No 10 disowns Tory whip accused of ‘McCarthyite’ behaviour

A Conservative whip accused of “McCarthyite” behaviour after writing to university vice-chancellors to demand a list of tutors lecturing on Brexit was not acting on behalf of the government, No 10 has said.

Downing Street issued a rebuke to the MP Chris Heaton-Harris on Tuesday, telling reporters he had not been acting in his capacity as a government whip when he wrote the letter to university leaders asking for details of professors lecturing on Brexit matters.

“Chris Heaton-Harris wrote to universities in his capacity as an MP, not as a representative of the government,” the prime minister’s spokesman said. “I think what the prime minister has always been very clear on is her respect for the freedom and independence of universities and the role they play in creating open and stimulating debate.”

Asked if he would take the opportunity to reassure universities, he said: “The letter was sent in a personal capacity. Free speech is one of the foundations on which our universities are built and of course it should be respected.”

The Guardian revealed Heaton-Harris, the Conservative MP for Daventry and a staunch Eurosceptic, wrote to vice-chancellors at the start of this month asking for the names of any professors involved in teaching European affairs “with particular reference to Brexit”.

The letter gave no explanation for the request, but asked for a copy of each university’s syllabus and any online lectures on Brexit.

After Downing Street disowned the letter, Heaton-Harris tweeted:

Chris Heaton-Harris

To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit.

October 24, 2017

The MP has not responded to requests for an explanation for why the letter was sent.

Lord Patten, the chancellor of the University of Oxford, called the letter an “extraordinary example of outrageous and foolish behaviour – offensive and idiotic Leninism”.

“I couldn’t believe that it had come from a Conservative MP,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, saying he believed most vice-chancellors would dismiss it. “I think he must be an agent of [Labour leader] Mr Corbyn intent on further increasing the number of young people who want to vote Labour.”

Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons and a fellow leave supporter, defended Heaton-Harris’s intentions.

She said it was a “very courteous and not at all threatening letter”, adding: “Universities are bastions of free speech so to be so horrified at somebody asking a simple question with no caveat or demands either implicit or explicit in it, it seems to me to be a bit odd that they should react in such a negative way.”

Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said Heaton-Harris was acting like a “pound shop McCarthy” and said he must explain his motivation.

“It would be deeply ironic if, even as the universities minister was unveiling his latest unworkable gimmick in the name of free speech, a senior Tory colleague was busy compiling a register of heretics,” she said.

“The last thing universities need is some kind of pound shop McCarthy telling them what they are allowed to teach.

“Academics and students are perfectly capable of critical thinking and discussion about policy issues like Brexit. If only we could say the same about Tory ministers.”

Layla Moran, The Liberal Democrats’ education spokeswoman, called for Heaton-Harris to be sacked from his role as a whip. The Oxford MP has written to Theresa May asking her to contact universities to make clear they are in no way obliged to provide the information requested.

Moran said the MP must explain himself. “This chilling letter could have come straight out of a dystopian novel,” she said.

“Conservative Brexiteers know they have lost the intellectual debate and now appear to be engaging in a witch-hunt. Theresa May must condemn this letter and clarify why this information was being sought by a government whip. It is vital that the government makes clear that universities are free to teach whatever they see fit.”

The Universities and Colleges Union said it would push for Jo Johnson, the higher education minister, to strongly condemn the “McCarthyite” letter. Sally Hunt, the union’s general secretary, said: “This attempt by Chris Heaton-Harris to compile a hit-list of professors has the acrid whiff of McCarthyism about it and Jo Johnson must disown it in the strongest terms.

“Our universities and colleges must lead the way in defending academic freedom, where received wisdom can be challenged and controversial ideas debated.”

It is understood that few, if any, universities will respond positively to the MP’s request for details of their teaching on Brexit, with many publicly saying they have no intention of complying.

Johnson tweeted that the government was committed to protecting academic freedom, as criticism of Heaton-Harris’s letter mounted.

Jo Johnson

Academic freedom -which we’ve just entrenched in statute in Higher Ed &Research Bill 2017! – is core to success +better protected than ever

October 24, 2017

Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party, has put down two parliamentary questions asking what the purpose of Heaton-Harris’s letter was.

“I’ve asked the prime minister whether he was acting on her behalf when he wrote to universities – and why it happened,” she said. “Academic freedom is absolutely essential in a democracy, and the government must now withdraw this letter and guarantee that this kind of veiled threat to universities won’t be repeated in the future.”

Prof David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University, told the Guardian he had felt a chill down his spine when he read the “sinister” request.

“This letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous,” he said. “Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak, naturally justified as ‘the will of the British people’, a phrase to be found on Mr Heaton-Harris’s website.”

Heaton-Harris’s letter

Heaton-Harris’s letter. Photograph: University of Worcester/PA

Academics specialising in European affairs said they saw the letter as a major intrusion into their work. Prof Hartmut Mayer, director of the European Studies Centre at Oxford University, said: “It is absolutely absurd for an MP to request this information and to think that academic freedom can be interfered with in this way.

“We teach Brexit in many shapes and forms and we try to provide a debating forum. Of course there is a majority view in universities – but we want to encourage an open discussion on Brexit.”

Vice-chancellors told the Guardian they had no intention of complying with the MP’s request. Prof Colin Riordan, of Cardiff University, a member of the Russell Group of universities, said: “Our academics are free to teach topics including Brexit as they see fit. If Mr Heaton-Harris wants to understand their work he should attend some of our classes or consult our website or directory of experts.”

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ umbrella group, demanded that Heaton-Harris explain his motives. “This request suggests an alarming attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom,” he said.

Prof Paul O’Prey, of Roehampton University, said Brexit would be an increasingly important topic for universities to teach and research. “In the academic arena scrutiny will always be carried out objectively, independently and without fear or favour,” he said.


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