By Kitty Muir
Another day, another Brexit headline, another moment of fleeting hope that I misheard, and someone was actually saying ‘breakfast’. In the fourteen months since the referendum, Brexit has never been far from the national conscience, or incapable of stirring up a complex and concentrated emotional response from the British public. Though Article 50 has been triggered, the one-year anniversary of June 23rd has passed, and the Keep Calm and Carry On memes have (thankfully) stopped circulating, the moniker of Brexit alongside political actions is like a cowbell: it noisily and clumsily garners public political interest and debate. However, it’s been some time since a Brexit headline so bizarre, so concerning, so ultimately incomprehensible collectively steamrolled us. It feels a bit like being hit by a bus (one with some questionable figures emblazoned on the side). Obviously, with Brexit being such a hotly contested and debated topic, we’re accustomed to being bombarded by news about it – but this feels different. For students, for academics, for that pesky group of 18-24s who almost unanimously voted to Remain back in June 2016, this feels personal.
Earlier this month, MP for Daventry Chris Heaton-Harris sent a letter to the Vice Chancellors of every English university. The contents of the letter are at best mind-boggling, at worst chilling. In asking for the names of every professor in the country involved in teaching European affairs with regards to Brexit, and details of their syllabus, Heaton-Harris has called into question the very meaning of academic free speech, and the extent of governmental intervention in British universities. In PR terms, it’s an unmitigated disaster, as academics, students and the media chew over their collective outrage. Paranoia about the implications for free speech and Brexit-partisan teaching in academic spheres in this country is spiralling; the words ‘McCarthyism’ and ‘Leninist’ have been chucked around. Was this a sinister plot to catalogue dissenters of the Brexit regime? Was Heaton-Harris, a staunch Eurosceptic, planning to lead a witch-hunt against any academic, any institution, that preached the illicit scripture of Remoaner political discourse? Would this influence policy on Higher Education? Was he really, as Universities minister Jo Johnson insisted on Wednesday, merely researching the issue for a future book? What does it all mean!?
This is, as Oxford University chancellor Chris Patten said last week, an ‘extraordinary example of outrageous and foolish behaviour’. Even if it’s not as sinister as it seems, it’s undoubtedly an unsettling move, and a colossal gaffe on Heaton-Harris’ part. Number 10 has scrambled to disown the letter as not being representative of the government’s views or instruction, and Vice Chancellors across the nation have refused Heaton-Harris’ request, and decried his actions in the process. Here in York, Vice Chancellor Koen Lamberts described his concern that the letter’s intent was ‘to question, challenge, or undermine academic freedom in universities’ in a statement to students and staff, and reassured us all that he had not provided the information requested before refusing to comment further. Consider us all suitably placated. Though the question remains – what do Heaton-Harris’ actions tell us about the shockwaves still emanating from Brexit, and their ability to reach into our personal lives? The implication that our academic freedoms are even remotely infringed by this is so deeply unsettling, comparisons to ultra conservative regimes aren’t exactly unfounded. Despite offerings from Andrea Leadsom that the letter was ‘courteous and non-threatening’, the anxiety the letter has stirred-up is not easily dispersed. Leadsom was hardly helping matters by continuing last week’s soundbite with: ‘Universities are bastions of free speech, so to be so horrified at someone asking a simple question…it seems to me a bit odd that they should react in such a negative way’. You heard it here first: it wasn’t inappropriate at all, and we’re all overreacting. Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail agrees: according to his article published on Thursday universities have outed themselves as ‘narrow-minded and prescriptive’ by refusing Heaton-Harris’ requests, and the outrage following the story breaking is ‘exaggerated almost to the point of lunacy’. Of course, Chris Patten’s musings on BBC Radio 4’s World at One that Heaton-Harris must be a plant, an ‘agent of Mr Corbyn intent on further increasing the number of young people who want to vote Labour’ isn’t a ludicrous overreaction, is it? No? Okay. Just checking.
Ultimately Heaton-Harris’ letter has evoked such strong feeling because of its implications, rather than the contents of the letter itself, which was pretty bland. You’d think if he’d known it was going to appear splashed across every major news outlet he might have spiced it up a bit. The Conservative-supporting media paints anyone concerned about the implications of the letter (and policy created in the same vein) for academic, political and intellectual freedoms as rabid SJWs abusing an MP for merely asking a question. While this isn’t surprising, it indicates how Brexit reporting reinforces the gulf in British political culture that the referendum opened up. The vitriol in the press translates to heightened emotional responses to the issues at play – and while the reaction to Heaton-Harris’ bizarre, sinister and supremely inappropriate letter is not at all unfounded, it shows how residual anger and anxiety at the Brexit result is still as raw (and as able to sell papers) today as it was on the morning of June 24th, 2016. As for Mr Heaton-Harris, his only reaction to the outcry was a single tweet declaring ‘I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit’, before going quickly and quietly to ground. On the whole it appears his requests have been largely denied, a relief no doubt for academics and students across the country. However, his actions, more suited to Dolores Umbridge, Hogwarts High Inquisitor, than anything we mere Muggles should ever have to deal with, will undoubtedly have far reaching consequences beyond his control, or that of British universities; for policy, for debate over government influence in British universities, for freedom of speech. Not for the first time in the aftermath of the Vote-That-Must-Not-Be-Named, it’s a case of wait and see.