Man-on-the-spot and recovering Brexaholic John Charlton gives his take on the U.K.’s June 23 vote to quit the European Union (EU).
Such has been the pace and scale of change in U.K. politics since the electorate voted to get us out of the EU that there seems to be only one constant: Larry, the 10 Downing Street cat, has stayed in his post throughout the uproar and the upheavals.
If it’s been business as usual for the nation’s most famous mouser, it’s been anything but for the politicians at the Mother of Parliaments, most of whom supported the status quo. Former prime minister David Cameron’s resignation triggered a series of political shocks that has led to the appointment of a new prime minister, a much changed government, and an opposition in meltdown.
To quote Vladimir Lenin: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Frankly, for Westminster watchers, it has been a terrific spectacle, as political careers, such as those of George Osborne, former chancellor of the exchequer, and Cameron, imploded. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, the nation’s favorite buffoon and a leader of the Leave campaign, came back from the political graveyard to become foreign secretary. He will now deal with overseas politicians, including either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, both of whom he has previously insulted.
The left-of-center Labour Party, which campaigned ineffectually for the Remain side, is led by Jeremy Corbyn, a bearded left-winger with the look of a second-rate sociology lecturer at a third-rate university, who showed no enthusiasm for the cause. That’s no surprise, as he supported a Leave vote in a 1975 referendum on the U.K.’s membership in the European Economic Community, a forerunner to the EU.
He now faces a leadership challenge, having lost the confidence of most of his party’s members of Parliament (MPs). The U.K. now has no effective opposition party. The new prime minister, dry-as-dust Theresa May, won a one-horse race based on the support of Conservative Party MPs—party members had no say in the matter and neither did the U.K. electorate. That’s democracy, U.K.-style.
A prime minister needs to command a majority in the House of Commons—that’s the golden rule. On July 13, Cameron tended his resignation to the queen, and hours later, May went to Buckingham Palace to have her position formalized by Her Majesty, who is now on her 13th prime minister (the first was Winston Churchill).
Unlike with most Western democracies, there is no meaningful interval between the departure and arrival of prime ministers. The moving vans appear within hours of the formalities being completed.
What will Brexit, as the Leave campaign was dubbed, mean for the U.K.? No one has a clue.
That much was obvious the day after the vote when it became clear that then prime minister Cameron and his team had no contingency plan, while politicians leading the Leave campaign fell out among themselves, with justice minister Michael Gove acting as Brutus to Johnson’s Caesar by stabbing him in the back. That backfired spectacularly when Gove was dumped from the Conservative leadership race and the government, with BoJo returning in triumph.
Few saw the Leavers winning the campaign, but never underestimate social class in U.K. elections or referendums. The indigenous working class in the old industrial towns, those age 60 and older, and well-off right-wingers turned out in enough numbers to beat left-leaning middle class liberals, students, and those age 25 and younger.
In my view, immigration was the issue that swung the vote. Two standout reasons put immigration ahead of the economy as the issue: German chancellor Angela Merkel’s lunatic and unilateral decision last year to open Germany’s borders to more than a million mainly Muslim immigrants, and the U.K.’s immigration figures, which showed that more than half a million immigrants entered the U.K. in 2015—and that doesn’t include illegal ones. Thanks to the EU’s freedom of movement policy, once immigrants to any EU country have official residence, they may move to any other EU member state and bring their close families from their countries of origin.
The May government is now working on its negotiating position for Brexit talks with the EU. This will focus on several prime issues, but principally on trade, freedom of movement, the status of EU citizens living in the U.K., and the status of U.K. citizens domiciled in the EU. But the U.K. is so enmeshed in the EU that the process of disentanglement will be complicated and probably take years. The U.K. has 2 years to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would begin the separation process.
For U.K. libraries, both public and academic, it should be business as usual while the negotiations unfold, but there is always the risk of the unexpected. Universities will be very concerned about the ramifications of Brexit for research funding, student exchange programs, and scientific research, much of which is based on collaboration with institutions in other EU countries.
Nick Poole, chief executive at CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), says that Brexit “and the accompanying political and economic uncertainty will undoubtedly affect library, information and knowledge services and the organisations in which they operate across the private, public and third sectors. It is simply too early to tell exactly how they will be affected.”
Two European library bodies, EBLIDA (European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations) and LIBER (Association of European Research Libraries), say they will continue to back U.K. members. EBLIDA says, “We stand ready to help our British colleagues now and in [the] future and will not give up fighting for them in Europe in relation to” the following areas: copyright; education, research, and culture; access to information and knowledge across borders; developing libraries, literacy, and a reading culture; information literacy and skills training; and global exceptions and limitations at WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization).
Sharon Heal, the U.K.’s Museums Association director, says, “It remains to be seen what the impact of leaving the EU will be on culture and museums. … Museums could do a number of things whilst waiting for the dust to settle. It will be important to continue to work with our partners internationally—in Europe and further afield. …”
In the same article, Stephen Deuchar, director of the U.K.’s Art Fund, says, “As the national fundraising charity for art, the Art Fund is deeply concerned at the impact leaving the EU will have on culture in the UK, and particularly on its museums and galleries. At one level there is obviously now great financial uncertainty … but quite as important is the potential effect on the spirit that drives a myriad of international partnerships in the arts.”
Julia Goodfellow, Universities UK president, says in a statement, “Leaving the EU will create significant challenges for universities. Although this is not an outcome that we wished or campaigned for, we respect the decision of the UK electorate. Our first priority will be to convince the UK Government to take steps to ensure that staff and students from EU countries can continue to work and study at British universities in the long term, and to promote the UK as a welcoming destination for the brightest and best minds.”
Perhaps the most concerned area in U.K. academia is the science sector, in which collaboration with counterparts in the EU is key to research work and which receives millions of euros in EU grants. A March 2016 survey of 907 active U.K. scientific researchers by Nature magazine found that 83% wanted the U.K. to remain in the EU. The publication claims that since 2014, the U.K. has received €1.4 billion (about $1.5 billion) from the EU for scientific research. The U.K. contributes about €17 billion (about $18 billion) to the EU budget, although it gets billions back in grants, leaving a net contribution of up to £9 billion (about $12 billion).
According to official figures, the U.K. contributed 12.57% of EU budget revenues in 2015, making it the third biggest contributor after Germany (21.36%) and France (15.72%). According to a parliamentary report, nearly one-fifth of the funding that the U.K. receives from the EU is for scientific research.
Trying to get a grip on the actual cost to the U.K. of EU membership is not easy. The Telegraph’s figure of a net cost of nearly £6.5 billion (about $8.5 billion) sounds about right. In theory, that amount could be used to make up for shortfalls in university, research, and other budgets that would lose EU funding—but who knows?
What powers government funding is the performance of the economy and the tax revenues it generates. If the economy trundles along at the same rate as now, then in theory, the U.K. government will, if it leaves the EU, have some extra finances to spend in the public sector. But public finances are in a parlous state, and it’s difficult to imagine bigger budgets for libraries, museums, art galleries, and other public institutions being made available.
My view? Well, there’ll be uncertainty in the short term, which will become the new norm.
And Remain supporters will try to overturn the referendum result, although it’s hard to see how they will succeed; even in the U.K.’s anachronistic political and legal systems, the expressed will of the electorate should be respected.
My guess is that the outcome of U.K. negotiations with the EU will result in some sort of fudge with few changes—in other words, a classic EU solution that will leave voters wondering what the referendum was all about.
Finally, if you can’t get enough of Brexit, the Bodleian Libraries is leading a collection of websites that will create an archive of relevant material covering the great event. Enjoy!