Freedom of speech

Death watch | 14 April 2016

All this week Radio Five Live has been giving us an insight into what it is like not just to confront death every day but also to know that a minor error on your part might end a person’s life. In Junior Doctors’ Diaries on Sunday night, Habiba, Andrew and Jeremy took us inside their daily round, followed by updates throughout the week on Phil Williams’s night-time show. It’s been a timely reminder (politically motivated or not) of how much we need good doctors, and how sad it is that so many of them have felt driven to go on strike. Sad because it’s actually a reflection of how undervalued

The idea of a university as a free space rather than a safe space is vanishing

I’ve always admired the liberal Muslims in the Quilliam Foundation. It is hard to take accusations of betrayal from your own community. Harder still to keep fighting when the thought feeling keeps nagging away that out there, somewhere, there are Islamists who might do you real harm. But Quilliam keeps fighting. To mark the launch by students of the Right2Debate campaign, which seeks to make universities live up to their principles and respect the right to speak and dispute, they have collected accounts from atheists and secularists of the wretched state of higher education. I should pause to explain that last sentence to the confused. You might have assumed that

In praise of PC

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”The Spectator Podcast: Is PC a good thing?”] Listen [/audioplayer]Here’s another stock joke for your collection: Pembroke College, Cambridge, has cancelled a fancy dress party themed on Around the World in Eighty Days to ‘avoid the potential for offence’. One college has objected to the serving of sushi as ‘cultural appropriation’; another cancelled yoga lessons for the same reason. There is an inevitable backlash to this kind of puritanism — to ‘political correctness gone mad’. And it’s true: prissily expressed PC attitudes do often look silly. The problem is that, broadly speaking, they’re also right. I know this with immense certainty. Without the prevailing wind of political correctness

The left will eat itself

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Mick Hume and Jack May, a founding editor of the Stepford Student website, discuss student censorship” startat=1507] Listen [/audioplayer]In 1793, on the eve of the Terror in France, the royalist journalist Mallet du Pan coined the adage ‘The Revolution devours its children.’ Today, on the left, history is repeating itself as farce. In universities, childish pseudo-revolutionaries are devouring their elders and self-styled radical betters. Last week, student activists at Columbia University in New York mounted a concerted campaign against that notorious neo-fascist puppet Pinocchio. A big blow-up Pinocchio doll had starred in a display by Students Supporting Israel, staged as a counter demo to a fun-sounding campus festival

The 5 per cent of people who get to decide everything

What happens when 95 per cent of people like something, but 5 per cent of people prefer something else? You might think natural democracy would prevail: that the 5 per cent would acquiesce and go along with the taste of the majority. Not necessarily. In many cultural settings, it is common for a small, intransigent minority to beat a much larger, tolerant majority. If you’re hosting a dinner party, for instance, all it takes is one git with a spurious ‘fenugreek intolerance’ to veto your best lamb curry. You might call this ‘the asymmetry of tolerance’, where certain social systems end up calibrated to suit their most inflexible component. If the majority prefers

Diary – 7 January 2016

So far my responsibilities as the 2016 chair of the Man Booker prize have been rather light. We’ve had our first meeting, received our first batch of books, and I’ve bought a smart notebook for record-keeping. I shall take a step back from journalism this year, including my Sunday Times column, but that doesn’t mean I shall be less active in the fight for freedom of expression. Some things are non-negotiable. I’ve just read Open Letter by the late Charlie Hebdo editor Charb. He finished it two days before his death in the massacre on 7 January 2015. The book is aimed at both religious extremists and their apologists. ‘No

There’s a right way to lose at the Oxford Union. I did the wrong way

The way not to win a debate at the Oxford Union, I’ve just discovered, is to start your speech with a casual quip about Aids. It wasn’t a scripted joke. Just one of those things you blurt out in those terrifying initial moments when you’re trying to win the audience over with your japeish, irreverent, mildly self-parodying human side before launching into your argument proper. It only happened because when my turn came to speak there wasn’t any still water for me to drink and I was parched. So various Union officers proffered me the dregs of the other speakers’ half-drunk bottles. ‘Oh my God, I might get Aids,’ I

Who defines what is so traumatic that someone shouldn’t speak to students?

That students are becoming rather hardline about speakers they disagree with visiting their campuses is now well described. Brendan O’Neill first explained the ‘Stepford Student’ phenomenon in the Spectator, and in today’s Times David Aaronovitch described his own encounter with a student leader who believes speakers who may upset students should be banned from campuses. What was particularly interesting about Aaronovitch’s Newsnight discussion last week was that Toke Dahler, his opponent, seemed quite concerned that students shouldn’t suffer ‘trauma’ as a result of a speaker being on their premises. Aside from all the arguments about the importance of a clash of ideas, especially when some of those ideas are foolish

France’s new reactionaries

When President de Gaulle was asked to authorise the criminal prosecution of Jean-Paul Sartre for civil disobedience during the Algerian war, he declined. ‘One does not lock up Voltaire,’ he added, unhistorically. In France, ‘public intellectuals’ have a quasi-constitutional status, so it’s not surprising that a furious bunfight has broken out over a handful of philosophers known as ‘les nouveaux réactionnaires’. The new reactionaries do not see themselves as a group, but they defend a common point of view about the causes of France’s diminishing status and influence. They look back on a golden age that started with the French revolution and continued for nearly 200 years as France —

What Scottish professors have to fear from Nicola Sturgeon’s power grab

In the grounds of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University stands a one-tonne sculpture. Roughly hewn and about five feet high, it carries in its top corner an ill-carved sun. Beneath it are some words of Alex Salmond, half-sunk in the sandstone, as if they were the thoughts of a Scottish Ozymandias: ‘The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.’ This clunky celebration of SNP -policy should raise a few doubts. Free higher education is not free for all in Scotland. Edinburgh can afford to pay the fees of only 124,000 students in Scottish universities. Their contemporaries might have the grades, but they

Stop health tourism

Speaking after the Stafford hospital scandal in 2010, the then newly appointed Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, grandly announced plans for a charter to support whistleblowers. The government, he said, would ‘create an expectation that NHS staff will raise concerns about safety, malpractice and wrongdoing as early as possible’. We now know just how that fine pledge worked out. In 2013 this magazine ran a piece by J. Meirion Thomas, then a cancer specialist at the Royal Marsden hospital in London, about his concerns at how the NHS was being exploited by health tourists. He had tried, he said, to expose an ineligible foreign patient but had as a result been

Keep the cops away from the radical clerics, be they Christian or Muslim

If you want to see our grievance-ridden, huckster-driven future, looks to Northern Ireland, which has always been a world leader in the fevered politics of religious victimhood and aggression. Just as the Tories and much of the politically-correct liberal centre think they can force us to be nice by allowing the cops to arrest those who ‘spread hate but do not break laws’ (in George Osborne’s sinister words) so Northern Ireland has all kinds of restrictions of ‘hate speech’ to police its rich and diverse tradition of religious bigotry. I suppose it was inevitable that they would catch 78-year-old Pastor James McConnell of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in North Belfast.

What does the Tim Hunt saga tell us about the future of democracy?

A friend of mine, who attends a top UK University, recently attended a generic debate on feminism and sexual violence. He made a point from the floor that, contrary to his colleague who argued that unless consent is enthusiastic it constitutes rape, legally speaking consent needn’t be enthusiastic in order to be legitimate. What followed is simply astounding. The next day he was called in to a meeting with a student union official, who informed him that a group of female students had made a joint complaint about him, raising concerns about their safety on campus. They had been going around warning other students that he is, apparently, a potential

Censoring Jews

You might think that Jews, faced with a relentless campaign to ban their culture, would think once, twice, a hundred times, about instituting bans themselves. After they had thought about it, they would decide that, no, absolutely not, prudence as much as principle directs that they of all people must insist that art should be open to all. A good liberal idea, you might think. So good and so obvious there’s no need to say more. If you still require an explanation, allow me to help. You don’t try to silence others if you believe in artistic and intellectual freedom. You keep your mind open and the conversation going. Every

It’s not up to Theresa May to define ‘British values’

A month after the Magna-Carta-mangling Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill crept onto the statue book, leaked documents seen by the Daily Telegraph over the weekend reveal Home Office proposals which are likely to have significant, if apparently unintended, consequences for free speech in this country. I haven’t seen the full strategy papers myself, and nor will you. They have been deemed too ‘sensitive’ ever to face public scrutiny, and only a two-page executive summary is due to be published. At this stage, it is worth considering the few choice quotes the Telegraph have dutifully passed on. The leaked papers make some confident claims about ‘British values’, with citizenship and even temporary visa applicants required

How liberal Britain is betraying ex-Muslims

A few days ago Imtiaz, a solar engineer; Aliya, a campaigner for secular education; Sohail, a gay Somali in his twenties; and Sara, a bright student, went to Queen Mary University of London in the East End and made an astonishingly brave stand. Astonishing because they volunteered to step forward to the front line after the Islamist murders of satirists and Jews in Paris and Copenhagen. Before an audience and in front of cameras, they explained why they had left Islam. They had become ‘apostates’, to use a dangerous word, which blackens what ought to be a personal decision that free adults in free countries ought to be free to make

A survivor of the Copenhagen attack speaks: ‘If we should stop drawing cartoons, should we also stop having synagogues?’

Two years ago the Danish writer Helle Brix helped found the Lars Vilks Committee. The group of media figures from left and right came together to support the Swedish artist who has been under constant threat of death since drawing a picture of Mohammed in 2007. ‘We agreed that Mr Vilks should not be alone in the world,’ says Helle when we spoke earlier this week, ‘and if the establishment or the Swedish artists wouldn’t support him then we would. We wanted to give him a platform and a possibility to do what he used to do before he was unable to go out and meet the public because this

Podcast: The new political correctness and how Labour lost Scotland

Is there something menacing about the march of the new political correctness? On the latest View from 22 podcast, Brendan O’Neill and Tim Squirrell debate this week’s cover feature on the new PC and the implications for freedom of speech. How easy is it to navigate this lexicon? Have we lost our British sense of being ridiculous? And how much does political correctness really help progressive causes? Alex Massie and James Forsyth also discuss Labour’s troubles north of the border and how its problems might also spell trouble for the union. Is Jim Murphy doing a good job as Scottish Labour leader? Will the return of Gordon Brown improve or

As a republican, I used to look forward to Charles III. Now I’m scared

When republicans meet, we console ourselves with the thought that our apparently doomed cause will revive. The hereditary principle guarantees that eventually a dangerous fool will accede to a position he could never have attained by merit, we chortle. With Charles III, we have just the fool we need. I don’t laugh any more. Britain faces massive difficulties. It can do without an unnecessary crisis brought by a superstitious and vindictive princeling who is too vain to accept the limits of constitutional monarchy. If you want a true measure of the man, buy Edzard Ernst’s memoir A Scientist in Wonderland, which the Imprint Academic press have just released. It would

Political correctness: How censorship defeats itself

A cretin writing in this morning’s Telegraph doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘cretin’. Just about every writer writing about Benedict Cumberbatch in every paper yesterday failed to understand that Cumberbatch was not a racist because he had said ‘coloured’ rather than ‘person of colour’. Poor fool that he was, Cumberbatch had wanted to use his appearance on US television to complain about the lack of opportunities for black actors in Britain: ‘I think as far as coloured actors go, it gets really different in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change.’ After the battering