2007 - 2021

Free Speech and the Union

Poor David Starkey, the unhinged historian made a splash this week with some unfortunate off-colour comments about race and slavery. He’s subsequently lost positions at two English universities for his “completely unacceptable” comments that slavery did not constitute genocide because “so many damn blacks” survived. Fitzwilliam College at Cambridge University and Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent terminated  Starkey’s honorary fellowship and visiting professorship respectively, following the racist remarks he made in an interview with Brexit campaigner Darren Grimes.

Now Lesley Riddoch brings us a scoop in the Scotsman about the fact that Neil Oliver is “standing down” as President of the National Trust for Scotland in September. As she writes: “Whether he quit or was sacked, NTS is still in dire financial straits.”

Oliver was previously criticised for his highly partisan political stance and his recent support of the now discredited racist Starkey.


The issue raises the question of what the National Trust for Scotland is and what it should be – and how it should cope with its own financial crisis. It also confronts the question of patronage and celebrity and the role of the media in boosting the right and the far-right. It’s worth taking a look at some of these networks.

Take the role of Toby Young’s Free Speech Union. It’s part of the weaponisation of the concept of free speech which has been used by the far-right in recent years to promote their views. The Free Speech Union says it believes “free speech is currently under assault across the Anglosphere, particularly in those areas where it matters most, such as schools, universities, the arts, the entertainment industry and the media. The aim of the Free Speech Union is to restore it and protect it.

The Union explains helpfully: “Toby Young is a British journalist and former Director of the New Schools Network (*cough*), a free schools charity. In addition to being the founder and General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, he is an associate editor of the Spectator, the Critic and Quillette.”

Although the Free Speech Union has been widely ridiculed it’s worth looking at who is congregating within it. It’s quite a cast.

The recently exposed David Starkey is on the Advisory Council, Douglas Murray, formerly of the think-tank Henry Jackson Society is a Director, Nigel Biggar is also a Director – you may remember him from These Islands (remember this?). Paul Staines soils the Advisory Council with his media advice (he’s the editor-in-chief of the successful hate-blog Guido Fawkes). Paul is joined in this role by the loathsome Allison Pearson.  The Advisory Council is further strengthened by Spike columnist and comedian Andrew Doyle, creator of the offensive online troll character Titania McGrath and Jonathan Pie. Andrew is joined on the Advisory Council by fellow Spiked colleague Claire Fox of whom we’ve already said too much. The Advisory Council (now fairly brimming-over with talent) also boasts Matthew Elliott the founder and former chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, and the chief executive of Vote Leave. The collection of All the Talents of the subterranean British Right is completed by Mark Littlewood, the director-general of IEA and former adviser to David Cameron; and Lionel Shriver whose litany of extreme bigotry you can Google at your leisure.

So far so bad.

I can hear the dear reader asking: what exactly is you point?

Well okay it’s not a revelation that Toby Young’s Free Speech Union is packed with some of the most terrible people in the known multi-verse.

I suppose the point is to join the dots. The media circus of clickbait and outrage – the far-right masquerading as libertarian iconoclasts covers a wide network of media outlets, think-tanks and front-groups. Of course they infest the pages of the Daily Mail and The Sun and The Telegraph and The Spectator, but it also now postures as something edgy and new in Spiked and Guido Fawkes where people mistake a nihilistic anti-politics for something else.

Secondly, although it’s worth joining the dots between the Unionist/Loyalist axis and the far-right (a rich vein), it represents a tiny shard of bigotry. Arguably more worthwhile is tracking the pox of celebrity columnists, media-luvvies and televised hate, of which Starkey, Murray, Staines, Pearson, and Shiver are a fine selection. Under the guise of ‘celebrity’ bigoted views operate at a premium. Media thrives on controversy (hate sells) and these people are professional rent-a-quote on a continuum ranging from your casual racist to your Katie Hopkins. Occasionally, and that’s what happened here, the individual over-reaches and the background to their worldview is exposed.

As James Melville writes: “All of this normalised hatred is played out on our traditional media and then amplified and regurgitated as the world’s biggest pub argument on social media. Extremism on the margins have now rebranded as ‘populism’ and a resulting snowball effect of unleashing wider bigotry within society. It’s hardly a surprise that racially linked hate crimes in England and Wales have doubled since 2012, and have significantly spiked since the EU referendum in 2016. We now have an almost deafening cacophony of differing views what is the correct or incorrect British way of life. Brexit became the poster boy of a gigantic cultural war that now pervades the British political landscape and society at large. The chief perpetrators of this continue to throw fuel on the fire while feathering their own nests on whatever media outlet is willing to pay them, while the public at large are engineered into more fear and hatred within a bullring of division.”

Thirdly, the increasingly marginalised and depleted Unionist commentariat need to be called out for their connections to a wider network of British reactionary forces. Locating them within this wider network creates a deeper understanding of the power elite in the British establishment.

Finally: this hegemony is under challenge. The irony of a whole industry basing itself on opposing ‘cancel culture’ and creating a whole mythology of being marginalised- whilst simultaneously being given radio shows, tv appearances and newspaper columns is quite a phenomenon. The churn is circular – immediately after there is a public outcry against the latest pronouncement from Britain’s far-right media circus, another wing of the same circus will leap to its defence.

The idea that questioning hate-speech is undermining “free speech” is part of this whole charade.

Beneath all this, the Black Lives Matter movement continues, now seen as possibly the biggest political movement in the US ever, and continues to exert its influence on public debate and values.  If people like Paul Staines, Claire Fox and Matthew Goodwin attempt to shape the discourse of contemporary public debate, celebrity historians like David Starkey and Neil Oliver attempt to shape how we understand the past.


Comments (26)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Axel P Kulit says:

    I am always skeptical about efforts to prevent peoples opinions being heard and I see some form of hysteria and mob behaviour coming out on the left and well as the right.

    I always believed that giving people the right to be heard also let them be exposed if they were stupid.

    On the other hand I can see the right wing talk about free speech as a way of saying “We need to be heard to stop others being heard”

    A lot of these right wing free speech advocates will, on say facebook, block any one who disagrees with them and produces evidence they are talking nonsense. To this extent they are hypocrites.

    As for Starkey he is nastily racist as his “too many damm blacks” comment suggests but I think he is right in saying slavery was not genocide ( Unless the meaning has been redefined while I was in the toilet), because unlike the holocaust, there was no intention of destroying all black people. Slavery was a business and no businessman with half a brain cell would want to destroy breeding stocks of their product. The Capitalist ethos alone would have prevented genocide.

    Neil Oliver has, in my opinion, merely revived the ancient traditions of historian bias – unfortunately centuries after it was acceptable. I wonder why the NTS appointed someone who had such an obvious bias unless the bosses have the same bias, which I consider anti-scottish, or simply considered only candidates who looked like “one of us”

    1. Wullie says:

      The breeding stock weren’t noted for their longevity & worked to death, plenty more where they came from. It was strictly business. The Nazi’s did much the same with Jews who were fit for work.

      1. Axel P Kulit says:

        I read that the Nazi aim was, at least at first, destruction through work, i.e work them to death. I also read that when the Jews were forced to work for I.G Farben the S.S intervened to lessent he abuse the comppany was inflicting on Jews. That is capitalism for you.
        However it was along time ago that I read this and I do not have a reference to hand.

    2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      A fine point, but genocide is the deliberate killing of a large group of people. This was never our intention in the West Indies or the purpose of the institution of slavery in general; it was to get the most work we could out of disposable beasts at the least cost to ourselves. It was ignorant and wasteful, but it wasn’t genocidal.

      Regarding David Starkey: as a matter of principle, I wouldn’t deny him or anyone else the liberty to say what he likes, however much I disagree with him. I’ll be damned before I let him and his ilk antagonise me into surrendering my principles. I’m not falling into that trap.

    3. Robert says:

      Genocide (according to Wikipedia) means the attempt to “destroy a people—usually defined as an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group—in whole or in part.” It doesn’t have to involve attempting to kill every single member of a people; it’s enough to try and destroy their existence as a group. So for example the practice of forcibly removing Native American children to boarding schools was genocidal.

      1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

        But to try and destroy the existence of Africans as a group was not the purpose of slavery; our purpose was to secure cheap labour for our plantations. David Starkey is right; it wasn’t genocide. Only, his reasoning is wrong.

        1. Well his reasoning and the whole tenor of his comments which were disgraceful

          1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Yes, I agree; it was gross and disgusting. What he said in the interview about the inauthenticity of the ‘privileged’ and ‘entitled’ support that the white bourgeoisie give to the people they oppress, which was the main object of his disapprobation, was far more subtle and perceptive.

            Anyway, he’s received his comeuppance; he has been successfully purged by the same white bourgeoisie. The Mary Rose Trust has accepted his resignation from its board, the Historical Association is withdrawing the Medlicott Medal it had awarded him 20 years ago, his old college at Cambridge has accepted his resignation as an honorary fellow, Canterbury Christ Church University has removed him from his role as a visiting professor, History Today has removed him from its editorial board, both Lancaster University and the University of Kent have confirmed that they’ve launched a formal review of his honorary graduate status, HarperCollins has announced it will terminate his ongoing book deal and will no longer publish the two remaining books, his previous publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, has also said that they won’t be publishing any further books by him, Vintage Books has announced it will be reviewing the status of his books in their back catalogue, the Royal Historical Society, the Society’s Council has invited him to resign his fellowship with immediate effect, and he has resigned his fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries of London at its request.

            That’s the way to deal with dissensus. Fucking establishment, eh?

          2. Axel P Kulit says:

            Definitely this is a moral panic. I am not supporting his racist views but what he says should be examined and the good bits kept while the rest is shredded and discarded.

            I do not know how well his books are/were regarded by the historian community but if they have merit they should not be censored in this way or in any way.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Axel P Kulit, is it a moral panic, though? How many quiet warnings might someone like Starkey have been given about expressing things in public that he may have done in private? I was always put off watching his television histories by the short clips that gave me the impression that he was a bit of a fanatic (and I watch a lot of BBC history programming). We don’t even know what assurances Starkey may have given, may have broken, to avoid such controversial statements. I am not saying that is the case, and the rise to news-prominence of Black Lives Matter and the statues controversies make excuses of tongue-slips untenable. But we cannot say this is simply a moral panic without knowing if Starkey’s coat was or was not already on a shoogly peg.

    4. At no point was I advocating denying these people their freedom of speech, I was pointing out the hypocrisy of them wailing about this from their multiple media pulpits, columns and radio slots …

      1. Axel P Kulit says:

        I believe I pointed out they are hypocrites in my original comment.

  2. Arboreal Agenda says:

    Quite a litany of names there! I think you are basically correct – they masquerade for free speech but in essence are pissed off that their world view is no longer getting the same credence it once did; the tide is turning, slowly, but significantly and they really don’t like it. If I have any sympathy at all for the general position about free speech at the moment it is the criticism of ‘cancel culture’ which is valid.

    I would say though they are not all the same sort of person or free speech advocate so there needs to be care to differentiate. The link to Jonathan Pie is interesting since much of his output is pretty good and though I have some issues with Doyle, he does write quite a lot of Pie’s stuff and is not in the same leageu as some of the other names (and I mean Hopkins is in an extreme league all of her own). It is confusing though since Pie, Doyle and Fox (who *is* truly dreadful) are supposedly ‘renegade’ left, and Pie not that renegade at all.

    I am not in the loop enough about Oliver but I always enjoyed his stuff on Coast, quite a lot actually. Is it basically because he is a Unionist?

  3. Charles L. Gallagher says:

    Mike, you left out the Daily Distress, or like me do you deem it to be a ‘Non-Paper’.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    It is not surprising that fans of hereditary monarchy are racist, it comes with the territory of genetic supremacy and the whole imperial project. Yet the idea that such royalists are defenders of free speech in the UK is absurd. The act of discussing whether we should have a republic in the UK is still punishable by life imprisonment:
    while lèse-majesté was a criminal offence in Scotland as recently as 2010.

    In fact, under UK’s draconian secrecy regime, the speech of the royal family is among the unfree-est anywhere, with the conversations between monarch and prime minister locked up in the family vault and a brief window of Freedom of Information has been shuttered up since the Black Spider Letter scandal broke. Isn’t Margaret Thatcher one of Toby Young’s heroes? She who banned the speech of Sinn Fein to ‘deny them the oxygen of publicity’ and leading to some very strange television news broadcasts? Perhaps coherent thought is beyond this bunch.

  5. Paul Staines says:

    Oddly prejudiced description of our site, we do news and comment with the aim of entertaining and informing.

    By the same token that must mean that this site is an unsuccessful “hate blog”?

    1. James Mills says:

      Please self-isolate immediately !

    2. Thanks for the comment Paul but you’re a racist and your site’s a sewer …

      [this comment has been amended under threat of legal action from Paul Staines ]

      1. Paul Staines says:

        You may not know that the journalist who wrote that story subsequently withdrew the allegations. It was also subsequently removed from the Guardian archive. As recently as last year the journalist concerned issued another statement withdrawing it and expressing regret that people still reproduce the claims from a 30 year-old cutting.

        You may not have been aware of all this, you are now. Please withdraw the claims above. To repeat something defamatory is to republish. Do not ignore this request.

        1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          A litigious libertarian. Now, THAT’S hypocrisy!

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, hmmm, yes, and not a denial either. A rather economical response.

  6. Robert says:

    Titania McGrath (https://twitter.com/TitaniaMcGrath/) is not offensive unless you are incapable of taking a joke. It’s satirical gold.

    1. Robert says:

      Or maybe the point of satire is to offend the easily offended so everyone else can laugh at them for being so easily offended. Or something

      1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

        The point of satire (aka ‘rippin the pish’) is not to offend but to mercilessly expose through ridicule other people’s perceived weaknesses. The best satire isn’t funny and doesn’t care if it offends or not; at its best, it’s cruel and nasty and makes you wince rather than laugh.

        IMO David Starkey has become deliciously self-satirising, which is why he’s now such an embarrassment to the academic establishment, while what Titania McGrath enacts is parody done for the sake of comic effect rather than for satirical purposes. She’s far too nice.

  7. Wul says:

    Toby Young’s the guy that doesn’t want children to learn about UK’s colonial past because it could be “divisive”.

    So, “shut up about the past”, “it doesn’t matter how we became rich”. But at the same time; “free speech!” Something stinks.

  8. Jim Ferguson says:

    Threats of a lawsuit from Seaman Staines. Some body somewhere is doing something right … correctly, I mean.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.