"In Britain's universities, there is no incendiary debate on Brexit, merely a stunned lack of comprehension and the blithe assumption that all we “nice” people voted to remain"
No issue in decades has come close to Brexit in terms of its ability to inflame political passions. Comments from on high about a “special place in hell” for Brexiteers hint at what many feel is at stake.
Britain’s universities are different. Here, in the supposed intellectual heart of the nation, there is no incendiary debate, merely a stunned lack of comprehension and the blithe assumption that all we “nice” people voted to remain. Everyone speaks accordingly, in a way that reminds me of growing up looking white and being privy to conversations about “those people”, where “they” were my family.
I am a relatively young, female, leftist academic, an immigrant to the UK and married to a Greek. We have two young children, both with European passports. But while many, including some of my colleagues think “Brexiteer” is synonymous with “thick”, “xenophobic” and “gammon”, had I been able to vote, I would have voted Leave.
“How could you say that?” said one of my stunned colleagues. “You’re a turkey voting for Christmas!” Even my husband was shocked: “This was a vote against people like us!” But it wasn’t. For me it would have been, among other things, a vote against the institutions that made our life in Greece unliveable and Europe’s treatment of non-EU migrants. I managed to bring my husband around. Academia, I fear, may prove a lost cause.
When news of the referendum result broke, I was shocked to find the atmosphere was not one of rational discussion, but solemn mourning. Talking about Brexit was like trying to discuss the mechanics of a deadly cancer at a funeral. Thereafter, defending Brexit became a liability. Everyday discussions became heated arguments. As time wore on, it became clear that the moment for reasoned debate would never come. I began simply to smile and nod and bite my tongue.
It’s not just me. Speaking on the phone to a pro-Brexit colleague recently, we both instinctively lowered our voices and got up to shut our office doors. He described how he had begun to fear for his colleagues’ mental health. A conversation over a drink had almost ended in blows. He doesn’t mention it any more.
For all the muttered apologies to European staff and all the talk of “celebrating diversity”, there is a startling intolerance in the air. Many will defend the “diversity” over which we have little control — the accident of birth that gives us our nationality — but all that goes out of the window when it comes to differences of opinion. Then I become the wrong kind of immigrant: the type who should have no say in UK politics.
Surely universities should be all about diversity of opinion? Instead, my colleagues have closed their minds, abandoned democracy, ignored the reasons for Brexit and thrown away the opportunity to debate the future shape of a post-EU Britain. That is what’s worth mourning.