THERE’S always one, at Christmas time: a relative or family friend who, after a sherry too many on Boxing Day, commences a setting-the-world-to-rights speech. “The problem these days ... ” he or she will bray, before comparing the status quo unfavourably to some rose-tinted notion of the past.

Eventually, the rant will reveal the speaker’s prejudices and make everyone acutely uncomfortable. By the end, those who had at first responded with nods and interested noises will have drifted into the kitchen in search of dishes to wash, or become oddly engrossed in the Christmas Radio Times.

Unfortunately for England, this year’s speech was delivered by Jo Johnson, the UK Government’s Universities Minister. The topic was free speech at universities, and the venue was not the Johnson family drawing room but a festival that celebrates Jewish learning and culture.

This presented Johnson with a bit of a challenge – how to paint so-called no platforming and book banning as a dreadful, dangerous, thoroughly un-British attack on free speech while also condemning antisemitism and suggesting Holocaust deniers (and perhaps also those who are “anti-Israel”) should indeed be denied a platform and prevented from distributing literature on campuses.

Another speaker might have struggled to articulate both of these positions simultaneously; to argue that “safe spaces” are a nonsense notion but that a “safe and inclusive environment for all students” is essential; to say that universities must prove to a new regulator that they are promoting free speech while being “vigilant against hate speech … masquerading as the exercise of the right to freedom of speech”. Presumably those in charge of universities, clever as they are, are expected to be able to tell the difference, to predict exactly what any given speaker might say, and to determine whether it will count as criminal talk or merely an unpopular opinion.

“This is no authoritarian step,” Johnson felt the need to add, which will definitely have reassured everyone who had until that point thought the new “Office for Students” sounded like something from an Orwellian nightmare. Students, it seems, are to be protected from their own wrong opinions by a watchdog that will have the power to fine universities for pandering to them – or rather, for not interfering any time a minor stooshie involving a student-led group erupts.

Johnson’s speech was light on detail but heavy with the suggestion that feeble-minded students in the US and the UK are forcing universities to shut down debates that risk challenging them or making them feel uncomfortable. But he provided no examples of books being removed from UK university libraries or authors being binned from course reading lists, instead focusing on the alleged “banning” of Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell over their views on transgender issues. In reality, of course, neither of these people has been banned by any university, they’ve simply been uninvited from particular debates by student-run groups. And ironically gained a much bigger platform for their ideas in the process.

What Johnson seeks to imply, with his deliberately vague talk of censorship and “even more extensive lists of banned ‘trigger’ words”, is that the quality of university teaching is being compromised by moves to coddle students and protect them from challenging or upsetting topics. He provides no real evidence to support any such shift, preferring instead to blow a dog whistle and allow those listening – many of whom will not have set foot inside a university for decades – to fill in the blanks.

As someone who graduated from a Scottish university less than five years ago, I’m pleased to report there was plenty of discomfort in my social science tutorials covering a wide range of topics – and not just among those who had skipped the mandatory reading and were squirming in their seats hoping to avoid detection. Among my peers were straight-A students who had never before been asked to delve deeply into moral and philosophical arguments around crime and punishment, racism and feminism, or class and capitalism. I recall one sociology tutorial touching on rites of passage including tribal practises involving circumcision and acts of domination by male elders of teenage boys. Conforming as I did to the stereotype of the loquacious mature student with no shortage of opinions, I chatted away with the tutor about the power dynamics involved. It was only after several minutes discussing erections, sexual gratification and homophobia that I realised everyone else in the room was looking on in horrified silence, wishing the floor would swallow them up.

Those who scoff about “triggers” do so from a position of privilege, and with a total lack of empathy for those who may find certain topics particularly difficult to discuss.

The whole point of a trigger warning is to flag up potentially sensitive issues, yet the super-privileged seek instead to imply that words, works of literature or even entire topics are being erased from university courses to avoid upsetting anyone, to the intellectual detriment of the nation as a whole.

Some may still be willing to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps we are indeed at the top of a slippery slope, and the next step is the damaging restriction of free speech and intellectual expression. But he has let slip how he views universities, saying they should be “vibrant free-trading marketplaces for ideas”. What a thoroughly depressing characterisation, from yet another Tory who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.