Tory ex-chair blasts whip over 'Leninist' demand in universities Brexit row

Posted On: 
24th October 2017

A Conservative peer and ex-chairman has blasted a government whip who demanded to know what university professors were telling their students about Brexit.

Chris Heaton-Harris is a pro-Brexit MP
Parliament / Chris McAndrew

Chris Heaton Harris stands accused of compiling a “hit list” after he wrote to universities asking for the names of those who lecture on Brexit and the content of their courses.

But Lord Patten - who now serves as chancellor of Oxford University - branded the move “offensive and idiotic Leninism” and “outrageous and foolish behaviour”.

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Mr Heaton Harris insisted he believes in free speech at universities and he was backed up by Commons leader Andrea Leadsom.

The pro-Brexit MP drew criticism from the academic community for his letter asking for "the name of professors involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit".

Lord Patten blasted this afternoon: “I had to check up it was true, because it seemed to me such an extraordinary example of outrageous and foolish behaviour; offensive and idiotic Leninism.”

Speaking to Radio 4’s World at One, he added: “I couldn’t believe that this could come from a Conservative MP.

“I think he must be an agent of Mr Corbyn intent on further increasing the number of young people who want to vote Labour.

“It’s absolutely disgraceful and I’m sure most universities’ vice-chancellors will deal with it in the most appropriate way which is to drop it in the waste paper basket.”

The head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics, Kevin Featherstone, also hit out, telling the Guardian: "The letter reflects a past of a McCarthyite nature.

"It smacks of asking: are you or have you ever been in favour of remain? There is clearly an implied threat that universities will somehow be challenged for their bias.”

Sally Hunt, chair of the University and College Union said the “hit list of professors has the acrid whiff of McCarthyism about it”.

But Mr Heaton-Harris tweeted: “To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit.”

Ms Leadsom told Radio 4: "It does seem to me to be a bit odd that universities should react in such a negative way to a fairly courteous request."

She insisted his letter had not been “threatening” – but was unsure why he had sent it in the first place.

Downing Street said Mr Heaton-Harris had written the letter in a personal capacity as an MP and not on behalf of the Government.

"What the Prime Minister has always been very clear on is her respect for the freedom and independence of universities and the role they play in creating open and stimulating debate," they said.

"Free speech is one of the foundations on which our universities are built and of course it should be protected."