The education secretary announced a series of proposals to strengthen academic freedom at universities in England, including the appointment of a “free speech champion” who will investigate potential infringements, such as no-platforming speakers or dismissal of academics.
It comes despite a 2018 report by the parliamentary human rights committee rubbishing claims of “wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested”.
It is also worth highlighting the government’s own assault on free speech, carried out a mere six months ago.
In new guidance for teachers and school leaders it ordered English schools to not use resources from any organisation that has advocated abolishing capitalism, categorising it as an “extreme political stance” on the same footing as antisemitism.
Reacting to the news, ex-shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the measures effectively whitewashed key events in British history – claiming it symbolised “authoritarianism” in the Conservative party.
The guidance reads: “Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation.”
It goes on to list “extreme political stances” – like “a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections”.
McDonnell told the Guardian: “On this basis it will be illegal to refer to large tracts of British history and politics including the history of British socialism, the Labour Party and trade unionism, all of which have at different times advocated the abolition of capitalism.
“This is another step in the culture war and this drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace and should worry anyone who believes that democracy requires freedom of speech and an educated populace.”
‘Slip into totalitarianism’
Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, added that the guidance showed “how easy it is to lose a country, to slip surreptitiously into totalitarianism”.
He said: “Imagine an educational system that banned schools from enlisting into their curricula teaching resources dedicated to the writings of British writers like William Morris, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Paine even.
“Well, you don’t have to. Boris Johnson’s government has just instructed schools to do exactly that.”
Minister for school standards Nick Gibb said: “Our new relationships, sex and health education (RHSE) guidance and training resources equip all schools to provide comprehensive teaching in these areas in an age-appropriate way.
“These materials should give schools the confidence to construct a curriculum that reflects diversity of views and backgrounds, whilst fostering all pupils’ respect for others, understanding of healthy relationships, and ability to look after their own wellbeing.”