Brave new world?

The election results are in. The political gridlock of the last three years – to which we had all become accustomed – is over. The outcome is, if nothing else decisive. It’s far more decisive than I had hinted as a prediction in my blog just after the election was called. We now have not just a majority Conservative government but a Conservative government with a large majority. Opposition, at least in England has been routed: Labour returning its worst result since 1935, the Liberal Democrats even weaker than in the last Parliament, and the courageous political defectors from both parties have all failed in their bids for re-election. North of the border, the Scottish National Party has been strengthened, but in a United Kingdom parliament where the strength of the Conservative Party gives them no leverage at all. Given the divisions and arguments of the last three years, this is one of the most decisive elections of the modern era.

Some of the university’s employees and students will be delighted. Some will be at the very least disappointed, and yet others may be something more than disappointed. As Vice-Chancellor of the university, I am keenly aware that our non-UK EU students and staff will be feeling particularly apprehensive: the outcome of the referendum in 2016 was a devastating blow to them, and the outcome of the election extinguishes any hope that Brexit will be averted. The United Kingdom will leave the European Union on January 31 2020. For me, a deeply committed pro-European, those are painful words to write. For some of our colleagues, they are beyond painful.

The Conservative Party won the election on a clearly expressed slogan – ‘Get Brexit Done- – but with a manifesto which was extraordinarily light on policy detail. It’s not by any means clear what their programme for government beyond 31 January will look like. That is partly a reflection of reality. Whilst the UK may juridically leave on 31 January 2020, what Brexit ‘means’ is something which will be worked out in complex detail through trade and other negotiations in the months and indeed years which follow. It may still be that there is a good deal to play for in terms of our future relationship as a neighbour rather than member of the European Union.

But the lack of policy detail reflects some other things too. It reflects the approach of Boris Johnson, a leader who has with some skill presented himself as all things to all people: now a liberal internationalist, now a cultural conservative, now a globalist free trader, now a protectionist nationalist. It made him a formidable, if slippery campaigner. And the Conservative majority has been won by drawing together a fragile coalition. Our political landscape has fundamentally changed -there are Conservative MPs for Woking but also for Workington and Worksop: for the affluent south and the impoverished north, for those who instinctively look to the party to be the champion of the small state and for those who look to government to spend and invest.   That will be a difficult coalition to hold together, even with a majority of 80.

One theme of both the 2017 and 2019 elections was the way that university cities voted differently from the rest of the nation. Labour and the Liberal Democrats often expanded their vote in socially liberal, relatively affluent and culturally diverse cities where universities play a significant role. This university has been explicit about its commitment to social regeneration, through our teaching and our research, to making a difference to the real problems faced by real communities, and to creating opportunities. At times of change and challenge, a good deal depends on universities, and Hallam will not shirk that. In the absence of detailed policy from the new government, our role can be to actively help inform and shape it. A major task over the next few months will be to ensure we can understand the new government’s priorities and find ways to work constructively together.

The election has brought clarity to the political landscape; clarity in policy is yet to emerge. This is a university of opportunity and quality, of place and reach, above all a university of ambition. The politics may have changed; our mission has not.

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