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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and transgender) officer, refused to speak at a university event on 15 February unless Mr Tatchell’s invitation was withdrawn.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

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear