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Will the free speech lobby accept Jeremy Corbyn’s right to be a republican?

13 November 2015

5:14 PM

13 November 2015

5:14 PM

On Wednesday night, Jeremy Corbyn brought to an end one of the most undignified sagas in recent politics, cobbling together a shuffled compromise on his induction into the Privy Council. The Privy Council, as we’ve been told so often now, is the body of senior politicians that is allowed to receive security briefings. Membership would have required Corbyn – the life-long republican –  to vow ‘not to know or understand of any manner of thing to be attempted, done, or spoken against Her Majesty’s person, honour, crown, or dignity royal’. Did he kneel, bob, or grab the royal paw in an firm egalitarian handshake? Does it matter? Meanwhile, America’s college campuses remain the epicentre of a febrile national debate: what price free speech, when it threatens to uproot the very foundations of a society? And who on God’s green earth is entitled to police it?

Over in the States, much clucking – much of it well founded – about students who can’t handle challenging ideas. And here in Britain, we’re in on the act, too. A Daily Mail double spread features the student now largely known as ‘shrieking girl’, who has since been publicly identified and personally targeted. Ed West joins the chorus in arguing that she comes from a very privileged background (and therefore can’t possibly have ever felt racial exclusion at Yale?). ‘Political correctness is not “all about politeness”‘ writes Ed. ‘It’s about power, and always has been.’

I agree with Ed that when students gets used to shouting down speech, the result is cheap power plays and shoddy comprehension. But one would think, from reading some coverage, that here in Britain we’re open to the broadest of ideas, the greatest of challenges to our own assumptions. Or that we should be. But here’s Simon Danczuk, rent-a-quote MP, on the long, undignified saga of Jeremy Corbyn’s republicanism:


‘I think there is an expectation that the leader of a major political party in the UK is patriotic and believes in British values and believes in a monarchy – I think that is just standard fare for leading a mainstream political party.’

The truth is, all societies require a few a priori principles for political engagement – whether that’s acceptance of democracy, or acceptance of a national faith. The author of a piece in one campus magazine, the Yale Herald, has been roundly mocked for writing of campus uproar: ‘I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.’ It sums up, in a line, the worst of grievance culture – if I claim pain, you must be causing it. But it’s worth acknowledging too, that her piece was called Hurt At Home. 

Yale has long billed itself as a family – consider this cringe-worthy admissions video. But national scrutiny is now breaking this safe space – and in an act of remarkable cowardice, the Yale Herald have withdrawn their piece, ‘to protect the author’. Meanwhile, the ‘shrieking girl’ has been widely mocked for a supposed lapse of memory. Her critics take particular glee in pointing out the answer to her pained question: ‘who the f—-k hired you?’, aimed at college master Nicholas Christakis – it turns out that ‘shrieking girl’ herself is listed on the Search Committee.

But it’s that same disconnect which reveals the heart of Yale’s problem, and brings us back to a very British malaise. She may have been told she’d have a role in choosing a new college master – no doubt, she quickly learned how little that meant. Every university lies to its students about how much it listens, how much it shares. So do most politicians, most societies.  In a widely-shared blog, Aaron Lewis, a senior at Yale, wrote: ‘the protests are not really about Halloween costumes or a frat party. They’re about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day.’ But reading Lewis’ words, I hear not just the privileged Yalie, but the frustrated eurosceptic betrayed by Strasbourg’s democratic deficit, or the Labour voter wondering why half the cabinet seem to meet in the Bullingdon Club at 20. The politics of the disenfranchised are bitter, dangerous, and best avoided. But politics, like college, gets ugly when promise slips too far from reality. And the answer is usually more free speech, more transparency, more points of view. Or is free expression just something we approve for students, a youthful excess along with mild homosexuality and homegrown marijuana?

Jeremy Corbyn himself is hardly a hero of good faith debate. He’s not big on consistency – as the author Robert Harris asked today  ‘As Corbyn opposes a UK military role in Syria, how exactly would he have arranged for Jihadi John to be “held to account in a court of law”?’ Obfuscation is Corbyn’s game: however foolish a policy (sex-segregated trains), however evidentially unlikely the latest anti-Western theory (Russia Today’s claim that American-backed rebels carried out sarin gas attacks, not Putin’s friend Bashar al-Assad), Corbyn will show a listening ear, only to claim he’s simply looking for harder evidence before making up his perpetually open mind. As trump cards go, ‘I’m only raising the question,’ is on a level with ‘but I’m in pain’. 

But he’s right about one thing. We talk about the British system of government as the beacon of the common law, the mother of parliaments, the cradle of democracy. But we also talk about the Queen as our collective mother, our head of state as a member of the royal family, our family. Which is it to be? Can our community, like Yale’s rickety residential colleges, inculcate debate about its very constitution? Or must the House of Commons remain, perpetually, the monarchy’s ‘safe space’?


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