Lord Moylan (Con)
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord and I rise as a rare speaker from the Conservative Benches who neither is nor ever has been a visiting professor or honorary fellow at a distinguished academic institution. I started this debate with quite an open mind but, listening carefully to the speeches opposite, I have been persuaded to give whole- hearted support to the Bill.
First of all, the Bill is not about student protest. When I was president of the Oxford Union many years ago, I had the privilege of welcoming the former President Richard Nixon to give an afternoon lecture. The demonstration was huge, carefully supervised by the local police and monitored by the US Secret Service. I welcomed that; the size of the demonstration was a measure of the success of the event. Even more than the numbers of students packed inside, the demonstration outside showed that you had really hit the button. I am not trying to stop student protest, nor is the Bill.
Instead, to understand the thrust of this Bill, it is helpful to start with one of the most perceptive, and one of my favourite, quotations from the late Lord Keynes. Since this is a debate of learned quotations, I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I read it to them:
“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
Indeed, I say as an aside to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, the whole debate around the Reformation was, in effect, framed by the academic scribbler he referred to, St Augustine of Hippo, some 1,100 years earlier, and the rather overexcited interpretations of those writings was still being worked out by a junior academic at a recently founded university lost in the forests of eastern Germany at the time.
The point I want to make is that academic thought has a real influence on social change, even if the time lag—as Lord Keynes said, it might be a few years or decades—is very significant. That is a really important point to take hold of. To take it a step further, taking their guidance from a contemporary of Keynes, Antonio Gramsci, activists are tempted in recognising this to seek to capture that academic podium precisely because of its long-term influence and, in doing so, to seek to deny it to others. That is exactly what many of us feel has been happening in our universities over the last decades.
Because of the shortage of time, I will not list examples. The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, and others, have given many examples both of incidents and changes in attitude which illustrate what I think is going on and what is such a deep cause of concern to many of us. Noble Lords on the opposite Benches have said repeatedly that these incidents, which they admit are objectionable, are very rare. However, it is not the frequency of the events we should be looking at but their egregiousness. Their rarity could be taken as an example, proof or evidence of the success of the policy I have mentioned being pursued. As the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, has said, the punishment is the process. As the noble Lord, Lord Johnson of Marylebone, said in relation to Chinese influence, self-censorship is the response. So, of course, if the policy is being successful, you would expect incidents to be rare. That in itself proves nothing.
This Bill is an attempt to rectify the balance in all of that. While it is probably inevitably ham-fisted, it none the less deserves our support in principle. It may be capable of certain improvements. I suggest two. I was very struck by the remark of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, that we should address the plurality of objectives that we impose on universities. A number of them were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven. We should address them by trying to create some priority among them: some are more important than others. I agree with the noble Baroness that academic freedom should perhaps be put at the top of that tree as an overriding priority, not simply competing with lots of others, which both confuses the leadership of universities and, equally, makes it easy for those who wish to exploit the situation to escape by running around different competing priorities. An amendment to that end would be very welcome and would provoke a very interesting debate.
The second area the Bill is wholly silent on, and where an amendment would certainly provoke some interesting debate, is funding. The Bill, as far as I can see, says nothing about the influence of funding on shaping academic debate and discussion and how capable it is of potential abuse. I mean both funding within the university and funding, usually on a much larger scale, from central funding councils making grants to support various areas of research. We might well want to see amendments to make that funding more transparent and show that it was balanced—I am not talking about funding flat earthers or people like that, but, within the limits of a sensible academic debate, making sure that people are being funded in a balanced and sensible way.
I welcome the Bill’s general principle and take the view that it could be strengthened. It would be a great mistake to try to oppose it by digging into the weeds. We need to see the trees and the forest, and to understand what we need to do.