A Conservative MP has been condemned over a “chilling” letter he wrote to universities asking for the names of academics teaching about Brexit.
Staunch Brexiteer Chris Heaton-Harris, who is also a Government whip, wrote to all vice-chancellors asking for details of courses that taught about European affairs and details of those teaching them.
His letter asked if they “would be so kind” as to give him “the names of professors at your establishment who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit”.
One vice chancellor said he “felt a chill down my spine” when he received the letter.
“Was this the beginnings of a very British McCarthyism?” the University of Worcester’s David Green said in a statement.
Green said he never heard of Heaton-Harris but became unsettled on researching the MP and how committed a Brexiteer he was.
The vice-chancellor added: “He has written to me personally, by name, asking me to give him the names of those who are giving classes about the European Union and give evidence about exactly what they are saying.
“If I don’t, is he planning to use parliament to denounce me as an ‘enemy of the people’? Why me?
“I realised that his letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous. Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and Newspeak...
“Then I thought that only one response was appropriate, which Churchill spoke so brilliantly for all who love Britain and democracy when he said ‘we shall outlive the power of tyranny’ and ‘we shall never surrender’. That is my reply to Mr. Heaton Harris MP’s sinister letter.”
Heaton-Harris also asked for a copy of the syllabus and links to online material relating to the course.
Prof Keith Featherstone, the head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics (LSE), said the letter was “clearly an implied threat”.
He told 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.”
On Twitter, economist Jonathan Portes said Heaton-Harris was welcome to attend his lectures but jokingly warned him they “contain facts”.
Polititical scientist Philip Cowley questioned how practical it would be for the MP to review all the material for university sources across the country.
History lecturer Alan MacLeod joked the MP would have to enrol as an undergraduate at the University of Leeds to learn about what he was teaching.
Durham Law School dean Thom Brooks said he would not answer the request, saying: “We’re a university. Not thought police.”
In a blog for HuffPost UK, Brooks wrote: “Is this an effort to name and shame departments and universities into closing down debates over Europe and Brexit?
“Is this an MP trying to put pressure on institutions to shy away from looking too closely at an area of government policy on Brexit?
“McCarthyism fears have some fuel in his requesting copies of links to actual classroom teaching.
“For what purpose is this information being sought (and which is normally protected so forbidden from being shared outside registered staff and students on a module)? Colleagues are right to sound the alarm.
Kent University’s Matthew Goodwin called the letter “outrageous” and suggested it threatened “academic freedom”.
Manchester University political scientist Rob Ford said the letter was sinister because of its intent rather than content.
In a Twitter thread, the added that the material Heaton-Harris requested was in the public domain and the MP could have asked a researcher to retrieve it rather than send a House of Commons letter out.
This is designed to send the message “we in Government are watching you”, Ford said.
The academic said Brexit supporters were more likely to see the world in “Us vs Them” terms, adding: “It is, sadly, rather inevitable that as things start to unravel they go looking for ‘Them’s’ to blame.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, challenged Heaton-Harris to explain his motive.
He said: “This request suggests an alarming attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom.
“It is essential that universities remain places where free speech flourishes. This means protecting independence in academic study, encouraging rigorous debate and providing opportunities to hear and challenge a diverse range of views.”
Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas tabled questions in parliament on whether Heaton-Harris was “acting on behalf of the Government”.
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner told HuffPost the Government should “keep its nose” out of universities.
She added: “Professors know what they are doing and quite frankly I think it was a very ill-judged remark to make and he should withdraw it.”
A Downing Street spokesperson said the prime minister was “very clear about the freedom of universities and the role they play in creating an open and stimulating debate”.
They added Heaton-Harris was writing in his capacity as an MP, not a Government whip.
Heaton-Harris later tweeted to say he believed in free speech and “in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit”.
In April 2016, Tory MP and Brexiteer Bernard Jenkin urged for Electoral Commission to investigate the LSE for “what appear to be contraventions of referendum legislation” after it held an event where the OECD secretary-general said Brexit offered Britain “no upside”.
Later that year, foreign LSE academics were told they would no longer be asked to advise Britain on Brexit.
A YouGov survey found that 80% of academics voted Remain in the referendum.