Chris Heaton-Harris, Conservative MP for Daventry and Government Whip,has recently been accused of ‘McCarthyism’ by academics, press and political rivals after sending an ill–fated letter to British Universities, in which he asked for teaching material and names of professors lecturing on Brexit.
In the beginning of October, Heaton-Harris sent letters to the Chancellors (or Vice-Chancellors) of every university in the UK, asking them to provide the names of professors ‘involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit.’ Additionally, he had asked for ‘a copy of the syllabus and links to the online lectures which relate to this area.’
This request has been fiercely opposed by academics across the UK. The Guardian was the first newspaper to publish Heaton-Harris’s letter together with the first responses from academics.
Vice-Chancellor or Worcester University, David Green, asserted that the letter was ‘so dangerous,’ and explained exactly why it was to The Independent: “When I read this extraordinary letter on parliamentary paper from a serving MP, I felt a chill down my spine. Was this the beginnings of a very British McCarthyism?
“I had never heard of Mr. Heaton-Harris MP, so I looked up his website where I found him proclaiming that: ‘There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to re-join it through the back door and no second referendum.’”
Professor Kevin Featherstone, head of the European Institute at LSE explained why he thinks that academics are right to condemn Heaton-Harris’ actions as “sinister” in an article on The Guardian:
“The letter reflects a past of a McCarthyite nature. It smacks of asking: are you or have you ever been in favour of remain? There is clearly an implied threat that universities will somehow be challenged for their bias.”
Some fellow members of the Conservative party supported Heaton-Harris’s action. Andrea Leadsom, leader of the Commons was surprised at the universities’ negative reaction, stating in The Guardian that:
“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.”
Philip Davies, Conservative MP, was fiercer in his support of the letter, stating that Heaton-Harris was right to inquire the universities: “The problem is that everybody knows that universities are not opening the minds of their students they are just indoctrinating them with the left wing political propaganda of the professors and lecturers.” (The Daily Telegraph)
However, Heaton-Harris was not supported by Prime Minister, Theresa May. Last week, 10 Downing Street issued a press statement, in which it distanced itself from his actions: “This was sent in his capacity as an MP, not a government representative. 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.”
The fiercest criticism of Heaton-Harris came from Liberal Democrats, calling for him to step down from his role as a Whip. Chris Patten, former Conservative chairman and currently Chancellor at the University of Oxford, formulated that “He (Heaton-Harris) wants to try, in a rather pathetic way, to make people believe that somehow they’ll be criticised unless they follow the Brexiteers’ line on the whole appalling decision.
“It’s absolutely disgraceful and I’m sure most universities’ Vice-Chancellors will deal with it in the most appropriate way which is to drop it in the waste paper basket.”
At the time of writing, the response of the University of Edinburgh to the letter of Heaton-Harris has not yet been known. The Student staff currently continue their investigation into this issue and will inform of future developments and responses from the University staff.
Image: Bankenverband via Flickr