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Leader: We must defend free debate in our universities

To no-platformers, a campus should be a “safe space”, where people are not exposed to views that they may find upsetting.

To outsiders, it seems at first glance incomprehensible that the veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell now finds himself an apparent enemy of student activists. Yet that is the current situation, after Fran Cowling, the National Union of Students’ LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) officer, refused to speak at a university event on 15 February unless Mr Tatchell’s invitation was withdrawn.

Mr Tatchell is more used to protesting than being the subject of protests. As the Labour candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election against Simon Hughes, he was subject to a despicable campaign based on homophobia. He has twice attempted a citizen’s arrest of Robert Mugabe and received reprisal beatings from the Zimbabwean dictator’s henchmen. He was assaulted by Russian neo-Nazis for his support of the Moscow Pride festival. Confronted by Ms Cowling’s condemnation, Mr Tatchell would be forgiven for recalling Lear’s anguish at his thankless child.

What is the case against him? Ms Cowling objected to Mr Tatchell because he was a co-signatory last year of a letter opposing the increasing use of “no-platforming”, in which student societies are ordered to deny speaking invitations to certain individuals. One of those affected is the radical feminist Julie Bindel, who believes that gender is a social construct, not an innate essence, a stance that has brought her into conflict with transgender activists. Ms Cowling claimed that by supporting the right of Ms Bindel and others to speak at universities, the letter supported the incitement of violence against trans people. She also claimed that Mr Tatchell is racist. (Needless to say, he denies both claims.)

The latest phase of “no-platforming” has spread far beyond its original targets: overt racists such as members of the British National Party, who often arrived on campus with a retinue of thugs. Instead, it is older feminists and gay rights campaigners whose views are deemed unacceptable to their successors in these progressive movements. Last year, more than 3,000 people petitioned Cardiff University to rescind an invitation to Germaine Greer, citing her “trans-exclusionary views” and asserting that to host her lecture would be “dangerous”. A year ago, Goldsmiths in London cancelled a comedy performance by Kate Smurthwaite (her theme, as it happens, was freedom of speech), because her opposition to the decriminalisation of sex work upset many students.

For students to kick against their elders is understandable and, in opposing the liberal free-speech consensus, they are certainly generating attention. But young radicals should be aware that “no platform” originally died out not because of heavy opposition to it but because it did not work. Sunlight killed the BNP: Nick Griffin’s odious appearance on Question Time in 2009 caused his support to  evaporate. In fact, the party received less than 2,000 votes nationwide in last year's general election.

Some will be tempted to dismiss this incident as mere student politicking; of feverish interest to those involved but of no greater significance. That is incorrect. What is at stake here is not free speech – Mr Tatchell was heard on 15 February – but free debate, the process by which good ideas trump bad ones. Nowhere is this more vital than in our universities. To no-platformers, a campus should be a “safe space”, where people are not exposed to views that they may find upsetting. This relies on a bizarre elision of physical safety with intellectual isolationism. The free interchange of ideas must win out, or else many more good people such as Peter Tatchell will find themselves traduced.

A grandstanding tour of Europe

David Cameron’s renegotiation reaches its inevitably farcical conclusion this week. We have many questions about the European project – such as how to tackle the wastefulness of the European Commission and the remoteness of the European Parliament – but
Mr Cameron’s deal will provide few answers, because it never attempted to confront these concerns. The Prime Minister’s odyssey around Europe has been an act of party management rather than a serious effort to tackle the European Union’s woes. Even the great prize he has long trumpeted –  the ability to limit benefits to newly arrived migrants  – is no prize at all. Immigrants come to Britain not to claim but to work. If Mr Cameron is concerned about the effect of mass migration on wages, he should do more to regulate business at home, not grandstand abroad. 

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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