“GO HOME, DAVID”: An epistle to David Willetts

This text was collectively performed using a “people’s mic” in Lady Mitchell Hall, in place of the planned talk by David Willetts. Willetts was bundled off stage and students continue to occupy the space where he was meant to speak.

Dear David Willetts,
The future does not belong to you. This is an epistle which is addressed to you, but it is written for those who will come after us. Why? Because we do not respect your right to occupy the platform this evening. Your name is anathema to us. You are not a welcome guest because you come with a knife concealed beneath your cloak. Behind your toothy smiles, we have already seen the fixed gaze of the hired assassin. You have transgressed against all codes of hospitality. That is why we interrupt your performance tonight, because nothing is up for debate here; your mind is made up; you are not for turning. All your questioners have been planted. So we, too, have planted ourselves in your audience. We stole in quietly, without much fanfare - because we know your tactics – but, now that we are here, we will not wait to be told before we speak.
You have professed your commitment to the religion of choice but you leave us with no choice. You are a man who believes in the market and in the power of competition to drive up quality, but look to the world around you: your gods have failed. They were capricious gods and we do not mourn them, nor do we seek new ones.
Fools that we are, we took you at your word: so we are clambering into the driving seat because your steering is uncomfortable to us and your destination is not one of our choosing.
Even the very metaphor betrays you. So let us begin by activating the emergency brake: the University is no motor vehicle, to be souped up, ideologically re-tuned, intellectually re-fitted, cosmetically re-sprayed, and then sent out onto the highway, like some gaudy engine of the ‘knowledge economy’. The road itself is narrow; your eyes are fixed on a vanishing horizon which you will never quite reach. You have chosen a route which skirts carefully around all redoubts of human warmth and solidarity. Look elsewhere for your metaphors, David. We have no desire to be put into the driving seat. There are chairs enough in our libraries – would that there were more libraries – and these are the only seats of learning that we would wish to know. We will not used by you. We do not wish to ‘rate’ our teachers; we wish to learn from them. We are not consumers; we are students – and we will stand with our teachers on their picket lines.
Your soulless vision of efficiency; your mechanistic frameworks of ‘excellence’; your chummy invitation to hop on board and serve the needs of the Economy: all of this makes it clear to us that you have set out from a false premise, because guess what, David: you cannot quantify knowledge. Your craven desperation to do so tells us only one thing: you are trying to discipline us, but we will not be disciplined, because we are schooled in a different kind of pedagogy. You cannot steal our honey, David. It will go sour for you. You can process all the information that you wish, but your project is doomed to fail. We thought we should let you know – out of kindness, mainly. If you want to make us the processors of the information that is useful to you; if you want to smother the capacity for critical thought: so be it. We understand that you do not like to be told that you are wrong. So we understand that you do not want us to think too rigorously, or too critically. So, go on: lobotomise us. Tell us that we are beyond the pale. Make us over into the drones and ciphers of your economy. Your world will be the poorer. We will continue to nourish our traditions in the crevices and dark corners that you forget and that you cannot touch.
It is almost inappropriate to lay out to you the terms of your own wrongness. Has it not occurred to you that the ‘vocation’ of scholarship, far from leading to a profession, may, in fact, preclude it? Or is it that you are more of a capital calf than you are letting on? Is it that the Brave New World you are trying to inaugurate will, in fact, preclude scholarship?
We have tasted companionship in a way that you cannot know. We have a singleness of heart and, unlike you, we none of us believe that any of our possessions are our own. You will not find us in any of your statistical surveys; our ‘student experience’ cannot be measured by your instruments. Woe to every scorner and mocker who collects wealth and counts it. We are both measurably younger and immeasurably older than you. You have already lost. You have lost the initiative. You have lost the debate. You have lost your sense of decorum.
We are closer than you think. So it does not surprise us that you are worried. You can try to intimidate us; you can threaten to shoot us with rubber bullets; you can arrest us; you can imprison us; you can criminalise our dissent; you can blight a hundred thousand lives, slowly, and one-by-one, but you cannot break us, because we are more resolute, more numerous and more determined than you. And we are closer than you think, so it does not surprise us that you are scared. It is not that you lack our confidence – you never had it – the nub of the issue is this: you do not have confidence in yourself. Go home, David, and learn your gods anew.

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97 Responses to “GO HOME, DAVID”: An epistle to David Willetts

  1. Ben E says:

    Inspired! A true moment of freedom. All solidarity for the occupation.

    • Miranda Kingsley says:

      Beautifully written, stunningly to the point. As someone who was your age in the 80′s (and furious with Thatcher) I am heartened to hear this – and it gives me some hope for your generation who are experiencing brutal assault from this government in many areas of life, not least in a true and meaningful education.

  2. M J L says:

    A very highly educated rebellion indeed! Well, what can you expect from Cambridge? Ha ha :)

    • Sensible Student says:

      I hope that comment’s meant to be sarcastic. There’s nothing in the whole of that speech of any substance. I hope they realise that the vast majority of Cambridge students now think that CDE are idiots…

      • mikems says:

        A mind reader!

        And a troll!

        Life doles out its gifts so unfairly doesn’t it? If only your mind reading ability could be used for good rather than evil.

      • Saddened Parent says:

        Everyone has the right to free speech. We also have the right to ‘free listening’ who are these to take away our right to hear?

        • adrian says:

          free like “free beer” or free like “friede” or “freunde.”

          I think it is more like free beer, except in a negative sense. Like getting something you don’t want for free; for example institutionalized violence.

  3. Claire Taylor-Jay says:

    Fantastic. Wish I could be there too.

  4. Johann says:


  5. Ian Shuttleworth says:

    Man, that’s positively Euripidean in places. And a heartening world away from a few years ago when Cambridge students’ response to the cuts/hikes *then* imminent was to HIRE Lady Mitchell Hall from the university for a study-in.

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  7. Vinny says:

    You have nothing to say and you are saying if to loud!

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  9. Clemens says:

    Very, very good… in so many ways. Makes me proud to be part of the “Cambridge experience”. Makes me think that as long as we have critical thinking people maybe this country can be saved from this government!

  10. FM says:

    No thanks for destroying my evening’s education.

    No thanks for silencing critical thought, not only in me, but in an entire room of people who had intended to use that space to discuss with each other the precise flaws of the government’s plan.

    No thanks for forcing us to listen to your Groupthink drivel, without thought or thesis.

    I write this in high rhetoric because apparently that’s the only language you speak, unnuanced and unsubtle, but I write it nonetheless:

    No thanks for becoming the enemy.

    • James says:

      “high rhetoric”

    • Real Student says:

      I see the trolls are keepin busy!

      Thank you Cambridge for taking a stand!

      Thank you for your courage!

      Thank you for preventing this corrupt liar from spreading his nonesense!

      Thank you for creating a space in which Cambridge students can have a real political education!

      Hasta la victoria!

    • Muses says:

      Hear hear! This occupation was a spectacle, not for any good reasons worth emulating, but for harnessing methods that could have been revolutionary had they allowed dialogue. The lot of you are illiberal, and it is no wonder, considering your first principles are flawed. No one wants your Stalinesque exhortations and your pseudo-religious drivel. You have successfully made the anti-cuts camp look extremely stupid, and I’d argue, even though I’m in opposition, that it is something they ill-deserve. You’ve also gone beyond the modicum of hospitality and respectful debate so revered at Cambridge for centuries! Shame on you! Admissions really ought to be more discerning.

  11. cjcjc says:

    Pathetic, anti-democratic, self-regarding, counter-productive drivel.

    A brilliant own goal, you utter fools.

  12. Jed says:

    I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly and I admire your vigour, but stylistically this was far, far too purple. Get your points across simply and with impact, not this flowery nonsense.

    • mikems says:

      You have to take the revolutions as you find them I’m afraid.

      There’s no room for utopian idealism now. If we wait for the perfect one we can all agree on in form and content, we will all be dead.

  13. Nigel Fletcher says:

    Well, that will shake the establishment to its very foundations, I’m sure. Might it perhaps have been better to have engaged the minister in debate when he visited, rather than indulge in what someone on Twitter gloriously (and accurately) described as “Hilariously unaware pretentious tosspottery”.

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  15. Phil says:

    What was the point of using the ‘people’s mic’ to deliver this? I’m assuming it wasn’t intended to display a cult-like unity of thought and purpose, foreclose any possible debate and drive away all but the most sympathetic onlookers using the twin weapons of noise and tedium.

    • Muses says:

      Absolutely disgusting. The unthinking, cud-chewing, vainglorious herd.

      • "O for a muse of fire says:

        that would ascend/ The brightest heaven of invention.”

        Don’t forget, muses, that the intervention had both a form and a content. But what is its tense? The students clearly believe that allowing the further encroachment of market forces into higher education will have deleterious consequences. The references to lobomotisation may be a touch overdone, but the performative form of the intervention, when seen as being in a kind of dialogue with the content, can only lead to one conclusion: the students were anticipatorily satirising the cult-like unity of thought which is imposed by the ‘free’ market and which Willetts’ policies will further entrench in British Universities [Just look at the Economics departments! - ed.]. They understand that Willetts does not want them to think *too* critically. They declare themselves fools, albeit licensed ones. The singleness of heart is not necessarily a singleness of thought — the cold and warm streams do not always run together. Muse: your stony heart lives too much in the flesh.

        • Nim, Bardolph & Pistol says:

          Forms, too, can ossify, hence the need for experimentation. Every anti-cuts protestor will know by now that tactics can become exhausted, acts of protest subject to reification. The ‘stock response’ of those in opposition — those who can at least see the need for some kind of extra-parliamentary pressure to be exterted — is to petition, to call demonstrations, to march, to chant slogans, to occupy certain symbolically significant spaces. For how long can this energy be maintained? The Coalition will press on regardless, mandate or no mandate. Marx will keep peeping in at the seams. The ‘Coalition Agreement’, we are told to believe, tore up the ‘normal’ rules of procedure for bourgeois representative democracy. HM’s opposition support the cuts. This is a government of national unity, ruling for the people, against the people, mortgaging the futures of those who may well live to witness the death-throes of liberal democracy as we move towards an increasingly authoritian form of capital accumulation. Those dressed in a little brief authority will begin to use their powers arbitrarily, summarily, divorced from any sense of how their actions will be perceived in what remains of civil society. Welcome, again, to the free world.

          “What just was will probably soon be forgotten. Only an empty, awful silence hangs in the air. Who was defended? Foul, wretched profiteers. What was young had to fall, was forced to die for ends so alien and inimical to the spirit, but the despicable ones were saved, and now they sit there in their comfortable drawing rooms. Not one of them was lost, but those who waved other flags, so much bloom, so much dream, so much hope for the spirit, are dead.”

  16. Phil says:

    Apparently my comment
    is awaiting so-called ‘moderation’
    Well, let us tell you
    You won’t silence us that easily
    … oh, hang on.

    • V says:

      No, Phil, we won’t silence *you*. But we will notice that your IP address is located in Parliament Sq. Were you part of David’s entourage?

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  18. J bomb says:

    Something new for the CV; pretentious ass.

  19. Satu says:

    Marvellous – you’ve managed to continue for ages without actually saying anything. Arguably the best way to get through to a politician.

  20. Savage says:

    And thus the games commence.
    We, you, me… are at last becoming aware.

  21. Kate says:

    Apparantly the John Lewis Christmas ad has been reducing people to tears, this alone has done it for me. I wish I could have repeated this word for word alongside others.

    • Muses says:

      Makes you Euphoric doesn’t it? The unity of synchronized action and all the theatrics. I must say I’d be impressed by the marching formations in North Korea, but I would know better the intention and the mentality behind it and steer clear of it.

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  24. B says:

    Inspiring and brilliant. Throw out the kleptocratic thugs.

  25. Dave says:

    Great intervention – get it out everywhere, it moved me and I’m an old Trot pensioner. The struggle needs poetry to unmask the normality of the capitalist spectacle.

  26. Read about your disruption of Willetts’ lecture at the THE website. Well done! Inspirational for students and academics alike.

    Philip Moriarty, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham

  27. Jack says:

    Out of interest, are there any videos of this coming online soon?

  28. Marie-Pierre says:

    Do not give up, we all support you – well done!

  29. mikems says:

    Take that technocrats and soul-sellers!

    Wonderful stuff. Reminds me very strongly of the spirit of the late 1960s.

  30. WellDone says:

    Applaud you – your courage deflated his political theatrics.

    The script was fine – the people’s mic is an excellent group response.

    Proud that you made a stand and have shared this with the rest of the world that is watching and listening.

    And watching the undercover snatch squad thuggery against students on youtube. Cowards.

    • Muses says:

      It would have been great if everyone there was given peoples’ mics. Wait, that’s called a discussion. Who bloody qualified them to be the people?

      • MC says:

        Bear in mind that the only real microphone in the hall was the one which was on the stage, with amplification and surround-sound. The protestors could have been drowned out at any point during their lengthy interruption. That Willetts and the organisers of the event chose not to do so must surely tell us something.

        As to the point about Jacobinism, well: some would say that it is too early to determine what impact the French revolution has had on the course of world history.

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  32. Anthony in Chicago says:

    A wonderful strategy, beautifully delivered as befits an Ivy League college. Did any student force the Minister out of the Hall ?? No. Did he chose to leave surrounded by his handlers and security ?? Obviously Yes.. Did he have the courage of his governments convictions ?? Obviously not. Did he stay and fight for his misguided crusade ?? Of course not !! Good Job Cambridge, keep your eye on the ball.

    • Muses says:

      You may be enamoured by the Cambridge label here, as Cambridge, and not these thugs who happen to have been accepted, is deserving of. The poetry was far from fine, the message far from liberal, and the language and metaphor chosen thoroughly inappropriate and a bit silly. If this is the kind of education CDE are defending, there needs to be a more thorough overhaul. At Ivy Leagues, those able, pay, and those unable receive bursaries. The system proposed is a generous student loan system which is paid back only after people are earning more than 21,000 pounds a year in small installments. But here, people freeload on the working man and scaremonger. I wouldn’t sully the Ivy League System, the Russel Group, or Cambridge by giving these people accolades they sure as hell do not deserve. They are enemies of fairness, of choice, or freedom, and now they have been proven enemies of free speech. I will be very surprised if the moderators allow all my comments.

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  36. Mike says:

    I know you are going to get a lot of flak from this from the media and other idiots but I just wanna let you know that I and others think it’s fantastic what you did and support you completely, don’t give in!

  37. TL;DR. Try using paragraphs.

    And if you are actually into freedom, try not stifling the free speech of people who you disagree with. I can’t remember the last time that throwing a hissy fit and covering your ears at the other side of the aisle ever led to a more open dialogue.

  38. Addendum to my last comment:

    Where, I’m curious, does it end? Is there a guideline, a set of criteria, for determining which views Cambridge students are and aren’t allowed to hear? Who gets to decide these criteria? As a Cambridge student, when was I given an opportunity to appoint Cambridge Defend Education our very own thought police?

    • bleak sun says:

      Who gets to decide? Who sets the criteria? Those are excellent questions: the Government got to set the criteria with the 1986 Education Act. Within the University community, those in positions of institutional power get to decide who comes to speak on the big stage — this is why various voices raised questions about the composition of the CRASSH lecture series.

      On the question of whether or not the interruption was justified – and whether it might open the door to copy-cat interruption of genuine academic pursuits (has it?) – look again at some of the points made by Dr. N:


      The blowback from your Orwellian allusion must now surely be apparent.

  39. Pyrrha says:

    Rhetoric is empty if not joined to action.
    At the next election we need to replace the Tories and Liberals with Labour and the Greens.
    We can learn a lot from the way that Hope NOT Hate defeated the BNP at the lst election.

    • Muses says:

      The BNP were defeated by free expression and the right to debate. They lost on Question time, not with us banning them. Also, HOW DARE you use a student issue as a means to further your own parties. We have plenty of “pilgrims” at all levels of our government and civil service, for instance people receiving nurses salaries to actually do no nursing and be full time union recruiters. Take your cronysim and demagogy and thievery and go elsewhere.

      • Winstan Churchill says:

        Muses, have you read the 1936 Public Order Act?

        And how dare you come here with *your* political agenda. Does this mean you care deeply this “student issue”, perhaps? If so, please feel free to share some of your righteous indignation about the tuition fee hike and the ongoing marketisation of education. That is what this blog is for, after all. Or are you just a troll with time to kill?

        Do you honestly think that the threat which the fascists represent has gone away because Nick Griffin was allowed to speak on Question Time? The BNP may well have suffered serious setbacks — and this is a good thing — but the real consequences of this shifting conjuncture do not involve some kind of definitive and conclusive ‘defeat’ for the fascist right; we are, in fact, simply witnessing a broader realignment of the far right’s forces at the moment — as some of the BNP’s rats leave their sinking ship to join the BFP, or to march with the EDL. To assume that there has been some kind of cathartic moment of closure in an agonistic, rational public sphere is, quite frankly, the worst kind of liberal blindness. Your QT triumphalism utterly misses the point that we will need to remain vigilant against the activities of the BNP, the EDL and, now, the BFP — because they have not gone away.

        As you will know, the EDL have already been threatening to attack student protestors and have encouraged their supporters to attack the picket lines of those workers who took industrial action last year.

  40. Paul Holborow says:

    A brilliant indictment – thanks

  41. Zio Bastone says:

    I liked David Graeber’s comparison of the activities of the Occupy movement to an artwork: anomalous, particpative, disruptive and provoking. Clearly some of the trolls who’ve added comments find this sort of thing somewhat tricky. It’s powerful, informed, poetic. And it gives me some hope for the future.

  42. Zio Bastone says:

    J H Prynne will be reading at Lady Mitchell Hall tomorrow, so a poet (and a scholar) will be there.

    Do you read much poetry?

  43. 30 minutes til the occupy la deadline. hoping for civility and respect on both sides of the battle line and wishing i could be there myself.

  44. Vic says:

    Brilliant. It must have been moving to be there.

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  47. Emma says:

    Outrageous that this guy has been suspended. But holy shit this is a godawful poem.

  48. John Ontario says:

    I have a suggestion: After you get a free University education make the government buy you a Rolls Royce. How about paying for the things you want? That is a life lesson a lot more youth might learn something from.

    Or put another way. Since the average university graduate makes over a million more over their lifetime. Try taking a loan now and pay for it out of that.

    Universities: Keeping people out of the work force until 21 while teaching them valuable skills like how to drink too much.

    • Former Cambridge student says:

      “How about paying for the things I want?”, good grief. I’m paying for my children’s university education through my taxes (and before you ask, I would pay more – provided that Barclays, Vodaphone, etc are made to do likewise). Mine, I suppose, was paid for through my parents’. They didn’t go to university – they were of a generation when it was, with some scholarship-funded exceptions, reserved for a moneyed elite. (What goes around, comes around).

      The reasons I’d like to do it through my taxes are:
      (1) so that my children and are able to follow their talents, without their future career paths constrained by the fact their futures have been mortgaged to the financial services industry with interest;
      (2) that children from unprivileged family backgrounds could also share in the opportunities that come with living in an educated and developed society.

      The irony of all this ‘university of life / bloody students’ crap in John Ontario’s post … why do people collude in the lowering of their own horizons (and those of their families) by a privileged elite – who will continue to divide up the spoils, laugh all the way to the bank, and pocket the bonus. Comparing educational opportunity with a ‘free Rolls Royce’ – as if that is the pinnacle of human desire – suggests you have very little idea what an education is or why people might choose to fight for it.

      The poem is … not great. But the suspension is an obscenity.

  49. Gegenbeispiel says:

    Well done, students. AnthonyinChicago: spot on.

    John Ontario: you’re an ignorant fool. The mean (which you call the average), even if true, is massively skewed by the top 1%, almost all of whom are graduates. The median graduate income is far, far lower. Most uni students do NOT go to uni to improve their earnings – they go to pursue an education. Just because you’re presumably driven by greed doesn’t mean that most are. “How about paying for the things you want” – what you mean is “how about supporting failed, kleptocratic capitalism”. No way.

    BTW, the thatcherite-lite NuLabour abolished free education years ago and replaced it with a loan system, presumably to please employers who love the idea of highly qulified, highly indebted and therefore pliant wage slaves.

    The Cambridge disciplinary court should be thoroughly ashamed of itself. In suspending the student for 30 months they’ve brought shame and opprobrium on the university as a whole by showing themselves to be arselickers of the Conservative government and it’s sponsors and masters, Wall St. and the City of London plutocracy.

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  51. HJB200 says:

    Really respect the courage this took. I hear the criticisms that it denied other students the chances of a debate. But I think marching over Willetts’s oleaginous words is permissable in this case. When students protest – the police batter them with clubs. This is not a just world.

    Shouting a conservative politician – a harbinger of the end of freedom, no less – into silence, is a fantastic achievement. Polite debate is protest on their terms, and only ever achieves a catharsis in the objecting assembly – you walk away feeling as though you have put your point across, and done your bit, but the problem goes on. You need to break the rules first to remake them in a new way.

  52. Duncan says:

    Thank God you prevented university academics from being able to criticise his universities policy substantively with your bizarre nomic ramblings. Kudos! A real victory for free speech!

  53. Friedrich Nietzsche says:

    thanks so much!! It is sad to hear that Owen has been expelled! Let’s continue the fight, even — if necessary — from the underground. I am with you — in thoughts and action! Greetings from Germany C.

  54. somethingelse says:

    ‘Truth affirms the infinite right of its consequences, with no regard to what opposes them. ‘ It is true, nothing is for debate. Either run, or apply the emrgency break. Hope Owen gets reinstated.

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  58. Ann says:

    Just look at America, if you don’t think it’s true,
    how massive corporate dollars has destroyed education
    as well as the environment and health care,
    and even, and yes, even “free enterprise” itself.

  59. I am shocked that Cambridge should decide to act in this way. I personally respect and have always respected freedom of speech but the action of the university following the protest seems draconian.

  60. I personally have always respected freedom of speech but the action of Cambridge University seems draconian.

  61. Don Barry says:

    I’m told the last time such an absurdly severe sentence was handed down by this court was for plagiarism of a thesis — an academic crime meriting strong sanction.

    Holland was correct in his assessment that at the event, “nothing is up for debate here / your mind is made up / you are not for turning.” All speech is inseparable from the calculus of power surrounding it. Minister Willetts’ appearance already carried the imprimatur of privilege and place, and the entire event was suffocated with the cloak of lies and half-lies surrounding his stooge advocacy of the privatization of higher education. The use of a substantial portion of the audience in a democratic manner provided something approaching an equal counterpoint, which invited a reply of substance. That such a reply was not forthcoming speaks more of the poverty of Willetts’ ability to make a meaningful reply than to the fiction of violence used to mask his escape.

    For shame for the Cambridge administration in this persecution. It is a dark day for academic freedom there.

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