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.