Brexit pity parties show how out of touch academia is

Frank Furedi says the mournful mood on campus and the disparagement and silencing of Leave supporters betray an isolated scholarly class

July 14, 2016
Daniel Mitchell illustration (14 July 2016)
Source: Daniel Mitchell

It is Friday and I am about to go into a seminar when I hear two colleagues yelling at each other. As it is the morning after the European Union referendum, I conclude that such a strong exchange of views is entirely understandable. When I later learn that it ended with a Remain colleague telling my pro‑Brexit friend that she did not wish to speak to her any more, I conclude that this is a singular case of frustrated overreaction.

Something strange is clearly in the air. At the end of the conference, a Dutch colleague who knows that I voted Leave calls me aside and whispers: “I agree with you on Brexit.” When I ask her why she is whispering, she gives me a knowing look, conveying that it is best to remain discreet about such unpopular thoughts in an academic environment.

By Monday, I realise that in academic circles, frustration at the referendum outcome has mutated into a collective sense of injury and emotional upheaval: a climate of quasi-mourning. Many target their anger at lying politicians, but they are also bitter towards the public for letting them down. It is as if the academy has been stabbed in the back by a section of the population that lacked the moral and intellectual resources to understand its wisdom. Some – taking politics far too personally – interpret the verdict as an attack on academic identity itself. Many allude to the criticisms of “experts” during the referendum campaign. The contestation of the authority of the expert is, of course, a permanent feature of modern life, but, in this instance, it is perceived as evidence of the power of the media to manipulate the populist masses. As one bitter commentator writes, this was the “post truth” and “post expert” referendum.

Emails circulated by university administrators reinforce the sense of collective insecurity. Scare stories about the risks facing EU students, existing financial arrangements and the standing of UK higher education are widely circulated, and always implicitly invite the response of “I told you so”. In such circumstances, there is little space for counter-argument and debate.

Even before the referendum, meetings devoted to Brexit on campuses tended to focus on the dangers it represented to higher education, rather than offering a venue for genuine debate. Many pro-Brexit colleagues felt obliged to keep quiet once university administrators took the unprecedented step of adopting a collective institutional position on a subject of political controversy. As one young, lonely lecturer wrote to me: “It was as if I awoke in an alien territory – I just wanted to hide.”

During the days after the referendum, some institutions’ administrators assume the role of censorious moral guardians. As if the university faces a national emergency, my own institution establishes a “Post-EU referendum advice and support” web page. Other institutions warn anyone against upsetting emotionally brittle members of the university. An email circulated to all staff by Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, laments the plight of EU academics in the UK: “By far the worst aspect of Brexit inside the university is the awful hurt it is giving many of my colleagues,” it reads. “This hurt comes in many parts. The first is the shock and dismay at being labelled as nastily ‘other’. A second is the dark sense of insecurity that has enveloped them.” But he does not mention the fact that members of the academy have also been in the business of “othering” the supposedly uneducated, racist Brexit voters.

The wording of post-Brexit circular emails assumes a startling level of groupthink. Such missives invariably signal the conviction that there can be only one way of interpreting the outcome of the referendum and assume that everyone is on board with the collective view. A colleague who complains about the tone and content of one such email is informed that “people are under stress”. In effect, she was silenced.

On a good day, academic social scientists can be sensitive to the mood of public opinion and can capture the complex motives that lead people to draw unexpected political conclusions. In this case, academia has embraced the caricature of Brexit voters as racists or manipulable halfwits unworthy of political engagement. For many on the receiving end of these sentiments, it feels as if, in all but name, they have been noplatformed.

In years to come, when the post-Brexit dust has settled, I will still remember a comment made to me by a social scientist the day after the Brexit verdict. Still in shock, he expressed his sense of astonishment by noting that he had “never met or talked to anyone who supported Brexit”. And that’s the nub of the problem. It seems that too many academic supporters of the Remain campaign have talked only to people like themselves. They may be “experts”, but they are certainly not public intellectuals.

Frank Furedi is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent.

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Print headline: The Brexit pity parties show that academia is an island unto itself

Reader's comments (18)

Beautifully expressed. However, why should group think and silo-ed thinking be surprising given the claustrophobia and disciplinary reductionism so pervasive in contemporary academic thinking and reseach? Instead of seeking honest assessments before and searching explanations after the vote, social media has been replete with "know it alls" calling doomsday and abusing Brexiteers as racist and dim-witted.
As a senior member of UK HE (well, about to be) I can certainly say this is incorrect. The 'two nation' (ABC1 vs C2DE socioeconomic classifications) division is there in the voting patterns - and it was widely discussed before the June vote, too. Racist, yes - I have ample evidence from my birthplace, once branded the most racist town in the UK - you may say some of this was poor judgement against immigrants who were actually less of a material threat to the country's economy than thought, but the racist sentiments are there none the less. Dim-witted, certainly not. This was a rational response to make to a government that had offered disadvantaged groups very little (and ironically in towns that receive EU support, or have little immigration, like Morecambe). The tragedy is that poor government attention to the plight of workers and the unemployed, especially outside the SE, and favoring crony capitalists and the 'A's (or the working class at least think that the Tories do this) led substantially to this particular voting outcome. Quantitative analysis and surveys of this is rolling in as we speak. Jamie Gough at Sheffield has some good answers already.
I knew perfectly well that the British working class, and the racist white variety with which I grew up, mostly voted Leave, as did elderly members of my own family. People like me were not distant from the sentiments such people espoused at all. But I tried to tell them the repercussions, and their views do not mean their decision was "right" for the country, and it certainly isn't for the universities. Any suggestions in how to restore global confidence in Kent as an institution? Ally the fears of your continental European colleagues or foreign students in the UK who have experienced harassment, or fear it? As a sociologist, you will be able to see that the social construction of Brexit worldwide is that Britain's dark side has been revealed, and that academic and other contacts with the country are all of a sudden looking remarkably less attractive. Certainly the case in Australia where I am now, and across continental Europe. For students and staff, let's be honest - freedom of movement and work across Europe was a giant draw to the UK, not just the language, history and charming landscapes. This freedom could disappear within years. Only reduced student fees for EU citizens, and a solidarity movement of European universities with the UK, is going to save things now for UK HE. I am not in retirement, so I have still have to deal with this appalling outcome.
It's a shame that Brexiters are now suggesting that the academy is out of touch. Even in respect of numbers this is false given the 48% voting to remain, more so when we take into account the views of those who voted leave but regretted it. One of the problems of blaming academics as 'out of touch' or 'ivory tower' experts is the taken-for-granted assumption that experts (in a range of subject areas) must somehow be elitist and distant or removed from others. This would, taken to its logical conclusion, suggest that those other 'experts' who are skilled at creating goods, art, food and so on must also be removed from wider society. We academics are expert in our subject areas and understand the overt threats that the leave vote has for higher edcuation in Britain and our research and the more nuanced situation we now face. We should not bow to the populist pressure to clothe ourselves with the mantle of mediocrity but should assert our public intellectual credentials speaking unpopular truths based on our knowledge, research and, dare I say it, expertise!
A strangely post-factual piece. Furedi deplores the fact that most academics deplore Brexit but offers no reasons why they should celebrate it. Academics are not out of touch: we are in daily touch with our colleagues across Europe and the wider world, and this is where we want to remain. When our relationship with the EU is radically called into question, so is our capacity to collaborate with our colleagues throughout the EU. So Brexit threatens something of enormous value. What precisely does it offer us in return? And if it offers nothing but threatens to take a great deal, why precisely should we celebrate it? The only reason for accepting Brexit offered by Furedi is that people outside universities prefer it. Is it a wonder that Leavers lack the courage to speak up in the academy if they are as devoid of arguments as this? The idea (now widely disseminated) that the huge minority which opposes leaving must be silenced by the tiny majority which prefers it is not democracy: it's the tyranny of the majority (if indeed it still is a majority).
Here is why we celebrate Brexit. It is anti racist. That means that Europeans with low skills or no skills at all are not looked upon as being better than other races and nations. So that is one false idea about people who voted to leave properly dealt with. That means that those who wanted to remain are indeed the true racists as it appears they have no insight to the consequences of E.U. laws concerning free movement of European people on other nations and races. The next concerning point is that academia appears to have absolutely no insight to the wider consequences of those E.U. rules. The hugely clear consequence is, they certainly did not anticipate a win for Leaving the E.U. So where does this leave us when considering the intellect of the academics who wanted to Remain. Ignorance plays its part. Ignorance of life outside the university and ignorance of the needs and aspirations of local people on the doorstep of the university. This ignorance of local peoples needs and aspirations cannot continue. Not once has this academic group bothered to self assess themselves. Far from it they have justified their entrenched and very backward thinking, both about people living immediately around them in their local areas, and by placing a remote undemocratic bureaucratic institution ahead of those people. This ignorance is their achilles heel. Clearly more needs to be done to ensure that academics are accountable to local people in the vicinity of a university.
It is hilarious to see the remain commentators here (and elsewhere) apoplectic because other people hold a different view and ticked a different box on the ballot paper. It is how democracy works. Deal with it. Furedi's article is wonderfully accurate. Thank you. Probabilistically, many academics voted for Brexit. I did. Many did too. What is more, the probability is that 52% of people who voted to leave come from a variety of ages, social classes, professions and so on. That includes academics. No one has any valid evidence that majority of academics voted to remain therefore will shouty remainers stop announcing that they speak on behalf of other academics without wheeling out a meagre survey with more methodological holes and less sampling validity than fishnet tights. Academics will not admit to having voted to leave the EU because they will be accosted by loud-mouthed pontificating remainers like the ones we see hear responding to Furedi's article. They froth at the mouth but they should show some decorum and accept that the referendum was democratic. Brexit won. Deal with it. There will no doubt be further comments from remainers egging one on to respond to their pity party by decrying words like racist, pleb and so on. It is beyond the pale. Remainers, 1. Do you know what the EU does to non-European students and migrant workers? Pre-Brexit UK shuts overseas students out unless they are very, very rich (see the visa criteria). You can’t migrate to the UK to study or work unless you are an oil mogul’s kid or essentially a white EU citizen. You might be the most highly skilled non-EU job applicant but, sorry, if you’re not EU white go take your competitiveness as a migrant worker elsewhere. We should have a points system in which anyone, regardless of what country they come from, has an equal chance of coming to the UK. The EU is a ridiculous way of shutting out Asians, Africans, North Americans and people from the rest of the world. “EU freedom of movement” is good for shouty remainers carousing to France for their crates of wine and brie but it is a travesty to people excluded from the EU. 2. Do you know what the EU does to farmers outside the EU? The EU is a trade engine whose tariffs and protectionist measures crush farmers and manufacturers in developing countries so that they sell at a loss or forget selling to the EU. The EU won’t pay a fair market price because it can get away with it muscling the poor to take whatever trade deal the EU offers. 3. Do you know what the EU does to UK workers? It raises unemployment and pushes down wages. That is a fact. It is appalling when UK companies took to advertising jobs in the EU and not in the UK, barring UK workers from applying. One can go on and on about the UK’s right to sovereign law-making and so forth but I suspect that the apoplectic remainers are too far gone up their * to listen to anything that anyone has to say unless they are sheep agreeing with them.
Show me that a right wing Conservative government will address any of these points. May's previous record on non-EU immigration speaks for itself, and especially on allowing international students to remain. UK businesses also play hardball with African farmers (in particular) - I work with them. Point three, even if true, is not the EU's fault, but decisions but British businesspeople.
I 've read your post, scratched the surface, and found the void beneath. Are you sure you are what you claim to be?? or perhaps just an opportunist having a rant. For the record this is the first time I've had to disagree with Furedi; and I remain genuinely surprised he took the vote he did. There are no experts in the consequences of the outcome of this referendum since nobody has an earthly idea what will happen next. The certainty of the uncertainty is the very real problem with Brexit. Be ready to have to deal with some asymmetric shocks because politicians may have to face up to their assumed certainty of how easy it will be to build relationships with those they have estranged; both now and in the past. Of course Europe and the rest of the World will be considered unfair, unreasonable, and bloody minded when/if outcomes go against us. There will be an element of making things up as we go along and strong leadership will be called for. Morgan going and Greening arriving does little to compensate for Johnson being made Foreign Secretary ... any administration capable of making that appointment loses the right to be taken seriously. So make the most of the good moods that currently abound, they are unlikely to last.
How on earth can you claim that being with the 48% as opposed to the 52% is 'out of touch'? This is nonsense. Anyway even if it were true, shouldn't academics be apart from the mainstream? Absurd also to claim that Brexiters who dominated the press with continuous hate speech have been 'noplatformed'. Typical of the stuff from the Spiked cult it avoids addressing any of the key issues around leaving the EU and the far-right capture of the political sphere, which they misconstrue as some kind of popular uprising.
Apologies ... my reply was meant for Stuart Mill. I must have pressed the wrong button.
I'm an academic who tends to move in non-academic circles, and people I know who do anything from delivering new cars to supervising major infrastructure projects to broadcasting to gardening to farming and more all voted to remain in the EU. One reason for so doing was that people like Le Pen, Farage, Gove wanted us out. Others were the prospect of reforming it from within. The Outers campaigned on the kinds of lies guaranteed to woo the disaffected and uneducated, and the whole campaign, concerning an issue probably as constitutionally significant as the War of American Independence, was conducted very shabbily. Cameron didn't need to call a referendum. He could have invited his 30 or so maverick tory MPs to join UKIP and face by-elections. The terms of the referendum were hardly scrupulous. We could be leaving the EU on a turn-out of 20%. Thanks in part to the EEC, then the EU, we've had no major wars in Europe since 1945. The EU can offer an exciting, internationalist future. Of course, since we're English and, therefore, shopkeepers, it's assessed only in terms of relative material benefit. The idea of cultural exchange is never relevant. Universities will suffer when EU funding vanishes, and their international status inevitably decline as the subsequent brain drain takes its toll. Probably we don't care. Leavers appear to be conspicuously boorish in their railing against we Europeans: intolerant, lacking humour and understanding, hardly British in fact. I have just re-read 'Classic's' post, and find it soviet in its brutality. And Furedi constructs his argument (such as it is) on a fallacy. Many academic voted to stay in. So did the Scots, Londoners, the people of Moseley and Small Heath. The Cornish, who voted out, believed the lie that Westminster would make up the £65 million per annum they receive from Brussels. Had the campaign been conducted with any honesty, dignity or integrity we would indeed be accepting that we lost and getting used to it (why DO the leavers constantly enjoin us to do this - are they being controlled by Farage Central?). But it wasn't.
on Facebook pages like Get Britain Out there was a constant stream of racist and illiterate drivel from people who often prefaced what they said with 'everyone I know is voting out'. These people were not working class, or not necessarily. Frank Furedi, in line with the Spiked online crowd, wants to see brexit as a working-class revolt, when it wasn't. Look at where the leavers were in the majority - plenty of middle class or lower middle class or older comfortable people. the vote split the nation down the middle and cut across all the usual social divisions. People voted on the basis of what they believed, and many sadly believed that the Uk would be better off if the foreigners were thrown out so we can get back to a whiter, greater Britain. The irony is that if we get rid of 3 million Eu citizens most of whom are christians, the proportion of the Uk population that is Muslim will increase. Then what will the vote leave people say?
I think part of the reason is that the people whom Furedi complains about have just suffered an enormous hit to their influence and prestige. For years they have presented themselves as keepers of the public morals, from whose views it would be not only incorrect but deeply wrong to differ from. Now we know that 52% of the population doesn't care any more: the emperor really doesn't have any clothes. Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth. Unpleasant for those of us who entered academia with the idea that we might want to develop our own ideas on things and not be tied down to a fixed agenda: I certainly identify with the picture Furedi paints of beleaguered non-conformists in Universities and have bitten my tongue so often over the last few years that I'm not sure if it functions properly any more. One last thing: I voted Remain (on conscience, not because I take orders from colleagues) and I'm still furious about this behaviour. Some of the replies above come across as almost irreparably bigoted.
Your last sentence is, unfortunately, as good an example of a non sequitur as I've ever read. What exactley is the purpose of your post??
The very sad thing about these lexit arguments is that they are put forward by people who I thought of highly before -- exactly because they usually argued against the grain and were happy to take up outsider positions. Now that they are in the honorable company of Farage and Gove, they are proud to think 'like the majority' and rage against those who regret that populism, demagogy and short-sightedness have seriously damaged citizen rights and deliberation in this country and in Europe. It is a bit silly when someone who is, on average, on permanent contracts earning about twice or even more the average UK salary, who commonly has comfortable mortgages (or already paid off ones like I assume it is the case of Professor Furedi) relatively secure pensions funds and privileged access to education that can compensate for the dire state of non-paying schools, when such people want to claim that they are close to the working class English (the white, male working class English to be precise, as coloured and women working class voted remain). This appears highly defensive. Wouldn't it be better if br/lexiters would simply admit that they have seriously damaged not only their own reputation but also their relation to the rest of Europe, and that they, just like all Brexiters, are utterly unaware of the consequences of their folly? If we only talk about the circle of people mentioned here - academics - then there are at least three ways Brexit has done enormous damage: 1. A large number of academics in the UK are EU nationals; voting for leave has put their academic and personal future at risk and has shown massive disrespect for them as colleagues and as citizens (note that no lexit argument about the democratic value of voting leave has ever talked about the local voting rights EU nationals enjoy in the UK). 2. Leave vote has strengthened the conservative wing of the conservative party and the extreme right party spectrum in the UK and Europe -- all of them are known to be no friends of universities, academia or academic freedom. The current massive destruction of universities as public institutions providing education and knowledge will accelerate (to be fair, this is nothing emeriti professors have to care about). 3. This will be aggravated by the massive funding cuts that awaits British universities du the falling away of EU funding and European partnerships. Well done.
Oh come on professor Furedi, you can't seriously be suggesting that academics aren't real people, that they never go to the pub, stand in bus queues, shop at Lidl's and go to the footie on Saturdays. Maybe they've held down two jobs outside the academy while tutoring in a university department and studying for their doctorate. I did and I know many others that did. And and we all heard the views of the leavers long before that term existed and long before a referendum called because of political expediency created the conditions for the divisions we have now in society. Maybe if he got out more and highlighted the real reasons for the hopelessness many people who voted leave feel, we'd now be facing four years under a social democratic administration and not more of the toxic Tory tosh we've had since 2010.
Furedi's politics are well known, through the Spiked contributions and the ex RCP - his article should be seen in this light. I would not be surprised if we hear more along the lines of 'the risk from Brexit has been overestimated' . The last month suggest it has been underestimated, however.

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