The Young British Heritage Society sounds like something to do with insurance, or perhaps an abandoned building south of the river. In reality, it is a student organisation intended to rival NUS (the National Union of Students), and claiming to provide a network for young libertarians and conservatives left in the cold by the red tribalism embedded in British universities. I found myself at their launch event on August 16, headlined by the “undeniably charismatic” (this point conceded by my sceptical female companion) Milo Yiannopoulos, simultaneously curious and unsure what to expect.
To elaborate, while the hard Left has always been strong in universities (Socialist Workers Party posters littered my campus seven years ago), it has now become the establishment. The academics are no better than the students. One English Literature student I spoke to at the YHBS event recounted how she had been set an essay entitled: “Show proof of Shakespeare’s racism and misogyny.” She asked if she could offer an alternative point of view on Shakespeare’s views, in more of a discussion format, but was refused. She ultimately conformed to her professor’s wishes. This dogmatic and limited approach to education is far-reaching. A uniformity of ideas has created hypersensitivity among students to language and opinion, throughout America and also in Britain; and led to a stifling atmosphere where voices are restricted — all encouraged and supported by professors and the NUS. We now have “safe spaces”, where if an opinion “triggers” (upsets) someone, that opinion is removed. Originally intended to target bullies, it has devolved into a method of silencing speech.
The YBHS was proposed to counter all this. The first thing to strike me was I’d never experienced a “conservative” event so upbeat, diverse, and numerous in its clientele. Such was demand that the organisers relocated to a larger venue, and high turnout led to a long delay in starting. Most curiously, the attendees were distinctly normal. I should add a caveat that, in my experience, students who openly express right of centre views fall under the “outcast” spectrum in many cases. By taking such positions they often isolate themselves socially — there are many exceptions, but this is certainly a trend.
While mostly male, the number of women and minorities, and the class fluidity, was striking. The YBHS chairman, Danial Mirza, is a Muslim. A young black student was so enthusiastic he left his seat and approached the stage in an effort to be noticed during open questions. People were excited, jovial, and relaxed: a boy in front of me advertised his public gaming channel on the back of his shirt. Beneath the surface however, was a wariness and uncertainty.
“Hi! Which university are you from?”
“I’m actually here as press.”
“Oh.” The guy’s expression morphs as the ramifications filter through his brain. We continue to talk; he’s not hostile, but he is guarded.
The audiene is asked how many of them have been banned from Facebook, and there is an instant show of hands — more than fifty. (Facebook has been accused of bias towards conservatives — and of banning them for unjust reasons.)
“Fantastic,” says Milo, before encouraging his fans to rebel against the establishment and take every opportunity to mock or ridicule their “oppressors.” He is wearing some kind of absurd seraphic toga.
I’ve no idea why these people were banned from Facebook, or even if it’s true, but it highlights how far these young people are from traditional conservatives. Attacks on freedom of speech have fuelled a strong sense of rebellion. If this were the 80s it could be a British punk concert. These conservatives no longer wish to conserve; they wish to burn.
The other speakers — Sophie Thomas, who discussed free speech on campus and the no platforming of speakers such as Julie Bindel, and Potkin Azarmehr, an Iranian activist who spoke about the dangers of political Islam and the need for vigilance — were decent enough. We’d all heard it before. As one well-dressed young gentleman put it, “I’m here to see Milo.”
“Are you a big fan then?”
He smiled at that. “No, but I agree with a few things. I mostly came here with an open mind, you know.” Pretty clear then, who was the big draw. If you are unfamiliar with Mr Yiannopoulos, he is a contrarian British journalist (a columnist at Breitbart) who has become notorious for his anti-feminism, provocative language, over-the-top mannerisms and willingness to debate opponents on any platform. Now a celebrity in America, his style is that of a stand-up comedian: everything is exaggerated and obnoxious. And yet he so infuriates the modern Left that it’s easy to see why he has fans.
But in truth I heard nothing outrageous being said, even from Milo. There was plenty of patriotism: “The values which will serve you best — which Americans don’t have — are British values, and they are conviction, bravery, camaraderie, critical thinking — and pride.” Massive cheers to that, and similarly to Sophie Thomas arguing against intellectual uniformity in education. Not to say there weren’t unsavoury opinions, such as odious Trumpism and uncritical hand-wringing over the evils of feminism, but it never felt like dogma. There was plenty of disagreement. Everyone I spoke to was open-minded. This was a collection of young people passionate about politics, who feel unable to express themselves in our halls of learning. That we have allowed this to occur is astonishing.
Ultimately, this was all pantomime. But as it ended I couldn’t help but wonder if, just like geek culture, being a young conservative was starting to become cool. There are far more young people out there who I’d suspect would privately agree with many of the things said at this launch. Many of them avoid politics like the plague, but as the hard Left invades people’s lives, and pushes harder in universities, those people may well end up in the arms of Milo, or joining their local YBHS chapter. Time will tell.