17 May 2021

A new free speech law will do nothing to win over younger people

By Alex Kelly

From calorie counts on pints, to football and free speech, the Government seems intent on regulating as much as it can, as quickly as it can. It feels almost performative, as though they’re trying to remind us they are capable of making laws about things other than Covid. 

Of all the elements last week’s packed Queen’s Speech, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, is easily one of the most pernicious.

The Government’s concern about freedom of speech at universities is understandable, given the well documented cases of speakers being ‘no-platformed’ or ‘cancelled’ by overzealous institutions and student groups. However, the data shows that these incidents occur on only a very small number of campuses, and that most students do not consider that free speech or academic freedom is under threat at their university. That is probably because the majority of students do not wish to spend their time in so called ‘safe spaces’, and this debate killing disposition is being pushed only by a loud minority of far left students and academics. It’s not just students that feel this way: fascinating polling released today by Public First shows strong support for free speech – though people tend to draw the line at outright racism, incitement to religious violence or Holocaust denial. 

The big issue with the Government’s proposals is the extent to which we can legislate for free speech, rather than using the law to encourage a culture of open, rigorous debate and inquiry. Since the announcement regarding the new laws, government involvement has created just more confusion. Universities minister Michelle Donelan seemed to suggest the new laws would allow Holocaust deniers access to redress if they have suffered loss by being ‘no-platformed’. Elsewhere, the appointment of a new ‘Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom’ at the Office for Students feels largely hollow. Leaving judgments on what does and doesn’t constitute free speech to one individual seems as likely to create problems as to solve them. 

Nor is it at all clear that any of these changes will get to the crux of the matter. Although the Government’s prima facie issue is with the loud minority of far-left academics and students with a tendency towards cancel culture, it feels like the real concern is that so many students and recent graduates are left-leaning, anti-capitalist and wouldn’t countenance voting Conservative. Perhaps, the logic goes, if academics were less obviously partisan, their students wouldn’t be seduced by leftwing rhetoric.

Even if that were the case, the best way to combat the preponderance of leftwing ideology on campus is not to try and legislate away certain opinions, but to win the debate in the marketplace of ideas. That means offering students and graduates better reasons to support both free markets and freedom of speech. From better matching qualifications to jobs and increasing young people’s prospects of getting on the housing ladder, there are all manner of ways to take on younger people’s hostility towards capitalism and broaden the debate.

Making sure there is a proper link between higher education and the job market is particularly important. Decades ago the economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that one of the inherent tensions within capitalism is that it increases individual freedom and thus access to a university education. When students then graduate without the skills they necessarily need for the job market, they become disillusioned, creating an ‘intelligentsia’ class that is hostile towards capitalism. 

Rather than dealing with the symptoms of disaffection by creating a new legal framework for free speech, ministers should be zeroing in on the root cause: that means a renewed focus on degree apprenticeships and similar schemes that help match a university qualification with skills for work. Showing that the Conservatives are doing their utmost to get graduates into fulfilling work will do much more to make students sympathetic to the political right, while neutralising some of the more outlandish claims of the far-left into the bargain.

Creating a free speech tsar and allowing cancelled speakers to seek redress might feel like a win, but it does nothing to address the embedded views of those who disagree with any viewpoint right of centre. It does nothing to win the debate for those of us who support freedom in all its forms. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is both lazy and unnecessary. We should be focussing far more on current and future policy that can benefit younger people, creating more positivity towards capitalism and creating a more diverse debate in general, and on campuses, about what right of centre policy has to offer. We need better ideas, not more law.

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Alex Kelly works for an MP in the House of Commons’.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.