BY SAM HOOPER
It’s great that Universities Minister Sam Gyimah is embarking on a tour of university campuses to spread and defend the Conservative message in traditionally hostile territory. Now we just need the government to come up with a conservative platform that’s actually worth defending.
Sam Gyimah appears to be on manoeuvres. Writing in the Times, the Minister for Higher Education announces his intention to take part in a tour of higher education facilities and campuses, engaging in a dialogue with students, academics and administrators.
In my new role as universities and science minister, I will continue to visit institutions across the country to meet with vice-chancellors, lecturers and researchers, but also, crucially, to speak directly to students. They are a key stakeholder in the success of our higher education sector – for universities to thrive, their students must flourish.
So many young people feel disengaged from politics and, although some students and I might not always agree, I want them to have a voice and be heard in the corridors of power. I’d like to be thought of as minister for students as much as minister for universities.
Politics should be a dialogue, not a monologue, so I’m looking forward to discussing tuition fees, safe-spaces, access to higher education and our potential post-Brexit, among many other topics, in a robust and honest fashion.
Displaying more gumption than most of Theresa May’s uninspiring Cabinet put together, Gyimah continues:
We must also get out there, outside Westminster, into what used to be ‘no-go’ areas and defend our record whilst showing how we want to do better. We must continue to call out Jeremy Corbyn and prevent him monopolising the student space.
I don’t have all the answers, but I am going into this tour in good faith, ready to discuss the challenges and opportunities in our higher education system. Together, with all those who work tirelessly in it, we will ensure our universities remain the envy of the world filled with students who have the best possible chance of success.
This should be interesting to watch. On the one hand, it is great that we finally have a Tory government minister seemingly willing to mount a bold and unapologetic defence of conservatism before a hostile audience – that much is excellent. But on the other hand, the continuing drift and incoherence of Theresa May’s government makes one wonder what Sam Gyimah can possibly say at these events, what stirring national plan of action or highlights reel of political accomplishments he can present that might make any significant difference to the perception of conservatism among young people.
It’s all very well having the Higher Education Minister inveigh against safe space culture in front of an audience of baying students (though to be honest the time to do that was five or ten years ago, not today) but it counts for relatively little when the government shows no sign of rolling back draconian anti-free speech laws which see people visited by the police in the middle of the night and carted off to custody for saying or writing “offensive” things on social media. What message could be drawn from a pro-Tory stump speech, in this context? “Stop creating your own safe spaces on campus, the government is already hard at work creating a national safe space on your behalf, backed by the awesome power of the law”? Hardly a ringing defence of liberal values.
These qualms aside, one wonders why Gyimah actually volunteered for this thankless mission at all, attempting to preach free speech and liberal enlightenment values to an academic world which increasingly rejects any such notion. No Tory government minister, however charismatic, stands any great chance of reversing the antipathy of many students toward conservatism – it will take determined peers and influencers their own age to do that. So why put oneself through the ordeal of being heckled and used as a foil for leftist establishment posturing when there is so little to be gained?
Perhaps it is expecting too much, but is this a glimmer of a new, muscular and unapologetic conservatism which has been so conspicuously missing under David Cameron and Theresa May? Is it the beginning of a slow motion, unofficial audition for the Tory leadership? And dare one hope that this might be a good thing? True, Sam Gyimah espoused the same kind of bland, reflexive, unthinking pro-EU stance in 2016 as most others within the parliamentary party, but the Tory bench is hardly brimming with sufficient talent that having been on the wrong side of the EU referendum can count as an automatic disqualifier. With the rising profile of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Moggmentum the only other sign that the Tories have an ideological pulse, beggars can’t be choosers.
When it comes to conservative policy making, I have long argued that rather than running off in a million different directions and formulating a bunch of panicked quick fixes to the various slow-burning crises which ail Britain, a more analytical, holistic approach is required – a methodical study of how these national challenges and opportunities are interlinked so as to arrive at a suite of mutually-reinforcing policies which address them as a whole. But when it comes to conservative personalities, the same rule does not necessarily apply.
While it is true that there is much intellectual work to be done behind the scenes, it is also true that British conservatism desperately needs fresh new faces. For reasons both deserved and undeserved, Theresa May’s government has the pallor of death about it, pale and emaciated despite the recent reshuffle. And while throwing a hundred half-cooked policies at the wall to see what sticks (as Tory regeneration efforts risk degenerating into) is a suboptimal approach, throwing a handful of ambitious new Tory MPs at a crowd of sceptical students might be just the kind of proving ground the party needs as it searches for a new generation of leaders.
Let’s watch this space and give Sam Gyimah the opportunity to fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of conservative apologetics. It can’t do any harm, and maybe in the process of saving student souls from the clutches of Corbyn the lost Tories will finally begin to rediscover themselves.