Guest Post by Dominic
On Wednesday Cambridge SWSS joined the CDE protest against Willetts speaking in Cambridge. During the event Willetts was interrupted by students and academics reading out a pre-prepared statement denouncing his attacks on education. This forced the cancellation of his talk and has created much outcry by people complaining about protest damaging “freedom of speech”, as if, somehow, Willetts really had come to Cambridge in order to engage in debate and that “reasonable discussion” would somehow have wider effects on the world.
In this situation it is important for all those who wish to consider themselves opposed to the cuts to stand clearly on the side of the protestors. One of the great things about going to an Oxbridge University is that people from all over the world love to be invited to speak there. Why was Willetts in Cambridge? On paper he was invited as part of the CRASSH 'Idea of the University' series, but he accepted the invitation because it’s Cambridge he likes to think of himself as an intellectual with something worthwhile to say on the future of the Universities. The reality is somewhat different. He is in charge of the department that is systematically dismantling higher education as we know it without any clear strategy of how to replace it. The increase in fees last year followed by various measures trying to get institutions to reduce fees this year shows the government has no clear plan other than blind worship of the market.
The outrage of many comes from two equally objectionable things. The first is their affronted sense of self important. By having the protest we have prevent the all important them from engaging with what Willets had to say. What purpose this would serve other than inflating their ego is unclear and why this right is more important than all those suffering effect of the cuts who will be inspired to see students resisting their architect is equally mystifying. Perhaps there no doubt brilliant eloquence and intellect would have convinced Willets he was wrong but I doubt it.
I can remember one protest during my undergrad at Oxford when we were picketing the then defence secretary John Reid being only 6 of us outside he decided to come over and say hello. This was the person who had just committed 3,300 troops to Helmand in Afghanistan declaring he hoped troops would leave "without a single shot being fired." Perhaps he was an idiot and did actually believe that was possible, but more likely he knew he was lying. We pointed out to him he troops sent there would no doubt kill and be killed (otherwise why bother sending them). Five years and thousands of dead later we were undoubtedly right and him wrong. Did our telling him this make the slightest difference? No. John Reid knew why he was sending in the troops just as Willetts knows why he is attacking higher education. Calm, rational debate will not change their minds only a mass movement can do that.
The other thing is the idea that somehow the protesters were disrupting the freedom of speech of Willetts. At a time when people are dying across the Middle East in a fight for free speech and students in this country are being locked up for exercising their freedom here that comment is insulting. Is Willetts really struggling to put his message across to the nation? Does he have a shortage of platforms with which to express his views? Is he feeling terribly oppressed by students? How many of those complaining now stood up for fellow Cambridge student Charlie Gilmore jailed for the 'heinous' non-criminal act of swinging on a flag (yes, he was actually convicted of something else, but would he have been jailed is he hadn’t swung on the flag). His freedom of speech was under attack as are the other students sent to jail for standing up for education. I suspect, however, that most of those so outraged now were silent in defending Gilmore.
In many ways the concept of freedom of speech is a sham, certainly when used to attack protestors here. Without doubt being allowed to say and publish what we want without fear of arrest is an important right and SWSS has played an active role in supporting protests across the world to this effect. However in Britain we do not all have equal access to freedom of speech. Those who have more money have much greater ability to put across their view that those with less. From billboard advertising, hiring publicists or simply attending a world renowned University all give people a greater ability to influence events. The protestors’ actions were to forcefully put forward a voice of dissent that is all to absent from mainstream discourse. Since all major parties have decided fees are no bad thing it is down to grassroots campaigners of all political persuasions to defend education ideologically and practically.
What gave Willetts the right to speak while the protestors must stay silent? Is it student votes stolen by lying lib dems across the country? Does being a minister mean his opinion is worth more than others? It certainly means what he does has more of an impact than other people. Defending this is not defending freedom of speech but defending Willetts’s privileges.
We must defend our actions on the protest. We do not believe Willetts’s deserves the privilege of speaking at our institution. We disrupted his speech as a sign to say we intend to disrupt his plans for education. If we offended or embarrassed self-important liberals then so be it. His plans for education are an offense to working class people across the country. On 30th November millions of public sector workers will be out on strike. They aim to disrupt the country to defend their pensions and the public sector. We are occupying to build this action. We will see all those who truly wish to oppose the government’s plans on the picket lines and marches.