Education and Skills

The heckler’s veto: Emboldening academics and students against the tenured left

We think of intellectual inquiry and critical thinking as essential to the idea of the university. Yet a lack of political pluralism in the humanities and social sciences and the censorious left on campus undermine these characteristics from within writes Matt Smith.

We think of intellectual inquiry and critical thinking as essential to the idea of the university. Yet a lack of political pluralism in the humanities and social sciences and the censorious left on campus undermine these characteristics from within writes Matt Smith. 

A Times Higher Education (THE) survey of voting intentions ahead of the 2015 General Election found 84 per cent of academics backed left wing parties while only 11 per cent would support Conservatives (merely half of those favouring the far-left Greens).

Another THE poll before the European Union referendum was similarly skewed with 90 per cent backing Remain, 40 per cent saying they were more likely to leave the country and only 10 per cent backed Leave. 

Now Policy Exchange’s Academic Freedom in the UK: Protecting Viewpoint Diversity reports that 54 per cent of academics would feel uncomfortable sitting next to a leave supporter at lunch and a third to half of those reviewing a grant bid would mark it lower if it took a right-wing perspective. 

Insufficient cognitive diversity increasingly prevails in what Sir Roger Scruton once called the emerging ‘leftist academic complex’.

Enjoying freedom and prosperity on a scale young people had never previously known, the ‘soixante-huitards’ of the 1968 student protests followed Antonio Gramsci in believing power resides in cultural hegemony. Education is a front in the ‘war of position’. ‘Cultural subversion’ precedes ‘open insurrection’ in the ‘war of manoeuvre’ against what they saw as the ‘dominant class’. 

A generation of left wing radicals drew inspiration from the student activist and Gramscian Marxist Rudi Dutschke who saw the ‘long march through the institutions’ as a means of subverting bourgeoisie culture by seizing the commanding heights of society.

With an ideological freehold on intellectual culture the left is now the academic establishment. 

Clusters of academics with similar views leads to what Policy Exchange calls ‘a structural discriminatory effect’ against the small number of academics on the right who may find grant applications harder and career progression slower. “Left discriminates more than the right”. Yet there are far more of the left to start with. 

It also leads to the chilling effect of self-censorship – J S Mill’s ‘tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling’, that can give rise to “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression” – with 63 per cent of ‘very right’ and 44 per cent of ‘fairly right’ academics report a hostile departmental environment. 

An anonymous academic who penned ‘I voted for Brexit why do academics treat me as a pariah?‘ in The Guardian asked: “…if established academics at elite universities like Cambridge need bravery to simply state a contrary view, what must it take for a lowly PhD student?” 

Insufficient viewpoint diversity can lead to a purity spiral such as when the University of Sussex organised a workshop for staff titled ‘Dealing with right wing attitudes and politics in the classroom’.

Sir Keith Joseph lamented the right ‘…never got an LSE – far from it – and we never got a New Statesman’. Indeed the cultural influence of the uninvigilated academic left should not be underestimated, for as Friedrich von Hayek observed in The Intellectuals and Socialism, the ‘professional second-hand dealers in ideas’ decide the language of politics. 

Institutional capture by the tenured left paves the way for a small minority of left wing firebrands, successful in hijacking campus bodies and in control of the National Union of Students, to impose their agenda on ‘student-life’ bureaucracies.

They are downstream from Frankfurt School Marxist Herbert Marcuse who thought that free speech is a form of ‘repressive tolerance’ when it allows counter-revolutionary opinions to ‘oppress’ the ‘overpowered’. 

Marcuse demanded ‘new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in educational institutions’. The loud-hailing activist minority rejects free expression in favour of banning newspapers and the ‘no-platforming’ of dissenters.

It is easy to joke about ‘Stepford students’ and safe spaces. Yet the chilling effect also spreads outwards from the Junior Common Room. A 2019 survey found nearly half of students polled supported a ban on the feminist thinker Germaine Greer speaking at Cardiff University.

The facts of life are conservative. Yet blithely hoping campus firebrands will be ‘mugged by reality’ risks the right winding up on the wrong side of history. So, what should be done? 

The 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto commits the government to ‘strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities’. Policy Exchange’s proposals call on government to bolster universities as beacons of independent thought and free enquiry through an Academic Freedom Bill to prevent discrimination by radicals from within the university. 

Yet freedom’s best advocates are individuals and institutions. Undeterred by the spectacle of Jacob Rees-Mogg being ‘pushed and shoved’ at UWE and the absurd no-platforming of Amber Rudd at an Oxford University Society, Conservatives should redouble efforts to send speakers to campuses.

We should continue supporting those at the tip of the spear like Cardiff University Conservatives who called out a lecturer emboldened to tweet a comparison of Conservative voters to rats.

It is an axiom of history that the children of the revolution will eventually devour their parents, as Greer found in Cardiff. By contrast, while the left look for traitors we on the right look for converts. 

If autonomy-seeking Millennials are game for freedom and individual responsibility then the triggered left who would have young people rolling around campuses in giant political allergy spheres are as out of touch as they are boring. 

Joseph who did more than any to promote a ‘counter ideology’ to socialism understood the imperative of fighting ‘the battle of ideas in every school, university, publication… even if we have to struggle for our toehold there’.

We must heed Joseph’s words for as Policy Exchange’s research shows we cannot risk leaving the next generation to political supervision by the ivory tower left. 

Matt Smith was the Conservative Candidate for Cardiff West in 2017.

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