Willets protest: Send Him Down

18 March 2012
A while back David Willets attempted to have a speech at the Cambridge Union, Cambridge's debating society, which due to certain actions resulted in Willets walking out without having said a word. The supposed ringleader of all this has been rusticated for 30 months. Put another way, even first years will be gone before he is allowed back. Harsh, but I agree with the punishment. The protest, as Cambridge Defend Education called it, was clearly well planned. They had been specifically asked if they planned any disruption, and it is pretty clear they did despite what they said in advance. For further details, just watch the film.

Of all the articles I have read, none properly address the real victim in all this: The organisers. Cabinet ministers are not the easiest of speakers to get in, and getting speakers with that level of profile invariably means pulling strings. Speakers walking out like this is a nightmare scenario, and that is before you consider the reputation damage. Willets definitely won't come back, and the odds are that neither will any other current cabinet minister. And the damage extends beyond Cambridge, especially for anyone who wants to get a speaker in who has anything to do with governmental university policy. Students already have a pretty poor reputation for civil debates, and this just reinforces their stereotype as a want-it-all mob. You can bet your top dollar that even for those who will still press ahead, Cambridge will not be a top choice any longer.

So was it fair to single out this one person with such a long suspension? Probably not, but I would not be surprised in the slightest if Cambridge Union lobbied for a harsh rustication. They are the ones who were kept awake at night by the incident, and it will take a long time to patch up the personal contacts. Protest and free speech are rights, but this was complete disruption of a debate where the speaker would in normal procedure would be required to defend himself through searching questions.

Update: It transpires the rusticated student was running in a by-election for the Cambridge Student Union presidency, which he narrowly lost. I would not be surprised if the high court judge who presided over the rustication hearing concluded that the protest was being used as part of his campaign, which in effect shows both a desire to profit from the misdeed and an unrepentant attitude that has not diminished.