Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness; she makes stimulating speeches. She does tend to overegg the pudding a bit; nevertheless, I listen to her with great interest, and I am delighted to follow her.

Free speech is more important than anything else—and we in this place ought to know that better almost than anyone. “The price of liberty,” said Burke—and of course, liberty without free speech is impossible—“is eternal vigilance.” I am glad that we are having this debate because there is currently a tendency among some to be a bit complacent. One thinks of some pretty horrific examples: Kathleen Stock, who has been mentioned by noble Lords on two or three occasions, and JK Rowling.

One of the cancers of our age, which makes the proliferation of coarse speech and crude attack so much easier, is social media. Many in our universities, and others, use this, and many suffer from it, so it is right for us to ask: what can we do about it? But I do not think a Bill like this is necessarily the best way forward.

Those who have questioned the wisdom of the Bill have more than a point. I say to my noble friend—who introduced the Bill with his characteristic gentle elegance and in whom I have as much trust as I have in anyone in political life—that it needs to be significantly improved if it is to go on the statute books and fulfil its purpose. I do not think we need such a Bill but, clearly, we are going to have one, so it is the duty of your Lordships’ House to make it as effective as possible, and as least disruptive as possible.

Speaking as one who has the honour to have been a visiting fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, who helped to found the parliamentary fellowship scheme 30 years ago, and who is still admitted to the senior common room—I have also visited many other universities, and I am on the court of Lincoln University—I believe that we have institutions of which we can be truly proud. But it is very important indeed that students are exposed to views and attitudes that they consider to be offensive, because that itself is stimulating. Unless you can produce a counter-argument, you have not understood the argument. It is crucial that our young people are stimulated and exposed to a variety of views, just as they should be exposed to a variety of academic and scientific disciplines. I very much hope that one thing that will be a casualty of this Bill is the so-called “trigger” movement. It has been dismissed, I am glad to say, but it was even suggested that the online version of Hansard should be adorned with trigger warnings that there may be some offensive language to follow.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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Indeed, shame. I believe we have had that dealt with.

We know about the counterculture and the cancelling because earlier this year four of us were complained about to the Commissioner for Standards because of remarks we had made in a good, vigorous and brief debate on an amendment to a Bill that sought to end the presence of physically intact males in women’s prisons. The committee, now chaired rather splendidly by the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, rewrote some of the rules and guidance, and the fundamental right that Members of both Houses have enjoyed since the Bill of Rights in 1689 was underlined thrice. That is as it should have been, but if we can be threatened even in this place then we have to be vigilant about the defence of free speech. If free speech is eroded in any way in our universities, the institutions from which future Members of both Houses will come, then that does not augur well.

As we know at the moment, democracy has to be fought for. As we know, there is a great power, the second greatest power in the world right now, which is already flexing its muscles in a variety of ways—roads and belts, belts and roads. We have to be a bastion of democracy, but we cannot be a bastion of democracy without having universities and colleges that produce vigorous democrats.

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Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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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.