A clumsy request from a parliamentarian on what is taught about Brexit in universities has caused uproar. Chris Heaton-Harris, MP for Daventry and a junior Conservative whip, was suddenly likened to Senator Joseph McCarthy, who infamously led a campaign to root out 'reds under the bed' in American institutions back in the 1950s. But incredulous claims of McCarthyism suggest that Remain-addled university administrators doth protest too much.
McCarthyism is a strong charge, although it is based on a revisionist liberal account of the genuine hazard to American society after the Second World War. They were up against Josef Stalin, for goodness sake. The Russians had detonated an atomic bomb, while Chairman Mao threatened to escalate the Korean conflict. It's easy to look back at the episode as a mad conspiracy theory, in ignorance of the left-wing extremists in American universities and at Hollywood in the post-war period, who promoted communism and sided with the Soviet enemy. Ronald Reagan, a popular actor and a Democrat supporter, criticised the Marxist agitation he had observed as council member of the actors' union: 'I found myself waist-high in epithets such as 'Fascist', 'capitalist scum', enemy of the proletariat', 'witch-hunter' and Red-baiter'.
Heaton-Harris was not pursuing government policy, but was merely doing what MPs regularly do in seeking information from public bodies. Nonetheless, pompous Europhile Chris Patten rose from his seat as chancellor of Oxford University to denounce the letter as 'offensive and idiotic Leninism', accusing the government of turning our higher seats of learning into 'Chinese re-education camps'. We may agree with Patten on his communist analogies: universities are indeed places of indoctrination, and dissidents are readily ostracised.
Given interrogative authority by Eisenhower, McCarthy went too far, and American liberals justly fought for freedom of speech. But now it's the Left that censors and persecutes, and the Right carrying the torch for free speech. If you are looking for McCarthyism in universities today, you won't have to delve deeply. Take for example the disgraceful treatment of Nobel Prize physicist Tim Hunt, who was sent packing by University College of London after an embittered radical feminist misrepresented his joke at a conference about how he met his wife in a laboratory.
As I write, here's a story on the front page of the Times (17th October). An event at King's College London was attended by five 'safe space marshals', dressed all in black. Speaking to the Conservative Association was Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the Students Union was clearly concerned that this right-wing imperialist and anti-abortionist would say something nasty (meaning conservative). Rees-Mogg highlighted the somewhat sinister presence of these officers in the hall, encouraging the audience to enjoy the liberty afforded by our society. But students feared that anything they said in support of the cause could get them in trouble. The university assured the Times that it defends freedom of speech, but the Students Union had seen fit to police any utterance of prejudice or offence. Hearing that the marshals were paid £12 per hour, history student Greg Hall asked why 'we are subsidising intolerance'.
As reported in the Daily Mail under the headline 'Our Remainer universities', there is plenty of evidence of bludgeoning propaganda and censorship of Leave voices. We are accustomed to the tactic of the Remain establishment to associate Brexit with xenophobia. The EU, apparently, symbolises something far beyond a pan-European administration. Despite being publicly-funded institutions, our prestigious universities do not really consider themselves as British. Look on their websites and everything is about a global enterprise.
KCL Students Union, in its latest bulletin, tells students from abroad that they will enjoy living in London because everybody here is a citizen of the world.How strange, that in a city of immensely rich heritage and booming tourism, with a forest of selfie-sticks on every pavement, that students are being told: 'Don't worry about coming here, it's not really English, or in England'. Such denial of national identity is David Goodhart's characterisation of 'Anywheres', in extremis. There's no possibility of positive patriotism for the intellectual elite.
As a vociferous minority calls for 'decolonialising' of the universities, and anything of white British culture is problematised, it seems reasonable to ask what the younger generation are being taught. For Brexit supporters like me, the underlying concern raised by Heaton-Harris' enquiry is the reluctance of our establishment and its youth wing to promote a sense of nationhood. The forces of globalism prevail: university leaders are more interested in the growing market of the Far East than their compatriots. And yet, for all the openness of borders, minds are closing. For all the opprobrium, Heaton-Harris has at least fired the debate.