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Thursday, November 18, 2010

The need to listen

The decision by the Secretary of State for Wales to pull out of the Institute of Welsh Politics annual lecture at Aberystwyth University because of the danger of disruption by student protestors over tuition fees is extraordinary.

According to the Western Mail Dyfed-Powys Police advised the Wales Office they would have had to divert significant resources to ensure order, and Mrs Gillan decided to postpone her appearance. My view is that once you set a price on free speech in this way then you endanger its very existence.

Mark Cole sums up how ill-advised this decision is in his blog:

Cheryl has today pulled out from giving the key note annual lecture at the Institute of Welsh Politics at Aberystwyth University. It's a prestigious speech to give and I was on hand to listen to Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams give it in recent years. It really is quite a thing to be asked to give this annual lecture.

But, because there was due to be a student protest at the event because of the London Coaltion Goverment's tuition fees plans, she has apparently pulled out on the advice of the police.

Hain has of course responded with vitriolic words such as 'a total disgrace', 'contempt', 'arrogant' and 'outrageous' .

Peter, a word of advice. Shut up.

The words I would use for Cheryl would be the following - 'disappointed', 'let-down', 'regretful', 'short-sighted', 'a missed opportunity' and 'own worst enemy'.

By pulling out of this engagement at the last minute, she has given more ammunition to those like Peter Hain who are waiting and willing for her to slip up. She really doesn't help herself. If she had the courage of her conviction, she'd see it through. Yes, the student protest turned nasty in London last week, but don't tar all students with the same brush.

This is yet another Cheryl Gillan political own-goal.

As for Peter Hain? Bloody hell, they're as bad as each other.

It is a fairly blunt appraisal but the bottom line is that Cheryl Gillan should have stood up for what she believes, delivered her lecture and listened to the views of students, on whose behalf she is making decisions.

That she has ducked out of doing so sends the wrong message about this Government. We cannot stop listening, nor can we ignore legitimate protest. We have to engage with those who want to influence us and take account of their views. If Ms. Gillan is not prepared to do that then maybe she should let somebody else do her job instead.
Quite right Peter.
I wonder whether Dyfed-Powys Police's concerns about cost are the principal reason for the cancellation, or rather an excuse that came conveniently to hand. This is not the first time Westminster politicians have withdrawn from addressing potentially hostile audiences because of the possibility of disruption — during the 1970s, NUT conferences became a no-go area even for Labour Education Secretaries, because of the inclination of the union's far-left cohort to resort to barracking or worse.

If Cheryl Gillan's action is an early indication of a new Coalition Government practice, what this means is that once again government ministers are going to retreat into a sealed-chamber world where they interact only with special advisers and party colleagues, and never encounter viewpoints different from whatever is the government's conventional wisdom at the time. That is bad not only for free speech but also for policy. We need more flexibility of thinking in response to changing circumstances, not less.
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