Euan McColm: Keep your noses out of universities

Chris Heaton-Harris, whose request was snubbed by universities
Chris Heaton-Harris, whose request was snubbed by universities
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Brexit really is bringing the worst out in some already dreadful people.

Don’t you grow weary of the relentless stream of dissemblers and downright liars whose claims about deals and opportunities crumble at the slightest touch? Doesn’t your heart sink as it becomes increasingly clear that the UK’s decision to vote Leave in last year’s EU referendum was a recipe for chaos and uncertainty?

From a Remainers’ perspective, Brexit is shaping up to be an even bigger catastrophe than we might have expected.

Leavers – unable, even more than a year after their victory, to describe in any vaguely convincing way how Brexit will work and how precisely it will benefit the UK – have become so desperate that they now blame those who oppose their position for the mess in which the country finds itself.

If only Remainers could be more optimistic then, apparently, the process of Brexit would be a breeze. I’m not at all sure how this one breaks down. Are we to believe that news Nick Clegg, say, had changed his mind would soften the EU’s current position, which is currently in the vicinity of “F*** you”?

And when Brexiteers aren’t blaming Remainers for the shambles that is the UK’s negotiation with the EU, they point the finger at others. Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons despite being an absolute clot, recently demanded that the BBC be more “patriotic” when it was covering Brexit negotiations. The idea that the BBC should become a state cheerleader is preposterous. That Leadsom either doesn’t see that – or doesn’t care – is chilling.

But Leadsom is yesterday’s scary Brexiteer zealot; there’s a new one in town and he’s a real piece of work.

Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris – a government whip – has taken the step of writing to every university in the UK, demanding lists of professors who are teaching students about Brexit. In his letter to vice chancellors, Heaton-Harris demanded copies of syllabuses and lectures.

Reassuringly, the reaction from academics has been to condemn the MP for attempting a McCarthyite witch-hunt to wheedle out those who don’t share his enthusiasm for Brexit.

Universities are under fierce attack in this new post-expert era. If government whips aren’t menacing professors, right-wing newspapers are attacking them for the perfectly reasonable use of trigger warnings. (Why would anyone have a problem with the practice of forewarning people who may have suffered deep trauma that they will be required to discuss issues that they might find upsetting? That’s not “generation snowflake” nuttiness; it’s kindness.)

Meanwhile, former politician Alex Salmond has let it be known that he considers St Andrews University to be an elitist establishment that fails Scotland by not educating young people from “across the social spectrum”.

How a man’s ardour can cool. In his final days as first minister in 2014, Salmond hoped St Andrews would accept, for display in its grounds, a stone on which is inscribed his pledge that “rocks will melt with the sun” before he’d allow the imposition of tuition fees on Scottish students. (It remains a stain on Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University that it agreed to take Salmond’s stone, thus lending academic credibility to a political policy which continues to fail to achieve its purpose of ensuring wider access to higher education.)

Here’s an idea: why don’t politicians keep their noses out of our universities?

Politicians’ involvement should begin and end with ensuring that these great institutions are properly funded. Beyond that, they have no locus.

Academics are not, as some MPs might like us to think, enemies of the people. Rather, they work to further human understanding and to nurture the talents of others. These are, surely, indisputably good things, aren’t they?

When Leadsom attacks the BBC or Heaton-Harris goes after dangerous thinkers, they expose themselves as drab little people with drab little minds. They create straw man arguments to deflect from the glaring thwock-you-in-the-face truth that, having achieved victory in last year’s referendum, Brexiteers now haven’t the faintest idea what they are doing.

Neither the reporting of the BBC nor the discussions taking place in lecture theatres across the country is to blame for the failure of the UK to move towards a deal with the EU; responsibility for Brexit and every single thing that makes it messy and difficult lies with the likes of Leadsom and Heaton-Harris.

The Prime Minister was quick to distance herself from Heaton-Harris’s actions; he was acting as an MP rather than as a member of the government, said Theresa May’s spokesman.

Heaton-Harris later insisted he believed in free speech in universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit. The stench of “well he would say that” is almost overwhelming. What on earth, if he did no wish to exert pressure on universities, did Heaton-Harris think he was playing at?

Brexiteers may be frustrated that they can’t find from within the academic community much support for their insane charabanc trip to the 1950s but if they were at all intellectually curious – rather than the monomaniacal zealots they are – they might engage with critical thinkers. They’d see examination and analysis of facts as positive things rather than acts of treachery.

The Leave campaign, with its distortions about NHS funding, its demonisation of refugees, and its blithe assertions about trade deals that look increasingly unlikely to be struck, has fully earned the contempt of those academics who refuse to let it off the hook.

If Brexiteer MPs wish to identify those who are now causing the move towards EU departure to be so terribly chaotic, then they must look at themselves.

Chris Heaton-Harris is a sinister little man and we should all make the effort required not to forget his behaviour.

Universities play a central role in human progress; we mustn’t tolerate attempts by MPs to influence or intimidate academic staff.

When politicians go after intellectuals, let’s make sure we’re always on the right side.