Misdirection as technique of governance, or, “it’s student activists attacking freedom of speech, not the state!”

Earlier today I read a Guardian article on the ‘crisis around debate’ at UK universities. It was a well written article with a valid argument that made some interesting points and to a certain extent some of these concerns had occurred to me in recent years. I’ve long been a proponent of no platform and it’s an issue I feel extremely strongly about – I helped lead the (unsuccessful) campaign to keep it in place at the Warwick SU and my relationships with quite a few people never really recovered from arguments over those few weeks. But I see no platform as a very specific strategy to deal with a very specific enemy. I find its effective generalisation extremely worrying, even if I sometimes share the hostility to those it is directed at.  So in one sense I found the article to be a perfectly valid contribution to an important debate.

But in another sense, I found the article to be almost offensively stupid. It holds up left-wing student activists as the source of ‘a crisis around debate’ at UK universities at a time when parliament is considering a bill which, as the THE summarises, would mean universities “have a statutory duty to implement measures that prevent radicalisation that could lead to acts of terrorism”. Radical advocates would be barred from speaking on campus. Every local authority would be required to to “set up a panel to which the police can refer ‘identified individuals’ who are considered to be vulnerable to radicalisation” with universities as partners of local authorities in this process. We risk drifting into a police state – the words of the chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police, not my own – while the Guardian is blaming this on student activists?

We’ve already seen the police ask a university for attendees of a fracking debate. The president of the Lancaster Student’s Union was warned by police, who she discovered taking photos of her office, that she may have been committing a public order offence by displaying a poster in her office window. Police used CS gas and pulled a taser on Warwick students who were screaming in terror.  They launch secret operations to spy on peaceful student protestors. University staff are increasingly expected to function as proxy border guards. Police violence is increasingly an expectation at student protests, including some astonishing and egregious instances of brutality. Punitive bail conditions are becoming the norm for student activists and some university managements have gone out of their way to exclude and persecute ‘trouble makers’.

But the ‘crisis of debate’ is being caused by left-wing activists? Get real. If we consider this broader context for even a moment then this case is offensively stupid at best and mendacious misdirection at worst.

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