Oxford University's new vice-chancellor this week pinned her colours to the mast with a robust defence of the traditional British values of tolerance and free speech.

Professor Louise Richardson, a terrorism expert and the first female to hold the office since records began 800 years ago, is "comfortable with institutions giving platforms to extreme speakers because to do otherwise would be to stifle free speech. Universities should be places where students confront views they find objectionable and learn to argue down opposing views rather than ban them. We should be very permissive unless someone is inciting violence".

This isn't a hypothetical issue for British universities which are the meat in the sandwich between Prevent, the Government's anti-terrorism strategy that requires teachers to identify radicalised students, and organisations like Islamic advocacy group Cage which, among other things, advises students how to conceal their radicalisation.

Cage has been labelled an apologist for terrorism, hardly a stretch seeing its research director described Mohammed Emwazi aka Jihadi John as "a beautiful young man" before his encounters with British intelligence supposedly gave him an appetite for cutting off hostages' heads.


Richardson's comments echo those made by Barack Obama at a town hall meeting last September, the difference being that the President was addressing the converse issue.

Discussing what the likes of comedian Jerry Seinfeld regard as a climate of student-driven, political correctness-inspired censoriousness in American universities, Obama said, "I've heard of some college campuses where they don't want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative. Or they don't want to read a book if it has language that's offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal to women. I don't agree that, when you become students, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view."

Richardson also dismissed a student campaign for the removal of a statue of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes that stands outside Oxford's Oriel College.

Displaying the sort of bracing common sense that conservative critics complain has all but disappeared from the halls of academia, she said, "This country ran a colonial empire. Many of our forbears who contributed enormously to the quality of our lives today were slave owners." Students, she added, need to be educated on the "complexity of life".

Oxford University is in safe hands then, and the age of terror hasn't sapped Britain's commitment to its core values.

So why on earth was the British Parliament this week debating whether it should ban Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump from entering the country? (Trump's offence was to call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US and suggest that Britain has a major problem with radicalisation among the Muslim community.)

The motion was defeated but it beggars belief that it was debated in the first place. As Richardson and Obama grasp, the essence of free speech is tolerating statements we disagree with and might prefer not to hear.

To extend this right to Cage but not Trump demonstrates glaring double standards and highlights that a section of the left is in the curious and rather contemptible position of championing the right of radical Islamic groups to push a point of view incompatible with secular liberal democracy while denouncing those who link that message to the ideology espoused by Isis and al-Qaeda.

In that context, a Guardian editorial on Prime Minister David Cameron's call for Muslim women in the UK to learn to speak English or face deportation makes interesting reading: "There is a strong argument, as Britain becomes more diverse, for seeking to develop a consensually agreed set of common British values that might underpin the relationship we all have with the state and each other."

This is one of those statements that, at first glance, seems entirely unobjectionable but, on closer inspection, proves problematic.

Many Britons would argue that an agreed set of common British values already exists, has done for centuries and is largely enshrined in the law of the land. If the Guardian believes these values should be revised to accommodate the beliefs and sensibilities of groups and cultures that weren't part of that centuries-long process, it should simply say so.

And while it's at it, the Guardian might care to draft a set of values that reconciles advocates of Sharia law, like some of Cage's leading lights, and Britons who wish to live by the diametrically opposed principles that their ancestors fought for and, in some cases, died for.