The NUS is a disgrace to demand we boycott the NSS

The NUS, in their wisdom, want us to boycott the National Student Survey (NSS).  The NSS helps universities work out where they can improve, contributes to league tables and helps prospective students make their mind up on which uni they should go to.  The NUS doesn’t care about any of this.  They think that the government will use it to justify raising fees and believe that if we boycott it the government will change its mind and reverse plans to put up fees.  Seems ridiculous? That’s because it is.  It’s a pathetic attempt by the NUS to stand up for students, a weak cop-out that means they can pretend to be doing something when really there is no substance to their opposition to fee rises. Continue reading

Advertisements

Interview with Tommy Robinson

Context: I interviewed Tommy Robinson over the phone in response to him being invited to speak at my University (University of York). 

Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is a prominent member of the British far-right.  He co-founded the notorious English Defence League (EDL), was previously a member of the BNP and is currently a part of the German-originating Pegida group, which stands for ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’.

In 2014, Tommy spoke at the Oxford Union (watch it here) and now there are plans in place for him to give a speech and participate in a Q&A at the University of York.  I spoke to him about speaking at universities and free speech in the UK.

I asked him why he thought universities invite him to speak, and why it is that he has taken up the offers. 

TR “When I walked into Oxford University, I doubt very much many people come from the background I’ve come from or lived in the areas I have.  So when they go into their life and into their careers, they need some sort of understanding of why people feel are feeling like this.”  And he says he thinks he achieved this in Oxford. He says “I talk on behalf of a lot of people, who are scared to raise these issues”.

Of course he’s fully aware of the opposition that he faces on university campuses, and recognises that even getting his views across is more than an uphill struggle.  “I know I’m going into these universities where most of these students don’t like me… there’s no benefit to me”.

I was going to bring his views on ‘no-platforming’ up, but he did it for me.  Inevitably he was critical.

TR: “This whole angle of no-platform, which is this far left opinion – If they want to look at the reason why Brexit happened, the reason why Donald Trump happened, the reason why the left are going to be booted from every position of power in Europe, it’s because of this attitude.  This attitude that you can’t say that, you can’t speak.  This is oppression of free speech and stopping people from having opinions, which they have anyway.” He continued: “All these people calling themselves ‘anti-fascist, that’s the biggest problem for me: ‘we’re anti-fascist, but we want to stop you talking’. It doesn’t make any sense.”

So should anyone ever be banned from talking at universities?

TR “I think that anybody who incites violence, or someone who has openly said in the past that homosexuals should be executed [shouldn’t be allowed to speak].  Other than that I’m totally free speech.”  But Tommy did become a bit defensive.  I didn’t directly relate it to him, but we are all aware of the accusations of inciting violence, or being violent, which (rightly or wrongly) he faces. I have never ever, which I’ll do in this University talk I’ll show people what I’ve said… not what the media have told you what I’ve said… I’ve never incited any violence ever.  I just speak.”

I didn’t want to go into a great amount of detail or debate over his views on Islam and radical Islam.  A short phone conversation is not the best place to challenge such ideas and I wants this interview to be more about speaking at universities, free speech and Tommy’s views on this – a prelude to the event at York.  But I had to challenge him when he claimed University campuses were a hotbed for radical Islam:

TR: “I think the worries people used to have as parents would be that your child would go to university, take drugs or drink.  Now, they’re going to join a radical Islamic group at university, throw away their career and become a Jihadist.”

Does he really believe this?

TR: “The numbers speak for themselves. If you look at ISIS recruits from Germany, 60% of them are university graduates… I think it’s a huge problem embedded in the British education system”.

“When you live away from home for the first time, you’re vulnerable. That’s when they’re preying on people. That’s wrong.  That’s what’s happening. I think that kids going to university should be protected.  Protected from the ideology of [radical Islam].

There was a clear message he wanted to get across – that he’s not inciting violence, and is happy to talk to and debate anyone:

TR: “Most Muslims don’t oppose me coming. This is what I’ve said to everyone: if anyone wants to talk to me, whether it be the Muslim association, whether it be Muslim groups at universities, I’m happy to, after my talk, talk to them and discuss and debate.  If people want to protest me, I’m happy afterwards to come out and talk to the protesters.  I’m happy to sit down and discuss my ideas with them.  I’m happy to debate any of them.

What can York expect from Tommy’s speech in January?

TR: “I want to come and talk about free speech. I don’t want to talk about Islam. I want to talk about free speech, about what’s happening to free speech… from an activist’s point of view.”

He told me “I’m not going to mention Islam” in the speech.  Instead it will be about “whether we have free speech in the UK”.  He’ll talk about his experience with the police and free speech in this country, telling me that Scotland Yard tried to recruit him, though this “didn’t work for them”.

“I don’t want someone to be standing there in ten years’ time talking about how they lost their freedom of speech”

TR: “The country I thought I lived in is a very different country to the one I accept I live, when it comes to freedom and democracy.  Whether you disagree with me, despise me, hate me or you love me, I have a right, in this country, to talk”.

This interview is to help get an insight into the views of Tommy Robinson on free speech in the UK and his experiences speaking at Universities. I want it to contribute to a wider debate around free speech and who should be invited to speak on campuses. The interview was not about Tommy’s views on Islam or his past political activates. Tommy Robinson is due to speak at the University of York on 19th January 2017. 

This article was first published on Student Voices.  I also wrote a different version, with a focus on York, for The Tab.

Allow it, Monitor it or Censor it? Students Debate Free Speech in the House of Lords

Context: I was invited to the House of Lords to cover an annual debate between non-members.  This year it was on free speech.  It took place on 25 November and the article was published on StudentVoices.co.uk on 26 November.

Yesterday, for the tenth year in a row, the House of Lords opened up its chamber to non-members for a debate.  The question of debate this year? Should there be limits to freedom of speech in the UK?  Involved were a number of organisations, including English PEN, Migrants Organise, 38 Degrees, Speakers’ Corner Trust and nine schools, as well as Newham Sixth Form College.  In total over 200 people took part in an event which lasted two and a quarter hours and was facilitated by Lord Norman Fowler, the Lord Speaker.

The participants were split into thirds, supporting three propositions.  The first proposed no limits on freedom of speech, “The best counter to harmful speech is debate not censorship”.The second proposition was to monitor speech, “the government should be allowed to monitor closely what people are saying and intervene if they need to for security reasons”. The third and final proposition called for censorship, “we should be able to restrict or censor harmful voices”.  Despite, as one student quipped, the irony that participants were given their argument and weren’t able to choose based on their own opinions, the topic of debate, which can be somewhat controversial at times, ensured that it was passionate and lively throughout. As Lord Fowler said afterwards, “all the speeches were excellent and some… were outstanding.”

There were many thought-provoking points raised throughout the debate – but a few stuck out. One of the best arguments for the first proposition, placing no limits on free speech, was put forward the personal experience of participants.  One spoke about the rights of the disabled.  Without free speech, minority groups wouldn’t have been able to fight for the rights they have now. This point came up time and time again; just 50 years ago laws banned ‘homosexual acts’, we were told.  Without free speech how would we have moved away from this in society? How would we, as a society, progress?  Without free speech and without free debate, minority groups wouldn’t have a voice and many people in this country wouldn’t have the rights they have today.  This is an argument that proved convincing.

Historical, and philosophical, points aside, others raised issues which are prominent amongst young people today.  One raised the issue of “no platforming” on university campuses, an issue which he said, when arguing against censorship, “allows negative ideas to go unchallenged”. Similarly, another participant notes “it’s just as important to have people who disagree with you as it is to have people who agree”.

Of course, there were great arguments given for the propositions to monitor and censor free speech.  The pragmatism of monitoring, or censoring, what people say was a point continuously raised.  Anti-harassment laws, libel laws and laws against racial hatred are designed for the good of society, it was argued. But even those who argued for monitoring free speech saw the dangers of too much government interference.  One member of the debate noted that free speech “is the last defence against tyranny”, explaining how press censorship in Turkey has allowed President Erdogan to consolidate his power.

Like speeches which normally take place in the Lords, or Commons, chamber, those given yesterday were not without soundbites. A favourite was “don’t silence speech, educate and teach”, but “we cannot have a diverse Britain without diverse voices” was equally as good. The confidence with which these speeches and lines were delivered was very impressive; it truly showed the Lords what young people are capable of: sensible, thought-provoking and intelligent debate.

So who won? To accurately assess a winner, two votes were taken – one at the start and the other at the beginning of the debate.  In the first vote, pre-debate, ‘monitor free speech won’ (86), with no limits coming second on 79.  Those who wanted to censor free speech where in a very small minority, just 20 voted for the third proposition.  However, the second vote produced a different result. The argument to have no limits on free speech came a convincing first with 98 votes (up 19), while voted to ‘monitor’ speech fell by 11, to 75.  Similarly, those who wanted censorship were reduced to just 16 votes (down 4).  The argument for absolute free speech was the more convincing one, although saying that is not too take away from the excellent speeches given by those opposed.  Ultimately, it is easier to argue against censorship on the basis of rights and freedoms. Yet those who were arguing for no limits on free speech brought a mix of traditional points and original arguments to the debate.  They were deserved winners.

 

This article was originally published on Student Voices.

Theresa May: The Final Nail in the Coffin for British Liberalism

Statism and social conservatism are back­ – economic and social liberalism are out

When Theresa May emerged as Prime Minister following the resignation of David Cameron, a number of commentators noted a similarity between her and three-times elected former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The ‘Iron Lady’ and May have a similar air of ruthlessness about them, it was claimed. In July the Independent published an article claiming the public see many similarities between the two.  After her first Prime Minister’s Questions, the Guardian claimed ‘Margaret Thatcher is reborn’ in a piece which highlights May and Thatcher’s similarities noted in newspapers across the political spectrum.  But if there are similarities between our two female Prime Ministers then they stop at personality. Margaret Thatcher, who championed neo-liberalism, free markets and ‘rolling back’ the state is in stark contrast to Theresa May, who, in her speech to the Conservative party conference last week, declared her support for the politics of statism and economic interventionism.

There are areas that May is moving the Tory party and the government away from liberalism; economically and socially. Some people are claiming that she is moving into the centre ground. This is not entirely true.  Economically, it might be – leaving behind a free-market, neo-liberal approach for an interventionist one is a move towards the economic policy of the Lib Dems and Labour (though not to the interventionist extremes of John McDonnell).  In her conference speech, which upon hearing the late Thatcher would be turning in her grave, May said “where markets are dysfunctional, we should be prepared to intervene” and “we must set the market right”.  She spoke of the power of government, repeating the phrase “because that is what the government can do”.  RIP economic liberalism.

While this interventionist economics may be a move towards the centre, socially she is moving the Conservative party and the government away from it.  It is becoming socially illiberal and authoritarian – abandoning the values modernisers brought to the party under Cameron.

Margaret Thatcher was never inherently socially liberal. When David Cameron took over as leader he, and other ‘Tory modernisers’ looked to bring the Conservative party ‘into the twenty-first century’, to use a cliché. He continued a similar economic approach to Blair, who had adopted large parts of the neo-liberalist economics of Thatcher, but reformed the Conservative party into much more of a socially liberal party.  The prime example of this is his government legalising gay marriage.  But May is leading her party away from this. She has never been a liberal, her time at the Home Office tells us this much. The ‘Snoopers Charter’, for example, as well as the treatment of overseas students under her regime shows us that the liberal ideals of tolerance won’t be a part of her government. In perusing a ‘hard Brexit’ she is adopting the populist views which led to Brexit in the first place. May is appeasing those who share UKIP’s beliefs: anti-immigration and social authoritarianism.

Theresa May has destroyed liberalism within the Conservative party, for now.  Jeremy Corbyn has destroyed liberalism in the Labour Party; his ‘new kind of politics’ is a return to the illiberal and socialist (thus authoritarian) old days before from New Labour made the party electable again.  And our only self-declared ‘liberal’ party, the Lib Dems, is performing worse than the populist-right-wing UKIP.  For now it seems that liberalism is down and out.  Economic and social liberalism in the UK has been replaced by populist politics, fueled by Brexit.

This articles was published on StudentVoices.co.uk and the Huffington Post.

How long can Jeremy Corbyn last and where does Labour go from here?

I begin writing this article as Shadow Women’s Minister Kate Green resigns announces she is the latest in many MPs who are part of the ‘shadow government’ (which goes further than the shadow cabinet) to hand their resignation letter into Jeremy Corbyn.  No doubt more will follow; It’s unlikely I’ll be able to finish writing this piece before someone else goes.  This is the biggest crisis in a long time for Labour.  For Jeremy Corbyn, this is the biggest test of his leadership.  Or, ‘non-leadership’ as it probably should be known.

I don’t believe that Corbyn can hang on from this.  Last night he reshuffled his shadow cabinet, having to appoint new MPs to high profile positions, after two dozen quit last night.  This act of defiance was short-lived though – even more members of the shadow cabinet have resigned today.  Nearly all of those MPs who have abandoned their leader have suggested the reason for them doing so, or at least part of the reason, was Corbyn’s failure to engage Labour supporters to vote for Remain in the referendum.  They have every right to be angry.  He didn’t appear on the same platforms as the higher profile leave campaigners did and when he did speak in favour of Remain you could be forgiven for thinking that he was actually giving a Leave speech.  In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he secretly cast his ballot in favour of Brexit.

Of course, some of these MPs who have left the shadow cabinet have had a long standing opposition to Jeremy Corbyn.  This has been duly pointed out by bitter Corbyn supporters.  But the coup that is happening now, and we are right to call it a coup, goes much further.  For example, Angela Eagle was never originally hostile to Corbyn’s leadership.  She resigned earlier today.  Her reasons? His failure during the referendum campaign and his failure to communicate with MPs.  She said:

“Jeremy doesn’t respond when you ask him questions. He just absorbs it and doesn’t say anything.” – Angela Eagle

The issue is, Jeremy Corbyn is failing as a leader.  As a human being, we all seem to agree that he is a decent person. But as a leader, he is absent and divisive. He started saying he wanted Labour to be a ‘broad tent’.  But time and time again he has led the party based on his views and his views alone. During the referendum he was pushed to accept the overwhelming view of the parliamentary Labour party, but as we’ve seen he did this half-heartedly. He surrounds himself with a small team, in the leadership office, who were drafted in from his campaign for the leadership.  These are the people who share his politics, who fought against the leadership during the Blair years and who are at odds with a large part of the Labour parliamentary party.  When we see Labour MPs on political talk shows (except the hard-core Corbyn fans, and controversial MPs, Dianne Abbot and Emily Thornberry), they seem disconnected from their leader.  In fact, they often openly speak against Corbyn and his policies.

After the EU referendum this has been magnified. Labour MPs have grown frustrated with Corbyn and have lost confidence in his ability to lead the party and fight a general election. Those who did want rid of him before the next general election have had to act fast – there is now a very real possibility that the UK will go to the polls to elect a new government by the end of the year.  That’s three years before we thought we would be, before we voted to leave the EU.

The title of this article asks how long Jeremy will last. Scenario one, which I believe is most likely, is that he won’t last long at all. He will lose a vote of no confidence by the parliamentary party and may or may not choose to run for the leadership again. He has said he will, but how can he lead a party that has just passed a vote of no confidence in his leadership?  He can’t. So surely he can’t run for the leadership again.  But if he does try to, it’s possible that MPs will be able to block him. He may have to get the nominations from MPs again (though this isn’t clear) and it’s very possible he won’t get them; therefore, party members won’t be able to vote him into the leadership position.

A second scenario is that he does manage to hang on.  If so, he will be leading a severely divided party. The MPs who resigned from the shadow cabinet will not be able to return – you can’t serve a leader you have no confidence in. These MPs will make it impossible for Corbyn to have clear policy positions. I’m sure they’ll have no issue voting against the leadership. That’s if they stay with the party.  There are suggestions that some could defect to the Lib Dems, or just resign the party whip and sit as independents in protest at Corbyn.

If this second scenario happens, Corbyn may last until the next general election (if we have one after the Conservative’s give us a new Prime Minister) – which he’ll inevitably lose.

The title also asks where Labour can go from here. Of course, this depends on what happens with the leadership.  To achieve progress, Labour needs to become united.  It can only do this if a new leader comes in – not from the far left (for example John McDonnel) or from the ‘Blairite’ group but someone who is able to unify the party and lead them into a general election with a clear vision for the country.  This certainly isn’t an easy job – it may not even be possible – but to stand a chance, Corbyn needs to stand down now.  If he fights another leadership battle, he’ll divide the party even further.

As I finish writing, two more shadow cabinet ministers have resigned.

Cameron: Stop Lying to us About Immigration

Immigration has dominated arguments over the EU and is constantly being pushed by the Leave campaign.  Despite the IN campaign focusing primarily on economic arguments, David Cameron, de-facto leader, has attempted to address ‘Out’ concerns over immigration.  He has done this by lying to the British public on a number of things. To be clear, free movement which comes with our EU membership means that there is nothing that can be done to prevent legal migration to the UK from the EU – just as Britons are able to travel and live in EU countries under the same regulations.  However, immigration from outside the EU is under the control of the British government (in theory) and yet the number of migrants coming to Britain from these countries is almost twice the target Cameron set himself for total net migration.  Instead of insisting that ‘we can control immigration inside the EU’ (BBC), the Prime Minister needs to stop lying to us and be clear on what the government can and will actually do to reduce immigration (as the Conservatives were elected on a platform promising to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’). Continue reading

The EU is an Insult to Democracy


Whether Britain is better off economically inside or outside of the European Union, we can be sure of one thing; the EU is and will remain an undemocratic, bureaucratic mess.  Not only has the EU never received a warrant from the British public to decide our laws for us, but the key institutions within it aren’t elected by the European population.  The miserable attempt by David Cameron to secure a ‘better deal’ for Britain from the EU shows that this is never going to change.

I am not arguing that the EU is sovereign over us.  At any time, Britain can withdraw from the European Union and become a self-ruling democracy once again.  However, in the mean time we have temporarily handed over the ability to rule ourselves; we are intentionally surrendering our sovereignty to an undemocratic, stagnating, bureaucratic and increasingly authoritarian body.  Rather than the liberal beacon of hope some are trying to portray the EU as, it’s a backwards and elitist organisation which favours the wealthy and the politicians over the normal, European and British citizen. Continue reading

The NUS is a disgrace to students

The National Union of Students has just elected Malia Bouattia as their new president.  This is a woman who rejected a motion condemning Islamic State and described Birmingham University as “something of a Zionist outpost”.  She has denied being anti-Semitic, and yet she’s warned of “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets” and supported a group which held a re-enactment of an Israeli checkpoint outside of the University of Birmingham’s library. Can such a divisive figure claim to represent all students?  No, of course not.  The NUS is continuing its degeneration into a hard-line, authoritarian socialist pressure group which is as out of touch with the views and needs of young people as it could ever be. Continue reading

David Cameron’s ‘offshore fund row’ is a non-story blown out of proportion

Has it come as a surprise that the Eton-educated, millionaire David Cameron (and his family) had investments overseas? Has it come as a surprise that Cameron senior invested his money in a variety of ways; some of it through tax havens? No.  Not at all – it simply confirms what we know about the Prime Minister: his father had a lot of money, and like people with a lot of money the money has been invested in a number of different places.

But if we actually look at what we’ve found out about the Prime Minister (that he previously held shares in the company Blairmore Holdings) then it is still hard to find what he has actually done wrong.  He said he made a profit of £30,000 on the shares when he sold them in 2010 and paid all required tax on that in the UK.  Cameron held shares in an offshore company which he profited from.  Is that a crime? No.  Is it even morally wrong?  That’s up to you to decide – but he did pay tax on the profits in the UK.  This wasn’t a tax-avoiding scheme.

There are people out there who have used countries such as Panama to hide their financial activity and cheat governments out of tax.  There are millionaires who do engage in illegal activity to hide their money from the tax man and there are people who use so-called ‘aggressive’ tax-avoidance methods to pay an unfair amount of tax.  If the Prime Minister was engaged in any of these things then, given what he’s previously said about tax-avoiders and tax-evaders, the criticism he is facing would be absolutely justified. Unfortunately for Labour, and those who wish to portray him as a selfish and evil Tory, the evidence just isn’t there.  The media are also to blame.  Of course they are drawn to controversy like parasites.  The newspapers will love getting quotes from Labour MPs about how terrible the Prime Minister is and how he isn’t really human at all.  I can only assume they’re hoping something more comes out that truly incriminated Cameron. But, for now, they’re trying to make a fuss about something that, really, is just a non-story.

The real problem for the Prime Minister has been the handling of the story.  It took a week to get this information out and the statements that Number 10 kept releasing were not helping.  For example the statement which contained: “There are no offshore funds/trusts which the prime minister, Mrs Cameron or their children will benefit from in future” was always going to attract further questions.  The whole situation was poorly managed and it has allowed those who oppose him politically to use it to their advantage.

Do UK Universities have a free speech problem?

Free speech on university campuses is an issue that is being brought up time and time again.  It’s certainly not anything new, but if trends recorded by the likes of ‘The Free Speech University Rankings’ (FSUR), by the online magazine Spiked, are anything to go by then free speech on campuses appears to be declining.  The FSUR categorised 115 UK universities into a red, amber and green traffic light system.  Their research shockingly found that 90% of universities have either ‘banned and actively censored ideas on campus’ or ‘chilled free speech through intervention’, with just 10% having a ‘hands-off approach to free speech’.  In gathering this data they looked at the policies of universities and student unions.  Over 55% were given a red ‘traffic light’.  This widespread stifling of free speech is terrible, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  While universities and student unions do their bit to prevent free speech it is sometimes the student response which prevents a person coming to give a speech on university campuses.  This is a dangerous approach and one that desperately needs challenging.

Continue reading