Saturday 8 October 2016

The Closing of the British Mind? Brexit, EU academics, and government advice

Steve Peers

Rightly or wrongly, the Brexit vote is widely perceived as being (among other things) an attack upon academic expertise. This can be neatly demonstrated by this anecdote of one exchange I had on Twitter:

*Daily Express front page headline: NEW EU PLOT TO TAX BRITISH EVERYTHING*
Me (quoting Express headline): This is nonsense. *Again*, the UK has a veto over EU tax law.
Troll: No, the EU is plotting to take control of our taxes.
Me: The veto is set out in Articles 113 and 115 TFEU.
Troll: No, the EU is plotting to take control of our taxes.
Me: OK then. Have a nice day in your post-truth world.
Troll: Patronising c***.
Me: *blocks*.

That’s the gist of the conversation: I don’t recall the exact words, except that word in particular. I had many such conversations, but that one distils the essence of them all. (As always, I acknowledge an honourable exception for ‘liberal Leavers’, who mostly do understand the EU and had a detailed plan for Brexit. And now they are being ignored in turn).

Equally – again rightly or wrongly – the Brexit vote is being widely perceived as being as an attack upon EU citizens in the UK. These two issues merge together in a dispute which has attracted attention over the last two days. It concerns the alleged policy adopted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), as applied to the London School of Economics (LSE),* ‘banning’ citizens of other EU countries from giving the government policy advice about Brexit. We can’t be sure what actually happened, but what probably happened?  

We do know that in the course of a conversation between LSE staff members and FCO staff, the LSE staff got the impression that the FCO no longer wanted to hear Brexit advice from citizens of other Member States. LSE staff sent an e-mail to staff to that effect. One staff member objected on social media. This caused a storm on Twitter (which I played a part in), and the story was picked up by newspapers: The Guardian, among others. This came at the end of a week of government policy announcements perceived as xenophobic. The FCO denies it said such a thing. The LSE insists that it did.

I see two key questions: a) Who’s right? And b) Should the LSE have done what it did? (Whatever that actually was).

Who is right?

By one reading, it might be a mistake, or might possibly be a simple misunderstanding. I agree that it could just be a misunderstanding. But I think it’s more likely that it was an FCO policy, and the LSE, or at least parts of it, found a way to object and scupper the policy.

Why do I think that? Mainly because, as an academic for over twenty years, I have daily experience with university administration. (By ‘administration’, I’m referring both to full-time administrators, and also the administrative roles of those academics who have administrative tasks alongside their teaching and research, as most of us do). University administrators spend much of their time grappling with details of government policy – on research funding, student funding, admissions and immigration, for instance. It’s very important that they understand and apply relevant government policy correctly, since the large majority of university funding depends on it. They make enormous efforts to that end. (Of course, many academics study government policy in their field of expertise too, but that’s a different issue).

In light of that, I find it hard to believe that the LSE misunderstood what it was being told by the FCO. Anyone involved in university administration who was told that certain staff could no longer work on a government project would keep asking questions about what they were being told.

Having said that, I also find it hard to believe that the FCO would advise the LSE of a policy that would be challenged as being illegal, xenophobic and self-harming. Years ago, I sat the entrance exam to work in the UK civil service. I listed the FCO as one of the departments I wanted to work in. I passed the entrance exam and got to the interview stage. But at the interview, I was told that I was being considered for other departments, but not the FCO, since the FCO had a special, higher cut-off point for candidates who sat the exam. As they told me (and here I do recall all of these words exactly): “You’re the cream, but not the cream of the cream”. Perhaps that would make a good epitaph.

Indeed, I have met with FCO staff over the years, and have always been impressed by their aplomb, expertise, and professionalism. So I do find it remarkable that they would develop such a crass new policy, and not either set out formally or make that policy perfectly clear to the LSE.

So maybe something has changed in the FCO in the last few months? To ask that question is to answer it: a boorish new Foreign Secretary, whose appointment was met with ridicule worldwide. Or perhaps, less obviously, the new Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Nick Timothy, who has suggested a policy (now echoed in the Home Secretary’s speech to the Conservative party conference) that would eviscerate the majority of British universities, by banning them from enrolling foreign students, all in maniacal pursuit of a disastrous net migration target. To be fair, though, as a Russell Group university, the LSE would be one of the few left standing if that policy is carried out. It is quite striking that an FCO official involved with the alleged LSE policy retweeted my strong criticism of it. 

Should the LSE have done what it did?

If I’m right in thinking that there was a government policy, what could the LSE have done? First of all, it could simply have gone along with the government’s policy. Perhaps there are other universities which have gone along with it; obviously, we wouldn't know if there were. Secondly, it could have queried the policy tactfully, by asking the government to put it in writing, or quietly raising questions about its appropriateness. Thirdly, it could have publicly challenged it, by demanding a clarification. Fourthly, it could adopt a passive-aggressive policy, nominally not challenging it but informing its staff, with the large likelihood that the result would be public questioning and a backlash against the idea. This is, in effect, what has happened. Or possibly it couldn’t agree a policy, or a staff member decided to dissent against the policy, with the consequence that the previous option has only been triggered by default.

So which option should it have taken? An open challenge (option 3) would bring back the old days, when the LSE gained a reputation as a hotbed of radical protest. But those days are long gone; the LSE is now run with a managerial focus on surviving in a highly competitive environment. Certain other British universities have travelled the same route even faster. Option 1 would mean acceding to a policy which was legally and ethically highly dubious.

So the choice is between options 2 and 4. Option 2 would be the most diplomatic, and would be the usual means of querying a questionable government policy. Option 4 has the advantage of embarrassing the government into changing its policy, without the university having to make challenge directly.

In my view, the latter (or option 3) is clearly the right choice, for broader reasons. In a week where the government has talked about expelling foreign doctors, ‘naming and shaming’ companies with foreign employees, and banning most universities from admitting foreign students, it’s important to take a public stand. If the British mind is closing, academics must, first and foremost, make the case for keeping it open.  

Photo credit:

See also: David Allen Green's blog post on this issue, 

*In the interests of transparency: I have a degree from the LSE, and have taught there part-time in the past, but have no current links – besides a commitment to speak at the launch of Professor Conor Gearty’s excellent new human rights book, On Fantasy Island, on December 8.


  1. Oh always option 3! I went to Westfield College, London University (now defunct) in the 1960s. Whenever we marched through London,the LSE mob were always put at the back, on the basis that they would cause trouble, so that was the best place to contain them. By the time we got to: Trafalgar Square/The American Embassy, the buggers had ALWAYS worked their way to the front, where they engaged the constabulary in verbal abuse. Fast forward to the Iraq War demo: my daughter was studying Government at LSE, and decided to go on the march. Quote: 'they put us at the back, but by the time we got to Trafalgar Square, we'd all worked our way to the front.' QED: LSE = the best chance of confronting this awful demagogue of a rightwingbordering upon fascist Government. And can we both come on the demo?

  2. As things are going it is not excluded that the government will give out such orders (whether openly or not). Thus, not to early to ask: is this legal while the UK is still in the EU? my thoughts on this with a short url:

  3. I was the lucky recipient of a rather different sort of exclusion from policy advice, as a UK citizen who had been resident in other EU countries since 1997, and who had advised the European Commission, four European governments, various UN agencies and the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly. I returned to the UK in July 2014 and in 2015 tried to apply for a post in the Home Office's so-called Independent Migration Advisory Committee. I was told that I could not do so, as all such posts were restricted to EEA nationals who had resided in the UK for the previous 5 years. The reason? -- apparently, MI5 cannot check up on you sufficiently if you reside in another EU country. Such is the "independence" of the UK advisory committee, which recruitment process also required being interviewed by Theresa May (Home Secretary at the time) to ensure that all "independent" experts are of a suitable political and personal disposition.

    Independent experts, my arse: the UK has become a banana kingdom without any bananas. It is no surprise that experts are held in low repute by the uneducated masses of Britain when their ignorant and scheming politicians have promoted that view.

  4. Hi,
    I think it is a misunderstanding because the UK has veto power over tax law then the EU cannot take control of our taxes. You should confirm it then come to any conclusion. We are enough strong to protect our rights on tax. personal injury lawyer

    1. Yes, that was exactly my point in the exchange of tweets I mention above.