostitution). However, the organiser also cited her views on "religion and Trans issues", which Smurthwaite is far less happy about:

I have never performed at, hosted or organised an event that excluded trans people.  I've been working on a sitcom about trans people with a friend who is trans. I'm very involved in trans rights... I think countries that force women to wear the burqua are an absolute outrage, and I will fight back against them all day, but I don't have a political view on women who choose to wear a scarf - I don't think that's any of my business. 

In the organiser's cancellation notice, she notes that given Smurthwaite's views, and the potential picket line, "there is a likeliness that the Safe Space policy we abide by could be breached". Here, she's referring to a Student Union policy stating that societies' events must be a "safe space" for all students. This means that all students must be able to attend, but it also, the policy continues, means societies must create "an accepting and safe environment in which people can experiment with what they do and who they are".

In fact, the Smurthwaite gig was organised jointly by the feminist and comedy societies, and the feminist society held a meeting to decide whether they should cancel the event long before the final cancellation. The head of the society says that they voted against cancelling the gig, but decided to film the event to make sure it didn't violate the Union's safe space policy (the society has since tweeted that it had "nothing to do with" Sunday's cancellation).

In line with National Union of Students policy, most UK student unions now have "safe space" policies, and this is perhaps what marks universities out in the long-running debate about free speech and how far it stretches. Alongside the NUS's "no-platform" policy (in which it can assert that no student union or officer may give a platform to a specific person), it implies that on campus, students and student societies do more than host guests: they endorse them.

A recent spate of apparent "no-platformings" in individual universities has swung the spotlight towards these policies. In late October, Cardiff students successfully petitioned against a performance by comedian Daniel O'Reilly (better known as Dapper Laughs); shortly after, his ITV show was cancelled. In November, a debate on abortion at Oxford University co-hosted by Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley and organised by a pro-life group was cancelled due to a planned protest by feminist groups - later that week, the Spectator ran a long essay by Brendan O’Neill on the “The Stepford students- the new enemies of free speech”. 

The cases of Smurthwaite, O'Reilly, and the abortion debate  were all beset by similar misconceptions: most commonly, that the universities themselves cancelled  the speakers. In fact the stories are of a society cancelling its own event, a Student Union cancelling a show following a petition, and an Oxford College changing its mind about providing a venue. Each is a case of a small group deciding to cancel an event - not of a university banning an event, or even a no-platforming. 

So students aren't, in any organised or concerted way, enemies of free speech: but there is enormous pressure on event organisers to avoid offence, or even violence, in student-run venues usually governed by NUS guidelines. Smurthwaite argues that she would have loved it if her critics showed up to the show: "Then we could have talked about it, and had a lively discussion". Yet that ideal also relies on enough security to prevent matters getting out of hand, and event organisers happy to deal with controversy and criticism in the pressure cooker that is student politics. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Photo: Getty
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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

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.

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