Jeremy Prynne, ‘The Parade of Liberal Alarm’

Dear Goldhill,

I too have read attentively your response to the student protest at the visit of David Willetts and the subsequent occupation of the Lady Mitchell Hall. I too find the current parade of liberal alarm at the denial to Willetts of yet another platform for his dogmatic policy views to be self-righteous and disingenuous. You will remember that when you announced the project for a new series of seminars on ‘The Idea of a University’ I wrote to you expressing surprise and dismay that you had not invited any students to take part in the planning or to formally present their own arguments. The opportunity merely to ask questions of an authorised speaker is of course far different from an invitation to set out a prepared discourse, and not to acknowledge the student role in any idea of a university is pretty clearly to imply their merely marginal role: as if students could maybe raise issues but couldn’t be expected to make a fully coherent argument in extended format, that would be worth careful attention. Your list of invited speakers was also top-heavy with the great & the good, implying this conferred sanction of position and a priviledged right to be heard. And so this was not at all to be open and free speech, but an imitation of those qualities under cover of authoritarian prescription and central dogma. David Willetts is the epitome of this false notion of free speech. Not only as a senior politician is he whipped into conformity with central policy and under extreme pressure to toe the party line; he is principally the architect of these destructive policies, and there is no evidence whatever that he constructively listens to alternative views; indeed, he drives like a two-brained steamroller in order to crush dissent. So much is generally known and understood, not least by active-minded students, mindful that the next generation of their successors will be blighted by fearsome mounds of debt, keeping out many potential students and keeping under close managerial control (regulated by bankers, the conscience of our new society) the long-term careers of those students who can afford to come here. And therefore it is completely clear to me that ‘free speech’ is a false icon under the aegis of which to defend the invitation of Willetts to speak here. The defense of the value of open debate and free speech was undertaken not by unthinking neoliberal bystanders but by the protesting students; they are the ones who remind us that mendacious tokens of freedom were ever on offer by astute totalitarian rulers. The managers of our once-noble university have sold out their own right and duty of free speech, by unaccountable surrender to this party line, that will drive dissent into tacit surrender while accepting the whole crudely market-view of what universities are to become. It was an exercise of utmost cynicism to invite Willetts here, again, and then to brandish the trouble inevitably thus caused as offensive against free speech. I can only regard this as a crudely provocative set-up, blandly disguised as a fair and equal sharing of opposite views. Yes, maybe the actual tactics of the students will make squeamish liberal-minded academics wince; but far more ignominious is the silence and non-resistance of our university leaders in the face of political manipulation exercised against our collective best interests. I send you this letter in open form because I think it is important that these issues be widely ventilated, and because they are urgent at the present time. With regards : Jeremy Prynne


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