Rishi Sunak appointed the Government’s first ever “free speech tsar” today, as the Prime Minister stepped up his “war on woke” as a key Conservative strategy in the run-up to the next general election.
Arif Ahmed, a philosophy professor at Cambridge University who has campaigned against “cancel culture” on campus, was announced as England’s inaugural director for freedom of speech and academic freedom this morning.
He will be handed new powers to protect freedom of speech from being stifled on British campuses, including the ability to investigate universities and student unions that wrongly restrict debate. Professor Ahmed will also advise the Office for Students, the higher education regulator, on which fines to impose for free speech breaches.
But not immediately. The Department for Education said in a blog post earlier this week that it expects the “new duties and measures” to come into force “before the 2024-25 academic year” – in other words, right before the next general election.
Critics have suggested it illustrates that Professor Ahmed’s appointment is more of a symbolic gesture as Mr Sunak prepares for election footing, with the ongoing culture wars set to form a major part of the Conservative party’s campaign.
It follows the Prime Minister’s surprise intervention earlier this week to voice his support for Professor Kathleen Stock, a gender-critical feminist and philosopher who has been accused of holding transphobic views.
Speaking ahead of her speech at the Oxford Union on Wednesday evening, during which protesters stormed the building and one glued themselves to the floor of the chamber, Mr Sunak said: “Agree or disagree with her, Professor Stock is an important figure in this argument. Students should be allowed to hear and debate her views.”
He later took to Twitter to say that “we mustn’t allow a small but vocal few to shut down discussion”.
Professor Ahmed has also staunchly defended the academic, who maintains that she was bullied into stepping down from her post at Sussex University in 2021 for her views on transgender rights.
Commenting on his announcement today, Professor Ahmed said he would “defend free speech within the law for all views and approaches: post-colonial theory as much as gender critical feminism”.
“A university is not a club,” he wrote in the Times. “It is not a political lobby. It is not a seminary. It is not a ‘brand’. It exists to seek and speak truth, whatever it costs and whoever it upsets.”
The incoming free speech tsar has previously likened the “no-platforming” of academics such as Professor Stock to “a sort of academic version of Salem in the 17th century” where “witch hunts” are commonplace. “It’s hard to convey the reality and the extent of this fear, which stalks the halls of academia”, he wrote in the Telegraph last year.
Professor Ahmed has reportedly said that he has not taken up his new role to join in on the culture wars or promote the Government’s views. And his article this morning suggested that his role may not always fit the right wing “war on woke” stereotype, saying that free speech laws could be breached by “disciplining a lecturer for provocative anti-monarchist tweets”.
But his rhetoric could still provide fodder for Mr Sunak’s war on woke over the crucial year ahead.
The Prime Minister pledged to tackle “woke nonsense” during last summer’s leadership election, as he insisted that “our laws must protect free speech”.
Mr Sunak’s current Cabinet includes Lee Anderson, the Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party, and Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, both of whom have made the battle against the “wokerati” their own personal missions during this Parliament.
Mr Anderson, whose appointment earlier this year raised eyebrows, has criticised the BBC for spewing “woke nonsense”, said “nuisance” council tenants should be forced into tents to pick vegetables 12 hours a day, and called for the return of the death penalty because of its “100 per cent success rate” in preventing reoffending.
Ms Braverman, meanwhile, has called for Whitehall to scrap diversity training, attacked the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” for getting in the way of her policy proposals, and famously described the migrant crisis as an “invasion” on UK shores.
Such comments may chime with the public’s view of what “woke” – originally a positive description of social consciousness – has come to mean. A YouGov poll from last July on the public’s attitudes towards “woke” found that 71 per cent thought of the term negatively, compared to 11 per cent who viewed wokeness positively.
Crucially, the division was starker across party lines, with 90 per cent of those who voted Conservative at the last election saying they generally disapproved of “woke” people and beliefs compared, to 47 per cent of those who voted Labour, and 53 per cent of Lib Dem voters.
Writing in i earlier this year, James Cowling, the co-founder of Next Gen Tories and chairman of the Greenwich Conservative Federation, said: “The answer for some Tories is to embrace the ‘culture wars’ as a clear dividing line between us and Labour.”
Mr Anderson himself said that in the absence of Boris Johnson, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn, the next general election will “probably be a mix of culture wars and the trans debate”.
But while the move will please the Tory right, it risks alienating the Conservatives’ more liberal voters and haemorrhaging any support for the party among younger generations, who polling shows generally align themselves with the woke half of the culture wars.
Even Matt Hancock, a former Tory Cabinet minister, warned last week that ramping up the war on woke in the run-up to the next general election could blow the party’s chances.
“If the Conservative Party don’t appeal to young people, they will die,” he wrote on Twitter. “End the culture wars and start offering credible policies for young people.”
Critics have also accused the Tory party of hypocrisy by appointing a free speech tsar – a term which itself appears something of an oxymoron – while also introducing sweeping new powers to clamp down on protesters.
The Home Office unveiled major new laws under the Public Order Bill last month allowing police to arrest protesters before they have begun protesting, stoking controversy when they were used to crack down on anti-monarchy protesters during the King’s coronation.
Meanwhile, Dan Kaszeta, an associate fellow at Rusi and global expert on nerve agents, accused the Government of political posturing by appointing a free speech tsar just one week after he was banned from speaking at a Government-backed conference.
Mr Kaszeta was disinvited from speaking at the 25th annual Chemical Weapons Demilitarisation Conference last week after civil servants vetted his social media and found criticism of Government policies.
Referring to Professor Ahmed’s appointment as free speech tsar, he said: “Hypocrisy. The censorship is coming from the Government, not the universities.”
Critics have also argued that the war on woke provides easy ideological terrain in areas where Tory policy is floundering, including the education sector.
Kojo Koram, who lectures in law at Birkbeck, University of London, said the decision to focus on “campus culture wars at a time when the infrastructure of Britain’s higher education system is crumbling makes a kind of sense”.
“This Government has no answers to the big structural challenges facing British people in 2023, and so can only try to distract and enrage”.
Dr Jo Grady, general secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union, which represents lecturers and staff, suggested the biggest threats to freedom of speech on campus are “the widespread precarious employment practices which strip academics of the ability to speak and research freely”.
“It’s clear to anyone paying attention to this Government [that] it has no interest in protecting civil liberties,” she said.
If voters want to gain an insight into what lies ahead for the culture wars, they might look at other areas of the education sector that the Government has pledged to focus on.
The DfE has brought forward a review of sex education in schools following claims that children are being taught “graphic and inaccurate” content.
Tory MP Miriam Cates claimed students in the UK are being subjected to relationship and sex education (RSHE) that is “extreme, sexualising and inaccurate”, including lessons on oral sex and claims there are “72 genders”.
Last month one cabinet member, Welsh Secretary David Davies, told i that he would “much rather children be taught maths A-Level than that there are 72 genders, thank you very much”.
Mr Sunak inherited the culture wars from both Mr Johnson, who made defending statues from vandalism a key tenet of his premiership, and Liz Truss, who blamed “woke culture” for her economic failings.
But he has taken up the baton enthusiastically. The Prime Minister made five key pledges earlier this year promising to repair the economy by the end of 2023, including slimming down national debt and stopping small boats. But his appointment of a free speech tsar has cemented the war on woke as a campaign pledge that will run well beyond that, right up to the next general election.