By Fraser Raeburn |
I often joke about living in an echo chamber on social media even though it isn’t strictly true – there’s always a few Tories, unreconstructed Stalinists and Christian fundamentalists to make sure that my plethora of vaguely centre-left friends and their opinions don’t lull me into a false sense of intellectual consensus.
For once, though, the echo chamber is near perfect – not on Facebook, where the Tories are looking smug about their offshore accounts, the Christians are praying and the Stalinists are sensing their long-awaited moment to pounce when the world’s institutions are at their weakest. It’s on Twitter, where I follow ‘work’ people – historians, academic and otherwise. Never have I seen such unanimous consensus: what has just happened is a disaster for UK higher education.
More qualified people than me will make these points in more detail – the extent that UK universities rely on EU funding, the contribution that EU staff and students make to our institutions, and the opportunities that being an EU citizen provides, from the Erasmus programme, to job opportunities across 28 countries, to the connections and exchanges that take place so easily and so fruitfully. Leaving is not going to be pleasant for the UK’s most interconnected, global industry and I don’t envy university leaders’ their task of finding a way through this.
More to the point though, I see the seeds of what just happened in this same echo chamber. For people like me, and academics in general, the benefits of the EU are tangible – grants, jobs, personal mobility, you name it. For us, the EU was never an abstract concept: it was a concrete presence in our lives, generally for the better. In fact, the EU was designed to benefit us explicitly – well-educated, (mostly) progressive, intellectual types who were given these extra opportunities. It was for us that the benefits of the EU system were the most apparent, and distributed to the most unevenly. For most, however, the EU’s benefits were much more difficult to appreciate, coming in the form of extra rights, the absence of conflict or broad, macro interventions. How much of a depressed area regional grant does a manufacturing worker see? Where are the tangible, personal benefits so obvious and important to people like me, the seemingly reckless abandonment of which are the reason that so many of us are screaming into the abyss of social media today? Maybe we’re not actually more perceptive, maybe we just received our rewards on a platter, neatly wrapped, addressed and with a bow on top.
What’s more, we seem to have lost our ability to convince people of such abstract benefits. The break down in trust between those in the ivory tower and the ‘real world’ has never been worse, even as we make increasing efforts to bridge it via ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’. This tendency is reflected in the way the British people responded to people like us – the ‘experts’. It is painfully clear that the disconnect in experiences between those for whom systems like the EU are designed to benefit, and those for whom the benefits are more distant and abstract has meant that both sides of this debate were never able to communicate with each other. Michael Gove’s glib comment about how sick people are of experts has struck a chord – even when, as today’s run on the pound and accompanying economic damage make it clear that maybe they were right after all and that those abstract benefits may yet turn out to have been quite concrete after all. As academics, as scholars, it looks like we’ve lost our ability to inform or comment in a way that is meaningful to anyone except other academics and scholars. Which, as we’ve just seen, isn’t enough, and we never should have allowed ourselves to think it might be.
Fraser is a Pubs and Pubs editor and a second-year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, where his research deals mainly with British people who got themselves involved in European affairs, which is increasingly looking like a purely historical concern at the moment. You can follow his own personal Brexit meltdown on Twitter.
(Cover image: http://www.insuranceage.co.uk)