Sunday, 26 June 2016

Lighting a Candle

For most of June I've been travelling. I went up to Birmingham for the ARMA Conference, and then spent a week in Ghent with my team on an Erasmus+ exchange with colleagues at the University there. Finally, I was at the EARMA Conference in Lulea in Sweden last week.

And those three weeks brought home to me what a wonderful continent Europe is. From the vibrant, multi-cultural metropolis of Birmingham, to the cosmopolitan, relaxed and historic centre of Ghent, to the natural wonder of Lulea and the glittering archipelago of Stockholm: it is a diverse, open and inclusive continent, rich in history, but forward looking. 

Now you will have noticed that I included Birmingham as a natural part of Europe. Because to me it is: the UK is a part of Europe. Whilst the Channel is a geographic boundary, in all other ways the UK is strongly linked with the mainland. Economically, historically, culturally, environmentally, scientifically: on every level we are Europe. 

Which is why the Referendum result on Friday morning felt like a body blow. The messages, like telegrams, came in as I was driving back from Gatwick, from Stockholm, in the early hours, and the darkness that surrounded me felt foreboding.

Voting to leave, to distance ourselves, from Europe is a retrograde step. At a time of globalisation when huge issues and huge threats face us all, from climate change to immigration, isolation is not an option. Britain has always been an outward looking nation, and its past success was built on collaborations and alliances, not on standing alone. As the LSE Blog said, the view of 'Britain alone' is a myth

I am, of course, concerned about the effect on the lack of access UK universities will have to European research funding. I was speaking to people in Brussels who felt that the EU would be 'unlikely' to allow any kind of special dispensation for UK universities to apply to H2020. If they do, other countries would see an exit from the EU as a workable way forward. Instead, universities will lose anything from 10% to 90% of their research income. The Times Higher has produced a list of those who will be most affected

But more than that it feels like an existential threat. When I took my team on the Erasmus+ exchange to Ghent, we stopped off in Brussels. We visited the Parlamentarium, the visitors' centre for the European Parliament. Now most museums are about conflict, about wars won or lost, about suffering and struggle. The Parlamentarium is different.  It celebrates bureaucrats and slow, painful negotiation. It highlights what a huge achievement the EU is, and how, from the ashes of two world conflicts, optimism built a new way forward. 

And what a way forward! In a continent riven and fractured for millennia by war and distrust, the EU has managed to provide six decades of peace and prosperity. It is a stunning achievement, and the Nobel Foundation was entirely justified in giving the EU the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. The fallacy of the Leave campaign was taking this peace and prosperity for granted, and assuming that, by separating, the UK will somehow have even more of both. In fact, the very opposite might well be true.

What frustrates me more than the decision itself was the nature of the campaign, and the fact that the final vote was, for many, based on impressions and feelings rather than facts and reality. Prof Michael Dougan of the University of Liverpool, a man who has been doing research on and lecturing about the European Union for the past 20 years, produced a refreshingly clear overview of the latter. But such 'experts' were dismissed by Michael Gove and others in the campaign, encouraging people to trust their instincts. 

As a result you have the situation such as in Cornwall and Wales where the contribution of the EU to the regions was ignored in favour of phantom 'immigrants' and payments to Brussels. 'Are there any immigrants in Ebbw Vale?' asks the Guardian. 'No,' replies a resident. 'Hardly any. And the ones there are are all working, all contributing. It's just...illogical. I just don't think people looked at the facts at all.'

I appreciate that, for many, the Referendum was the chance to send a message. Those who felt hard hit by the recession, who saw a faceless political and business elite getting away with it, who felt voiceless, had the opportunity to protest. And how. But my worry is that they have chosen to protest about the wrong thing. The EU has been benefiting the 'real, normal, decent' people that Farage talked about on Friday morning. It is leaving the one organisation that can have a wider overview, and hold national governments to account of behalf of their people.

And, in particular, it will harm the generation that is just beginning to come of age. Much has been made about the fact that it is the older generation that dominated the Leave campaign, like the last hurrah of the Baby Boomers as they pulled up the ladder on their golden age. Children such as mine, doing their A levels and GCSEs, and dreaming of travel, study and work abroad, are about to have it made much harder and much more expensive.

As I say, I felt a body blow on Friday. I felt bewildered and vaguely sick. It felt as if the country was sleepwalking into a situation that will be its undoing, and there was little I could do about it. The words of the UK's first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, came to mind, amid celebrations by the people at the start of the War of Jenkin's Ear.  'They are ringing their bells now, they will be wringing their hands soon.'

After the shock, I knew I had to do something, do anything, to face this sense of powerlessness. To use the hackneyed old cliche, I felt I had to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. I was thankful that my employer, the University of Kent, reinforced its commitment to be the UK's European university, and to host and support both staff and students from wherever in Europe or the world they originate. I signed the petition seeking a second referendum, and one encouraging parliament to reject the 'advisory' referendum for the future long-term welfare of the people. I wrote to my MP asking that he back David Lammy's intention to do just that. I even joined the Labour Party to play a part in trying to offer an effective opposition at a time when we desperately need one.

I recognise that these are gestures, and yes: they may be futile. But they are necessary and important at a time when gestures are all we have, and we are in desperate need of hope. Realistically I think it will be for that future generation, the slighted, benighted and ignored generation, to go to the EU in two decades time and try and seek reentry. I hope we won't have to wait that long, but I'm realistic, and I know the chances, even then, will be slim. In the meantime we should do all we can to try and stop the cataclysm. We should all make the gestures, light those candles and hope beyond hope.


  1. I agree... totally agree. Have cut-and-pasted your letter to the MP and will send after adding a bit of my own. It enables the sense of powerless, as if strange hands came in the night and shved my house into another place entirely, where people live who I can't relate to much, where old lessons are not learned, where paint is peeling off the window-frames to reveal older, still-disliked colours. So candles in the darkness matter and the more candles, the brighter it gets. Well said, Phil Ward. From BanAnna.