Some were surprised when history lecturer and Brexit party candidate Kevin Yuill revealed that there were plenty of secret Brexit supporters in British universities. As another out-and-proud academic Brexiteer, I am happy to report that I too have come across my own fair share of pro-Brexit colleagues. But we should not underestimate the isolation that many of those Leave supporters feel within the world of higher education.
One consequence of being open about my views is that it has led to people of all political persuasions contacting me, often out of the blue, keen to discuss Brexit. Some are critical. Others are just intrigued to know why I hold the views I do.
Worryingly, I’ve also had a significant number of academics who support Brexit contact me to share their tales of woe at UK universities.
In one of the more demoralising cases, an academic working at a Russell Group institution was removed from his university Brexit planning group on the grounds that he ‘had too positive a view of the post-Brexit economy’.
Another lecturer, again working at a prestigious university, confided that she had experienced a far greater degree of marginalisation in her department for being a Brexiteer than she ever had for being a woman working in a male-dominated field.
The reaction to my pro-Brexit stance within my own institution has been mixed. On the one hand, I have faced explicit pressure from ‘on high’ to disassociate my opinion pieces on Brexit from the university.
Amongst my colleagues, however, my views have generated some fascinating conversations and debates. Many disagree with me, often quite strongly, but that is exactly as it should be. Others wish we had voted to stay in the EU but recognise that in a democracy, the vote to leave has to be implemented.
Many colleagues have quietly told me that they also voted to leave in the referendum. Their reasons are as varied as the rest of the population. Some felt the economic advantages of Brexit had been underestimated. Others were concerned about the democratic deficit in the EU or angry about the treatment meted out by the bloc to countries like Italy and Greece. More than one colleague, born outside the EU, revealed their frustration that EU nationals are given preference in employment and visas over people from, say, the Commonwealth.
Very few of these Leave-supporting academics have been willing to go public with their views. The attitude of the economics profession to Brexit might help illustrate why. Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies summed up the conventional wisdom this way:
‘With one or two very ideologically aligned exceptions, all economists take the view that from an economic point of view Brexit is going to be damaging.’
Even if true, such unanimity of thought would hardly be something to boast about. We economists are famous for never being able to agree about anything.
Indeed, it is the only discipline for which the Nobel Prize has been awarded to two people for saying exactly the opposite thing – twice! If economists really were united in believing that leaving a customs union can only have negative economic effects, it would not only be a surprise, but also suggest a disturbing lack of diversity of thought in the profession.
In reality, the idea of a consensus is far from the truth.
Economists who conclude that Brexit may bring economic benefits work at institutions as diverse as Cambridge (Graham Gudgin), Princeton (Ashoka Mody), Central Lancashire (Phil Whyman) and Cardiff (Patrick Minford) to name but a few.
To my knowledge, many more economists hold similar views but are somewhat shyer about going public.
Such caution is not surprising. In 2016, the Royal Economic Society made a formal complaint to the BBC about airtime being given to pro-Brexit economists. Of course, the BBC dismissed the complaint. However, the idea that the main representative organisation for economists should seek to censor the views of its own members because they do not go along with the consensus demonstrates the extent to which ‘Brexit Derangement Syndrome’ has afflicted some of the brightest people in the country.
So far, the Brexit process has not shown academia in a good light. What should have been a free and open debate about issues crucial to the future of the UK has instead generated an atmosphere in which people holding perfectly mainstream views feel marginalised and intimidated into keeping quiet.
The majority of academics undoubtedly back Remain. But there is far greater diversity of opinion at universities than we are being led to believe.
The reluctance of many on the Leave side of the debate to put their heads above the parapet should give pause for thought to anyone, whether a Remainer or Leaver, who cares about universities as a forum for free speech and open debate.
David Paton is professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School