The Conservative MP’s letter to universities was part of a wider attack on dissentby Christopher Grey / October 29, 2017 / Leave a comment
We may never know exactly what Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris intended to do with the information he tried to obtain on academics who teach about Brexit. But it certainly shouldn’t be treated as “just a polite request for information” as if this were some routine event.
To the best of my knowledge there is no precedent for a politician—and a member of the government—asking every university head for the names and syllabuses of those teaching a particular topic, let alone one of major political controversy. And given that Heaton-Harris is a leading member of the European Research Group, which has particularly extreme pro-Brexit views, it is not a stretch of the imagination to suggest he wanted to monitor individual academics for anti-Brexit sentiment.
That, at least, is what the Daily Mail follow-up on the story has sought to do. Those Brexiters failing to see anything sinister in this might want to consider how it would have seemed to them had something similar occurred at the height of controversy over Iraq WMDs after the suicide of David Kelly, when the Labour government was locked in a bitter dispute with the BBC. Suppose, then, a Labour Whip known to be passionately in favour of the Iraq war had asked for the names and teaching materials of anyone covering that issue? Would it really seem so anodyne?
In any case, the parallel is an imperfect one. The context of the Heaton-Harris letter is far more charged. Brexiters have attacked media outlets—not just the BBC, but ITV, Sky and the Financial Times—for supposed anti-Brexit bias. They talk of saboteurs, enemies of the people, and traitors; vilifying figures as diverse as Gina Miller, Ivan Rogers, Mark Carney, Treasury civil servants, and the judiciary. It is within this climate that the letter to universities takes on an intimidatory meaning.
“Most people who have relevant expert knowledge believe that Brexit is a bad idea”
But what of the substance of the issue? There is ample polling evidence that the majority of academics voted against Brexit, and that is likely therefore to include most whose research and teaching are concerned with Brexit. The uncomfortable truth for Brexiters is that most people who have relevant expert knowledge—not just academics but people in business and trade specialists—believe that Brexit is a bad idea. That’s also true of most…