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19 October 2017

The problem with Tory plans to force universities to uphold free speech

Even if there were a real problem with “Generation Snowflake”, this so-called solution won't work.

By Stephen Bush

The Conservatives lost their majority in June for a number of reasons. The pressure on wages caused by the fall in the pound; the condition of the public realm in general and looming school cuts in particular; the loss of Remain voters in marginal seats being inadequately replaced by Leave voters in safe ones; the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn; and because a large number of socially liberal voters under the age of 55 who backed David Cameron didn’t feel comfortable with Theresa May.

As the government has no majority and no money, it’s difficult to see how it can add more votes to its tally by easing the pressure on wages or investing in the public realm. It’s harder still for it to retreat from Brexit without disintegrating still further. One of the many wonderful things about social liberalism is that it’s free. It’s about what you don’t do, say, restrict or censure. The easiest way for the Conservatives to do better next time is not to upset the sensibilities of liberal voters and the young (in demographic terms, that’s everyone under 40).

That’s the context that matters as far as assessing the government’s new wheeze for universities, wheeled out in an interview with the Times by higher education minister Jo Johnson. The problem, real or perceived: the increasing illiberalism of students on campus. The solution: for universities that fail to enforce free speech to be fined, suspended or ultimately deregistered by the new Office for Students.

There is a major flaw in the policy that is worth noting right off the bat: the people being punished aren’t the same ones “oppressing free speech”. I am yet to meet a campus radical who is particularly worried about the logistical or financial consequences of their actions on the university. Instead, the proposed “solution” puts pressure on university administrators and vice-chancellors.

When they clash with the government over free speech, it’s because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the anti-terrorism Prevent strategy limits their speech and academic freedoms.

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So the big policy flaw is that even if there is a real problem with “Generation Snowflake” shutting down free speech at university, Johnson’s solution won’t work. (The actual evidence, to the extent it matters in debates such as these, is that the young are actually more supportive of free speech and other liberty issues than the old in the main.)

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Now here’s the political problem: the blunt truth is that student politics exercises only two groups: a small minority of earnest students who will move on to other things once they graduate, and a freakish slice of the over-50s, for whom there is no cure. A government that wants to convince voters it has its eye on the ball wouldn’t wade in on either side and it certainly wouldn’t do so with a policy lever as misconceived as this one.

But in siding with the eccentric old against the idealistic young, it adds to the general smell of distaste towards the under-40s that the Conservative Party has begun to emit following its election reverse. Rather like Philip Hammond’s witless speech about how bad the 1970s were, it’s not a problem because the young have a particular regard for nationalisation or prog rock – in fact they are less supportive of either than their older peers.

But this conveys the same impression: that the modern Conservative Party thinks the young, many of whom voted for them as recently as two years ago, are historically ill-informed, easily tricked and triggered by the whistling of a kettle – and to make matters worse, it would cross the street to tell them so.

One of the things that Cameron understood is that you can’t win people’s votes if you appear to hate them. It’s to Labour’s great benefit that this is a lesson much of his party has forgotten.