Taking a Leave of our senses in the EU referendum

Image: IKON

I’m calling it for Brexit. That is not a preference; it is a prediction. With 10 days to go before the UK’s referendum on EU membership, it is hard to see where the votes for the Remain campaign are going to come from. The opinion polls have been thoroughly inconclusive swinging between a 10% lead for Remain to suggesting a 10% victory for Leave. The 15% of don’t-knows could still be decisive.

However, in the last week, five out of seven polls have pointed to a victory for the Outers. In their defence, the psephologists say that the referendum is a unique event for which they lack predictive models or long-term data. At this point the referendum result feels a bit like Schrodinger’s Cat, it is certainly in the box, but no one knows if it’s alive or dead. In the absence of convincing information from the polls, and appreciating that, as the Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman famously said of his industry, ‘no one knows anything’, then we can but take the temperature of the nation.

For those of us who work in and around universities, we might find ourselves surrounded on a daily basis by a preponderance of those wishing to remain. The EU is a good thing for British universities, they take £1 in every seven spent on research by the commission, and it provides for the free movement of labour and students. Equally, university types are more likely to be comfortable with levels of immigration to the UK and more familiar with the overwhelming economic case for Remain. However, with this, as with so much else, higher education folk are a breed apart. Out in what some people without PhDs insist on calling ‘the real world’ things are very different.

This is not a Westminster election to be decided by slender swings in marginal constituencies. This is a pure numbers game, and the votes just do not look to be there for Remain. A clear majority of Conservative voters favour Leave, while 20% of those who identify as Labour voters also express a preference for exit. London might substantially vote to Remain, but there will be plenty of shy Brexiteers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Then there is the motivation of both sides, with committed shOuters much more likely to take their green crayons to the polling station on June 23rd than the part bemused, part bored floating voter. And both Nicola Sturgeon in 2014 and Ed Miliband in 2015 learned the hard way that likes and tweets in social media do not necessarily materialise as young voters on polling day.

How did it come to this? The Leave campaign resembles the Slytherin common room, occupied by a cast of the most unappealing figures in British public life (Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Katie Hopkins, and egged on by Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen). Even Jeremy Clarkson has distanced himself from such a troop, calling the EU ‘a liberal, kind, balanced fulcrum in a mad world’. Having no serious economic argument to make other than the bizarre fantasy of unilateral free trade, the argument to Leave has become an unrelenting attack on immigrants and appeal to a long since passed idea of Britishness that would make an Ulster Unionist blush.

And yet, here we are on the brink of an extraordinary act of national self-harm that risks at best short-term recession and at worst the long-term break-up of the United Kingdom. There will be time to pick over the causes after June 23. Some will blame the hubris of David Cameron as a lucky Prime Minister who gambled with the nation’s patience one too many times. Some will apportion blame to the calculating incompetence of George Osborne, who provided the malcontent right of the Conservative party with the opportunity to knife the Notting Hill leadership. They will quite rightly be considered the authors of their own misfortune.

Others will question the anaemic performance of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, who might be held hostage by the Parliamentary Labour Party over Europe but who at best are lukewarm for Remain. Perhaps, when it’s all over, they will organise an online petition to protest the result. Nicola Sturgeon has been equally conspicuous by her absence. Assuming that she does not have much work to do to convince the Scottish electorate to vote for a wider union of nations, she is busy dusting down the Saltires for a post-Brexit push on another Scottish independence vote. On their own Eddie Izzard and Benedict Cumberbatch have failed to offer a convincing account of Britain’s macroeconomic prospects and the case for global security.

When the British civil service went into Purdah on May 27, the Remain campaign lost their most effective advocates. Others will reflect with some justification that a victory for Leave is the inevitable result of two decades of consecutive governments disingenuously identifying migration as the cause rather than the effect of their own preference for a low wage economy and an insistence on increased capitalisation rather than taxation.

However, the questions remain what would an exit look like and what would it mean for universities? Firstly, a victory for Leave would result in what is tantamount to a coup by right-wing ultras at Westminster. It is hard to imagine David Cameron attempting to hang on as Prime Minister with the majority of his MPs either wanting revenge for the bloody referendum campaign or viewing him as tainted goods lacking all authority. More reliable polling amongst Conservative members of parliament, who would decide the two candidates for leader to be put in front of the full party membership, places Michael Gove as the favourite with Boris Johnson (who lacks Westminster allies) as fourth. The UK government would lurch further to the right without any popular mandate.

It is presently the government’s intention to push through the second reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill before the summer recess. It is unlikely that big brother Boris would want to kill off little Jo’s bill, especially when its market intentions are in accord with the instincts of the Tory outers but after Brexit delays to legislative procedures may prove unavoidable.

As a Conservative majority government reassembled itself around the desires of the Eurosceptic right, there would be a cabinet reshuffle and the rewriting of policy priorities. Mark Carney would not last long at the Bank of England, and other Europhile mandarins might also find themselves sidelined, especially at the Treasury. The next Prime Minister having been decided by just 100,000 or so Conservative Party members, the divisions within government would be visceral, and the legitimacy of any legislative programme would constantly be questioned by the media and opposition.

Parliament would be asked to approve a Brexit the majority of its MPs disagreed with, and a timetable would have to be laid out for the separation of everything from territorial waters to banking regulations. To think that such a rendering could be achieved by 2018 is heroically optimistic. To put that in context, the government currently thinks that it can just about move from HEFCE to the OfS and UKRI for April 2018; most in higher education think this architectural upheaval on its own is a big ask. It is much more likely that divorce negotiations would take us up until 2020 when another election is due. Surely, the current opposition parties would make re-joining the European Union a manifesto commitment and probably without another promise of a plebiscite. The general election would then become a re-run of the 2016 referendum.

In the meanwhile the civil service would be making preparations for the only practical option for a post-Brexit UK, to adopt membership of the European Economic Area as part of the European Free Trade Association, along with Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Membership of the EFTA allows access to the EU’s single market (at a price) and requires freedom of movement and employment within the whole of the EU. It would be the sensible halfway house between full EU membership and the fantasy of re-establishing the East India Company in Raffle’s Hotel Singapore. For example, all members with the exception of Liechtenstein (by choice) are entitled to participate in Horizon 2020 funding. It would do nothing to address levels of immigration from EU countries.

The reality of the United Kingdom outside of any global trade block would be a mix between a low taxation tiger economy driven by cheap labour and an offshore tax haven for oligarchs who did not want to winter in the Cayman Islands. The idea that a future Slytherin cabinet would repatriate our contribution to the EU as public spending on education and hospitals, shall we say, flexes credibility. All of this would take some time to play out, and it is not beyond Whitehall and Brussels to engineer a procedural block or require a supplementary vote in parliament. Brexit would not be the end of the conversation; it would only be the beginning.

Labour have the 2020 election to lose in fine style before they can begin again to be taken seriously as a party of government, let alone provide leadership on a return to Europe. However, by 2025 the UK might be in a position to consider rejoining the EU, with Brexit having lasted only five years. The worst effects may be mitigated by membership of the EFTA, but enough time will have passed for the silent majority that decides Westminster elections to have realised what a terrible error it all was.

The chaos created in the intervening years by the gravitational pull of the right wing of the Conservative Party and their UKIP allies will be the legacy of the Cameron and Osborne governments. It is unlikely to be an environment in which our universities will flourish.

Conventional wisdom says that the last days of a referendum campaign usually see a swing back to the status quo, but equally EU referenda tend to go badly for incumbent governments. However, even if Remain scrape over the line enough damage will have been done to embolden the cause of Euroscepticism and his parliamentary colleagues may choose to remove Mr Cameron regardless. Readers might think that all of this is on the furthest shores of the wonkiest imagination. However, anyone smart enough to be picking up the winnings from their Jeremy Corbyn-Leicester City-Donald Trump accumulator will know that contemplating British universities without Europe is like imagining a country that has taken Leave of its senses.

1 thoughts on “Taking a Leave of our senses in the EU referendum”

  1. David Cairns says:

    Interesting, but too optimistic and one dimensional

    I liked this piece. I like its optimism that after a monumental mistake like Brexit, there would be a UK to seek a second chance membership of the EU and that there would be an EU quite like the present EU to rejoin, and that the UK will be able to muddle through somehow. But Martin, I think you need to pull back and broaden your Focus

    On the UK being around as such in the 2020s, if there is a Brexit vote I take the possibility of a second Scottish referendum seriously. The break up of the present United Kingdom is not impossible, therefore, but short of that, after a Brexit vote that would be dominated by English insecurities (to be kind) there would changes in relations between Scotland, Northern Ireland and Westminster that are difficult to predict.

    On the EU in the mid-2020s, about a month ago I saw a BBC News piece with Anthony Beevor and a former British field commander in Afghanistan. They were arguing about the likelihood of an EU Army being forced on the UK. Setting aside for a moment the point being debated, in a telling aside Beevor pointed out that after a vote for Brexit we should not assume that our former EU partners would react with the equanimity that Leavers seem to take for granted, so that negotiations would be ‘difficult’ and the EU itself would change following a Brexit.

    That seems highly likely to me. Already in debates within the higher education communities across Europe, there is indignation and dismay that having adapted (at some cost) to the structures of the Bologna processes, thinking for which was led in its early days by the persuasive diplomacy of people like Peter Williams (former QAA CEO), the UK might leave the EU. After a Brexit vote, I am confident that attitudes would harden. The remaining EU governments would not find it politically expedient to encourage cooperation with the UK in higher education research and policy and the UK (other than Scotland, perhaps) would no longer seem to young people from inside the remaining EU, or further afield, to be a good or welcoming place to study. And the EU itself would change, more-or-less rapidly as member governments changed and took stock of a new reality. The loss of the UK as a partial counterweight to Germany in EU policy debates would make the positions of those member states that would not be inclined to follow Germany less sustainable, and policy directions less comfortable for those opposed to tighter regulation..

    So if there is an EU in the mid 2020s it won’t be the EU it is now and any entry terms for whatever remains domestically of the UK after a Brexit vote won’t be anything like as easy to live with as those the Prime Minister recently secured. In the event of a Brexit vote Martin’s muddle-through scenario is optimistic. Too optimistic. Sorry, Martin

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