openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Culture wars: It’s the Right that is trying to cancel free speech

While the powerful try to silence those who speak back to them, working-class cultures all over the world are quietly being erased. Last in a series of four on the culture wars

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
18 December 2021, 12.00am
Students protest under the statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Oriel College in Oxford University, 9 March 2016
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Eddie Keogh/Reuters/Alamy

The logo is a fist in the air, clutching a union flag.

Britain Uncancelled, “the campaign to end cancel culture and protect free speech” was launched in October with a website in bright primary colours, and merch to match. It soon gained support from Tory MPs, including the former cabinet minister Esther McVey.

“An intolerant minority of politically motivated campaigners are trying to shut down debates and cancel the views of people they disagree with, and their voice is getting louder because of the platform they’re being given by the mainstream media and big corporations,” the press release declares.

In November, Britain Uncancelled got down to business, launching a campaign to “defund cancel culture”. The Manchester Meteor, a community newspaper, received £25,000 from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the group said, even as the Meteor “actively pushes for Manchester statues to be reviewed”. Apparently this means the paper was waging war on freedom of speech and should be banned from getting public funding.

Other targets include an academic who got a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and tweeted criticism of Winston Churchill.

Before December 2019, the term ‘cancel culture’ seemingly barely registered in the UK. Since then, it’s become a common feature of irate conservative commentary. What is this all about?

There is very little on Britain Uncancelled’s website to tell you who they are. But one detail does give it away. In the small print of its ‘contact’ page, journalists are directed to Barker Strategy.

Barker Strategy is run by a PR man called Ed Barker who has also managed public relations for the anti-lockdown group Us for Them, the COVID Recovery Group, which is an anti-lockdown group of Conservative MPs connected to the hard-Brexit European Research Group, and the Blue Collar Conservative caucus, which is led by Esther McVey. He was also the Tory candidate for Derby South in 2019.

He claims to have been “at the heart of Boris Johnson's journey to becoming prime minister and the 2019 General Election”.

He is, in other words, the political equivalent of a landscape gardener at a shoddy hotel, carefully rolling out astroturf in the hope that you won’t notice the absence of any real grassroots.

Like other right-wing strategists, Barker is leading the Conservatives into a new culture war, with which they are hoping to reshape British politics. One of the key ideas they are trying to push is that there is such a thing as ‘cancel culture’. And one of their first targets is universities.

Which isn’t surprising.

The experiment in mass education

In 1920, less than 4,400 people in the UK graduated with a first degree. In 1970, that was 51,000. In 2000, it was 243,000. And by 2019, 500,000 people got an undergraduate degree. In 2018, England passed the point where young people were more likely than not to participate in higher education by the age of 30.

At the same time, Christianity in the UK has collapsed – in 1983, two-thirds of British people said they were Christian. Now, it’s just one third.

Perhaps even more significantly, fewer young people than ever are enlisting in the military. Even if we set aside the vast peaks in recruitment for the two world wars, the number of troops has fallen from 439,000 in 1920 to 373,000 in 1970 to 145,000 today.

By my estimate, as recently as 1990, a teenager finishing school was more likely to sign up to the army, navy or air force than they were to go to university. But in the 12 months to March 2021, just 16,250 people joined the armed forces while 611,000 of their peers matriculated for a first degree.

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This generation of young voters – the best-educated in history – is the most left-wing in decades. The ruling class hates it

Mussolini’s basic argument for fascism was that, after World War One, European societies were disciplined and hierarchical, as a result of mass military service. The opposite is now true.

People who, at the age of 18, are trained into the deference and nationalism of the military are almost inevitably going to develop different ways of seeing the world from those who are sent to lecture theatres and seminars to learn how to research and think for themselves.

This shift is even more dramatic when you think about its class breakdown. I’m a bit posh, and the first person I know of in my family to have got a degree studied medicine at the University of Bologna in the 1220s. When my grandparents went to university in the 1930s, the background of those attending hadn’t changed much in the seven intervening centuries.

Changes since then have been extraordinary. The 1962 Education Act made university tuition free across the UK as baby boomers hit adulthood, doubling student numbers within a decade, with similar processes happening in West Germany, the US and France and helping produce the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.

Since 1970, student numbers have roughly tripled.

Inevitably, this process of mass education and of bringing working-class people and their perspectives into universities, has helped to produce a generation with more enlightened values, with social norms that better respect the complexities of human existence and with more capacity to see through the propaganda of the ruling class than their parents and grandparents. People with university degrees are more likely to vote for broadly progressive parties, and the current generation of younger voters – the best-educated in human history – is also the most left-wing in decades.

The ruling class hates it.

In July, then-education secretary Gavin Williamson claimed that ‘cancel culture’ threatened British universities’ reputations for free thinking and free speech, and proposed a new law to deal with this issue.

Should the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – which is now in its report stage, having passed its first and seconding reading in Parliament – pass into law, the Office for Students will have the power to fine universities if it believes they are breaching “a culture of open and robust intellectual debate”. It will also give people the right to take universities to court if they feel their freedom to speak has been breached. Because nothing smells of liberty like the state regulating universities.

This moral panic about ‘no platforming’ and ‘cancel culture’ has been going on for most of the past decade. It got particularly intense when the website Spiked! launched “free speech university rankings” in 2015, which its authors claimed exposed the “staggering scale of censorship on campus”.

In 2018, the BBC’s Reality Check team sent Freedom of Information requests to every university in the country asking for lists of books that had been banned, speakers cancelled and courses changed as a result of offence caused.

Out of 120 universities that responded, no book had been removed from any library since 2010 – though Holocaust denier David Irving had the indignity of his being moved out of the ‘history’ section in two. Only four courses had been changed – in one case, to remove a joke photo of a scrotum. And there were only six occasions on which universities had cancelled speakers as a result of complaints.

Not everything that happens on-campus is determined by the university authorities, however. Students’ unions with their societies also hold events, for which they set their own rules. And it’s true that many have ‘no platform’ policies, democratically agreed by their members, which ban representatives of particular groups from speaking in their venues – just as any club or pub might.

But evidence of any kind of worrying ‘cancel culture’ at students’ unions is also scant.

A representative of Spiked! spoke to a committee of MPs about this question a couple of years ago, and one of the few actual examples he could give was Edinburgh University Students’ Association (where, full disclosure, I had been president a number of years before) democratically deciding not to play the anthem to rape, ‘Blurred Lines’, in its bars.

While it’s up to individual unions to set their policies, most follow the guidelines of the National Union of Students. The NUS no-platform policy, which has existed since 1974, currently lists six groups – the Islamic extremist organisations Al-Muhajiroun and Hizb-ut-Tahir; the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, which faces widespread allegations of antisemitism; and the fascist groups, the British National Party, the English Defence League and National Action.

If Gavin Williamson thinks that any of these groups should be touring UK universities, he should say so explicitly.

The UK government’s own list of banned organisations is, in reality, much longer. And the government further chills freedom of speech on campus with its Prevent counter-terrorism programme, which forces academics to monitor campus activism, particularly of Muslim students.

There isn’t some set of people who, by dint of their status, merit invitations to address younger generations

But of course, the freedom of people of colour to speak about the racism they experience isn’t really what the Right’s culture warriors are concerned about. In October, Common Sense Group member Jonathan Gullis said that teachers using the term ‘white privilege’ should be sacked and reported to the Home Office, in order to combat ‘cancel culture’. Tory MP Robert Jenrick claimed this week that the government plans to make it illegal to participate in boycott campaigns against Israeli goods.

If all universities represent a threat to the conservative worldview, then a small number are also key institutions of Anglo-British identity.

And it’s because of this that so many of the moral panics about freedom of speech have been about the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and, to a lesser extent, other Russell Group establishments, such as Edinburgh, Bristol and Durham. ‘Scandals’ at these august institutions have ranged from the renaming of Edinburgh’s David Hume Tower (because of the 18th-century philosopher’s racist writings) to complaints about calls to remove a statue of the 19th-century colonialist Cecil Rhodes from Oxford’s Oriel College.

Obviously, these shifts don’t represent an attack on freedom of speech. Hume’s ideas will still be discussed in Edinburgh’s philosophy department, as they were when I studied at the top of the tower then named after him. Rhodes’ role in southern Africa would still be taught in Oxford’s history seminars. They just wouldn’t come with implicit institutional endorsement. Students have used their free speech to steer debate onto terrain that was previously politely ignored, and that’s a good thing.

The Daily Mail is still banging on about an unsuccessful petition to cancel a Germaine Greer lecture at Cardiff University in 2015 because of her views about trans people. But the talk went ahead. Greer got her platform.

Anyway, being asked to speak at a university is a privilege, not a right. There isn’t some predetermined set of people who, by dint of their status, merit invitations to address the younger generation. It’s up to any potential audience to decide who they want to hear from, and who they don’t.

And this is where we get to what the issue of ‘cancel culture’ is all really about.

Who gets a say on who gets a say?

For centuries, political battles have been fought across Europe over who gets a say on who gets a say, with church and state long shaping much of public debate. Johannes Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press to Europe in 1439 began to add a new power base.

“In late sixteenth-century Venice,” report the historians Briggs and Burke, “a silk worker was denounced to the inquisition because he said he reads all the time”. Across early modern Europe, ordinary people enjoying books was loathed by those in power, they say, and “reading newspapers, in particular, was seen as a subversive activity”.

The quarrels of the reformation across Europe were, at their core, about this struggle: who gets to interpret the Bible? Who’s allowed to appoint preachers: the hierarchies of church and state, or congregations? In the 1740s, David Hume himself was excluded from a job at Edinburgh University after senior church figures kicked up a fuss about his atheism.

But ultimately, print capitalism won out. By the 19th century, publishers had gained power in their own right, convening imagined communities of nations and setting the boundaries of public debate where once, this had been done by church and state.

In this new system, a huge amount of power was afforded to editors, whether of newspapers, publishing houses or, when the broadcast media came along, radio and TV shows. This new element of the ruling class got to choose who got a platform. They got to decide whose opinions counted as legitimate and which were too extreme to merit publication, what counted as sensible and what was fringe, who should be subject to moral panics and who should be protected from public ire.

By and large, editors drawing these lines have their hands guided by the competing interests of the ruling class and audiences: capitalist proprietors, financers and advertisers; political elites with information, access and regulation; and readers or viewers. Usually, in that order of influence.

But while editors aren’t free to use it however they please, they – perhaps we, I, too, am an editor, after all – have genuine political power. And they enjoy having it. They use it to bolster their allies and marginalise those they don’t like, to decide what’s important, and what should be ignored – as openDemocracy’s founder Anthony Barnett put it to me recently, “they’re the fucking cancellers, they always have been”.

Mining communities were once centres of working-class arts, learning and resistance. Now, culture is beamed in on a screen

One recent example provides an important insight into how this power operates in practice.

On 9 July 2019, the socialist writer Dawn Foster used her Guardian column to denounce the then Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, a flagbearer for centrism in the party, which was then at the height of Corbynism.

Foster, rare as a working-class woman who had fought her way into the commentariat, who had earned her column through brilliant reporting on the Grenfell Tower disaster, and who had worked in various roles behind the scenes at the paper for years, was sacked from The Guardian. Attacking this icon of Labour centrism crossed a line within the paper, and she would never write for it again. She was ‘cancelled’.

Earlier this year, she died suddenly, in her early 30s. Giles Coren, whose dad was the humorist and editor Alan Coren, whose sister is the writer and media presenter Victoria Coren Mitchell, and who himself works as a restaurant critic for The Times, tweeted:

“When someone dies who has trolled you on Twitter, saying vile and hurtful things about you and your family, is it okay to be like, ‘I'm sorry for the people who loved you, and any human death diminishes me, but can you f*** off on to hell now where you belong’?”

The comment cut particularly deep if you know that Dawn was vocally Catholic.

His grudge came, it seems, because she had tweeted, two and a half years earlier: “Giles Coren is a prime example of how the ‘if I’ve heard of yer da, I don’t need to hear from you’ rule holds for almost every man bar Jesus.”

But while she had been effectively sacked from The Guardian for her decidedly above-the-belt criticisms of Tom Watson, Coren still produces three columns a week for The Times and is still hosting BBC shows, his career unhindered by his comments. He remains decidedly uncancelled.

This example is pretty illustrative. A fairly narrow group of powerful people – disproportionately upper-class white men – are accustomed to shaping the conversation in this country about almost every aspect of our society, from politics to food to the arts: what is and isn’t news, what is and isn’t controversial, what is and isn’t important.

Occasionally, people from outside that world are allowed into it, briefly. But their positions are almost always vulnerable. Too often, they have to deal with this precarity by treading carefully, being sure not to offend the wrong person, by learning to say the right thing.

And if they don’t then, like Dawn, they can expect their careers to suffer. But she wasn’t sacked because of some foaming mob hurling rocks at her online. She was pushed out quietly, having upset someone with power.

The net effect of this constant side-lining of working-class, women’s, left-wing and Black people’s voices is stark.

A study in 2019 found that 43% of the UK’s leading newspaper columnists and editors went to private schools compared with around 6% of the overall population, and that leading journalists are maler, much whiter and much less likely to be Muslim than the working country as a whole.

Just as the authorities of early modern Venice would have done, these people tend to loathe social media. They loathe the fact that the latest victims of their moral panics can speak back, that Black people can explain to them when they’re being racist, that trans people can point out when they are transphobic, that working-class people are finding a voice in place of the squashed trade unions of old.

People who have had little chance to generate public opinion in the past, whose voices have never counted for as much or been heard as loudly as those who own the means of production of the national debate, finally have some tools to respond to those who have for centuries told them what to think. And the people who are accustomed to doing the telling hate it more than anything. Standing high on their still vast stages, they pronounce that they are being cancelled, because someone had the audacity to heckle.

In reality, the growth of social media means that more people in the world have access to platforms through which they can express themselves to bigger audiences than at any other time in human history.

Of course, that speech, too, is regulated. Facebook – by far the biggest publisher ever – has its own ideological stances and sets boundaries to what sorts of speech are allowed on its platform: something which becomes particularly clear when you compare what Israelis are allowed to post with what Palestinians are blocked from saying. There are, rightly, major concerns about how it uses that power, and the fact that what’s become our public forum is controlled by a monopolistic corporation.

But the solution isn’t to let fascists and conspiracy theorists pour bile and lies into people’s timelines. It’s to develop mechanisms of democratic accountability and control, whether through regulation or, ultimately, public ownership.

But it’s also important not to overstate the problem. The most powerful malign actors in public debate aren’t shady Facebook pages. They are media empires owned by oligarchs like Rupert Murdoch, America’s shock-jock radio stations and politicians spreading bigotry and lies.

And happily, online culture has started to influence the world offline, and empower people to speak back. The vast and glorious liberation movements of recent years – #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the trans rights movement – have encouraged people to speak out when they feel that the language or actions of those around them are inappropriate. Rather than biting their tongues, the marginalised have used social media to organise protests against powerful people with whom they disagree, and to object when powerful people say things they find objectionable. This isn’t an inhibition of speech, it’s a release.

Not that the government sees it that way: the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, passing through Parliament now, will criminalise a swathe of traditional protest techniques often used by climate change and anti-racist activists. But none of the Right’s cultural warriors, despite all their worries about ‘cancel culture’, seems to have expressed the slightest concern about it.

The real cancel culture

“I’m fiercely protective of the fact that we can provide instruments,” explained the lead horn player of the Shirebrook brass band, speaking to me in the autumn of 2017. The group, based out of the miners’ welfare building at the top of the town, supplies each player with their trombone, euphonium, drum, tuba or horn. It’s not cheap. With 25 players in a traditional band, just one set can cost £100,000.

The same principle doesn’t apply in local schools anymore, she explained.

“As funding has been cut, kids weren’t allowed an instrument if they couldn’t afford to pay for one,” she said. “It’s killing our future band players.”

Shirebrook, a former mining town in the East Midlands, is in the Bolsover constituency. For four decades, it was represented by one Labour MP, Dennis Skinner. But in 2019, it went Tory.

Perhaps a sense of being a heartland of a vanishing culture contributed to that result. Where once the mines, the military and the church provided spaces for shape, purpose and meaning to emerge from the communities scattered across the top of England’s coal seams, now all three are crumbling to dust. These communities, which literally powered England, were once centres of working-class arts, learning and resistance: now, culture is something beamed in on a screen.

Many brass bands, no longer sponsored by the long-shuttered pits and after a decade of austerity, have disappeared. Local regiments, which recruited a kind of community and masculinity, have been downsized as the UK takes semi-retirement from the world police and automation replaces squaddies with drones.

So, don’t get me wrong. When I say that there is no such thing as cancel culture, I don’t mean that no culture is being cancelled. Neoliberal globalisation kills working-class cultures everywhere.

Across the world, at least four languages have become extinct since the start of the COVID pandemic, taking with them every poem, song and saying they taught their speakers. Every year, the version of English spoken in any given town or city in England conforms more to a south-eastern norm.

Working-class people are desperately under-represented in almost all of the arts. Acting is increasingly dominated by public-school alumni. Increased focus on reading, writing and maths has pushed music out of schools, meaning it’s increasingly the preserve of children whose parents can afford evening classes.

If capitalism is endlessly trying to drive people to consume more while paying them lower wages, then modern life means forever being told that affordable foods are inferior, practical clothes aren’t stylish, and that everyone should aspire to an imagined lifestyle invented by the media-industrial complex, which is almost always based in some invented metropolitan core, far away from your peripheral suburb, town or city.

The message is clear.

‘You’re a loser. Your whole way of life is for losers. Sell us enough of your time and buy enough of our products and one day, you might be a winner, like us.’

This is the real cancel culture. It’s one of the primary motors of consumer capitalism. And it’s felt viscerally by billions of people. But it’s not what Britain Uncancelled meant, is it?

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