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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

A Brexit cuckoo in a Remain nest

'If there is a no-deal Brexit it will be the worst thing that has happened to British universities in modern history'. So said Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at Oxford University, in a Guardian report on a letter by academic leaders three months before the withdrawal date. The EU represents progress, and Britain the past of empire and social injustice: this seems to be the belief of staff and students alike. As lecturers are assumed to be pro-EU, my students would be horrified on reading my Bruges Group articles. But is academe really so overwhelmingly Europhile?

According to the Adam Smith Institute, conservatives are outnumbered by staff of liberal-left persuasion by 75 to 12 per-cent. Group-think and political bias has led to ostracising and bullying of the minority who don't comply with favoured ideology, as illustrated by the witch hunt of aspiring young scholar Noah Carl at Cambridge. Politicisation is a troubling phenomenon in universities here and in the USA, as described by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Coddling of the American Mind. Universities appear to be regressing to medievalist hounding of heretics. Recently the University of Sussex organised a meeting on 'dealing with right-wing attitudes'.Undoubtedly, the prevailing view of academic commentators is opposed to the referendum verdict, as expressed in this article by Mike Finn of University of Exeter: -

'Universities and their environs often became isolated pockets of Remain resistance in otherwise Leave-dominated areas once the votes were tallied. In the two years since that fateful poll, Britain's universities have found themselves at the centre of a 'culture war', where popular nationalism and attendant media discourses have targeted them as holdouts of a supposedly-privileged 'liberal metropolitan elite'….Academics have found themselves in sharp opposition to developments in contemporary political culture. One such in the Brexit moment has been a renewed enthusiasm for empire – a sympathy not shared by most historians of colonialism….When Britain elected to leave the European Union, it was, in many respects, a repudiation of many academics' values.'

Leave voters will detect more than a hint of intellectual snobbery in these comments. The referendum has exposed a schism in British society, perfectly conceptualised by David Goodhart's liberal 'Anywheres' and patriotic 'Somewheres'. Numerous scholars have shown a worrying inclination to discredit Brexit voters as dim, provincial laggards who the world is leaving behind; some have gone further in suggesting that uninformed people should not have so much say in national decisions. In 2018, the centenary of universal suffrage, democracy is being undermined by scholars who are veering towards the 'dictatorship of the intelligentsia' urged by Herbert Marcuse back in the 1960s.

The competence principle as a determinant of voting capacity is a dangerous folly. An important distinction should be made between intelligence and education.Half of school leavers now go to university, which in the past was the preserve of the elite. Many intellectually sharp people born around the middle of the last century have attended graduation ceremonies for sons or daughters, but never for themselves.What is the true meaning of 'educated'? Academic standards vary widely from the Russell Group to third-rate former polytechnics awarding media studies degrees as leaving certificates.

The brightest students are not necessarily politically aware, and knowledge of their cherished EU is remarkably sketchy. Ask them to name the EU commissioners and rarely are more than two correct names given; ask how laws are made and they simply do not know. Instead, as shown by a survey I conducted with Jonathan Portes, students tend to see the EU as a paragon of virtue, rather than justifying its existence on economic or regulatory grounds.

Results of a quiz administered to a nationally representative sample by Noah Carl, Lindsay Richards and Anthony Heath, published in the academic journal Election Studies, showed no overall difference in EU knowledge between Leave voters and Remain voters. The two sides differed most in answers to questions that were ideologically convenient to them. Leave voters wrongly thought that 'more than ten per cent of British government spending goes to the EU' (28% got this right, compared to 50% of Remain voters). On 'the UK pays more money into the EU than it gets back', 61% of Remainers correctly believed this to be true, compared to 88% of Leavers. Consistent with previous literature, older age was as much a predictor of knowledge as educational attainment.

Older people are more likely than the young to vote, and this is a problem for those who, like Tony Blair, want to destroy the lingering social conservatism in society. As told by Sunday Telegraph columnist Janet Daley, a speaker at an academic conference last year said that progressive ideas would need to be instilled 'one funeral at a time'. David Runciman, a Cambridge professor and Remainer, wants the voting age to be lowered to 6 to rebalance the electoral skew to the old. 'I'm serious about that', he insisted.

Remain voters, on average, have a higher level of academic qualification. But as the study by Carl and colleagues indicates, confirmation bias is a major factor in attitudes to the EU. A cosmopolitan middle-class mind-set is maintained by social networks and by choice of information sources (Guardian and Economist readers, or indeed viewers and listeners of 'accepted wisdom' on the BBC, hardly get a balanced view). My survey, and research by Carl and colleagues, shows that Remain voters tend to misunderstand the motives of Brexit supporters. Universities like to present themselves as communities of tolerance and diversity, yet the behaviour of some academic staff is intolerant towards ordinary people who exercised their franchise. In the politics of exclusion, ageist, racist and sexist attitudes are blatantly on show: the Brexit voter is portrayed as pale, male and stale (sometimes with the insult 'gammon'). Such disparagement does not help Remainers to understand why the majority wanted to leave the EU.

As already shown, some scholars have stuck to the task of objective scientific investigation rather than spouting ideology. An important contribution is the work of political scientist Professor Matthew Goodwin at University of Kent. His book National Populism: the Revolt against Liberal Democracy explains Brexit as a predictable consequence of a widening gap between the governors and the governed. National identity and sovereignty have been systematically diluted by leaders attuned to a 'new world order' of global trade and liberal immigration policy. Brexit, then, is not an anomalous, reactionary protest but the result of broader and longer-term social forces.

Despite the general anti-Brexit sentiment, there are plenty of Leavers in academe. A scholar of growing media profile is Professor Robert Tombs of University of Cambridge. Tombs co-founded the Briefings for Brexit website, to present academic arguments for life beyond the EU. Like any medium of such persuasion, it has not received the deserved attention. However, it was a springboard for Tombs, who now writes regularly for the Telegraph, Spectator and other established outlets. He argues: 'If it is simply impossible for Britain to assert its legal right to leave the EU, then no other member country can do so either. And that would be screwing down the lid on democracy.' As a scholar of French history, Tombs knows all about popular revolts against arrogant rulers. His message to the current political establishment is: defy the will of the people at your peril.

Other influential figures of academic standing include Claire Fox, director of the libertarian think-tank Institute of Ideas, who argues against the EU from a left-wing perspective. Joanna Williams, head of education and culture at Policy Exchange and associate editor of the libertarian website Spiked, is a frequent speaker at universities and an unapologetic Brexiteer.

My university has been relatively moderate in its official response to Brexit, and there is no silencing of anyone who voices a pro-Brexit opinion. I heard that the principal, at a high-level internal meeting before the referendum, was horrified to hear some senior academic leaders stating their intention to vote Leave. In the aftermath, the shocked Ivory Towers began a campaign of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) portrayal of Brexit as an insular and hostile expression, with the university somewhat ironically presenting itself as a sanctuary of tolerance. However, despite the importance of the topic, there has been a scarcity of balanced debates hosted by the institution. An alumni event that I attended in 2017 had a panel of five experts and a chairman, who were all against Brexit (only one was British).

As an informal enquiry, I contacted colleagues in various departments to seek their impression of staff attitudes to Brexit. A professor in Department A had not heard a single advocate for Leave, arguing that Brexit is widely seen as a disaster, based on a mythical 'island story'. In Department B there is apparently an overwhelming Remain majority, but my informant added that there is a large contingent of Marxists 'who dislike the EU from an internationalist-socialist perspective'. Also, most of the staff, despite being Remainers, have more cynicism than rose-tinted utopian ideas about the EU, which they regard as 'the lesser of two evils'.

A lecturer in Department C perceived his colleagues as 'about two thirds pro-EU, one third pro-Brexit'. However, 'the pro-EU people are a lot more public about their status.' A professor in Department D told me: 'I am a turncoat. I worked for the EEC back in the mid-1980s and it turned me into a serious Euro-sceptic.' This professor thinks a 60:40 split in favour of Remain in the department, unusually high for the university which he guesses is about 90:10. In Department E, my kitchen conversations prior to the referendum indicated that almost half of the lecturing staff would be voting Leave. At a staff away-day, when a superior divulged to others that I was a rabid Brexiteer, one lecturer contemptuously suggested that I had faked my academic qualifications.

Brexit is a controversial topic that has divided families and friends. In the academic setting there is an assumption that everyone is pro-EU, and pejorative assumptions about Leave voters are readily heard. However, scratch below the surface and you will find a more mixed picture. Perversely, universities are missing the opportunity to hear the different perspectives of staff and students, and to engage in the constructive debate that could help to reconcile a polarised society. 

Sabotage or just a bit of mischief?
A truly open Britain in an increasingly open world

Comments 1

Guest - Coram Deo on Thursday, 20 December 2018 22:26

There was a day when swear words would have been blanked out. What happened!
Shall forego reading the article for that reason.

There was a day when swear words would have been blanked out. What happened! Shall forego reading the article for that reason.
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