Peter Jones: If I were voted general secretary of the UCU

January 12, 2007

The second in a series of three articles in which the candidates vying to lead the University and College Union explain what distinguishes them from their rivals

My son went to a "posh" university. You know the kind I mean: squares, lawns, masters and all that. I recall that his graduation took place on a stunningly hot summer's day. And as I looked around at the brightest and the best from all over the world, I wondered about the experience for him and reflected on my own, as a mature student, less than ten years earlier.

My thoughts were about using my new-found knowledge and skills to help the trade union movement.

So I asked him what he thought he'd learnt during his three years. "Juggling," he said, as he produced three small balls and demonstrated.

Now here am I, a decade and a half later, trying to do likewise. The difference is, I'm trying to juggle concepts of freedom, boycotts and speech.

Someone posed a question on my blogsite (www.peterjones4democracy.wordpress.com) asking me about my views on academic boycotts. I have to confess that I have not found this an easy question to answer.

Does an academic boycott mean a constraint on academic freedom? Does a constraint on academic freedom lead to an attack on free speech? Does an attack on free speech result in... it goes on and on and on.

Is an academic boycott different from a cultural or sporting boycott? Is a boycott a sanction by another name? What was it about apartheid that meant a sporting boycott was acceptable? Did the lack of international cricket, rugby and athletics really help to bring about the end of the pariah status of South Africa? And, moreover, is the question really about absolutes? I don't know.

What I do know is this. Calls for boycotts - academic, cultural, sporting - are always opposed on the grounds of freedom. Freedom to do what I'm still unsure about, but that argument exists.

Is it right that we should be free to "say" anything, so long as we don't convert the word into deed? Is it right for racist organisations to expound their beliefs so long as they don't carry them out?

But we know, don't we, that it's not that simple? We know that a society that allows, for instance, homophobic views to be published and repeated in the press, results in the bombing of gay bars. We know that Jew-baiting and Islamophobia result in an increase in racist attacks and desecration of burial grounds.

So free speech is not an argument that can be clearly defined because, if it were, we would each be totally absolved of any responsibility for our own words and the actions flowing from them - think of the "45 minutes" speech that led to the Iraq War.

So, if we can't really have free speech, can we have boycotts? If the argument against boycotts is that working-class people are impoverished in one or more of those areas, then there has to be serious consideration.

However, if a boycott of any kind - cultural, academic, sporting and, most important, economic - is not only designed to, but actually does help to bring about change for the better then yes, boycotts are valid.

It is an unanswerable question and I could attempt to answer it only if the question were more expressly put. I have to admit, I'm having trouble keeping all my balls in the air.

Peter Jones, until recently a tutor in employment law at Deeside College, is a University and College Union general secretary candidate in the forthcoming election.

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