The golf club is a regular analogy in the debate on Britain’s departure from the EU. But this time, it was issued from the club’s perspective. I’m at a panel discussion event run by the alumni society at King’s College London: Brexit: What’s Next? The chairman, in his reasoned eloquence, suggested that a mutually-satisfying deal would be found, and that we’re not in a zero-sum game. But his remark that the chap who relinquishes his pass to 18-hole pastures mustn’t get better terms than the remaining members was overshooting the green. The fate of an ex-member is neither of interest to the golf club committee, nor is it in their control. He has simply left: no more tees, no more fees.
In the packed Anatomy Lecture Theatre, I’d guess towards eighty per cent were Remainers, which would be expected at a London university. But a major flaw was the composition of the panel. This is no criticism of individual speakers, each of whom stated their case well, but let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine a similar format in Glasgow on the topic of Scottish independence, where the panel was entirely English and unionist. How would that look? Well, here at King’s, none of our experts were British, and none were Leavers.
Scotland arose in a question from the audience. Remainers seem excited by Nicola Sturgeon’s spanner in the works, and an alumnus asked about the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK to rejoin the happy European family. A panellist averred that the Scots would be welcome. I couldn’t let this pass, so took the microphone to criticise the ignorance of the metropolitan elite on Scottish sentiment. Despite not a single political party, institution or newspaper north of the border supporting Leave, over a million chose the second box on the ballot paper. The Scots, I argued as a Renfrewshire lad, are fundamentally no less Eurosceptic than the English. I may not have persuaded the panellists or many in the audience, so it was nice to be vindicated by the next day’s newspaper headlines showing exactly this view in two Scottish opinion polls.
To the famous Coal Hole pub afterwards, for a review with history alumnus George Carter, and neuropsychologist Adam Perkins. The verdict: ‘bland’, ‘a fest of group think’, ‘no answer to dissenting questions’ – but the event provoked lively discussion over a few ales. Adam perceived the panel as high-flying academics, out of touch with ordinary people. His key note is that none of them have ‘skin in the game’: unlike the working class, their livelihoods and lifestyles are unlikely to be damaged by cheap migrant labour.
Jonathan Portes gave an accomplished performance, asserting that immigration has boosted society, and that it hasn’t depressed wages. Such thinking may be lapped up by a forum of intelligentsia, but try telling that to my landscape gardener friend, who has been severely undercut by waves of east Europeans. Those 3.2 million Europeans include French architects, Czech surgeons, Polish plumbers - and countless untaxed builders and beggars. Jonathan quoted Nigel Farage, who said that if cutting immigration detracts from GDP, this is a price worth paying. We Leavers agree: economic argument, devoid of cultural and social concerns, is tunnel vision. Tellingly, the event passed without a single mention of the fundamental purpose of Brexit - sovereignty.
Perhaps the lack of British representation on the panel was most obvious when discussing the right of EU citizens to remain in the UK. One panellist thought the government should have made this gesture before issuing Article 50. Nobody expressed any concern for Brits on the Continent. Lord Tebbit would surely have had something to say about this subversion of national interest.
The best moment, we thought, was the final question from the audience. A man at the back boomed: ‘What surprised you about Brexit?’ The panel was flummoxed by this mischievous challenge. Eventually one panellist spoke of racism following the vote. But they were honest enough to admit that they hadn’t expected Brexit. Jonathan Portes was the least flat-footed, describing the quite remarkable feat of Tory unity after years of bitter EU schism. Earlier, the response to a woman in the audience who wanted the ‘chaos’ overturned drew limited support from the panel. Brexit really does mean Brexit.
Before leaving the event I asked Lily Flaherty, one of the organisers, why no Leavers were on the panel. The problem was that no academic biographies in King’s stated such a stance. But you can count on me next time, Lily. Just gimme a call…
(Image: David Davies)