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Conservatives should champion free speech at universities – not threaten it

Free speech must be prized – even when the people you disagree with are the ones who speak up. This is something that Universities Minister Jo Johnson understands. But the same cannot be said of Conservative Party whip and MP for Daventry Chris Heaton-Harris, who sent written requests this month to university Vice-Chancellors asking for the names of academics whose teaching involves Brexit, and for access to their course material. At a time of growing concern about the state of free speech within universities, Heaton-Harris has begun what looks like a McCarthy-style campaign against academic freedom by rooting out those who disagree with his pro-Brexit stance.

Beyond being a fellow at Cambridge University, I am a freedom fanatic. We academics are not vehicles of the state, and we never will be. Ask yourself: When was the last time that political interference in the academic world, however well-intentioned, actually turned out well?

Conservatives need something to tempt voters and a war on expression isn’t it. They need an ideology, one that appeals to hearts and minds and that offers something other than watered-down Corbyn policies. Freedom should be it; it’s the ground on which Conservatives can truly tower over socialists. Heaton-Harris should be looking to the freedom loving J.S. Mill or Milton Friedman, and not twenty-first century Turkey, twentieth century Soviet Russia, or medieval England. The Conservative Party are already at risk of looking like a bunch of nationalist illiberals, and Heaton-Harris’s action makes it worse. Unless this stops, the Party are doomed – no matter how many lists of academic names they gather, and no matter what they make of Brexit.

Since the start of the Enlightenment, freedom and free speech have been entwined. Free speech has been vital to challenging accepted norms and accepted authority, whether political, religious or societal. But a vital aspect of free speech is the corresponding need to be tolerant. Not only is it better to let people have their say because it enables us to challenge views and avoids creating martyrs out of the suppressed, but because progress demands that we push beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones. Being tolerant and open-minded is the only way we are able to break free of constraints like our own experiences and perspectives on life.

If Chris Heaton-Harris MP wants to know my view on Brexit – one that I’m happy to voice to my students – I’d be very happy to tell him. He doesn’t need to ask my Vice-Chancellor and it won’t take reams of lecture notes for him to decipher. It is short and simple: Brexit leaves Britain naked.

Brexit has fuelled illiberal forces that still, unfortunately, lurk within this country. Not even a Brexiteer should deny that. Rather than adding their own fuel to the bonfire of liberal values, Brexiteers should be doing what they can to put that fire out. British society has got nasty. In places, it always was, but now it is winning and it is spreading. Unless the Conservative Party want to prove me right, they need to rescue individual freedom – not abandon it.