LONDON — My name is Tim Bale and I’m an academic. I’ve been abusing Brexit for nearly a year and a half now, and I just can’t seem to stop. Not a day goes by without me thinking about it, even if I’m not actually doing it. It’s affecting my work life, my home life, and pretty much all my relationships.
The only thing it’s not affecting, it turns out, is my students. Try as I might to bend the minds of my supposedly vulnerable young charges to my Europhile will, the little blighters simply will insist on thinking for themselves. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know why I bother; I really don’t.
Just last week, I took a straw poll of my two second-year British Politics groups at Queen Mary University of London, the majority of whom belong to the 18-24 age group that was most likely to have voted Remain back in June 2016. I offered them a choice: Stay in the EU on current terms or crash out in 2019 with no deal.
Heaven or hell, right? So why, then, did a shocking 30-odd percent of them choose the latter — an option which, in my clearly considered view, any fool (and even, I’ve heard tell, some Cabinet ministers) knows would be a complete and utter catastrophe?
Any idea, incidentally, that the U.K. will need fewer staff and students specifically interested in the EU is […] utterly bonkers.
There are surely only two explanations. Either I am a total failure as a propagandist and a pedagogue (possible, but can I really be that bad?) Or else a pesky professional preoccupation with balance and objectivity continues to thwart my best and most malign intentions.
There’s also, I suppose, the fact that I am teaching highly intelligent, politically engaged adults (did I mention, by the way, that they were adults?), all of them possessing fully functioning bullshit-detectors and all of them continually reading, watching, listening to and talking about all sorts of stuff that stands in shocking contradistinction to my own toxic (yet I like to think still tempting) brew of paternalistic centrism, naïve internationalism and desperately unpatriotic defeatism.
Of course, maybe I’m trying to throw even the most perspicacious pro-Brexit columnists off the scent by focusing on the time I spend prancing around the lecture theater and sitting in the seminar room banging on about British politics. Maybe I’m at my most nefarious and insidious in my textbook, “European Politics: a Comparative Introduction.”
Some students, but certainly not all, and not necessarily through university teaching, are being hardened against Brexit | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
Or maybe not. True, the fourth edition was published this year, over six months after the U.K. voted to leave the EU. But the wheels of academia grind awful slow — so slow that I barely had time to insert more than a few lines (five index entries, I just checked) about Brexit and its impact at complex copy-edit and proof stages.
Agreed, the journal articles that probably make up the bulk of the reading we set for students are much briefer and can theoretically respond more rapidly to contemporary events. But these go through an even more painstaking peer-review process, which means that anything substantive (as opposed to speculative) on Brexit — apart perhaps from work that explores the intricacies of the referendum result — may well only appear in these texts after — rather than before — we leave the European Union.
These frustrating but inevitable leads and lags apply just as much to stuff published by scholars who spend their whole life studying not U.K. or comparative European politics but the EU itself. It seems that, far from being in the vanguard of our wicked collective endeavor to brainwash Britain’s students against Brexit, academic colleagues who specialize in the EU are unlikely to be of much help in that respect.
For one thing, like the EU member countries and Brussels bureaucrats they write about, Brexit (how can I put this so as not to offend Euroskeptics?) may not be the most important thing on their agenda right now.
For another, they tend — at least in my experience — to be pretty critical of the EU: after all, they of all people know how it operates. If students come out of these courses more committed to the ideal of European integration than when they went in — and frankly I’ve no idea if this is the case or not (has anyone ever tried to find out? Maybe they should) — then it’s because they’ve decided that, on balance, the upsides they’ve learned about outweigh the (often considerable) downsides.
Whatever you think of the whole enterprise, the EU is a trading and political powerhouse […] we are going to have to work even harder to understand.
Any idea, incidentally, that the U.K. will need fewer staff and students specifically interested in the EU is — if you’ll forgive me slipping into abstruse academic jargon for a moment — utterly bonkers. In fact, we’ll probably need even more of them.
Whatever you think of the whole enterprise, the EU is a trading and political powerhouse that, once we’re denied the more or less easy familiarity that comes with membership, we are going to have to work even harder to understand.
Ultimately, and rather ironically, though, I’m seeking to counter a dubious charge that it’s through our teaching and research that we, as academics, are hardening our students’ hearts and minds against Brexit.
Students are unlikely to start draping themselves in EU flags | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
If it’s substantiation for that charge that Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris was hoping to get when he sent out a letter asking universities to share a list of professors teaching Brexit-related material, then I say: Good, at least we’ll have some evidence.
Because at the moment, the best Brexiteers can come up with is a list of clearly earnest, though hardly subtle, and arguably self-interested interventions by scholars who have either gone over to the dark side (university management — run for the hills!) or else are indulging in perfectly legit extracurricular political activity.
None of these, I’m sad to inform the world, are likely even to be noticed by the average (or even above- or below-average) student, let alone persuade them to set fire to the Union Flag while draping themselves instead in the glorious blue and gold stars of Brussels.
Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. He tweets as @proftimbale.