Right wingers like Toby Young are no friends of free speech and the left must fight back, argues Chris Nineham
'The university has become a campaign-free zone', one student at Birmingham university told a few weeks ago, 'the authorities wouldn't even let people campaign on the campus during the general election.'
This is a common experience. Up and down the country, students are reporting speakers banned, campaigners muzzled and meetings not allowed because they may be controversial.
It goes beyond the universities. Tower Hamlets council recently refused permission for a Holocaust memorial meeting in one of its buildings because one of the invited Jewish speakers had views which were apparently disapproved of by the Jewish Board of Deputies.
When Toby Young complains about free speech being under threat from campus-based political correctness he is wrong. The climate in which such things can happen has been generated in large part by the government-run Prevent Strategy apparently aimed at combating terror. Associated with Prevent is the duty which requires selected public institutions to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.”
Prevent is widely used against Muslim organisations, publications and events but it reaches much further. In particular, it tends to be used against anti-war and pro-Palestine events. NUS black student officer Ilyas Nagdee reported last year, 'We've seen the Prevent duty be used to cancel academic conferences, ban speakers and impose harsh measures on talks organised by student activists.' Figures published by the Office for Students showed that, of more than 300 higher education institutions in England, nearly 60,000 events and speakers were considered under the Prevent duty in 2018 alone.
It is not just meetings that are affected. There are reports from universities across the country that academics are warning students to inform the institution of any use they may make of some texts, including socialist books, and that Prevent staff have actually told a number of academics that they cannot use certain books to teach about Islam.
The result of course is a climate of fear in many universities. In the words of Alison Scott-Baumann, a professor of society and belief at Soas, University of London,
“We are entering a situation where thought becomes dangerous. Students are the future of democracy and if we do not encourage them to openly debate these difficult issues – how are they going to manage the world when they have finished at university?’’
Prevent dovetails with a general ideological offensive against radical ideas and left wing organisations. The claims of antisemitism that have been levelled against inidviduals and organisations critical of Israeli policies have created increased anxiety in a range of public institutions, at times making meetings and even open and serious discussion of the issues difficult to sustain. Meanwhile, the implication that left wing or campaigning organisations are somehow linked to or sympathetic with terrorist groups is widely touted in the media and by the right.
This is a situation that elements in the state are trying to exploit to demonise campaigning organisations that they don't like. In July 2019, an academic report from Bristol and Goldsmith University, called Violent Extremist Ideology and the ideology of the sectarian far left funded by a grant from the UK Commission for Countering Extremism made a series of claims against socialist linking them with violent extremism.
At around the same time, the Metropolitan police listed environmental, anti-war, pro-Palestine, anti-racist and many other organisations in a handbook on the terrorist threat under the Prevent umbrella. The guide had the logo “Counter Terrorism Policing” on every page. Complaints were made the police apologised and claimed that there was no intention to imply any connection with between these groups and terror groups. But this handbook was part of a pattern. A few weeks previously another handbook suggesting links between XR and terrorism also turned up, this time circulated by South East police. Unconvincingly a spokesperson said this was 'an error of judgement' and that it was 'produced at a local level'.
It is essential the left, the trade unions and the movements stand up alongside Muslim organisations against these attempts to stifle debate, scapegoat Muslims and demonise critical voices and organisations. That is why many of the organisations that were named in the Metropolitan Police handbook have come together to organise a rally with others against Prevent and the criminalisation of protest. Our immediate demand is that the handbook is officially withdrawn and publicly repudiated.
This kind of campaigning also requires the left to be consistent in our demand for freedom of expression. There is a culture of no-platforming in sections of the movement. It is absolutely right for us to no platform Nazis and fascists whose aim is to destroy freedom of speech altogether and close down all forms of democracy once and for all. But beyond that, the left should champion free speech in our own movements. Trying to no-platform feminists or others just because you disagree with or even disapprove of them is damaging. It not only opens the movement up to claims of intolerance, it closes down vital discussions.
This is damaging at a time when we need to be working together to fight against real threats to freedom of expression from the right and the establishment.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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