Cave Ordo Alexandrum Sancti*

The Book of Dust (continued)

I recently read Philip Pullman’s wonderful La Belle Sauvage, and I was quite careful not to drop any spoilers to the few hardy souls who read my occasional dribblings. But the events of the last week have made me very uneasy indeed and there’s something in the book that I think it is necessary to discuss. For that reason, I will drop a SPOILER ALERT here.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that the Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris had written a letter to every university Vice-Chancellor in Britain asking for details how Breixt was being taught in Universities, and perhaps more sinisterly, who was doing this teaching. Most, if not all, of this information was already publicly available, and could easily be found by examining the prospectuses or websites of the institutions, a job that one of his own researchers (paid for by us, remember) could quite easily do. But no, he chose this way, which sends a clear signal: for some people, the maintenance or enforcement of ideological purity is far more important than keeping a spirit of open philosophical and intellectual enquiry.

Predictably, of course, the egregious Daily Mail followed up with the front page headline, OUR REMAINER UNIVERSITIES, and several pages “naming and shaming” academics they found altogether not Brexity enough for their liking. This was bad enough, but then there was that little sidebar: Have you — or do you know anyone — who has experienced anti-Brexit bias at University? Putting aside for just one moment that the sentence in question doesn’t, strictly speaking, make sense (beautifully ironic given how much they go on about teaching and standards of grammar), the fact that they are soliciting a witch-hunt seems altogether too 17th Century for my liking. But this is not unusual for the paper that gave us “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”.

And then the Telegraph pitched in with this finely judged piece. It probably helps to know at this point that Alan Sked was the man who founded UKIP, so you can probably guess the tone. Sked has been fulminating that hardly anyone in academia shared his opinions for nigh on 30 years now, so why would one expect any change?

The attack dogs are out. This is a co-ordinated assault on the Universities by an increasingly febrile and deranged press. It may be the usual suspects, but it’s no less disturbing for that.

“But what does all this have to do with La Belle Sauvage?”, you might well ask. What indeed. Fairly early on in the book, the book’s protagonist, Malcolm, goes to school one day to disover that someone has decided to interfere in its running, and their means of doing so is The Order of St Alexander. Like Hogwarts Inquisitorial Squad in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the parallel is clear: this is an organisation, like the Hitlerjugend, or Mao’s Red Guard, that is bent on overturning an established, more pluralist environment, in favour of the imposition of a kind of authoritarian ideological purity. To attack places of learning is the greatest corruption of all, and places us all in very grave danger indeed. Our universities are not degree factories (much as some would like them to be): they are the repositories of our culture, our intellectual heart and our reasoned conscience. To attack them in the way they are doing is an assault on those values of reason and Enlightenment that have bound us together for centuries, and have given us progress.

These are worrying times, and Pullman’s description of a school that is riven by factionalism, subservient to authoritarianism, and stalked by paranoia is all too easy to see around us even now. There are forces here, just like in Pullman’s Oxford, who are intent on damping or even entirely suppressing the free debate of ideas, fixated on imposing their own ideology, intent on denouncing anyone who attempts to speak out against them. The movements towards authoritarianism are worrying and very real, but be in no doubt: the forces of reason cannot and will not surrender, will not lie down and roll over in the face of such madness. Any of us who feel that we stand on the side of reason cannot let them do it; we must speak out, and keep doing so. We cannot let them win; the stakes are too high.

*Beware The Order of St Alexander. I am not Jacob Ress-Mogg in disguise.