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.

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and transgender) officer, refused to speak at a university event on 15 February unless Mr Tatchell’s invitation was withdrawn.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