My first degree was in history. One of the most difficult things in learning, and teaching, history is to avoid the trap of inevitability: the belief that what happened in the past was in some way bound to happen. It’s the belief that the great turning points of history were unavoidable: that the first world war was a certain consequence of the network of early twentieth century alliances, that the America War of Independence was an unavoidable result of eighteenth century trade and geography. Because historians examine events in great detail to try to understand and explain them, it’s easy for them to ignore the fact that things could have turned out differently. Christopher Clark’s magisterial recent account of the First World War is called The Sleepwalkers – it examines the behaviour of politicians before 1914 and concludes that they stumbled into a war no-one wanted.
In the past couple of weeks there has been a strain of historical inevitability in the press explanations of Brexit: Britain was a latecomer to the European enterprise, joining in 1973 some sixteen years after the Treaty of Rome; it’s commitment to the political project was always conditional and half-hearted; the long traditions of common law rather than Roman law, even the existence of the English Channel – all this made our engagement semi-detached at best, so that separation was in some way pre-ordained.
It’s not true. Brexit is the result of a concentration of unpredictable circumstances. The long term reactions to first the recession of 2007 and then the intensification of austerity; the unforeseen result of an election in 2015 where David Cameron, in an election he did not expect to win, promised a referendum he thought he’d never have to hold, and a referendum which was, depending on your view, either stolen by dissembling or simply incredibly close. History is the result of unexpected events interacting as much as it is about long-term causation.
But Brexit has now happened and I cannot help but feel deeply saddened by the way things have turned out. I recognise that not everyone agrees with me, outside the university and inside it. For myself, I’ve always been clear that it would have been in the long-term interests of our students and the university for the UK to remain in the EU. The benefits, from Erasmus-based student mobility through to collaborative research programmes have been important. My hope, and perhaps others fears, that there might be a chance to look again in a second referendum were dashed in 2019 by a mixture of effective political guile from one side and failures of leadership on the other.
There are three tasks for us all now, and none of them are at all easy. The first is to find a way to heal divisions between remainers and leavers, which is also, so the polls tell us, a division between the old (over 65s were two to one for leaving) and the young (under 25s were three to one for staying), between the university cities (mostly for remain) and the often economically deprived towns (strongly for leaving).
The second task is to reach out to non-UK European Union citizens, our friends, neighbours and colleagues who have been appalled by the turn of events: people who made decisions about where to live and work, where to build their lives and now find themselves in a situation they never expected to be in. Whether you are a remainer or leaver, you need to be able to look at the world through their eyes.
The third task is to ensure that we articulate the values of the university – a commitment to evidence and truth-telling, to creating opportunities and building links – in this new world. The legal status of our country has changed; the university’s mission and values have not. That also won’t be easy. There’s hurt and suspicion; there’s uncertainty and doubt. The future of our formal co-operation with Europe – in the Erasmus programme which has been a driver of human exchange, in the Horizon 2020 programme which has underpinned research co-operation – remain unclear. But we need to make sure that the university speaks loud and clear for the value of learning in healing divisions and in driving opportunity. Within the next three weeks, Lord Kerslake, the university’s Chair of Governors, Natalie Day, our Head of Policy and Strategy, and I will be publishing a Higher Education Policy Institute pamphlet setting out our thoughts on how universities can lead in a post-Brexit Britain.
One of the most interesting and engaging books I have read recently is Orlando Figes’ new book, The Europeans. He uses three nineteenth century lives to show how a common European culture emerged against period’s constant change of technology, economics and politics. In his introduction, Figes says that he wants the book to “serve as a reminder of the unifying force of European civilisation, which Europe’s nations will ignore at their peril”. Perhaps that’s something we can all think hard about.