Posted tagged ‘Brexit’

The will of the people

January 9, 2018

Citizens of the United Kingdom have over the past year or two become accustomed to a particular assertion – that there is one thing beyond argument, because it is ‘the will of the people’; and that of course is Brexit. Let us not re-open all the EU debate for the moment, because that is not the intention of this blog post. Rather, I am interested in how our view of democracy is evolving.

Until 2016 the ‘will of the people’ would rarely have been a topic of discussion in Britain. Of course elections produce governments and all that, but I cannot recall any government ever brandishing its parliamentary majority and proclaiming that its manifesto promises were now ‘the will of the people’. Indeed doing so would be very questionable, since British governments are typically elected with the votes of a less-than-overwhelming proportion of the population. Elections are a process in which the people participate and by which parties or groups of politicians form governments, where they have managed to negotiate the system satisfactorily. It works, and has on the whole provided the UK with reasonable stability and security. But it would be hard to say that elections revealed the will of the people; governments so formed were just less incompatible with the will of the people than any other option.

A referendum is a different class of decision-making. In the UK in 2016 the people voted, and a majority decided on a particular course of action, with profound consequences of course. The people became the government on this issue, having been briefed, with outrageous contradictions in the briefings, by politicians and activists on both sides. And now even elected politicians must, if they are to avoid the unwelcome attentions of some tabloid newspapers, fall into line, no matter who elected them and what views their own voters might have on the issue.

So if the electorate can take this political decision, why not others; indeed why not every major decision? It is not a completely outlandish thought: Switzerland does something that comes pretty close. Many major decisions there are taken by the people in referendums: in 2016 there were nine such referendums, and in 2017 there were three. Of those twelve propositions put to the vote, five were adopted by the electorate, and the rest were rejected. So for example the people decided to smooth the way for third-generation immigrants, and to reconstruct a tunnel; and they rejected a revised corporate tax code.

Should the electorate be taking such direct decisions? On the whole, in our system of government we don’t think so. Then again, the UK does allow its citizens to make proposals for parliament, which parliament must debate if such proposals attract enough signatures. These petitions can be seen here. As you might expect, here you find numbers of people riding their favourite hobby-horses. Of course there’s a whole lot of stuff about Brexit (some of it quite zany). There are a few petitions about hunting. There are several which are, frankly, impenetrable. More to the point, none of these (the recent petitions about the state visit of Donald Trump being an exception to the rule) will ever make any difference, because they won’t attract the required number of signatures. Even those that are brought to parliament’s attention will not in the end lead to anything much.

I think European countries (except Switzerland) were right, in the first place, to establish representative democracies. We elect politicians, and we allow them to exercise judgement. Sometimes their judgement, by a significant majority, will not follow what we must assume is a majority popular view (capital punishment being a good example). But that is also good because while the majority must rule in a democracy, it must not always get its way; because if it did, it would be able to oppress minorities and endanger human rights, sometimes unwittingly. Let us not go that way. The will of the people should not always determine our frame of reference. Not least because popular opinion is fickle: opinion polls tell us that there is, apparently, a degree of buyer’s remorse regarding Brexit.

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The mythology of treachery – and its dangerous results

December 29, 2017

In the years after the First World War in Germany a particular view of recent history began to take hold in certain circles – the Dolchstoßlegende (or ‘stab-in-the-back myth’). This suggested that Germany was never defeated in the war, and that the punitive Versailles Treaty was only possible because German troops had been betrayed by the country’s politicians and others. It was this myth that helped to fuel the growth of rightwing fanaticism and ultimately the Nazi party and its takeover of Germany.

It was of course not the last time that some movement or other identified traitors and saboteurs in its demonology, but this has never had good results. It is one of the reasons why the current fashion for denouncing traitors in the United Kingdom needs to be watched with some considerable care. The whole Brexit conversation is full of such language, on both sides, with some quite sinister undertones. Politicians have been accused of treachery, and often threatened personally, for holding views that others disagree with. Most recently the Conservative MP Heidi Allen received an anonymous card in the post in which the writer wished her a ‘long and slow demise’, and calling her a traitor (it must be assumed that this referred to her sceptical stance regarding Brexit). The threatened violence might be abhorrent to all reasonable people, but the general tone is the logical extension of campaigns by widely-read newspapers.

But this focus on alleged treachery is not confined to extreme supporters of Brexit, it has become a common feature of internal Labour Party disputes also. Recently the alternative leftwing news blog, Skwawkbox, decided to suggest that Labour MP Stella Creasy, by attending a concert (Shed Seven, if you need to know) in the company of a Conservative MP and others, was displaying an inappropriate ‘cosiness’ with the enemy. At one level this is playground-like childishness on the part of Skwawkbox, but it also maintains the toxic narrative of treachery and betrayal.

None of this is good. It is time to recover a degree of civility within public discourse and to accept that, mostly, people do and support what they believe is right. We can argue with their views and their judgement, but we should stop making it personal. And for heaven’s sake, everyone should stop constantly being angry about everyone and everything. Lighten up.

Faking it with gusto

December 19, 2017

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, Senior Lecturer, University of Dundee

‘Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our capacity to detect it’
(Viktor Taransky, character in A. Niccol’s film S1mOne 2002)

2017 is not over yet but it is safe to assume that it has been a bad year for planet earth. Notwithstanding amazing breakthrough technologies and the myriad of individual stories that, as the old saying goes, ‘restore your faith in humanity’ (meaning that there has always been a need for such faith to be restored!) the current geo-political scenario is often compared to a new Cold War. Also, one cannot forget the lives lost in terrorist attacks, both in Europe and in the Middle East, and the continuing refugee crisis, discussed in previous blog posts, in 2013 and 2015.

Closer to home the Brexit referendum of 2016 has disrupted the lives of millions of individuals across Europe, including the one of this guest blogger, who have been in a limbo since – even the most recent EU/UK ‘deal’ has not ameliorated that. I am not going to rehearse the Brexit referendum arguments; rather I wish to dwell briefly on the outcomes of a process, which though technically has not started yet, is having a significant impact on universities, especially on the public’s perceptions of their value. For lack of a better metaphor I shall resort to the one of Kulturkampf  or ‘culture war’, a phrase that stems from the nineteenth century, but really came to life in the US in the 1990s after the publication of the sociological study Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America by James Davison Hunter. The kind of polarization between conservatives on one side and progressives on the other that Hunter described is very much akin to the one we are witnessing today, with two additional variants. Compared to 1990s there is a marked increase in the radicalization of tone and in the degradation of political discourse. The impact of social media on the above is undeniable, although as recent research has persuasively argued, social media is not to blame for Brexit and Trump.

In today’s culture war universities are, for the pro-Brexit press, ‘enemies of the people’ and hotbeds of ‘traitors’ and ‘saboteurs’, as were those senior judges who dared to argue that Brexit could not be triggered without a Westminster vote. Things came to a head recently when Chris Heaton-Harris MP, a staunch Brexit supporter, wrote to vice-chancellors demanding a list of professors lecturing on Brexit. Recent damaging headlines for universities have featured a variety of issues, including: the value for money of a degree, the tuition fees system, senior staff being overpaid, trigger warnings/safe spaces and controversies surrounding the notion of freedom of speech. To top it all up, on December 8th the National Audit Office (NAO) released a report which claimed that students are victims of ‘mis-selling’ by higher education institutions. Critics of the report have pointed out the poor methodology, limited evidence and bland recommendations, while the Times Highee Education  has rightly noted that the criticisms the report levels ‘are aimed…at universities, when universities are just operating in a system created by the government’. Universities have their shortcomings of course: gender inequalities, staff casualisation, pay-gap, the looming pension crisis, to name a few. However, one cannot but wonder why they seem to attract the ire of a wide spectrum of critics, from the populists of the Daily Mail to the accountants of the NAO. Could it be, as neuroscientist/comedy writer Dean Burnett humorously put it that:

‘Just because they rely on things like knowledge and education and analysis and expertise and study and facts and an awareness of how reality works, they think they can defy the will of some of the people at a particular point in time from over a year ago? Such arrogance! Such elitism!’

Burnett has a point which I would like to complement by noting that universities find themselves at the forefront of today’s culture war because they are inherently hostile to what has become the predominant narrative, one which seeks short term political gains (often the interests of a political party/specific individuals come before those of the whole country) by means of spreading intentional misinformation. Universities cannot ‘miss-sell’ anything because they are not financial institutions; what they ‘trade’ is something that transcends the important but partial economic perspective, they trade in the values of human rights, cosmopolitanism, cultural sensitivity, too casually denigrated as expressions of political correctness. On the contrary, it is exactly such values that constitute a powerful antidote against the risk of normalizing puerile hatred and pettiness as accepted modes of civic discourse.

Over the past year I often found myself reminiscing about the time when, as an undergraduate, I first came across the work of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin on the ‘Carnivalesque’. For Bakhtin carnivals were occasions in which the political, legal and ideological authority of both the church and state were inverted — albeit temporarily, fools became kings and kings were treated as fools. One of the kings of carnival is Falstaff, a fat, vain, boastful, and cowardly knight, immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry IV  and Verdi’s opera by the same name. I trust I am not alone in thinking that there is more than a tinge of the ‘world upside down’ in the contemporary political scene where a narcissistic Golfer in Chief is the leader of the free world and key political appointments are bestowed not on the basis of expertise (synonym of elitism in today’s rhetoric) but because of ideological affiliations. And it is certainly not accidental that science fiction TV horror series like Stranger Things are so popular, in that they present viewers with an upside world which looks exactly like our own but distorted. Behind the reassuring retro overtones and the familiar tunes from the 1980s, we are made aware that opening the gate of hell and facing the monster behind is as easy as digging a hole in the ground. As scholars of the Gothic know very well monsters are mirrors of our fears; they have always reflected the anxieties of a particular time, what makes them dangerous, I would suggest, is when they lose their exceptionality and become banal, normalised.

So, how can universities fight the perils of such normalisation and slay the monsters which threaten the core values of civilization? So far universities have spoken the language they know best. Their leaders have advocated ‘reinjecting the principles of rationality into public policy’, rightly warning of the risk that phenomena like Brexit ‘could set our economy and society back for generations to come.’ Facts are universities’ weapons of choice and, consequently, Brexiteers and Trump supporters alike have been dismissed by most academics as the proponents of romantic fantasies, nostalgic for an edulcorated vision of national identity. Unfortunately, new discoveries about the human mind have shown the limitation of reason. In fact the psychological studies discussed in this New Yorker piece even state that:

‘…providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.’

This is bad news for universities, and corroborates what I wrote in a previous post, where I argued that universities cannot expect to capture the public’s imagination by listing crude figures alone: they should be tapping instead into the more spiritual, idealistic aspects which lie behind any human endeavour. They should articulate a collective vision which puts a premium on collaboration and solidarity while rejecting exasperated competition. It might seem counterintuitive, but at times of alternative facts and fake news universities cannot expect to rely on facts and rationality alone to oppose them. They must master the emotive language that speaks to everyone’s heart; theirs must not sound like the algid pronouncements of a privileged elite, universities’ voice should be heard across all media outlets and vibrate with the passion that derives from the principle of serving no one else but the public good.

Fuelled by political turmoil in the UK and US, it has been argued that we are now living in a golden age of satire, an observation that, once again, made me think of Mikhail Bakhtin. Writing under Stalin, Bakhtin claimed that ‘every act of world history was accompanied by a laughing chorus’. Courageous comedy is an affirmation of his belief in the power of laughter to triumph over fear. The monster lurking behind the gate to the upside world won’t be slayed by facts alone, but by the corrosive effect of a laugh!

Brexit perspectives in the academy

October 25, 2017

Apparently like all university heads in the United Kingdom, I received a letter this week from Mr Chris Heaton-Harris MP, a Conservative Whip in the House of Commons and, as his own website states, a ‘fierce Eurosceptic’. In his letter, Mr Heaton-Harris asks me to supply him with the names of professors ‘who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit’. He also wants copies of any syllabus and links to online lectures ‘which relate to this area’. The letter gives no indication of why he wants this information or what he proposes to do with it.

The story of this letter has been widely disseminated over the past day or so, and it would be fair to say that he has been roundly criticised for sending it by pretty much everyone, including some who are in favour of Brexit. As a Times newspaper editorial points out, if Mr Heaton-Harris had legitimate reasons, unrelated to any desire to stifle pro-EU voices in the academy, he should have said what they were. In the absence of such details, the fierce Eurosceptic might appear to have motives to limit freedom of expression – though he himself is adamant that this is not his intention (while still not saying what is his intention). Meanwhile the UK Universities Minister, Mr Jo Johnson MP, has spoken on his behalf to suggest that he now regretted sending the letter.

Anyway, yesterday the airwaves and cyberspace were full of people expressing indignation at Mr Heaton-Harris, who, it was suggested, was practising ‘Leninism’. Actually I doubt that Vladimir Ilyich, were he to return now, would regard Mr Heaton-Harris as a soulmate, so maybe we should leave some of the more over-excited responses to his letter to one side. I suspect he was indeed up to no good, but I’m not too worried about his capacity to achieve much.

But Mr Heaton-Harris is not the only star in this particular B-movie. He was preceded by others, politicians, and newspapers, who have argued that in one way or another expressions of opinion criticising Brexit or calling for a continuing membership of the UK in the European Union are not acceptable and undermine the will of the people (which by now may be different from that expressed in June 2016, for all we know). And so while we should all calm down about the MP’s letter, we should reflect a little more about a tendency to incite a public mood of intolerance that may be showing up here. Specifically, a university must always be a safe forum for the expression of all legal views and opinions, however unpopular they may be; and this should not be put at risk either by politicians or, indeed, by groups of students. But more generally, Brexit advocates – even Brexit fanatics – must accept that their views have not become mandatory as a result of the referendum. Freedom of expression must flower, no matter what. And if that bothers you, it means that your position is probably a weak one. Work on that.

An educated vote?

August 14, 2017

Research on the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum in the United Kingdom has apparently revealed that ‘university-educated British people tend to vote consistently across the U.K. for remain’ – as areas with higher proportions of graduates voted more heavily against Brexit. The researchers have claimed that if there had been just 3 per cent more graduates, the referendum outcome would have been different.

I am, as readers of this blog know, increasingly dismayed at what the Brexit vote has done to Britain (and may yet do), but that is not the point of this post. Rather, it is the more general question about the status, if there is a particular one, of education in the political process. University constituencies – in which graduates are the voters – existed in the United Kingdom until 1950, and still exist in Ireland in Seanad Eireann (the ‘Senate’). The latter constituencies in Ireland have elected Senators of some note, including the last three Presidents of Ireland at some points in their careers.

We may believe that education equips its students with judgement and insight, and so it may seem right to give graduates some special opportunities to exercise that judgement politically. But we also believe in democracy, which requires us to value the judgement of all people equally when it comes to electoral decision-making. We have also not adopted the view – not yet, at any rate – that all citizens should receive a university education, so we should not welcome a system that implies second class status for those who are not graduates.

I guess that if a higher participation rate in higher education would have produced a different Brexit referendum outcome, then I might have wanted a higher participation rate. But I am uneasy with my own conclusion. I am reluctant to argue that those who have not enjoyed my privileges are less worthy of having their voices heard. And as we try to decide how far into the population higher education should expand, these are questions we must also address. There is no easy answer.

Brexit: come on, folks – get serious!

July 30, 2017

To really passionate supporters of Brexit – the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union – doubts about the wisdom of this decision are incomprehensible. This is clearly the right decision, and it does not of any necessity involve painful or difficult consequences. It could and should all be so easy. So we are told that Brexit is easy and that ‘tariff-free access’ to the EU’s single market isn’t hard to get if only we negotiate cleverly.

In fact we are assured by many of the great and the good (let us say, the elite establishment) that after Brexit we are all going to enjoy the ‘sunlit uplands’, an expression borrowed from Winston Churchill. So why can’t everyone (including the media) be a bit more patriotic and get with the programme? Why are we still hearing dissent and arguments and objections and reasons and pessimistic predictions? What’s wrong with these people, and why are they spoiling it for the rest of us? Daily Telegraph columnist and former editor, Charles Moore, thinks that everyone should stop complaining and follow the lead of the Brexiters: come on in, the water is fine.

Brexit was the decision of the UK electorate. I may (and do) deplore that, but as this was the decision it is of course perfectly reasonable to argue for its implementation. What is not reasonable, however, is to pretend that it doesn’t involve any problems or complications or compromises, and it is this tendency to paint a glib and wholly unrealistic picture of where we are going that keeps the objections alive. It’s not that Brexit cannot be a success (although I doubt it can be negotiated in a year or so), it’s that it will be an unimaginably complicated process that requires a high level of preparedness, a realistic outlook and impressive negotiating skills to achieve a good outcome. For a period of nearly 45 years every aspect of British public and commercial life has been integrated with the EU, and separating will be fiendishly difficult, as most of those with detailed knowledge and experience say repeatedly.

Actually Brexit supporters know all this, indeed I suspect are mesmerised by it. They are in charge of a grand project that was offered to the people without any proper analysis of what it entailed, and with facile and unrealistic promises of easy outcomes. Now it has to be delivered; and while it can be delivered, it won’t in the end be the ‘sunlit uplands’ model promised earlier. It may indeed work, but not for a while, and not without pain. So to cover their anxiety, the Brexit enthusiasts find it easier to attack remainers, or as the dafter ones amongst them insist on calling them, ‘remoaners’. The irony is that the term ‘remoaner’ is much less effective as an insult directed at remainers than as an example of a loud ‘moan’ by Brexiters – a petulant stamping of the foot.

If the move towards Brexit is to succeed, it needs to be led and conducted with a degree of seriousness and skill. My advice is to stop talking nonsense about how nice and easy it all is; in other words, stop insulting everyone’s intelligence. Stop moaning about remoaners, and start getting to grips with the issues. We still may not all like it then, but there would be a greater chance of grudging respect.

The Great Exodus

June 19, 2017

All of us in the United Kingdom, and universities specifically, are still struggling to discern what the practical implications of Brexit will be. We are not helped by the total confusion in the matter right now, with no clear consensus either in the UK government or the opposition as to what should be the desired outcome of the negotiations that began, sort of, in Brussels yesterday.

But as we wait to interpret the occasional clues thrown our way, there are some things we do know. One of these is that EU nationals who work in UK universities, unsure as to what their immigration status will be, are leaving in droves. According to the most recent report in the matter, 1,300 academics who are nationals of EU member states have left British universities in the last year, with Cambridge and Edinburgh the most seriously affected.

Universities are hosts to an international community of scholars. The United Kingdom has recklessly undermined this principle, by leaving unanswered for now the question of whether EU nationals (and indeed others) will still be welcome to work in UK higher education and by suggesting that non-British students may be subjected to tighter immigration restrictions. The excellence that is rightly claimed by British universities will, if this is not addressed very quickly, be fatally compromised. Higher education must not be part of the collateral damage of Brexit.