“What’” goes the question “has happened to your government?” I was asked this in Australia six weeks ago, then later in Hong Kong, and again in Germany, where I was part of an international panel undertaking a university evaluation for the German government’s research funding programme. Over the course of several evenings, once the work was done, my colleagues asked me to explain to them what Brexit had done to the United Kingdom’s political process. I’m not sure I did a very good job of explaining.
Several things struck me: first, and especially in Europe, a sense of confusion about what was happening – albeit that sense of confusion seems to stretch into the House of Commons – and second, just how well informed people were. They knew the names of even relatively minor politicians, and, mostly, they understood the positions these politicians took on Brexit. I realised that the world is watching.
No matter which way you voted in the 2016 European Union referendum, in the years since we have seen a catastrophic failure of politics, diplomacy and statecraft. In recent weeks, as parliamentary vote has followed parliamentary vote, it has proved ever more difficult to explain the nuance to my international colleagues.
In fact, it is parliamentary procedures that have failed us. In a parliamentary democracy, weak governments are kept focused by effective opposition, but the official opposition has been woefully ineffective – with high profile resignations and outspoken backbench MPs often proving more challenging to the status quo. All this in a country which describes itself as a model parliamentary democracy. With the official Brexit date deferred, our future remains desperately unclear.
Beyond the minutiae of the arguments between the political elite, in both the UK and the EU, about the backstop, hard borders, tariff-free trade and the like, one thing the entire Brexit process has exposed is the inadequacies of the UK’s political structures to deal with profound fractures in our society. There is a stark contrast between the still-prosperous south-east and the left-behind provinces; between the views of the world in the Westminster bubble and the quite different approaches in devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and mayoral authorities including Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield; not simply between but within the Conservative and Labour parties, each of which has essentially ceased to function.
A divided society
Brexit has thrown into stark relief deep divisions about political authority, cultural diversity, economic priorities and views of the world. There are always disagreements about politics and policy, but look into any of the debates about Brexit and you find something deeply disturbing: not vigorous disagreement but raw hatred; not diversity of view but bare fury; not energetic exchanges but malevolent venom, all amplified in the echo chambers of social media.
This is a profound challenge for universities on so many levels. At the most basic, university staff and students overwhelmingly backed the losing side in the referendum. Even if the Brexit process had been smoothly managed, we would now, in higher education, be trying to adapt to a decision which fundamentally goes against the mission and culture of our sector.
In a vacuum of advice and guidance from the government on how universities should prepare for Brexit, Universities UK has masterfully filled this void. The UK government has indicated that it would like to continue to participate in EU programmes of research, but with no agreement on the future relationship, that participation cannot be assumed. The longer-term future for programmes of staff and student mobility cannot be taken for granted. I wish it were otherwise.
As a citizen and as a vice-chancellor, I am profoundly disturbed by Brexit. Challenging though the prospect of Brexit itself is, perturbing though the political chaos of the past weeks is, the real challenges are deeper ones. Leading a university in a divided society in which many seem to have contempt for views at odds with their own will make new demands on all of us. Whatever happens next, there is a huge amount to be fixed, and fixing it is going to take enormous collective effort. Universities need to do more to articulate the benefits of international cooperation; not simply building and sustaining international networks, but explaining and carrying their benefits to the unconvinced. Everything about the last three years of noisy political argument tells me that that is going to be hard work.