Ontological Insecurity and the Populist “Free Speech Crisis” in the UK: Tracing the Rise of a Discourse
This paper seeks to understand the construction of a ‘free speech crisis’ within the United Kingdom as part of a broader populist politics being enacted by right-leaning political actors. Centrally, we will argue that, within the increasingly nationalist, xenophobic environment of the UK post-Brexit (see Virdee & McGeever, 2018), the idea that ‘free speech’ needs to be secured primarily serves as a paradoxical project through which a variety of actors seek to uphold a white, male and elitist understanding of the legitimate British ‘sovereign subject’ (Dillabough, 2021).
We draw upon Laclau (2007) and Mouffe (2018) to define populism as a way of doing politics: a ‘political logic’ or ‘discursive’ strategy, typically not bound to party politics. In particular, we focus on how this political logic is often driven by ‘ontological insecurity’ (Kinnvall & Svensson, 2022) - insecurity which populist political actors promise to address, typically through the ‘restoration’ of a ‘golden past’ (cf. Norris & Inglehart, 2019). Such politics rely heavily on a comforting fantasy narrative that offers an imagined reality (often this ‘golden age restored’) to respond to the complexities of the existing social world (Kinnvall & Svensson, 2022).
Within this frame of reference, we show how the current ‘free speech crisis’, which centres largely around the higher education (HE) sphere, has recent roots in populist, Islamaphobic responses to the Charlie Hebdo shootings and similar recent events. These incidents saw the generation of a narrative which imagined the once glorious ‘West’ as now under threat from the ‘alien body’ of the muslim (Bracke & Hernández Aguilar, 2022), who is opposed to the ‘western’, ‘liberal’ value of free speech. This dichotomy between Islam and the West is then re-purposed, or re-imagined, as this free speech discourse develops, where a binary between a censorious, illiberal and ‘weak’ minority (the ‘woke’ and the ‘snowflakes’, mostly located in the universities) and a rational, common-sense, free-speech-supporting majority is constructed. This dichotomy is initially promoted mostly by the libertarian-right (see Smith, 2022), but is subsequently adopted by a range of more mainstream right-wing political actors. This shift is demonstrated through a critical discourse analysis of a range of sources, including UK-based media articles, think tank reports and parliamentary speeches.
We argue that this transformation occurs not because free speech is rapidly being eroded in society, but because the idea that ‘free speech’ is being lost offers a convenient, suitably amorphous proxy for the projection of a politics of populist nostalgia centred on the ‘golden age’. As we demonstrate, typically that which is defended as ‘free speech’ includes speech defending the legitimacy of the British Empire, particular views on gender identity, eugenics and other similar topics. We argue that ‘free speech’ thus comes to stand in as a placeholder for a politically-motivated nostalgic vision of Britain that attempts to contain a range of (sometimes competing) affective and political positions, largely centred on a nostalgia for a white, monocultural, ‘traditional’ nation and a desire to somehow bring that nation back into being.