Davey and Cable defend free speech at universities from Tory attack

Vince Cable Social Liberal Forum conference Jul 19 2014 Photo by Paul WalterWe know that during the passage of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, Liberal Democrat peers Sal Brinton and Margaret Sharp tried to amend the bill to strengthen the duty on universities to preserve freedom of speech. Senior Tories couldn’t see why that was so important, sadly.

The Observer reports that Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers, especially Vince Cable, disagree about the planned guidance to be issued to universities about what they can and can’t allow on campus.

In the Sunday Times, the home secretary, Theresa May warned: “If colleges and universities did not realise before what we are up against they should now. We are not talking about regulating legitimate debate – we’re saying we need to do more to stop radicalisation on campus.”

The dispute centres on the content of an advisory note to be sent to universities as part of a new statutory requirement on universities to draw up strategies to combat radicalisation on campus. The broad issue has been a running sore for years, with some accusing vice chancellors of being too liberal.

Liberal Democrat sources insisted it should be open to universities to ban specific speakers if they felt this was justifiable, but it should also be open to use their judgment when a speaker should be allowed so long as his argument is going to be challenged in debate.

One source said: “There is a power in rational, thoughtful debate changing impressionable minds. Sometimes it is better to defeat these ideas in argument rather than simply banning someone. That can simply drive the debate underground or off campus to somewhere else. If anyone is inciting violence that is already unlawful, and if a university believes someone should be banned they should be open to do that.”

The Lib Dem source pointed out that some student organisations were also trying to ban Ukip or the BNP on the grounds that their views were extremist.

Separately, on Sky News’s Murnaghan programme, Ed Davey set out the Liberal Democrat position in more detail:

Was it not time to clamp down further on these people, asked Dermot Murnaghan?

 Well if these preachers are inciting violence, if they are saying it’s okay to be a terrorist, if they’re saying you can cut off people’s heads as we’ve seen from ISIS in Syria, they can and should be arrested and the Liberal Democrats are clear that that law should hit them with full force but what the Conservatives seem to be wanting to do is to introduce against British values of free speech a new type of rule which says the state will know what extremism is.  Now one person’s subjectivity is another person’s objectivity and therefore the phrase extremism that they are talking about is very, very nebulous, it’s unclear and there is a danger that the Conservatives will clamp down on free speech and that will be giving in to the terrorists and we’re not prepared to do that.

He then looked at some of the consequences of a “no platform” kind of policy.

We had this debate with the BNP, many people said should we ban the BNP from universities and from platforms and Liberal Democrats said no because we want to expose their arguments.  Racist views are abhorrent and are very easy to demolish and equally some of the appalling views of some of these preachers are easy to demolish….

…what would happen if you did what the Tories are saying?  They’d appear on the internet, they’d go underground and in fact they wouldn’t be able to be taken on and beaten.  What the Tories are arguing for actually would make radicalisation worse, that’s what I fear, because it would push these people into a more secret world which we know exists and therefore they couldn’t be challenged.  The beauty of democracy, the beauty of freedom of speech is it has stopped these appalling views taking root…

He also talked a bit about the unfortunate consequences of Labour’s approach to civil liberties and went on to talk about his own brief so the whole interview is worth reading.

If you haven’t yet had enough of  Ed Davey, you can find out more about the praise he received from the Independent on Sunday here.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Chris Rennard 1st Mar '15 - 11:24pm

    Free speech is the first tenet of liberalism and essential to democracy, it seems to me that what Vince and Ed are saying here is entirely consistent with what JS Mill said about free speech – the exceptions to it being for when people do things like shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.

  • The problem has not been that people have been espousing such evil views, it is that we have not paid attention to the fact they have been doing so. We’ve, as a society, looked the other way.

    They need to be exposed, argued against and defeated. Bring them out of the dark corners in which they have been able to fester.

    Hateful views, regardless of their apparent basis in religion, must be challenged. Through free speech we can show there is a better a way. A Liberal way.

  • Tsar Nicholas 2nd Mar '15 - 12:13am

    I’m all in favour of free speech, but I’m also in favour of free tuition.

  • Philip Thomas 2nd Mar '15 - 7:59am

    “But we err on the side of caution because we think that protects the British public. The Liberal Democrats have a more liberal view” Tory Chairman Grant Shapps.
    “He who would give up liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserves neither liberty nor safety” Benjamin Franklin
    (His opponents were Tories too!).

  • Graham Martin-Royle 2nd Mar '15 - 9:17am

    100% with this. The opposite to hate speech is more speech, not less.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Mar '15 - 9:38am

    Terrorists in Britain don’t stand up in university debates and announce they are terrorists. We have to look out for the signs, not just say “it is fine as long as they don’t actually incite violence”.

  • Universities and students unions have banning groups they did not approve for years: recently UKIP was not allowed to speak at UEA. I think the problem is that robust discussion at universities started to decline in the 1960s when various left wing groups started to call many groups to which they object ” Fascist ” and ban them from speaking.
    The reality is that universities have never been centres of free speech: one has been free to agree with the most vociferous groups and whatever the general t quo happens to be.

    The problem is that no groups have stood up to refute the various islamic groups promoting jihad because they would be accused for being called islamophobic. Since the 1930s , most arts and humanities academics at universities have had a left wing wing middle class view of life and censored views to which they disagree. If one was a conservative student then one’s life was made far more difficult at many universities such as Sussex, Essex, etc especially in sociology and history departments.

  • Jayne Mansfield 2nd Mar '15 - 10:23am

    I feel safer knowing what these hate-filled ranters are, and what they are saying. Our security forces can monitor them. In my opinion, the sort of people that these moves relate to would be far more dangerous if they were pushed underground. My only proviso against their invitation to speak would be that meetings should be open to all, with speakers who put a counter argument. If any speaker breaks the law, they should be arrested and charged.

    There is a team of analysts at Kings College University ( ICSR) tracking communications on Facebook and Twitter, who are able to track who is being radicalised and what they are up to by legal means. It is open communication which allows this. If this information becomes less open and instead is passed on by more devious means, valuable information necessary to counter terrorism will be lost.

    Quite frankly, if the only requirement necessary to turn someone from being an empathetic human being into a barbaric murderer, is for them to listen some off- the -wall hater, spewing bile, I question whether they have got much of a brain to wash and whether high tuition fees are buying those particular students anything of value. There is something driving an acceptance of the narrative pushed by so called hate preachers and I am not at all convinced by some of the explanations put forward. I don’t think banning hate preachers would take us much further forward on this.

  • Unfortunately Free Speech is only for those who can stand on a street protected by the police preaching hate. Now, if I did it? This is making people angry and creating the tensions.

  • The issue isn’t really about invited speakers, but about what actually happens on campus. The biggest pain in my student days were the ‘socialists’ who kept on holding sit in’s and/or blockading parts of the campus, forcing their views on everyone else. However, by my final year that particular cohort had graduated and campus life became much improved – for example you could actually sit out in the square without being harassed by people selling Socialist Worker or standing on soap box ranting on about something…

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Mar '15 - 1:01pm

    Of course they should be free to do so, but I am sorry that so many Islamic societies in UK universities seem so keen on inviting this sort of speaker. I think there’s a real problem about this sort of interpretation of Islam becoming dominant, perhaps because there is a lot of funding pushing it and not much pushing other interpretations. If they want to invite this sort of speaker, I think they should be more willing to accept criticism from within and outside their religion, instead of wanting to shut it off by denouncing it as “Islamophobia” if it comes from outside or perhaps “heresy” if it comes from within.

  • jedibeeftrix 2nd Mar '15 - 1:10pm

    “He who would give up liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserves neither liberty nor safety”

    Funny, I’d say the same about incitement to ‘x’ hatred legislation.

  • Jonathan Pile 2nd Mar '15 - 1:23pm

    Free Speech yes, but not freedom to justify race hate, religious hate, violence, decapitation, murder of civilians, and the demonising of minority groups. The Nazis tried to hijack free speech and freedom of the press to spread fear and whip up hatred we ought not give a platform to criminality. The 1920’s and 1930’s show the dangers of allowing this stuff to spread, and the 1950’s McCarthyism – the dangers of going overboard in the other direction. Time for assertive moderation.

  • David Allen 2nd Mar '15 - 3:20pm

    “Liberal Democrat sources insisted it should be open to universities to ban specific speakers if they felt this was justifiable, but it should also be open to use their judgment when a speaker should be allowed so long as his argument is going to be challenged in debate.”

    OK, so let’s suppose the Bruddersford Uni Islamic Society propose to invite one quasi-recruiter for ISIS alongside one moderate Muslim and let them debate. Or, the Bruddersford branch of UKIP propose to invite a spokesperson from PEGIDA alongside a “moderate conservative” who claims to oppose PEGIDA, and again. let them debate.

    The Lib Dem proposal says that Bruddersford Uni should be “open to use their judgment”. In other words, if Brudd U decide to let it all happen and mayhem ensues, it’s on their heads. And if Brudd U instead decide to ban either the ISIS guy or the PEGIDA guy, and get pilloried by fundamentalist theocrats and fundamentalist liberals alike, that’s also on their heads. Government has hung them out to dry.

    I would suggest that Government ought to take more responsibility than that. The balance isn’t easy, and Theresa May no doubt errs on the side of suppression. However, giving the universities a length of rope and the freedom to hang themselves is not terribly liberal in my book.

  • Charlie

    “I think the problem is that robust discussion at universities started to decline in the 1960s when various left wing groups started to call many groups to which they object ” Fascist ” and ban them from speaking.”

    Well It was rather earlier:

    “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.” Orewell in 1946.

    People always try and debase the language to shut down opposing arguments, it is childish and boring but the only responce is to keep on correcting it where we come across it.

  • PSI

    I think the decline of free speech was made worse in the 1960s because of the influence of the Frankfurt School of cultural Marxists which was particularly strong in sociology , the new star of academic subjects but which also influenced anthropology, media studies, culture studies , history and english.

    I suggest a major reason why Hitler rose to power was because there was no effective opposition to his arguments from those supporting democracy. Germany was offered communism, the decadence of Weimar and after the Great Crash of 1929 and then the collapse of 1931, the Nazis.

    In the UK , the extensive efforts to describe people as racist or islamophobic in order to shut down debate coupled with many left intellectuals inherent totalitarian outlook ( as described often by Orwell in his writing from 1940-1950 ) has meant there are hardly anyone explaining the case for the British traditions of tolerance, mockery , freedom of thought and freedom of discussion. There used to be the saying ” Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me!”. The reality is that vast parts of the intelligentsia and middle classes have become narcicisstic with a sense of entitlement to rewards without having to endure pain, suffering and hard slog and therefore do not have the resilience to thrive and cope with the rough and tumble of life. Being mocked and ridiculed is one of the most important safeguards we have to safeguard us against tyranny and hundreds of thousands have died, been maimed and injured for this liberty to offend.

  • To what extent is there a recruitment strategy based around public talks etc which stay (just about) on the right side of the law but intended to attract those who will be sympathetic/vulnerable to a more extremist ideology. That has after all been a common recruiting technique of the far right, far left and violent nationalism.

    There needs to be a strategy to combat the rise of islamo-fascism and the liberal-left response has really been to hope that it goes away. Khalid Mahmood MP reckons around 1,500 UK citizens have gone to fight with ISIS – that’s a comparable level to the level of active IRA “volunteers through the 80s & 90s.

    The thing with the Ben Franklin comment is it’s a bit of a meaningless trope – liberalism is exactly about sacrifcing a little liberty for a little security. What else was the US government doing when it used federal troops against the KKK

  • Hywel

    I don’t think anyone is disputing the approach the question is how too respond. The Tories (in the same vein as Labour) believe you just ban stuff you don’t like and it disappears.

    They seem in complete denial about the effects of US prohibition compared with the rise of Methodism as a means of acting against concerns of excess alcohol.

    If you ban certain speakers they are on YouTube or in a nearby venue. The greater effect is the individual conversations that take place (the equivolent of local councillors door knocking to these speakers Party Political Broardcasts).

    The solution is harder and more diverse than “ban it” but that is the approach that plays best in the Daily Mail for the Tories.

  • Hywel

    It is not just the “liberal left” who have had their head in the sand over this. It has been a topic that has seen very few solutions proposed across the board.

  • “the effects of US prohibition compared with the rise of Methodism as a means of acting against concerns of excess alcohol.”

    Yeah since the rise of Methodism alcohol consumption has plummeted all over the world… 🙂

    There isn’t anything to be done, not every problem has a solution. If we ban these meetings then we let the terrorists (sorry BBC “militants”) win and the recruitment goes more underground. If we don’t ban them they blatantly use them to get new members and laugh at our naivety whilst relishing using our freedoms against us.

    We are screwed, and have to just live with it until this storm within Islam passes, or it doesn’t.

    This is almost all the liberal left’s fault though, it totally is. If I say why this post won’t get published (maybe it won’t anyway) but every voter knows and if you don’t realise this is a factor in the election you are kidding yourselves.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Mar '15 - 9:49am


    There needs to be a strategy to combat the rise of islamo-fascism and the liberal-left response has really been to hope that it goes away.

    Unfortunately, I think it’s more than that. The liberal-left response has been to encourage it. In desperation not to be seen as “racist”, it has been over-willing not to criticise interpretations of Islam of this sort, and to accept their dubious claim to be the most valid interpretation, and to support them by denouncing their critics as “Islamophobic”. I believe this has led to a sense of complacency in mainstream Islam. Protected from criticism by the liberal-left it has not done nearly enough to combat these nastier streams and to build an attractive form of Islam which can enthuse young idealists and which doesn’t have the intolerance and delight in violence that these nastier interpretations are all about.

    The liberal-left has often gone along with and help promote some of the very dubious lines used by groups such as ISIS, because it fits it with a general anti-American agenda. There has been a very obvious Trotskyist-Islamist alliance, which can be seen in some of the rhetoric coming out from ISIS. But what about us? How many times have I read HERE in Liberal Democrat Voice, Liberal Democrats making “nah nah nah nah nah” attacks on Tony Blair and the Labour Party, using lines which suggest all the violence in Iraq was deliberately planned by Blair and supported by the Labour Party as some sort of attack on Islam? Many, many times, I am very sorry to say. In that way WE must share in the blame for young idealists here in the UK wishing to support ISIS, because they are just taking us at our word.

    Of course the invasion of Iraq was wrong for many reasons, but in our wish to take political advantage from that, I am afraid that too many Liberal Democrats and fringe socialist types said things that were very, very dangerous to say. We should hang our heads in shame for that. It is quite obvious that Blair did NOT intend the invasion to be an “attack on Islam”, and it is quite obvious that he did not do it out of delight in killing Muslims. Naively he supposed it would get rid of the cruel dictator and somehow a decent government would arise from that. He was wrong, and the collapse into factional fighting was fairly predictable as an outcome. But that does not mean Blair intended that to be the outcome, and it does not mean that all the guilt for what happened must fall on Blair and none of it on those who are actually directing the factions. We may have found it a good thing to say for propaganda reasons, or at least to hint at it, because Blair was our political enemy. It was not a good thing to say, however, for the reasons I have given, whatever short term domestic advantage it may have given us.

  • Matthew Huntbach
    Extremely well said .The sort of political honesty and balanced judgement which is often lacking.

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