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London Chronicle: Brexit & Free Speech

The last time I was in London, in June, I was witness to the amazing populist recovery of sovereignty the world now knows as Brexit. I reported on it several times in this space (here, for example, and here, here, here, and here). It was amusing, back then, to observe the evolution of respectable sentiment about Brexit.  On the run-up to the vote on June 23 almost everyone who was anyone agreed on two things: 1) those supporting Brexit were ignorant, xenophobic yobs and 2) Brexit would never pass.

The smug certainty that, of course, Brexit could never happen yielded first to incredulity, then to rage when it was clear that not only had the referendum passed, but also that it had passed handily, 52% to 48%. It was partly amusing, partly alarming to watch the flailings of the politically correct mandarins attempting to explain to each other what happened. Some called for a new referendum, since the one that delivered Brexit was impossible, while others warned of imminent financial collapse and British isolation from the light-giving fisc of EU dispensation.

In the event, nothing happened. Or, to be more precise, the British stock market stabilized and then shot up, the pound lost a small percentage of its value, making British exports more attractive, and life went on as usual.

The immediate question was, would Theresa May, the new prime minister, really pursue Brexit?  She was known to be a mild "Remainer" but otherwise was something of a cipher.

In the event, her declaration that "Brexit means Brexit" turns out to have been in earnest. At the Tory Leadership Conference in Birmingham, which is ongoing as I write, Mrs. May just announced that she would trigger Article 50, which would formally initiate Britain's exit from the tentacles of the EU, "before March next year." That alone should console supporters of Brexit, as should her otherwise straightforward, no-nonsense tone. Negotiations would be complex, she acknowledged, but her administration would work tirelessly to get "the best deal" for Britain.

A preliminary step, she explained, is repealing the 1972 European Communities Act, which "enshrined" Britain's new relationship with Europe. "It's an important step we are taking," Mrs. May said, "because first of all it makes clear to those who voted to leave the EU, that is exactly what we will be doing."

That's the news, and it is good news, as of a few minutes ago.

I came to England a few days ago in order to participate in a conference in Winchester on the fate of free speech in the academy, U.S. as well as British editions. We'll be publishing the papers for that conference in The New Criterion come January, but I can reveal now one thing that struck me about our deliberations.  Two years before, we had held a conference on a similar topic (which you can read about here): "Free Speech Under Threat." To some extent, what transpired in Winchester a few days ago comes under the rubric of what the philosopher Yogi Berra called "déjà-vu all over again."

But there are differences. In the couple of years since we last considered the issue of free speech, blatant assaults on free speech have grown much more common to the point where they are less scandalous than simply business as usual. People are harassed, shunned, sacked, fined, even jailed in some Western countries for expressing an unpopular opinion.

It is difficult to maintain a perpetual sense of emergency, however, and it’s my sense that many incursions upon free speech are now met more with a weary shrug than the outrage they would have occasioned even a few years back. Novelty is the handmaiden of outrage, and there is, alas, nothing novel about the assaults against free speech on campus today.

One of the most conspicuous strategies to limit free speech on campuses in the United States these last few years has been via the weaponization of victimhood. This is where the demand for "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" and the anxiety over "micro aggressions" makes common cause with political correctness to curtail free speech and establish the reign of politically correct orthodoxy.

It’s my impression that this latest gift of American academia has yet to be fully transplanted to England. The toxic rhetoric of “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “micro aggressions” is beginning to catch on here and there but has not, so far as I can see, really taken root here.

I'm sure that will change before long.  It's just too potent a weapon to ignore.