By Alice Clarke, SU Correspondent, and Joseph Marshall, Deputy Editor
On 7 October, Bristol University Conservative Association hosted conservative commentator Darren Grimes.
A controversial activist in British politics, Grimes rose to prominence in the run up to the 2016 EU election as a vocal supporter of Brexit, setting up the pro-leave campaign ‘BeLeave’ whilst still a student. Since then, the commentator has written for papers such as The Telegraph and The Spectator. He is a regular contributor to news channel GB News, uploads commentary videos to his YouTube channel and tweets his views regularly to his 170 thousand followers.
Arriving at the event in Basement 45 on Frogmore Street, guests were supplied with ‘resist socialism’ badges. Elliot Stein, Chairman of the Bristol University Conservative Association, introduced Grimes to the audience, seeing him flanked by Turning Point UK banners. Grimes began by outlining how he had begun his career in political activism as a member of the Liberal Democrats before 'seeing the light' and moving to the right, adopting both conservative and anti-establishment views.
The event I was speaking at last night struggled to get approval and had to have security on the door. A sign of the intolerant times we live in – most of it emanating from the purportedly progressive Left – if they think I’m controversial they should speak to the British people!— Darren Grimes 🇬🇧 (@darrengrimes_) October 8, 2021
Throughout the evening, the controversial figure harked back to his childhood, growing up in a single-parent household in County Durham, and talked of how he felt disconnected from Westminster politics. He cited how his mother buying their council house was one of his proudest moments, while arguing that young people would not be capitalist if they didn't own capital. Grimes spoke for around half an hour and then invited questions from the floor.
When asked by an audience member what he thought of Boris Johnson, Grimes criticised the current Conservative Party. He dubbed them 'rudderless', with a complete lack of principles which he argued Margaret Thatcher had embodied. When asked later if the UK needed a figure like Thatcher again, he fervently agreed.
Grimes consistently referenced the notion of 'freedom', claiming that freedom of speech is under attack on UK campuses. In this vein, he praised the University of Sussex’s decision that day to come out in support of lecturer Dr Kathleen Stock who had been at the centre of a transphobia row. Although Grimes is gay himself, he noted that whilst there had been a 'rich and long history' in the fight for gay rights, there is not the same precedent for non-cisgender individuals, labelling Demi Lovato as 'attention seeking' for their coming out as non-binary.
Bristol University Conservative Association (BUCA) thanked Turning Point UK for their help with the event, an organisation with which Grimes has been closely associated since its founding in 2019. TPUK aim to counter the so-called left-wing bias they deem to be in UK educational systems and is closely associated with Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump organisation of allied aims.
'You don’t have to agree with what he says, but I think you have to tolerate him saying it'
Speaking to some attendees after the event, there were a range of opinions on Grimes and today’s Conservative Party and government.
George, a first year Neuroscience student, argued that although he didn’t agree with some of what Grimes had to say, he agreed with Grimes’ attendance on the basis of freedom of speech: 'You don’t have to agree with what he says, but I think you have to tolerate him saying it.'
Languages fresher Fleur, who stood as a Conservative candidate at the local elections earlier this year in Durham, considers herself a fan of Grimes. She felt frustrated with broader university culture, arguing that being conservative shouldn’t be so controversial given that there is an elected majority Conservative government.
Most striking – and for many, concerning - were the views of a first year student and BUCA member, who asked to remain anonymous: he noted that while he agreed with a lot of what Grimes had to say, he disagreed with Grimes' ‘lifestyle choices’. When asked to clarify, he referenced Grimes’ homosexuality. Although those present varied in their beliefs, many expressed the sentiment that they were not able to express their true political opinions in Bristol, and were as concerned as Grimes was by so-called cancel culture on campus.
'Contentious speakers like Grimes are useful to spark debate'
BUCA chairman Elliot Stein told Epigram after the event that he felt the event went well and smoothly despite fears of potential protests. Stein said 'I was thinking there would be protest but I wanted to avoid this at all costs'. Indeed, concerns over disruption and safety meant that guests only found out the day before where the event was to be held, and were subjected to bag checks and pat-downs at the door.
On the controversy surrounding Darren Grimes and Turning Point UK, Stein emphasised how important he feels debate is. Though he admitted he is 'not a fan of all' of Turning Point's policies, he noted how 'contentious speakers like Darren are useful to spark debate'.
Featured Image: Epigram / Joseph Marshall
Is there a crisis of freedom of speech on campus?