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A Very Loud, Very Illiberal Group

Staff writer Douglas Gibb passes comment on the controversial moves made by student group Liberate KCL.

It must first be said that the motion suggested by the King’s College London Conservative Association (KCLCA) was absurd on all counts. ‘Restoring the British Empire’ would be unethical, illegal and unworkable – this will be obvious to anyone with a brain. However, stupid things are said on campus everyday and, to quote Joe Biden, “everyone is entitled to be an idiot”. We should all stand up for the right of imperialists to prove just how ridiculous their ideas are, especially when doing so allows us to challenge them in a public forum.

But what Liberate KCL (‘Liberate’) did was force the event underground. Instead of opposition speakers being able to challenge the supporters of the motion, it was held in an echo-chamber without the benefit of anyone providing a counter-narrative (with the possible exception of some dissenting KCLCA members). How is that a victory?

Until Liberate got involved, it was going to be a debate with the opportunity for anti-imperialists to oppose the motion. The original Instagram post made it very clear that you could come to the event so long as you had registered, that there would be two speakers for and against each motion, and that after the four speakers had finished, the debate would go to the floor. So all Liberate did was encourage this right-wing group to become even more insular. A possibility that arises from forcing these groups into isolation is that they fester and decay into reactionary cesspits, untouched by anything vaguely progressive. That is not good.

KCLSU are not silencing Liberate. They have over 1,300 followers on Instagram. They were using the speaker system on the UCU pickets. They are entitled to broadcast their views to people and did that without intervention from the student union. Liberate themselves were doing the actual silencing by stopping debates from happening.

Liberate and Israel

It is worth mentioning that Liberate’s silencing tactics are not limited to right-wing societies. Case in point, a bipartisan Q&A on Israel organised by KCL Labour, UCL Conservatives and various University of London Israel Societies.

They had invited Steve McCabe and Stephen Crabb, the chairs of the Labour and Conservative Friends of Israel (LFI and CFI) groups respectively. The British government, the official opposition, CFI (James Cleverly, now Foreign Secretary, was previously a member of CFI) and LFI all support the two-state solution, meaning that they support Palestinian statehood. This is a mainstream view. According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 43% of Israeli Jews and 42% of Palestinians support the two-state solution. While falling short of a majority, this does constitute plurality support. The next most popular option was ‘other’, at 27% and 38% respectively. (For reference, 59% of Israeli Arabs support the two-state solution, while ‘other’ had the support of 28%.)

Despite this, Liberate thought the event was so morally repugnant that, even though it had been moved off campus, it should still have been shut down. Their complaint? The lack of a Palestinian speaker.

A screenshot of a DM conversation between the official Liberate KCL account and a member of the KCL Israel Society.

Did they ask the organisers to invite a Palestinian? Did Liberate consider attending and voicing Palestinian concerns? No. Instead, they opted for the lazy approach: that there should be no discussion at all.

It should be noted that even after the Israel event had been moved from Strand to Parliament, it was cancelled because of “security concerns”. Even if these fears were overblown, ask yourselves, what did Liberate do to accrue such a reputation?

Since the event they have doubled down in their hardline approach to Israel-Palestine. Yet in vocally defending Shaima Dallali, they’ve made clear their commitment to obtuseness. In 2018 she described a fundamentalist cleric who defended Hitler as her “moral compass”. In 2021 she defended Hamas, describing their terrorist tactics as “a right” that “we must accept”. The Union of Jewish Students, very understandably, had problems with this, but according to Liberate, those who oppose Dallali’s presidency are simply engaging in a “racist smear campaign”.

A principled argument

Everything I’ve written so far is based on pragmatic concerns. Perhaps you don’t share them. In that case, I would like to offer a principled argument.

Their right to speak is inseparable from my right to listen and reply. I don’t agree with the Telegraph, but I have the right to read it. Equally, I don’t agree with KCL Tories, but I have the right to listen to them. Liberate are so convinced of their own righteousness that they have taken it upon themselves to deprive others of that right to listen. This is plain arrogance. People are allowed to think for themselves, and they are more than capable of doing so.

I imagine there will be people who think I sound like a conservative for ‘co-opting right-wing rhetoric’. To them I ask, since when did the right-wing hold a monopoly on freedom? Anarchism and socialism are all about emancipation whether political, economic or social. Left-wing thought is all about freedom. It is for precisely this reason that the Labour Representation Committee adopted the flame of liberty as its logo, later becoming the logo of the Labour Party (replaced with the red rose in around 1983 by Neil Kinnock). Corollaries to this are the particular freedoms to speak and listen, things Liberate oppose. Calling themselves ‘Liberate’, while disagreeing with the tenets of liberty, is laughable.

As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, if you want to stop the spread of fascism, why don’t you just make the argument? You are utterly convinced that fascism is evil, so why don’t you explain to people why it’s evil? Argue the case instead of trying to censor those that disagree with you. If you can’t do that, that says a lot about your own ineptitude in scrutinising bad ideas. See also Frederick Douglass’ Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston: “Equally clear is the right to hear. To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money.”

Immature behaviour from Liberate

Even if you are inclined to object to everything I have said, you should recognise that Liberate have not been good ambassadors for the causes they claim to represent.

For one thing, they have made false and defamatory accusations of Nazism. Caroline Crawford stated that KCLSU’s actions were based on a respect for free speech and not agreement with KCLCA. Even though this point was very clear, Liberate said that KCLSU were “complicit with neo-Nazis”. Essentially, Liberate implied that KCLSU employees endorsed fascist speech for their adherence to the pre-determined KCLSU policy.

Apparently it is lost on them that Nazism and British imperialism are two different things. Churchill was an imperialist but not a Nazi. Are these mutually exclusive? No, but they are different, and Liberate are throwing around the term “Nazi” as if precision and honesty are unimportant.

In short, Liberate’s polished graphics give them a veneer of professionalism – but in reality they behave like children and create drama for drama’s sake. While the goal of liberation is admirable, Liberate are not.

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