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.