Comment editor Fintan Hogan addresses the controversy over a recent KCLCA debate with a motion to “restore the British Empire”. He argues that their fault was in the procedure of the debate rather than the subject itself.
On Thursday, February 9, King’s College London Conservative Association (KCLCA) intended to host a debate in collaboration with other London student Conservative groups. The second motion related to the ‘restoration’ of the British Empire, with advocates and detractors having allotted time slots to make their case. Under pressure from the self-declared ‘lefty’ society Liberate KCL, supported by KCL Labour, the debate was relocated from the Anatomy Museum of King’s College’s Strand Campus to a different, unnamed location in an attempt to avoid protestors.
Roar later learned that the event was moved to the campus of University College London (UCL). UCL Conservative Society (UCLCS) were, however, little more than hosts for the KCLCA machine. “Since it was a KCL event” UCLCS concerns about the inflammatory second motion were ignored. UCL, London School of Economics (LSE) and University of Westminster (UOW) Conservative societies left the event in protest. Their attempt to ‘moderate’ the motion to something like ‘This House believes the British Empire was a force for good’ was rejected out of hand by their ungracious guests. Members, and certainly the leadership, of the three other Conservative societies clearly did not want to be associated with a position advocating for the re-establishment of a political situation where 2.5 billion people would be subservient to the wishes of 60 million.
And for good reason. This is a plainly ridiculous position. In the first instance, the British empire was established primarily for shallow, exploitative reasons. The British had the best ships and so could occupy and extract from people and places thousands of miles away. The idea of the ‘civilising mission’ is little better, used to posthumously legitimise colonialism. Some advance the argument that imperialism brought with it education, infrastructure, medicine and investment. Yet all of these virtues could have been brought without subjecting populations to centuries of authoritarian, alien rule.
Furthermore, the line of debate could scarcely be more ridiculous in practice. “Restore the British empire”? Are you proposing a peaceful invite, the invasion of democratic neighbours or a royal decree over the 54 Commonwealth states? There’s debating something abstract and there’s debating something inconceivable. This case clearly falls into the latter category.
It seems that, motivated by a perverse desire to stoke a reaction, KCLCA simply revels in hosting events which it knows will rile up others. There have been accusations of bullying and harassment made against KCLCA members. The stubborn refusal to adjust the motion to the liking of their UCL counterparts and alleged friends is even more damning. KCLCA leaders should take such complaints seriously and address them properly. These fit with a profile of a society desperate to irritate, not educate.
As a result of the decision to debate the British empire, KCL Labour has chosen to boycott KCLCA events and interaction, including the upcoming KCL Politics Society debate. This is a shame, and KCL Labour should re-evaluate their position. KCLCA should be fully entitled to host a debate about the British empire, or indeed near-any topic. The Student Union (KCLSU) is quite right to support this in the name of free speech and not permitting a ‘de-platforming policy’ to emerge. However, KCLCA cannot expect this privilege without the accompanying duties. In this consideration, they have failed.
KCLCA’s right to host such a motion is dependent on the debate being open – as stated by the KCLSU, “so long as there is an opportunity to challenge, discuss and debate.” Any speaker should be allowed to participate, regardless of their association with the KCLCA. At its best, free speech challenges dead dogma. This is not achieved by having closed attendance, insular conversations or a culture of back-slapping for advocating controversial ideas. Any position which individuals are not willing to express in public should not be sheltered and nurtured behind closed doors. The accusation of Liberate KCL is that KCLSU are complicit with extremist voices. This may actually be the case, we simply don’t know. How could we, when we are not allowed to hear what’s being said?
Freedom of expression allows ideas to be presented, compared, developed and thus benefit from the diversity of thought of a public audience. KCLCA audiences and speakers are not public or diverse (at least in an ideological sense). They do not benefit from genuinely hashing out difficult ideas, posing their arguments against the best-presented and most passionately motivated counter-arguments, as cross-party debates do.
The attempt to make debates ‘off the record’ is frankly ridiculous and indicative of this sheltered attitude. A blanket attempt to avoid scrutiny, push-back or non-member reflection does not follow any of the arguments in favour of free speech. Adults should have matured past the point of making you pinky promise not to snitch before you talk about anything important. If you advocate free speech, live by this – don’t box the debate into a single room. Fleeing oversight, scrutiny and accountability is the hallmark of a group with no belief in its own philosophy. High-minded ideals don’t belong in an echo chamber. Only weak arguments, and advocates who cannot countenance any measure of push-back, fear open debate. If mum’s the word, your words are pointless.
In practical terms, this also does not adhere to the KCLSU’s terms of ‘free speech’, as set out by the Head of Governance and Compliance. This includes the “opportunity to challenge [and] discuss”. This right should not end at the close of formal debate. Allowing the few speakers and moderators to monopolise the subject does not count as ‘appropriate opportunity’ for the student body at large. If students want to get together and discuss this on their own time, promising not to tell anyone, that’s their business. But a closed event with no reporting is not appropriate formal business for a KCLSU-ratified society.
I am sure that KCLCA members and leaders would say that it is not fear of counter-argument that leads their decision to close the terms of debate, but fear of social sanction or other improper response. Members of Liberate KCL, or other similar groups, may be expected to be disruptive or intimidating. My appeal is for the leaders of the KCLCA to be brave. Individual cases of disruption should be dealt with as and when they emerge. I think that given the opportunity to attend and to speak, many of their critics would be satisfied. As outlined above, debate under the terms that it has now devolved to is little more than a chums chat.
This is not serious conversation, nor (may I stress) will it prepare any KCLCA members who have ambitions for elected office for the real political world. Their fate may be closer to that of Liz Truss than they would hope. She too had ground-breaking political ideas that none of her friends or confidants could find fault with – but the markets and the public definitely could.
No thinker who has ever differed from the consensus has been free of social pressure. It is often the political right who protest against the need for ‘safe spaces’ among ‘soft liberals’. Please recognise that this insularity is just the same. The Chatham House rule (where speakers’ identities are not revealed in discussions outside the chamber) is counter-intuitive if the aim is for genuine, mature political conversations. If KCLCA leadership cannot offer debate positions which members of the student body are willing to publicly defend, then they have clearly chosen an inappropriate topic for debate. This is absolutely the case with imperialism. If KCLCA or other members of the student body would be ashamed to advocate for the restoration of the British Empire in public, then they must recognise the ridiculousness of the motion. There are no genuine grounds for disagreement in this instance. The motion is moot. Where none would volunteer to defend a position, the issue is settled. By all means, host the ‘debate’ – but it will be an entirely one-sided affair. And rightly so.
This is not an argument in favour of absolutist free speech. Of course, if any student society was to table the motion ‘This house believes that ethnic minorities should be removed from campus’, this would be an incitement to violence and intimidation. For purposes of space, I cannot litigate every possible debate proposal here. In my opinion, the restoration of the British empire motion does not surpass this threshold of ‘harming’ others. Simply talking about this topic does not create harm – particularly when students of all political stripes are free to convey their own opinion and the contents of debate are reported accurately and fairly.
The response of KCL Labour in their boycott of KCLCA events is thus fair, in one regard. If KCL Tories will not let others attend their events, why would others let KCL Tories attend theirs? This is therefore a proportionate response. However, I would urge opponents not to wait for an apology on the raising of the motion before they re-engage. Not only is this extremely unlikely to be forthcoming, but it is misguided. The issue is not the topic raised, but the manner in which responses were allowed to be proffered. KCLCA’s mistake was in hosting a closed debate, not in holding a debate per se. An appropriate apology would be implied by the next KCLCA debate extending a university-wide invitation, dropping the Chatham House rule and allowing fair reporting of events. Others, I am sure, would be happy to moderate such an event if KCLCA leaders do not feel that they would command a room including KCL Labour and Liberate KCL members.
And these opposing groups should not be scared of such a motion being debated under these terms. In fact, this would be a progressive event. Clearly there are no genuinely dissenting figures who believe that a reasonable case in favour can be made. Otherwise UCL, LSE and UOW Tories would not have walked out; KCL Tories would not have felt the need to hide behind closed doors and hastily relocate their meeting. The extreme position clearly has no defendants when the public eye is cast upon it. Thus in one fell swoop all three groups are happy. KCLSU’s free speech policy is properly upheld; KCLCA get their debate; Liberate KCL can rest assured that no-one is willing to advocate ridiculous, extremist ideas under appropriate scrutiny.
In this case, the event would have thus consisted of a series of students sharing personal and historical lessons about the profoundly negative impact of empire. Under these terms, the university debate takes its most admirable form – a platform for students to learn from their peers. White students (such as myself) can listen to people of colour and other appropriate voices on the topic. This would not be much of a ‘debate’ – but that’s what you get when you pick a topic with unanimous consensus.
‘This house believes that proper debate requires an open audience.’ If you want your speech, free it.