A growing intolerance and bigotry was at heart of last night’s Manchester pro-life confrontation

For anyone who’s been through our university system, controversies and disagreements surrounding student societies are a regular and expected fact of life. In an environment where young people are supposed to be able to discuss ideas and ideologies in an open and unrestricted way and without fear or recriminations, the gathering together of groups of like-minded students to explore and test their convictions – however controversial – used to be a fundamental function of the upper tier of our education system.

Sadly this has long ago ceased to be the case, as UK universities have been increasingly driven from being places of innovation and intellectual discovery, to mere mechanisms to service the government’s employment statistics.

Traditionally universities guarded their autonomy jealously, and have over the centuries resisted any incursions of government regulation or interference, especially when it comes to the protection of the right to free speech on campus.

However that changed profoundly in May 2021 when the government introduced The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which it said was designed to “strengthen the legal duties on higher education providers in England to protect freedom of speech on campuses up and down the country, for students, academics and visiting speakers.”

The bill, which finally became law on 11th May this year, has brought in new measures that now require universities and colleges to defend free speech and help stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’. These legal duties now also extend to students’ unions which now have to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure lawful freedom of speech.

The bill obliges universities to ensure that students are able to speak freely in and outside of the lecture halls, and tutors now also get additional protections for teaching materials that some may find offensive. However the bill is also reticent about ensuring protections exist to prevent unlawful speech, especially where it might harass others or incite violence.

When the bill was first announced the then-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson declared: “It is a basic human right to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate. Our legal system allows us to articulate views which others may disagree with as long as they don’t meet the threshold of hate speech or inciting violence.

“This must be defended, nowhere more so than within our world-renowned universities.”

Needless to say the government has left it to universities to work out what constitutes fair and free speech or incitement to hatred, knowing full well that one person’s free opinion is increasingly another person’s hate speech, though it has appointed a Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to oversee the governments intentions, and any complaints that may be raised on university free speech issues.

Professor Arif Mohuiddin Ahmed MBE has a longstanding reputation as a philosopher defender of free speech whose research interests include decision theory and the philosophy of religion – though from an atheist and libertarian point of view.

In a keynote speech in October Prof. Ahmed said “It makes no difference at all what side you take on statues or pronouns or colonialism, or abortion or animal rights, or Ulez. You can castigate the monarchy or defend it. You can argue that Britain is fundamentally racist or that it never was. You can speak or write as a Marxist, a post-colonial theorist, a gender-critical feminist, or anything else, if you do it within the law.”

Few would argue with this perspective, but with the increasing breakdown and divisiveness we’re seeing in contemporary British society, how exactly does one distinguish between lawful but offensive views on one hand and unacceptable statements of abusiveness, intimidation and violence on the other?

Way back in 2005, in the last homily he gave before becoming Pope Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described modern life as ruled by a “dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely” of satisfying “the desires of one’s own ego.” At the time his remarks were dismissed as a flawed caricature of a modern society that was rather rushing towards the much-cherished goals of inclusivity, tolerance and total equality for all.

It was a position that was to define and even perhaps haunt Benedict for the duration of his papacy, but in many respects this particular pontiff was well ahead of the curve in recognising the place in which contemporary society was eventually going to find itself.

It has long been one of the ironic difficulties of neo-liberalism that toleration for another’s ideas last only so long as those ideas concur with the prevailing argument. In the kind of relativist society that Benedict saw coming, there was always going to be a fundamental problem in reconciling whose views prevailed when one ideology contradicted another.

The solution proposed by the relativist is simply that the ONLY thing that matters is “what I think” and “what I’m offended by” – in effect a liberalism of zero tolerance.

Such was the atmosphere that led to the appalling scenes at Manchester University last night, where students of the recently-formed pro-life society had to be escorted home by police in order to protect them from an out-of-control mob of pro-abortionists that ended in running brawls in the streets of Manchester.

Since its formation on the remit of seeking to “promote the wellbeing, and dignity of every human life, from conception” more than 15,000 people have signed a petition calling for the pro-life society to be dissolved, on the grounds it has added to an “already prevalent stigma” surrounding abortion.

For its part the society has emphasised that it is not “an anti-abortion society but a pro-life society” and is also campaigning other threats to life including assisted suicide, capital punishment and deaths caused by poverty and poor living standards.

One can only imagine what it must have been like for these young pro-life students to emerge onto the dark streets of Manchester after their meeting to be confronted by an aggressive, abusive baying mob chanting “shame on you” – elements of which were evidently intent on committing acts of violence.

At university one expects a vigorous narrative, and for one’s views to be tested and challenged, but one never expects that sincere, honestly held views shared by millions across the world to be met with the kind of intimidation and violence that was evident last night. The society was formally recognised by the students’ Union and thus the university, and was only going about its normal business when it became subjected to this unacceptable assault on its right to few speech.

In the wake of last night’s violence, which was even directed against the police, the university is going to have an extremely hard time balancing the rights involved – though it will have to act as the protest was widely recorded and publicised, with some in the media already twisting the narratives. The independent newspaper, for example, headed its story with: “Female students ‘fear for their safety’ as anti-abortion society set up by three men.”

For its part the University of Manchester Students’ Union, which oversees the registration of student organisations, has responded: “From a legal standpoint, it’s not possible to stop a society from affiliating for their legal views that are contrary to the views of other students. That means, despite concerns over student safety, the students’ union can’t block a society from forming because of their beliefs.

“The new freedom of speech legislation was passed in 2023 and will be fully implemented by September of this year. We know many aspects of this area of law are potentially contradictory with other legislation, such as equalities legislation, and at the very least it creates lots of tensions which are untested in law.”

How the law will eventually test – and resolve – these situations is anyone’s guess but, if recent events in Ireland on the pro-life argument are anything to go by, the gavel of justice here is unlikely to fall down in favour of anything resembling Catholic theology.

What we witnessed last night in Manchester was a scene of frightening intolerance and exposes the lie that Britain is a country of free speech and tolerance towards others. That this prejudice and intolerance was exhibited by young people towards their confrères ought to serve as a stark warning to our legislators that the Britain we are currently drifting towards owes nothing to our democratic roots, but is starting to resemble far more an unpleasant and dystopian dictatorship of precisely the narrow ideals and intolerance that relativist campaigners claim to be fighting against.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian