If democracy is government by the people and meritocracy by the most able, Brexitocracy is rule by charlatans. Anyone who doubts that should survey the limp justifications, weaker than the Labour vetting process, for Chris Heaton-Harris’s letter to vice-chancellors. The Eurosceptic MP wrote to universities and asked if they wouldn’t mind drawing up a list of names for him. Nothing fancy, just everyone involved in teaching about Brexit and copies of their teaching materials. Now, the normal procedure when an MP – a government whip no less – does something completely deranged and massively embarrassing is to cordon them off with yellow hazard tape and hose down the crime scene. Instead, Andrea Leadsom — still, dizzyingly, Leader of the Commons — came to his defence on the grounds that the letter was ‘very courteous and not at all threatening’. That’s where Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel, went wrong. He should have sent a friendly note and a fruit basket to the Rosenbergs. Some might wonder whether the government ought to aim a little higher than ‘not threatening’ in its correspondence but maybe that’s too much to ask.
Nadine Dorries, who has set herself up as a Scouser Catherine Cookson, took time out of penning tales of tough-as-nails, heart-of-gold northern nurses to back up her fellow Brexiteer. She even wants the investigations expanded: ‘Absolutely right to question what our universities are teaching. Time to look at A level politics courses. Classes should be bias free.’ Tories used to rail against excessive paperwork in the classroom. Now they want schools to record every time the French mistress tuts about the rising price of camembert in Sainsbury’s. Besides, teachers don’t have time to outline their lesson plans to MPs; they’re too busy leading pupils in daily pledges of allegiance to the EU flag and teaching them how to diagram AC Grayling tweets.
The worst excuse of all came from universities minister Jo Johnson. He told the Today programme:
‘Chris was acting in an individual capacity as an MP rather than as a government minister… He was pursuing inquiries of his own which may, in time, lead to a book on these questions.’
Eventually, Downing Street disavowed their whip’s sinister project. They know as well as the rest of us what he was up to. Brexiteers had no use for experts during the referendum campaign and dismissed them as doomsayers and their warnings and projections as pessimistic and political. They got Brexit but it is not turning out to be the glorious liberation they imagined. Facts have intruded on rhetoric and suddenly sunny patriotism isn’t enough. Instead of acknowledging their folly, they hope to cajole the bearers of bad news into silence.
When a government figure demands lists of names and lecture notes from universities, the only effect they can hope to exact is a chilling one. On the face of it, little will change about the institution’s personnel and practices but the idea has been planted in the minds of faculty and administrators. ‘Is Academic X too controversial to hire?’ ‘Maybe the course could change a little here and there…’ ‘Will students get the wrong idea if I assign this book?’ Slowly and softy the mood alters and without even knowing it, the decision-making process has been impacted by one MP’s risible stunt.
Heaton-Harris feels justified in behaving as he did because, in his mind, he is acting in the best interests of the country. Such is the power of nationalism to delude the simple and aggrandise the mediocre. Viewers in Scotland will have seen this show before. The SNP tried to shut down critical, and even unhelpfully neutral, voices on independence, from the Principal of St Andrews University all the way down. People who deplored this kind of conduct in the SNP now indulge it in the Brexiteers because all nationalists are convinced their nationalism is the exception to the rule. The truly civic brand of chauvinism. Righteous jingoism.
Higher education does not cut a sympathetic figure. The desperate yawps of ‘academic freedom!’ in response to the Heaton-Harris letter would sound more sincere if they didn’t come from a sector notoriously unforgiving of heresy. As the late US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia put it: ‘Universities…(are) in favour of diversity in everything except ideas’. There are many gifted and virtuous scholars teaching about Brexit, researchers and instructors who are genuinely guided by evidence and whose personal views never trespass on their professional life. There are also plenty who function as glorified political activists, ideologues who do not leave their views outside the lecture hall and whose research should not always be taken at face value.
Even if that is too generous, even if every elbow-patch wearer in the land is a frothing Europhile, the government does not get to interfere in university staffing or teaching. If right-wingers fear the corrupting influence of an overly Leftist academy, the answer is not to lean on universities but to make them stand on their own two feet. If you want to nudge higher education in more productive and less ideological directions, reform research councils’ funding to remove the incentives to self-indulgent and political projects. Nothing would improve the quality of humanities and social science teaching quite like cutting the budgets of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.
But academic malpractice and Lefty campus bias are red herrings in this debate. The Eurosceptic Right is throwing a tantrum because reality is refusing to come quietly and stop making a fuss. They don’t want ‘bias free’ lectures or objective teaching materials. They want a safe space for themselves, where their Brexit fantasies go unchallenged by awkward facts.