Tom Slater

What’s wrong with saying ‘Rule, Britannia’?

What's wrong with saying 'Rule, Britannia'?
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In the age of Zoom lectures and distance learning, it is almost comforting to know that students’ unions are still up to their mad censorious antics. The new normal cannot dent their zealotry, as a recent story from the University of Aberdeen attests.

The Telegraph reports today that Elizabeth Heverin, a 19-year-old history and politics student, has been banned from all students’ union buildings, debates and services for two weeks for supposedly saying ‘Rule, Britannia’ during an online discussion in December.

She sits on Aberdeen University Students’ Association’s council, and they were discussing whether to renew the union’s ‘demilitarised campus’ policy, whereby the army is banned from recruiting students in union buildings or at union events.

International students had reportedly said the presence of the military on campus would ‘make them feel uncomfortable, due to links with colonialism and the British Empire’. In response, Heverin posted in the webchat: ‘If the British military makes them feel uncomfortable why did they come to a British uni?’ She then followed it up with ‘Rule, Britannia’.

Another student complained to the students’ union, leading to an investigation. In a report last month, the Studens' Association told Heverin that ‘the language used by you, in particular the use of the phrase “Rule Britannia”, could be construed as potentially discriminatory’. It generously refused to render a verdict on whether she had ‘deliberate racist intent’ in using that phrase but banned her anyway.

That this is completely mental goes without saying. If saying ‘Rule, Britannia’ is potentially discriminatory then the Last Night of the Proms is an annually televised hate crime. (Though, going on that big row over ‘Rule, Britannia’ at the Proms last year, there is an alarming number of people who do seem to think that.)

If one of Heverin’s fellow council members found what she said distasteful then they should have argued with her — not snitched on her to the authorities. Just as woke students’ union officials are entitled to their views, so Heverin is entitled to hers. Banning her over her comments is not just authoritarian, it’s also pathetic.

This case is a reminder that students themselves are often on the receiving end of campus censorship, whereas we tend only ever to talk about academics being shunned and external speakers being no platformed. A Survation poll last year found that 36 per cent of students say they hold certain views that, while perfectly legal to express, would be deemed unacceptable by their university, students’ union or peers.

While these students’ stories rarely reach the media, the ones that have are barmy. In 2020, Sheffield Students’ Union labelled a student free speech society a ‘red risk’, meaning its speakers had to go through extra vetting. It hadn’t even held its first event. In 2017, the conservative society at Lincoln had its social media accounts suspended for tweeting about censorship on campus.

More seriously, some conservatives and Christians, particularly those training in caring professions, have been discriminated against because of their views. Felix Ngole, formerly a student at Sheffield University, was kicked off his social-work course for saying on his private Facebook page that homosexuality is a sin. He had to go to the High Court and the Court of Appeal before the decision was overturned. Last year it was reported that Julia Rynkiewicz, a midwifery student at Nottingham, had been banned from a hospital placement over her pro-life views.

While right-leaning students seem to be particular targets for the moment, potentially any student who sits outside of a narrow consensus could fall victim to this. Good luck to any young trans-sceptical feminists speaking their minds on campus today. If student officials find the words ‘Rule, Britannia’ so upsetting, that doesn’t bode well for anyone with anything controversial or interesting to say.