Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Confessions of a Leaver in Oxford

Brexit and the intolerant backlash

Despite having voted last week in line with the majority of the voters in the UK to leave the European Union, I find myself in a distinct minority in my workplace and among the people I know. Furthermore, I find the reaction to the vote from many of the most vocal elements of the remain camp quite disturbing. There is a widespread refusal to respect the result of the referendum. The majority of voters are being accused of being ignorant and ill-informed, or motivated by unacceptable opinions. Open prejudice against the working classes and the old is rife. And the attempts to discover and flag up a tiny number of minor racist incidents in order to brand all leavers as racist are unforgivable.

Britain has certainly shown itself in the past few days to be a less tolerant place than most people thought, but it's the remain camp who are demonstrating that intolerance, with their shocking refusal to accept the democratic will of the people, or to face up to the rejection of their cultural values by the majority. A lot of people need to calm down and think very hard about what sort of 'liberal', 'tolerant', or 'progressive' citizen hate the majority of the people.

Brexit is a rational response to the immigration debate

I am in favour of unrestricted migration. I believe we need to have an open debate about what sort of society we want to be, with all opinions allowed to be voiced, so that I can argue for a more open and dynamic society. We need to create a society and an economy that can grow, and that people want to come and join. I am therefore opposed to Fortress Europe, which imposes racist immigration controls on non-Europeans, and is responsible for the ongoing deaths of hundreds of migrants around Europe's borders. Yet, even if I had the power, I wouldn't want to impose an open door policy on an electorate who don't agree with it. We need to go out and have the debate, win the arguments, and stand for elected office on a pro-immigration ticket before we can start changing the rules.

The British people have been told by all major parties in all recent elections that controlling and reducing immigration is right and proper, and this viewpoint is rarely challenged. When they fail to control and reduce immigration, the blame is put on the EU. And when people try to raise the  issue, they are often branded as bigots and racists. The opinions and concerns of vast swathes of the population outside of the metropolitan elites have been ruled beyond the pale. Let's look at that again. Politicians of all major parties have told us that:
  • immigration is problematic and should be controlled;
  • we can't control immigration because of EU rules on freedom of movement;
  • the issue is not up for discussion;
  • but you can vote on whether we stay on the EU or not.
Follow the logic and there only seems to be one way to make a rational vote. To be a voter for leave does not mean you are stupid, under-informed, or racist. In fact, a vote for leave was rational in light of what passed for debate in the campaign.

Brexit can be good for higher education

There is much talk at the moment about a possible negative impact on universities. The focus on the benefits of freedom of movement in Europe ignores the concomitant restrictions on links with non-EU countries, leading to such disgraceful scenes as American graduates locked up and deported after completing their PhDs in the UK (

I very much hope that we can continue to pursue successful collaborations with European colleagues, but, to the extent that we were reliant on certain EU-related funding streams for that, we may now need to start participating in the process of building new arrangements. If we need public funding for that, we need to persuade voters about the merits of our research. That's where we need to put our energy, rather than trying to find ways to ignore or overturn the referendum result so that we can keep the status quo.

Since the referendum, I have continued to work with colleagues in Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, German and Poland, and also with those from Norway, Switzerland, Israel, Japan and South Africa, to name but a few of the contacts I have had this week, and I know that, despite the scare stories, these contacts and collaborations will continue irrespective of the political arrangements between Britain and the EU.

I'm confident that Brexit offers at least as many opportunities as threats for universities, for cultural institutions, for business, for the City, and for everyone else, with the possible exception of Nick Clegg.  We've made a good start, with a positive vote to leave the EU, and the consequent fall of Cameron and the laughable opposition. But it is only the start. If the will of the people is to prevail, we need to reject the bad losers and the doomsayers. Unfortunately, we are still saddled with the same out-of-touch political class and their cheerleaders. Few of those so clearly rejected by their voters last Thursday will have the self-respect to do the honourable thing, which would be to resign their seats and seek re-election. And we still have an unelected House of Lords full of Blair, Clegg and Cameron appointees, even further out of kilter with the electorate. Nationalists in Scotland and elsewhere are even more shrill in their rejection of the democratic result of the referendum (as well as the last one). So the victory is not yet won.

The unlikely Brexiteer

Yes, I live in Oxford, work in a university, speak several European languages, travel widely and frequently in Europe, and work on projects funded by the European Commission. As a result, people assume that I voted to remain. I didn't, and, what's more, I'm thrilled by the result, and have no regrets. I'm not the only one (see, although it sometimes feels that way around here.

It's possible to be anti-racist, pro-immigration and pro-Brexit. It's possible to love Europe but reject the EU. In fact it's essential if you care about democracy and freedom.