5 June 2022
The far-left mob can yell 'Tory scum' at me all they like - but free speech has to win

Nadhim Zahawi writes for the The Mail on Sunday.

This Platinum Jubilee weekend, many of us are reflecting on what makes this country great. Having grown up as a Kurdish boy under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, I often remind people that this is the best country in the world to call home.

We live in the most tolerant and open place in the world. How could I think otherwise? This country has given me everything. A home, a life, a family and an opportunity to serve in Her Majesty’s Government.

So, when I see the Union Jack flying, I think of freedom. And one of the most precious rights we have in this country is the right to free speech. The ability to express our views and debate them without fear or favour is essential to the functioning of a mature and open democracy. This is the opposite of Saddam’s reign of terror in Iraq, where saying the wrong thing could have landed you in jail. Or worse.

But when exercising our fundamental right to free speech, we must allow others to do the same. And when we disagree, which will be often, we must respectfully and courteously debate the other side.

Free speech is not a licence to spread hate, intimidate others or shut down debate.

I have personal experience of what it is like to be on the receiving end of hateful speech. When I was first at school in London, a small minority of children attacked me with racial insults. I’ve never been sure what the boys who shouted ‘Paki’ at me were trying to achieve, or why they did it, but I know that it hurt and made life difficult for me.

So, last week, when chants of ‘Tory scum!’ were shrieked at me by a small group of students at an event at Warwick University, they failed to make their mark. Nor did they dent my beliefs in the essential values that I hold dear: liberty, tolerance and freedom of expression.

While the activists clearly intended to stop my speech and shut down the discussion, it has done precisely the opposite.

I am now more convinced than ever that the chilling crushing of free speech needs to be countered.

Put simply, sometimes we must hear and consider points of view that we disagree with.

Indeed, the Government is protecting these essential rights with our Freedom of Speech Bill for universities. But legislation is not enough. We each need to play a part in tilting our culture back towards the virtues of open expression.

I have now seen first-hand how damaging this mob mentality is to debate in higher education.

During my speech at Warwick, one young Conservative activist was hit on the head and many others were shouted at and abused, just because they wanted to engage in a constructive conversation with me on the important issues of the day.

I have broad enough shoulders and can take this kind of thing. But if we do not explain why open inquiry is preferential to denunciations and the cancelling and banning of speakers from places such as universities, we do a disservice to everyone involved.

Those who resort to personal insults, intimidation or dehumanise their opponents have lost their moral compass. I was accused of inciting hatred for simply defining women as ‘adult human females’.

Let me be clear. I will never deny biology and the safety and security of women must be the priority of myself and others in a position of power. But we must always show kindness, tolerance and love when discussing these sensitive issues.

Most students were happy to disagree with me politely and respectfully and to engage in debate. But across too many campuses, there is a less tolerant approach. This is why phenomenal women such as J. K. Rowling have received so much hateful abuse and seen attempts to discredit their name. Enough is enough. This has to stop.

Sadly, among some hard-Left student groups, there exists a belief that hearing ideas you don’t like is somehow equivalent to violence.

Such nonsense is unworthy of our country’s great intellectual tradition.

This lurch against merely hearing other points of view is a new and totalitarian development that makes us all poorer. Free speech, free expression and freedom will always, I believe, win out over authoritarianism. Young minds thrive by debating, challenging and probing ideas. Not by cancelling others or closing themselves off to views that they disagree with.

As Education Secretary, I will continue to protect the right to freedom of speech and take an open and transparent approach to my work in my department.

As US President Ronald Reagan once said, freedom is always one generation away from extinction, and must be fought for and protected.

Passing freedom on to the young and preserving it for them, rather than shielding them from views they disagree with, is the greatest service we can give them.