The fragility of Theresa May’s premiership was once again revealed this month, as Tory whip Chris Heaton-Harris (pictured with May) came under fire for requesting that all UK universities provide a list of academic staff currently teaching courses relating to Brexit. In a letter to all university vice chancellors in the UK, Heaton-Harris demanded the names of those teaching any subject “with particular reference to Brexit”.
Unsurprisingly and understandably, this attempted attack on academic freedom earned an outraged response from university staff and students across the country. Professor Kevin Featherstone, from the London School of Economics, referenced the ‘McCarthyite’ nature of the demand. Professor David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University, meanwhile, described the request as “dangerous” - “the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak.”
Indeed, many of the universities asked have refused to comply with Heaton-Harris’ demands and have been openly critical of the government’s attempts to “intimidate academics by scrutinising their courses”, as Lee Jones at Queen Mary University of London put it.
We see here, once again, the chaos of a Tory Brexit in this epoch of capitalist crisis. With Brexit negotiations at an impasse, it seems that leading Tories are willing to resort to censorship and the removal of basic academic freedoms, rather than actually facing the contradictions of their situation.
Furthermore, Heaton-Harris’ demands show the barefaced reactionary nature of the Tories and their programme. With academic liberties under attack from the Tories, we can clearly see the true, brutal nature of the ruling class.
Predictably, the government has been quick to distance itself from Heaton-Harris’ actions. A statement was issued by Downing Street soon after the incident, claiming that Heaton-Harris had written the letters “in his capacity as an MP, not as a representative of the government”, adding that Theresa May “has always been very clear on…her respect for the freedom and independence of universities.”
Aside from the evident irony of the latter statement (the Prevent programme being but one of many examples of the Conservatives’ reactionary meddling in academic institutions), the government’s condemnation of Heaton-Harris shows Theresa May’s weak grip on her own party and her fervent desire to claw back public support.
The real divide between Theresa May and the more Eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives was quickly underlined by Tory MP (and former candidate for party leadership) Andrea Leadsom, who rushed out in support of Heaton-Harris. Describing the letters as “very courteous and not at all threatening”, Leadsom claimed to be confused that the universities had “[reacted] in such a negative way”.
This almost delusional denial of blame shows the tensions within the Conservatives: between May’s weak leadership and the more openly reactionary wing of the party.
Overall the Tory’s “pound shop McCarthy” (as Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary, put it) has revealed the absurd paranoia of the ruling class in this period of capitalist crisis.
The Conservative’s failure to maintain a firm grip on Brexit has crippled the party and revealed both the real ugly face of the Tory Party and the growing divide between the Eurosceptic wing of the party and its more ‘moderate’ leadership.
It is now clearer than ever what a Tory Brexit will mean for ordinary people. They cannot be allowed to continue their reign of terror on our universities. Only a socialist alternative can free us from the cruelty and brutality of the Tories and the crisis-ridden capitalist system that they defend.
We must get rid of the crumbling Conservative government, defend our universities from reactionary interference, and fight for socialism!