It is a cliché to speak of „political correctness gone mad“. But it is much more serious when it goes institutional. This week, a report („Lackademia“ by Noah Carl) from the libertarian Adam Smith Institute argued that British universities are largely staffed by the Left.
As stated, this sounds like an „Is the Pope a Catholic?“ thesis. After all, the Left has dominated academia since at least the Second World War. What’s new? In part, it is a question of degree. According to the report, in 1964, 35 per cent of academics supported the Conservative Party. Today, that figure is only 11 per cent. Forty-six per cent support Labour, and 77 per cent support parties (including Labour) of the Left. A separate poll of university staff last June showed that 89 per cent would vote Remain in the EU referendum. The once-mixed garden of academia has become almost a monoculture.
I was amused to read a Tweet which accidentally illustrated the problem. Helen McCarthy, a loquacious historian at Queen Mary College, University of London, proclaimed: „And if universities are 75 per cent “left-liberal” that hardly equates to ideological homogeneity.“ It does if you are part of the 25 per cent minority.
It has been rightly pointed out that such group-think is anti-intellectual, intolerant and therefore bad for universities and students. What has been missed is the exact way the Left has fashioned the agenda, and the consequences for the way we live and learn now.
In the 1970s, many on the Left began what is sometimes called „the Cultural Turn“. Frustrated by the obstinate refusal of the working classes to listen, they gave up on them. They played down their grim economic doctrines and branched out into wider social and cultural issues – race, sexual politics, the use of language – of more interest to students and lecturers than to labourers. Having waited in vain for capitalism to collapse – as Marxists say – ‘under the weight of its own contradictions’, they changed the subject.
As my late, great friend, Frank Johnson, star of this newspaper, once put it to me, „They failed to nationalise the economy, so now they want to nationalise people.“
This has been alarmingly successful. In a bourgeois society, it is hard to persuade most citizens to hand their money over to the control of the state. It is much easier to persuade significant elements of the bourgeoisie – especially if they are young and feel a bit guilty about their „privilege“ – to mobilise against things like racism and sexism as well as various attitudes which their teachers have stigmatised by calling them „phobias“.
Over time, this shift allows the persuaders to take control of an academic subject and reshape it. The traditional core of academic history, for example, was taken to be war, politics, parliaments, constitutions, diplomacy and all that. If you could persuade people that this was a white, male, Western, colonialist and therefore bad way of looking at the world, you could make them study the history of witchcraft or gender instead.
The history of the word „gender“, indeed, is a tribute to the success of the Left. It was deliberately moved, from being a term of grammar, to replace the word „sex“ (in the days when „sex“ primarily meant whether you were male or female). The Left did this to indicate that your gender was not something you were born with but something imposed upon you by a patriarchal society in order to enforce various „gender roles“, such as women doing more child-care than men.
From this, it was a short step to the idea that gender was, or should be, „fluid“. And from that, we reach the present state of affairs where people in higher education consider it a serious issue whether you can call all people „he“ or „she“ – these pronouns being „gender-specific“ (bad!) – rather than the singular „them“ or „they“.
Many people throw up their hands in laughter or horror at these extremities. Yet the Left’s academic takeover has worked: almost all of us, regardless of political view, use the word „gender“ nowadays, mostly quite unaware that we thereby accept a new doctrine about the difference (or lack of it) between men and women.
Not only doctrinal issues are at stake, but also the eternal question of who is in charge. Seeing its opportunity, the Left in universities established the sort of ‘deep state’, which, in other fields (e.g. the Western intelligence and security apparatus), it would criticise. Its academic elites can control who sits on committees, who gets the best jobs, the articles published in learned journals and the funding.
These elites have their liberal „popes“, dispensing patronage and expressing their infallibility with the confidence derived from their power. Read the tweets of Sir Richard Evans, Emeritus Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge and President of Wolfson College. On he drones (if so short a form can be said to allow for droning) about whether Trump’s America resembles the Third Reich, how Arabic numerals prove that Western civilisation is not „Judaeo-Christian“, and why Brexiteers are liars. He tweets a picture of his college flying a rainbow flag ‘celebrating equality and diversity’. One can be confident that, if confronted by a UKIP banner on college premises, Sir Richard’s enthusiasm for diversity would vanish.
Or take Professor Richard Drayton. Like some satirist’s parody of a PC opportunist, Professor Drayton delivers bloodcurdling denunciations of the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford because it ‘symbolises white domination’, while at the same time accepting his post and salary as Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King’s College, London.
My point here is not that these preposterous profs should be reined in. The leftwing, establishment don is a recognised part of our richly comic culture, like the trendy vicar or the barking colonel. It is rather that conservatives and, specifically, Conservatives should be much more alert to how much they have unthinkingly conceded to the ‘cultural hegemony’ of the Left.
Just now, for example, Mrs May’s government is keen on social mobility. This is a thoroughly Conservative idea if it is about opportunity. But it quickly becomes a socialist one if it is about the Government forcing independent schools to admit whom it dictates, or denigrating universities or employers which fail to meet politically correct targets for „diversity“.
Climate change is another instance. All academic money and jobs in the field go to those who unquestioningly accept this syllogism: „The climate is changing, through the actions of men. This is bad and will destroy the planet. No other scientific view on the matter should be entertained. Governments must therefore make fossil fuels much more expensive and force citizens to subsidise renewables through their energy bills.“ This is essentially an anti-freedom message about how to think, whom to blame and how to act which any non-socialist should question. Yet our green policies trundle on.
This week’s example is sex education, which our Government decrees must become compulsory in school from the age of four. It thus accepts that a uniform decision by the state about how human relationships should be taught is better than what parents can provide. That idea, too, comes from the Left, and will be taught according to its syllabus.
The Left has two other favourite phrases – „the long march through the institutions“ and „the dustbin of history“. Brexit should be a good moment to put the first in the second.