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‘Freedom’ is too important to be left to the Tories

Far from being a champion of liberty and free thought, the Conservative government is tightening control over public expressions of dissent, writes KEN JONES

AMID the demands of Brexit and Covid-19, the government has found time to develop new laws and regulations on statues in galleries and teaching materials in schools, on demonstrations and boycotts, on the intellectual life of universities. 

Conservatives present these issues as fronts in a “culture war” against the enemies of freedom and haters of British culture. 

In reality, they are not so much to do with freedom as with power. The government aims to create a new political order, more centralised, even less pluralistic. 

Refusing to be distracted by the noise about free speech and ancient liberties, we should take a hard look at the system they want to bring into being. 

The Tories’ opponents in the culture war are many. Teachers, museum workers, academics, local councils; those who think black lives matter, those who support Extinction Rebellion or hold a vigil on Clapham Common. 

Conservatives are not only seeking to attack their ideas but to regulate and legislate so as to deprive them of a voice, influence and the capacity to make decisions about matters central to their work and life. 

The world is in turmoil; social movements have inspired fundamental arguments about our society’s roots in slavery, about the justice of the way it is organised and the compatibility of its carbon-based economy with human survival. 

Conservatives direct public institutions not to engage with these questions. If they do so they risk closure, redundancy, McCarthyite denunciation, prosecution. 

Last autumn, museums and galleries were told that if they wanted to keep their funding, they should not think about decolonising their collections. 

Teachers were warned that they should not “under any circumstances use” teaching materials produced by organisations that have “a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism or to end free and fair elections.” 

Schools were told by the Minister for Equalities that “partisan” teaching about racism was illegal. 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson wrote to universities to tell them that they should adopt the much-contested IHRA definition of anti-semitism or face financial penalty. 

This year the war has got hotter. Hottest of all around the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which enables the police and the Home Secretary to decide where, when and how citizens are allowed to protest. 

But there are other hotspots as well. In the House of Commons, Conservative MPs have named individual academics whom they think should be dismissed for their scepticism about the accusations of anti-semitism in Labour. (In the words of Jonathan Gullis MP, “We need to start sacking people … They need to go.”)  

The Bill to promote “freedom of speech” in universities will establish a new apparatus of controls — including, it seems, the power to charge students the costs of policing protest — that is intended to chill political argument and activity. 

Local councils are targeted, too, especially those that do not want to invest their funds in repressive states; there will be legislation to “stop public bodies from imposing their own approach or views about international relations, through preventing boycott, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries.” 

No end is in sight to measures like these. The reservoir of fear and grievance from which they draw is deep. 

It supplies something central to the identity of Conservatism, the belief that the party stands for principles of freedom against the encroachments of the state and the threats of the “mob,” and that it possesses the wisdom to know when reservations about state action must be set aside in the face of the greater dangers presented by what Edmund Burke memorably called the “swinish multitude.” 

These are the principles evoked by Boris Johnson when he claims that his new law will “protect and bolster” universities, “the historic centres of free thinking and ideas.” 

There are other ways of looking at modern Conservatism. It is not a party that is in anything but a rhetorical sense against the state. 

On the contrary, it is constantly seeking to develop the state in new ways, eliminating any friction between the programme of Conservatism and the work of public institutions. 

At the same time, it works to create a climate in which the concerns of the “mob” are delegitimised and the armoury of repressive measures can be restocked. 

The sociologist Max Weber wrote of the state as an entity that claimed a monopoly over the legitimate use of force. 

The Conservative state is moving towards additional goals: a monopoly over the practical development of public policy at every point and at every level where it does not converge with its programme; a tight control over public expressions of dissent.

Freedom is too important a word to leave to Conservatives. The Tories’ opponents would be stronger if they could fill it with a different meaning. 

When Jeremy Corbyn joined last year the Commons debate on Black History Month, he spoke of the need for students to have the “space and opportunity” to learn “the popular history of this country.” Corbyn’s metaphor is a strong and useable one. 

Conservatism’s project is precisely to close down spaces of experiment, reflection and challenge, to locate the power to produce and authorise knowledge in just a few places. 

The fight to open up their political and intellectual enclosures, in the name of a freedom which helps develop, not repress, our society’s capacity to change, is a vital one. 

Ken Jones is emeritus professor of education at Goldsmiths.

The Threat to Free Speech and How to Defend It is on Thursday May 20 at 7pm, with speakers Salma Yaqoob, Lowkey, Helen Steel, Naomi Wimborne Idrissi and John Rees and chaired by Bernard Regan. Register at bit.ly/defend_free_speech.

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