Voltaire and Rousseau wrestled with the subject of ‘free speech’ but ultimately fell short – so what hope does Gavin Williamson have?

Having been faced with the gravest of challenges and been found catastrophically wanting, Boris Johnson, Gavin Williamson and co have decided to play a few of the easy shots instead

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Tuesday 16 February 2021 18:45
<p>The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, seems to think he is leading the ‘war on woke’</p>

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, seems to think he is leading the ‘war on woke’

Gavin Williamson knows what it’s like to be a victim of “cancel culture”. He is, after all, the only cabinet minister ever to be cancelled live on air, by Richard Madeley, in a safari park, to the gentle bemusement of a nearby semi-rampant elephant.

It’s easy to laugh at Gavin Williamson. Indeed it’s very hard to do anything else. But pause we must from that activity, albeit very briefly indeed, to examine the great man’s latest adventures, this time on to the precarious intellectual terrain of free speech.

“Ideas in themselves are not worthy of respect, only tolerance – and to thrive they must prove themselves in the arena of evidence and debate,” explains the secretary of state for education, in the foreword to new rules that will bring in laws to protect, which is to say, control, free speech in universities.

He is, of course, correct, and the likes of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky must consider themselves lucky they were able to prove themselves in said arena before Gavin Williamson decided their entire nation “should shut up and go away”.

Williamson is well suited to the times and the administration he serves. Having been faced with the gravest of challenges and been found catastrophically wanting, Johnson and co have decided to play a few of the easy shots instead.

It’s time to start on the students who Gavin Williamson, and Gavin Williamson alone, seems to think haven’t quite suffered enough. Is it not sufficient that students are living in abject misery, alone with their laptops in their childhood bedrooms, missing out on the most crucial formative experience of their lives but paying for it anyway? Must they also have to endure this rubbish as well? Nothing quite gives the measure of the man than that he should wade into on-campus politics at the precise moment there is absolutely nobody else there.

Do liberal democracies have to tolerate the intolerant? When does a right to free speech start to impinge upon other rights of those who might be the subject of that free speech? Who should police the margins between free speech and hate speech? What is the difference between a right to free speech and a right to be listened to? These are knotty questions that have persisted for so long precisely because they can never be truly answered. Where Voltaire, JS Mill and Rousseau have ultimately fallen short, is Gavin Williamson likely to succeed?

He is not, but as even he knows, that is not the principle objective, which is merely to provide ammunition to the next dangerously stupid, hyper-privileged actor who says something dumb on Question Time and wakes up the next morning with a month-long, jam-packed schedule of TV and radio appearances to discuss the subject of his own cancellation.

Of course, Williamson knows the dangers of “no-platforming” as well as anyone. For very long months last spring, a large number of advisors in the department for education found themselves no-platformed when they tried to point out that the exam results algorithm wasn’t going to work and was gearing up to being quite possibly the single biggest policy fiasco in living memory.

A couple of them would later be cancelled as well, from their jobs, though on the subject of his own cancellation, which is to say resignation, thankfully Mr Williamson found he was able to take a more liberal view. Still, from the rest of us, is required only tolerance, not respect, as he goes on trying to prove himself.

The cabinet’s war on “woke” is worthy of only one thing, and that is not so much derision as a weary shrug. We must use the word “woke” in quotation marks to denote it has been borrowed from the only people who now ever use it – crushingly tedious late middle aged Tories. They can’t win the hard battles – there are 120,000 deaths that prove that – so the easy, carefully cultivated ones will have to do.

A pandemic is hard. Getting angry at the National Trust for moving some paintings of slaveowners? Bring. It. On. Systemic prejudices against ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system, as discussed by Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street fully five years ago? Not for me thanks, I’ll just rattle out a couple of paragraphs about the Winston Churchill statue and leave that well alone.

For the most part, a Tory’s sad burden in life is to be on the wrong side of history. I have lost count in recent years of the number of mea culpas I have heard from the fully 136 Tory MPs who were not sufficiently enlightened to vote for gay marriage in the dark, dark ages of 2013. From wanting to hang Nelson Mandela, to denying climate change, to Section 28, having to say, every so often, “hey, look, I was wrong about that actually, aren’t I brave?”, is just something they do every few years. Remarkably, they still seem to get credit for it.

Naturally, they’ll be wrong about all this, too, in the fullness of time. It’s who they are. It’s what they do.

They won’t be able to hide, in the end, from a younger generation that wants to have a more honest conversation about the moral virtues of their country’s contribution to the world, one that might even dare reevaluate the human ornaments that decorate our streets, and were never put there to last forever.

And more’s the point, it will be their job and the right to do so. In the meantime, Gavin Williamson should just get back to trying to stop failing at his.

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