Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Moore of Etchingham Portrait Lord Moore of Etchingham (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, like many noble Lords, and indeed like the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, who has just spoken—my instincts are as he expressed—I have a certain prejudice against this Bill. That is how I originally approached this matter. I felt that free speech is so deep-rooted in the life of our universities that it needs no legal protection. I feared that statutory intervention in this area could prove cack-handed and, indeed, counterproductive. The noble Lord, Lord Willetts, reinforced that with his point about the online harms Bill: the contrast between that and the freedom of speech Bill seemed to be a very fine example of that doctrine of cakeism for which our Prime Minister is known—having your cake and eating it; doing two opposite things at once.

I have thought about this quite a lot, and I have come to think differently and to feel more strongly in favour of the Bill, for two reasons. The first is a matter of historical fact. We need to recognise that even our most ancient universities have not invariably upheld free speech. There are innumerable examples of this, but one that strikes me is that 150 years ago, roughly speaking, John Henry Newman, the future Cardinal Newman, famously converted to Rome. That is a very important event in the history of Christianity, but what is not remembered is that one of things he had to do when he did that was to resign his fellowship of Oriel College, Oxford. At that time, one could not say anything that denied Anglican beliefs if one worked at the University of Oxford. That is not an incredibly long time ago, so the freedom of speech that we hold so dear is actually something that really came about only in the late 19th century in our universities. By the same token, if it came about quite late, it could also go away quite easily: I do not think freedom of speech is necessarily as deeply ingrained as we might imagine.

But my second and more urgent reason for coming round to this Bill derives from my recent study of what has been happening in Cambridge. I do think that it is important to go through in some detail what actually is happening in universities in order to understand this. I should explain that Cambridge—I do not know if this counts as declaring an interest—is my own university, and many members of my family have been there. Indeed, my great, great, great aunt, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, was the co-founder of the first women’s college, Girton. I love the place dearly, but I must say I have become alarmed about it.

More than two years ago, through a bit of journalistic research, I found out that Jesus College’s China Centre, far from providing academic study of that great nation, was pumping out what amounted to Xi Jinping propaganda. Its website used his own slogan “national rejuvenation” to praise his work. It gradually emerged as I started to ask more questions that the China Centre was financed by Chinese regime money and never invited critics of the Chinese Communist Party on to its platform. By this time, Covid was spreading from China throughout the world, but the China Centre had nothing to say. Had its silence, I wondered, been bought? I think perhaps it had—an astonishing thing that it could have happened in a great university. I must say I am glad that new Section 69D, I think it is, in this Bill—though I understand the worries of the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, about the detail of it—will make sure that there is provision so that we can understand if money is coming from foreign regimes. That is very important, particularly in the case of China.

I further discovered that this engagement with a communist regime was not the frolic of one college but was strongly backed by Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, who had himself spoken in Beijing about his admiration for President Xi’s polices. I found that all my inquiries about these matters were fiercely resisted by the university and college authorities, I have never to this day been allowed to interview or speak to the director of the China Centre, Professor Nolan.

So it was in this context that I became interested in the universities’ current attitude to free speech. In 2019, the controversial conservative thinker Dr Jordan Peterson had had the offer of a visiting fellowship withdrawn because it was said his views might upset students. But on the other hand, Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a fellow of Churchill College, was very differently treated. After she was criticised online for tweeting the words “White Lives Don’t Matter”, she was immediately made a professor. Not long after that, in December 2020, Professor Toope promulgated a new definition of free speech which he wanted the university to adopt. It insisted that freedom of speech must be qualified by the need to be “respectful” of the opinions and “the diverse identity” of others. Freedom of speech was no good, he said, if people were

“made to feel personally attacked”.

Critics of Professor Toope’s approach did not, of course, support personal attacks, but they did point out that if being personally attacked was to be defined by the feelings of the alleged victim, then the effect would be to give any objector a veto on free speech. Despite backing for the Toope definition from the university establishment, the dons, led by Professor Arif Ahmed of Caius College, defeated it in a proportion of four to one, and the word “respect” in the Toope definition was replaced by “tolerate”, which is exactly right.

Now if that had been the end of it, I might have conceivably been voting “Not content” tonight, because self-correction would have prevailed without the need of law, but I was struck by what happened next. Professor Toope apparently accepted the revised definition, but six months later the university suddenly announced what it called a new reporting tool. This provided for the anonymous denunciation of those accused of “racism, discrimination, and microaggressions”. Its definition of racism included—

“a system of advantage that sets whiteness as the norm … and promoting (implicitly or explicitly) being white.”

If racism and whiteness were to be equated, some dons realised, no white person could ever be guaranteed freedom of speech: any exercise of that right could, by definition, be ruled racist. There was a fearful row about it and the Cambridge authorities muttered about how a template from other universities had somehow entered “certain ancillary material” into the system, and the reporting tool was withdrawn. However, in November, a Cambridge college—Downing—tried yet again, criticising “whiteness” and seeking to police not only conduct but beliefs. This document was slightly modified under protest but not withdrawn.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, mentioned, this month, Cambridge University’s HR department put out what it calls a “mutual respect policy”. Although it insists that it contains nothing contrary to freedom of speech, it provides for mandatory training courses in which the concept of “respect” can be suborned to enforce or suppress certain opinions. I am afraid that, in many workplaces, HR is now becoming a politicised means of impeding free speech rather than caring for the needs of employees. I have taken your Lordships through this sequence because it shows a pattern to be found not only in Cambridge but across higher education, using co-ordinated materials and similar ideology.

Before the end of the last century, the concept of institutional racism was officially recognised. Today, I fear that a culture of institutional repression has grown up, most severe in the place where it should be least expected: our universities. It rarely attacks free speech directly but that is its intended effect. It exploits our proper concern to achieve the fair treatment of individuals —especially ethnic minority individuals—as cover for its purposes. I have witnessed how the leadership even of a university as great as Cambridge has allowed this to happen. I feel that Parliament is well justified in stepping in to arrest this repressive trend before it is too late, and I therefore support the Bill.