Last week’s ‘List’ saga shows us exactly where we are with BrexitBy Ben Worthy on 29 October 2017
It’s been a long week in academia, especially if you are a political scientist. The attempt to ‘expose’ Remainer sentiment at UK universities has generated some excellent research methods jokes (that should ‘liven up the methods section’ of the ‘book’ as Charlotte L. Riley said). Nothing really surprises me anymore. However, the (not) government’s attempt to put together a Brexit list/one lone MP’s book research has had a few surprisingly results.
First, it’s done the downright unbelievable and make my job look exciting. My classes have never been a ‘hotbed’ of anything until now. Normally, when I tell someone I teach politics I’m met with a look somewhere between blankness and bewilderment, often accompanied with the words ‘and that’s actually a job is it?’ And, before you ask, I do tell them my opinions and point out how often I’ve been spectacularly wrong. I always abide with George Orwell, a man who knew about lists, and argue that ‘freedom is the right to say things people don’t want to hear’. I encourage debate and criticism and my students bombard me incessantly with searching, challenging questions such as ‘why did you claim that?’, ‘where did you find that dodgy graph?’ or ‘is your jumper on inside out?’
Second, it has shown me how silly some of these tactics are. Making lists of any kind is, of course, pretty bad ‘optics’, whether you are writing a ‘book’ or hunting Remoaner academics for the government (the government has denied any involvement but, as Claud Cockburn said, you should never believe anything until it has been officially denied). It is also very bad tactics, as Phil Cowley pointed out, given the swing in university towns and among students to Labour.
It is silly because I expect most people see university as some sort of terribly dull cross between The Young Ones and Educating Rita. Most people probably think of universities as stuffy institutions full of stuffy men (yes, alas still men) in stuffy cardigans having stuffy conversations. Dangerous only to one’s attention span. I for one spend my time getting my students to read article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon (‘is that it?’ they exclaim), asking them to learn standing order 14 (1) and persuading them to use the phrase ‘asymmetrical bicameralism’ in casual conversation. A threat to boredom and sleep thresholds rather than the Will of the People.
Third, it finally tells me exactly where we are with Brexit. We are in the ‘hunting for internal enemies’ phase. The revolution that is Brexit feels insecure, despite the express support of Ringo Starr and Bryan Adams. I’m not sure why, but the utopia of different height train platforms and vast pig ear exports is sensed to be under threat and someone must be held responsible. Jacob Rees-Mogg has singled out the Bank of England as the ‘enemy’, breaking the very sensible and golden life rule that you should never get in a row with a bank. Who is next on the target list I don’t know, but I note that the (as yet mercifully un-nationalised) Greggs has some rather continental looking eclairs.
Revolutions have their own, often grisly momentum, as the commemorations of the Russian Revolution(s) of 2017 show. The problem for those leading them is how to deal with the fallout when their utopian promises meet cold reality-revolutions, like politics itself, are all about the art of the possible. The danger for the brexiters is that they have burned their bridges and raised so many hopes. ‘Always leave yourself a way out’ was apparently Thatcher’s advice to Tony Blair but there’s little space left in Brexit. And in no other revolution, as far as I can remember, has the timetable and terms been controlled by those who are against.
For all of you who like to dabble in history, the next revolutionary phase should be the Thermidor, when the revolution (not literally) eats its children and turns on its own. After that, if the pattern holds, some Napleon-ey figure will appear and return us to how it used to be (-ish). Given how topsy turvy politics is now, it will probably be Noel Edmonds.
Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He tweets @BenWorthy1.
Image: Sam CC BY-NC-ND