How Did the UCU Get the Free Speech Debate So Wrong?

Samuel Rubinstein 12 December 2020
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

In 2013, thirteen per cent of Americans believed that President Barack Obama was the antichrist.[1] Last year, a YouGov survey found that fifteen per cent of British adults believe in the Loch Ness Monster.[2]  Right now, between twelve and fourteen per cent of people in Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana believe America is controlled by a cabal of Satanist paedophiles.[3] It is on one level concerning that, in each of these cases, so many people hold obviously ridiculous propositions to be true. But inevitably there will, in any society, be some individuals who believe in nonsense. We call these people ‘the fringe’, and go about our lives reassured that, so long as their percentages are in, say, the low teens, these people are non-entities, their beliefs generally undeserving of our time and attention.

And it was this thought that struck me on Wednesday when I examined the results of the Regent House vote on the university’s statement on free speech. It turned out that the opposition to Dr Arif Ahmed’s amendments was peripheral, fringe, utterly irrelevant. Dr Ahmed’s first amendment, which replaced authoritarian ‘respect’ with the liberal value of ‘tolerance’, was opposed by only thirteen per cent of Cambridge’s academic community, the same proportion as that of Americans who in 2013 thought Obama was the antichrist. Dr Ahmed’s other two amendments likewise garnered near-universal support. Consensus on anything is hard to come by in Cambridge, but on this issue, we aren’t far off. A poorly-aged Kellyanne Conway quotation here seems apt: ‘Landslide. Blowout. Historic.’[4]

But this much-publicised affair is, at its core, ‘a tale of two Cambridges’. Although we now know that Dr Ahmed’s amendments were overwhelmingly popular among university staff, only a few weeks ago those same amendments were shouted down.  A motion submitted by Professor Priyamvada Gopal, calling for the amendments to be rejected, was endorsed by a meeting of the Cambridge branch of the UCU in a mirror-image landslide victory of forty-nine to eight. Thus we are faced with two very different pictures of what Cambridge academics think, and the UCU’s, in comparison with the Regent House, is distorted to the point of being unrecognisable.

In all of this, the UCU has come out as the biggest loser. Their detachment from reality has been exposed.  Their position on Dr Ahmed’s amendments – that they should be rejected outright – has been revealed as fringe and peripheral. The bulk of the Regent House took no notice of their ‘encourage[ment] to reject the amendments’.[5] So what happens when they, say, next call for strike action? Why should anybody take them seriously? If they are representing the same people as they represented in this debate, then they can be readily shrugged off as an irrelevant pressure group, a tiny and negligible minority. Clearly, they do not speak for Cambridge academics. By taking the losing position on this issue, they have risked permanently damaging their credibility.

And one wonders how bad engagement in the UCU must be for them to have got this matter – by democratic vote – so hopelessly wrong. It must be the case that only those on the fringes bother to get involved with the UCU, and therefore that it fails in its singular task of accurately representing academic interests in Cambridge. Or perhaps – as is implied by the high number of registered abstentions and members declining to vote in the UCU meeting – academics are fearful of expressing publicly what they were able to express privately in the Regent House vote. This, anyway, is Dr Ahmed’s inclination: ‘although many academics are perhaps unwilling to speak openly about it, when they have the opportunity to reveal their preferences through a secret ballot, they did actually show that they care about freedom of speech and want it protected’.[6] The stark discrepancy between the UCU vote and that of the Regent House must be explained somehow, and the implications of both of these possibilities are troubling. Either the UCU is completely disconnected from those it purports to represent, or there prevails within it a culture of hostility that discourages members from publicly expressing their true thoughts. This latter possibility also, of course, precludes the UCU from being as representative as it should be.

although many academics are perhaps unwilling to speak openly about it, when they have the opportunity to reveal their preferences through a secret ballot, they did actually show that they care about freedom of speech and want it protected

For those who pushed for the UCU to neglect its responsibility to represent the interests of academic staff, it would perhaps be a good idea to reflect on what allowed them to be so out-of-touch.  Instead, we find only deflection. Prof. Gopal, who spearheaded the opposition to the amendments, has, in an almost Trumpian fashion, ‘raise[d] questions about how the vote was won, & who was involved’.[7] She has decried the amended grace for being based on a ‘government-engineered vote alongside FSU [Free Speech Union] involvement’, a rather quirky conspiracy theory.[8] The amendments succeeded with the complicity of ‘high-minded bien pensants’ who ‘carried out the right’s agenda to the letter’. ‘A thousand Cambridge dons’ (a fair few more, actually) ‘just obediently followed […] the bidding of a far-right extremist gang.’[9] This seems rather scathing about her colleagues, whom she presents as hapless morons, easily duped by Toby Young and his ilk. Given that, say, Stephen Fry also urged Cambridge dons to support the amendments, one could just as easily claim that the vast majority of the Regent House are his puppets.[10]

The association fallacy in Prof. Gopal’s argument isn’t hard to detect: even if the FSU supported the amendments, and even if the FSU is bad, it’s a non-sequitur then to say that the amendments are also bad. It seems far more plausible, and more charitable to the intelligence of the vast majority of Cambridge academics, to suppose that they supported the amendments simply because they were convinced of its merits, independent of the FSU’s ‘bidding’. That Prof. Gopal thinks it more likely for the Regent House vote to have been ‘government-engineered’ than for it to have been the straightforward expression of its members’ opinions and priorities proves how out-of-touch she is. Still, if Prof. Gopal believes that supporting Dr Ahmed’s amendments is tantamount to doing ‘the bidding of a far-right extremist gang’, it’s no wonder that more academics didn’t speak up at, or even bother to attend, the UCU vote on her motion. Perhaps if they had, the UCU would have been spared this embarrassment.

It is unhealthy for unions to be dominated by the fringes. They are only as effective as they are representative. They have leverage only if it is clear that they represent the interests of their members. A thumping majority of the university’s academic community, on the left and the right, has displayed unambiguously a desire to protect Cambridge’s proud tradition of free speech. The Regent House vote has demonstrated once and for all that the loudest voices falter when the decibels cease to matter: when it comes down to one member, one vote, their voices are drowned out. Lest we in the future be deceived by those loud voices, we would do well to remember that fact.

The Regent House vote has demonstrated once and for all that the loudest voices falter when the decibels cease to matter: when it comes down to one member, one vote, their voices are drowned out. Lest we in the future be deceived by those loud voices, we would do well to remember that fact.

[1]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/apr/02/americans-obama-anti-christ-conspiracy-theories
[2]https://yougov.co.uk/topics/travel/survey-results/daily/2019/09/06/72c40/3
[3]https://www.axios.com/poll-qanon-americans-belief-growing-2a2d2a55-38a7-4b2a-a1b6-2685a956feef.html
[4]https://twitter.com/KellyannePolls/status/803336493469204481
[5]http://www.ucu.cam.ac.uk/motion-on-university-freedom-of-speech-statement/
[6]https://www.varsity.co.uk/news/20334?fbclid=IwAR2YV1y6Pm_YPfj1NgedfeAPYc_jPvx7Fxp0mGP0QHWLNahJzKJjP5_KXaY
[7]https://twitter.com/PriyamvadaGopal/status/1337356292663386113
[8]https://twitter.com/PriyamvadaGopal/status/1337363494123962370
[9]https://twitter.com/PriyamvadaGopal/status/1337392720571113475
[10]https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/stephen-fry-joins-chorus-criticising-cambridge-free-speech-policy-lsbd5nq5f