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Chris McGovern: Cromwell would have been proud of our new laws stifling campus free speech

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The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill is about to finish its journey through Parliament. For anyone who believes in  ‘old fashioned’ notions such as ‘freedom of expression’, alarms bells should be ringing. When implemented, the new law will require educational institutions and their staff to prevent their students from being “drawn into terrorism, including non-violent extremism”.

How this is supposed to be implemented, both on campus and for the promotion of off-site activities, is set out in official guidance. For all that the Government may protest otherwise, this will inevitably mean a clampdown on free speech. A late amendment that obliges colleges and universities to consider the issue of freedom of expression is too little, too late.  The onus is on the educational institutions to act and to demonstrate that they have acted. This will have to be done under the watchful scrutiny of a monitoring authority.

Regarding the intellectual ‘life blood’ of student life – debate, discussion and speeches – university and college authorities will have to ensure:

  • “Sufficient notice of booking (generally at least 14 days) to allow for checks to be made and cancellation to take place if necessary.”
  • “Advance notice of the content of the event, including an outline of the topics to be discussed and sight of any presentations, footage to be broadcast etc.”

In other words, in our main intellectual arenas for debate and discourse, everything is going to have to be vetted and approved beforehand.

All of this, of course, has been brought about because of a legitimate concern about extremism and terrorism. Sadly, when fundamental liberties are eroded in the name of protecting “British values”, those values are lost and the terrorists have won.  Even the usually accommodating Christian Unions are up in arms. Christian Concern is warning where the Government’s laudable wish to promote mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs as a British values could lead:

“In the current cultural context, it is likely that some people will claim that biblical teaching about marriage, family and sexual ethics or about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ is ‘intolerant of other faiths and beliefs’. Such teaching could therefore be banned or restricted, even within a Christian Union setting.”

Given the current campaign by Ofsted inquisitors, at the behest of Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, to enforce a politically correct definition of “British values” on all schools, including faith school, such fears are well founded.

There is nothing new about insecure governments resorting to what amounts to a ‘national emergency’ measure to bolster their own position. If the BBC/Hilary Mantel “Wolf Hall” depiction of Thomas Cromwell were to leave the realms of fiction, it would discover a Thomas Cromwell rather less like a spokesman for New Labour in the Peter Mandelson mould and more like Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s frightening henchman and enforcer.

Cromwell was not much of a fan of free speech, either. Tracey Borman’s new biography of him points out, for example, that execution faced an 84 year-old farmer from Worcestershire who “was reported to have blamed a run of bad weather on the King, saying it was all started with his ‘business’”. Cromwell admitted he was all “for putting the Kynges Subjectes and other in more terror ande Feare”.

Are we heading in that direction? Our society today may be going through another ‘Reformation’ of belief and ideology, but we do not need to proceed in the style of Master Cromwell.

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Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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