The Brexiteers’ attempt to intimidate universities would be funny if it wasn’t so terrifying

Not so much Joseph McCarthy as the Catholic Church and Galileo. 

NS

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If you Google the name Chris Heaton-Harris, one of the first things you’ll learn is that the Tory MP for Daventry is the author of a book called, “Together Against Wind: A Step by Step Guide on Opposing a Wind Farm in Your Area”. This isn’t, strictly speaking, relevant. But it feels like something that might offer an insight into the sort of cur we are dealing with, and it saves me from starting this article with the words, “Are you actually fucking kidding me?” which is, if I’m honest, what I really wanted to do.

A brief precis, for those who might have missed it. Heaton-Harris – government whip, enthusiastic Brexiteer, crusader against the all-powerful Big Wind lobby – has been writing to the leaders of Britain’s universities. “I was wondering,” one letter begins, with all the charm and politeness of Vito Corleone on his daughter’s wedding day, 

“if you would be so kind as to supply me with the names of professors at your establishment who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit.

“Furthermore, if I could be provided with a copy of the syllabus and links to the online lectures which relate to this area I would be very much obliged.”

The letter, just to highlight the fact it’s not in any way sinister, is printed on official House of Commons note paper.

Academics are, unsurprisingly, a bit miffed that a member of Her Majesty’s Government has been using parliamentary resources to stick his nose into their teaching. Here’s how the Guardian headlined its – genuinely, pretty jaw-dropping – story:

Universities deplore ‘McCarthyism’ as MP demands list of tutors lecturing on Brexit

I’ve been thinking about this for an hour – ever since our web editor sent me the link, in a “this’ll set him off” kind of a way – and no matter how hard I squint, I can’t see a way in which this doesn’t amount to a breach of the long-held tradition of academic freedom.

One interpretation is that this is exactly what it appears to be: an attempt to use the trappings of government to remind vice-chancellors that what their staff are teaching on the key political issue of our time is of very clear interest to government. “Nice university you’ve got here,” the letter seems to say. “Be a shame if anything were to happen to it.”

But let’s imagine for a moment that this wasn’t the intention. Let’s assume that Heaton-Harris genuinely wanted to know this stuff. He didn’t just Google it because, well, maybe he’s not very tech savvy. But he didn’t mean the letter to be intimidating: he’s simply in the habit of using official looking paper, and didn’t think how it may be perceived by the recipient.

Why would he want this information? Perhaps he’s doing some research, in an official capacity, in order to feed into policy. Or perhaps he’s freelancing, collecting information with one eye on a column he might write, or a story he might offer to friendly journalists.

So what might that story be? Given his pro-Brexit sympathies, and given that over 80 per cent of academics voted Remain, it seems likely it’d be something along the lines of, “Left-wing academics defy the will of the people, by offering anti-Brexit teaching”.

At which point, oh look, it turns out his purpose was still to influence universities’ teaching, in breach of the tradition of academic freedom, by scaring the living shit out of the lot of them.

The Guardian compared all this to McCarthyism, but I’m not convinced: the US in the 1950s contained remarkably few actual communists, while the pro-Remain views of those academics are, presumably, sincerely held. No, it’s much more akin to the Catholic Church’s condemnation of Galileo for having the audacity to say the Earth moves round the sun. So weak have the Leavers’ arguments become, so fanatical their faith, that they’re reduced to raging against reality itself. It’d be funny, if it wasn’t so terrifying.

Less than a week ago, higher education minister Jo Johnson was threatening to fine or even deregister any university that failed to support free speech. If the government were to be in any way consistent in its thinking, Heaton-Harris would get slapped down for this ludicrous stunt.

But he won’t be, will he? Because it’s not free speech that really concerns the government, but the freedom to promulgate conservative ideas. Because Brexit is the will of the people, unquestionable, inviolable, and that, surely, is more important than any abstract notion of academic freedom. Because Theresa May is so weak, she finds it all but impossible to discipline any Brexiteer for any reason.

Universities, though independent, are still tied to government in all sorts of ways. So while several vice-chancellors have spoken out against the danger posed by Heaton-Harris’s letter, they have remained polite and reasonable throughout.

I, however, am under no such restraint, so I am able to reply in rather more earthy terms:

What universities teach is none of your fucking business, Chris. Now go hug a windfarm. 

Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of the New Statesman, in charge of day to day running of the website and its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.