‘No platforming’ and other attacks on free speech in the UK echo the global rise of authoritarianism, writes Scott Macnab.
When the former Chancellor Ken Clarke appeared at Holyrood’s festival of politics last year he bemoaned the failure of his generation. The centre-right “moderate” style of politics which the current father of the House of Commons espoused was being increasingly marginalised by a more extremist approach.
The UK’s Brexit vote, emerging hardline regimes across Europe and, of course, Donald Trump in the US were phenomena he struggled to comprehend. And this kind of approach, he feared, seemed to have filtered through to all levels of our political discourse.
Just last week students at Edinburgh University spoke out about the “climate of censorship” they faced on campus. The rise of “no platforming” and “safe space” initiatives, widely seen as banning those with views deemed unpalatable, even led two students to found a free speech website, the Broad, which has been enjoying huge success in the months since it emerged.
Co-founder Joe Kleeman, 19, voiced dismay over the sense that students had nowhere to “express their opinions” at Scotland’s top-rated global institution. Along with fellow founder Oliver Kraftman, they take the view that ideas are “strengthened” if they can withstand challenge and scrutiny. While once this was mainstream thinking, it now seems like a subversive idea.
Classic libertarian thinkers like John Stuart Mill have reasoned against restrictions on individual human behaviour and expression to save people from themselves – so-called “paternalistic” interventions. Instead only when such behaviour – like speeches and talks at universities – may directly incite violence or cause harm to others should they be stopped.
In one of the more high-profile “no platforming” cases of recent years, the one-time feminist icon Germaine Greer found herself frozen out by students at Cardiff University over sceptical comments about the legitimacy of transgender women. An unpalatable view for transgender campaigners and many others, of course. But isn’t the most effective counter to such opinons to argue the case and win the battle of ideas? The right to free speech, it seems, is increasingly being trumped by another’s right not to be offended by such speech. It even includes the right to define what offence means. The situation became borderline farcical when the veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell found himself “no platformed” when he spoke out against Greer’s ban. The man who faced down Putin’s boot boys as he campaigned for gay rights in Russia was suddenly deemed to be lending legitimacy to a “transphobic” standpoint. It prompted Jo Johnson, the minister responsible for universities south of the Border, to step in and warn that institutions could be fined or even suspended if they failed to protect freedom of speech on campuses.
Some may suggest tolerance and open debate have never been a feature of student politics. But this is the breeding ground for our political, civic and judicial leaders of tomorrow. A greater fear may be that this is symptomatic of the wider extremism and intolerance affecting our politics in Scotland. The independence referendum campaign in the years building up to the 2014 vote is fondly depicted by many as a great democratic re-awakening in Scotland which engaged a new generation with politics. In many ways it was. The turnout for referendum was a record high and public meetings up and down the country were packed out as people rallied to the cause. But it was also marked by a nasty, divisive element which left Scotland bitterly split over the constitution and remains to this day. Both sides engaged, and still do, in vitriolic attacks on social media, one prominent pro-union leader was forced to abandon a speaking tour of the country’s high streets after escalating levels of intimidation, while the BBC found itself facing angry protests amid ridiculous claims of bias in its news reporting. And, of course, the leader of such “bias” accusations was Alex Salmond, last seen working for the Russian state propaganda machine Russia Today (RT). Oh the irony!
The rise of social media over the past decade and the dominant role it holds in political discourse has certainly heightened tensions. Rallies, demos and petitions demanding bans can be whipped up in an instant. Emotional responses replace considered rationale as the driving factor in exchanges. It’s a volatile environment. But is this all just an escalated form of the general knockabout which has always been a part of the cut-and-thrust of politics or something more?
Clarke’s dismay at the disappearance of the centre ground in politics was informed by the victory of the Brexiteers in his own party, the return of the hard left under Jeremy Corbyn in Labour and the rise of nationalism in Scotland. But it was also a nod to the victory of Trump in the US and the emergence of more extremist regimes in Europe with near-authoritarian governments in Turkey and Hungary signalling a growing willingness to turn away from the traditional western model of liberal democracy. Just a couple of decades ago, with communism collapsing in the east, experts were talking about the “end of history” with liberal democracy marking the final chapter in the evolution of human government. Russia was embarking on a democratic experiment under Boris Yeltsin, while it seemed market reforms in China would inevitably see it open up.
But today hardline regimes enjoy a stronger grip than ever in both, with other successful Asian tiger economies like Singapore and Indonesia adopting their own model of democracy where prosperity and security outweigh other considerations like individual freedom and human rights.
Perhaps the “no platforming” architects and online mobs should consider this next time they seek to restrict freedom of expression.
It’s a privilege – and one that’s not universally enjoyed.