Peter Hitchens: Why I climbed on my soapbox after refusing to sign a university’s ‘free speech’ contract

4 November 2017

9:00 AM

4 November 2017

9:00 AM

Where better to be than in Liverpool on a crisp autumn evening, haranguing an open-air meeting of students? I hadn’t done a soapbox speech since my Trotskyist days 45 years ago, and had forgotten how exhilarating it is — the questions sharper, the audience more alert, the tempo brisker, and the missionary feeling of spreading the word. Also, the students didn’t cough all the time, which they tend to do in stuffy lecture rooms.

But I had never meant to do this. Months before, Tom Willett, of Liverpool University’s politics society, had asked me to come and speak about my favourite subject, the fact that there is no ‘War on Drugs’. It should have been inside in the warm, not in lovely Hope Street next to the poignant Suitcase Sculpture, where it actually ended up happening. In fact, from Tom’s correspondence with the Student Guild, I see that it very nearly took place in the Mandela Room. But then the Guild asked me to agree to its conditions for speakers. These were breathtaking in their effrontery. I would have had to accept (for example) that they were entitled to see my speech in advance, to inform the police of the meeting and even to record the names of those attending. I have since learned that student officials also did a little probing into my past utterances, showing special interest in my non-mainstream views on same-sex marriage and ‘addiction’.

They actually prepared a lengthy risk assessment in which ‘concerns’ were expressed about these opinions. Who and what do these people think they are? Where do they think they live? When I told Tom I couldn’t accept these conditions, he bravely agreed to go ahead anyway, on private premises and outside the student union’s control, risking his own money to book a room. And nobody would ever have heard of all this, except that providence intervened on the side of liberty. The person who was supposed to come and unlock the room didn’t turn up. And so I decided to speak in the street, and our small battle against the Thought Police became (as it ought to be) a public issue. Do other people give in to these rules? Plenty of universities have them.

I am puzzled that more people don’t visit Liverpool for its own sake. It is crammed with fine architecture, possesses a joyful, exhilarating seaport zing and has plenty of good places to eat, drink and sleep. Above all, it has the greatest treasure of English 20th-century architecture, the stupendous Anglican cathedral. People will go round the world to see the Taj Mahal or to Barcelona to see Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família. But they will not take a two-hour train journey to see Giles Gilbert Scott’s masterpiece, which would make them gasp with wonder if they bothered.

Mind you, I have trouble with the Pendolino trains between London and Liverpool. They make me quite badly seasick. I can only avoid this if I do not look at the view, or if I do not read. Reluctantly, I chose to read and skulk in one of those horrible seats up against a bulkhead with no window at all, and emerged at Euston annoyed but not nauseated.

Now, I can’t say I thought all that much of Michael Gove’s laboured joke about Harvey Weinstein and John Humphrys. But what about his apology? If all bad, tasteless jokes require a public apology, where will we end up? Everyone involved in Armando Iannucci’s dreadful, crude and trivialising film about The Death of Stalin would be saying sorry for the rest of their lives, for instance. Also, surely the people who laugh at these things ought to be made to say sorry, too? Should the BBC round up the Wigmore Hall audience who laughed at the Gove joke, and not let them go till they have provided written regrets? Those of you who chortled at home might make a donation to an ‘appropriate’ charity.

I like the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, the most effective and persuasive holder of that job for a long time, with whom I did the paper review on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House last Sunday. Perhaps it’s because, like me, she was an Oxford townie in her childhood, a curious experience that stays with you for life. But I also can’t see why the cause of fairness and justice at work should be the exclusive concern of the left. On the other hand, I wish Ms O’Grady would make more of the fact that she went to what was still a girls’ grammar school when she arrived at it. Just as the right should worry more about the many, the left is foolish to defend comprehensive schools which entrench the privileges of the rich, and slam the door of knowledge in the faces of the poor.

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