The Conservative MP’s letter to universities was part of a wider attack on dissentby Christopher Grey / October 29, 2017 / Leave a comment
We may never know exactly what Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris intended to do with the information he tried to obtain on academics who teach about Brexit. But it certainly shouldn’t be treated as “just a polite request for information” as if this were some routine event.
To the best of my knowledge there is no precedent for a politician—and a member of the government—asking every university head for the names and syllabuses of those teaching a particular topic, let alone one of major political controversy. And given that Heaton-Harris is a leading member of the European Research Group, which has particularly extreme pro-Brexit views, it is not a stretch of the imagination to suggest he wanted to monitor individual academics for anti-Brexit sentiment.
That, at least, is what the Daily Mail follow-up on the story has sought to do. Those Brexiters failing to see anything sinister in this might want to consider how it would have seemed to them had something similar occurred at the height of controversy over Iraq WMDs after the suicide of David Kelly, when the Labour government was locked in a bitter dispute with the BBC. Suppose, then, a Labour Whip known to be passionately in favour of the Iraq war had asked for the names and teaching materials of anyone covering that issue? Would it really seem so anodyne?
In any case, the parallel is an imperfect one. The context of the Heaton-Harris letter is far more charged. Brexiters have attacked media outlets—not just the BBC, but ITV, Sky and the Financial Times—for supposed anti-Brexit bias. They talk of saboteurs, enemies of the people, and traitors; vilifying figures as diverse as Gina Miller, Ivan Rogers, Mark Carney, Treasury civil servants, and the judiciary. It is within this climate that the letter to universities takes on an intimidatory meaning.
“Most people who have relevant expert knowledge believe that Brexit is a bad idea”
But what of the substance of the issue? There is ample polling evidence that the majority of academics voted against Brexit, and that is likely therefore to include most whose research and teaching are concerned with Brexit. The uncomfortable truth for Brexiters is that most people who have relevant expert knowledge—not just academics but people in business and trade specialists—believe that Brexit is a bad idea. That’s also true of most parliamentarians and, anecdotally, most civil servants.
Academics are unusual in that they have a responsibility to communicate their expert knowledge as best they can to both students and the public. They can’t deny that knowledge just because 52 per cent voted for Brexit—or even if 100 per cent had done so. To take an example from my own field, it is common for Brexiters to say that Britain’s businesses trade with non-EU countries on WTO terms. That is factually incorrect because most non-EU trade involves either EU Free Trade Agreements or a whole variety of other agreements (for example over 130 between the EU and the US) which augment WTO terms and are not entailed by them. That is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of fact. That it does not suit the pro-Brexit case is neither here nor there. Moreover, the national interest will not be served if Brexit is pursued in ignorance of this fact. So neither as academics nor as citizens should those of us who know this fact keep quiet about it.
When it comes to teaching academics have a duty to tell students such facts. They can’t teach them that Brexit will mean an extra £350m a week for the NHS or that Turkey is joining the EU because neither of these things are true. That does not mean indoctrinating students into opposing Brexit—it is for them to draw what conclusions they will from those facts. Of course, some things about Brexit are less clear cut than the examples I have given, but it is ludicrous to imagine that university teachers are incapable of separating out personal beliefs from evidence, or that they require their students to agree with their beliefs. It is part of the daily bread-and-butter of academic life to make such a separation. The dominant ethos of higher education is liberal—both in the sense of being tolerant of dissent and in valuing quality of argument above conformity of opinion. Brexit is no different in that respect than any of the other controversial issues that are taught year in and year out in, especially, social sciences.
Let’s be clear, though. That liberal ethos is precisely what at least a vociferous segment of Brexiters object to. For them, anything other than full-throated support for Brexit is treacherous. This is most obviously manifest in calls for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be charged with treason or at least to be sacked for “sabotaging” Brexit. His heresy is not to have questioned Brexit or even hard Brexit. It is simply that he is resisting spending money on preparations for a “no deal” Brexit. For some Brexiters his “crime” is the even more trivial one that he does not show enough positive enthusiasm for Brexit.
“For some, anything other than full-throated support for Brexit is treacherous”
More insidious is the re-writing of history which is going on apace. Examples include airbrushing out assurances given by Theresa Villiers (then the Northern Ireland Secretary) and Boris Johnson that the Irish border would be unaffected by Brexit; or the impossible promises by the Leave campaign that a new deal with the EU would be negotiated before even beginning the legal process to leave. Most fundamentally, those Brexiters who assured voters that an advantageous Brexit deal would be easy, quick and inevitable are now insisting either that they always knew it would be hard or, even, that no deal has always been the most likely outcome.
Nor is it just the past that is being re-written. Some are asking for evidence about the present and future to be distorted. Thus John Redwood recently called for the Treasury to revise its economic forecasts so as to be more “realistic” and “optimistic” (quite how they could be both is an absurdity in itself) about Brexit. Forecasts are not facts, but that they are forecasts is a fact and to imagine that standard models of forecasting (for all their imperfections) be doctored to fit in with Brexiter faith is ridiculous.
It is crucial that we do not think of this as just the normal business of politics, with protagonists putting the best gloss they can upon their positions. What is underway is something much more fundamental, a kind of culture war. The hardcore Brexiters of both the political Right and Left think of themselves—correctly, in my view—as enacting a revolution, in pursuit of which they are not just willing to risk economic disaster but are actually undermining liberal political discourse in its broadest sense.
The sinister language of traitors, sabotage and enemies of the people is not the last desperate throw of the dice as Brexit goes wrong; it is the beginning of what they want to be the normal terrain of politics. Similarly, the re-writing of history and of facts is not just a tactical gambit, it is part and parcel of their desired form of politics as decoupled from evidence and rationality. It’s this context that makes the letter to universities so important because they are one of the key institutions that uphold the importance of evidence and rationality.
Of course we should not over-react: there is no government persecution of academics underway. But we shouldn’t under-react, either. Heaton-Harris’s letter was a part of, and derives its significance from, a wider attack on dissent from “the Will of the People.” We know how that story ends, and it’s not with “they all lived happily ever after.”
Christopher Grey is Professor of Organisation Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. His Brexit blog and twitter feed are accessible via @chrisgreybrexit