On the basis of that, I wrote a couple of pieces on the Conversation website, which seeks to communicate academic knowledge to a wider public. This was well before the Referendum campaign started, although it was in prospect. These pieces got some media exposure and also led to several invitations to give talks once the campaign was underway. These were generally well-received and there seemed to be a huge appetite in the audiences for better information than people felt they were getting from politicians.
Following the outcome of the Referendum – which I had not expected – I realised that we were going to be in for years in which Brexit would dominate political as well as economic, social and cultural life and I wanted to have some voice, however small, in that. So after returning from summer holiday I launched this blog in September 2016. Since then, I have gradually turned myself into an expert – up to a point – in Brexit. Only up to a point, because I don’t have that much time to spend on it and because, anyway, it is a topic so complex that no one person can really be expert in it.
In fact, if this blog has a USP it is that it is not specialist. By accident, working in this strange field of organization studies, which sits at the confluence of sociology, politics, economics, business and law, is uniquely well-suited to Brexit which is similarly hydra-headed. Most people who work in the field originally studied something else (at least, most people of my vintage - it has changed since) and in my case as an undergraduate I had studied Economics and Politics at Manchester University and then, also at Manchester but in what is now the business school, wrote a PhD on the regulation of financial services.
Subsequently, I’ve conducted research on a huge variety of organizations ranging from accounting firms through to Bletchley Park in World War Two. During those years, I worked first at Leeds University then Cambridge University, where I became a full Professor in 2005 and was also a Fellow of Wolfson College, then Warwick University and most recently at Royal Holloway, University of London. I have also been a Visiting Professor at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark and Universite Paris-Dauphine, France. In 2015 I was made a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. Throughout all that time, my work has been at the interface of politics, business, and political economy.
Of course, there are many people (in academia, think tanks, and journalism) working and writing on much more specialised aspects of Brexit – for example trade, migration, Northern Ireland politics, Westminster politics, EU Law, aviation, agriculture etc. etc. – or sub-specialisms within those and other areas. But there does seem to be a space for something that cuts across, or draws together, these things. So I read a lot of the specialist material and try to make sense of it and write about it in an accessible way. I make a particular point of providing extensive links to sources for claims made, or to deeper treatments of those claims. I try to avoid the pitfall that some bloggers fall into of being furious that things I write are ignored, or that things I've said ages ago get attention when said by writers with bigger audiences and profiles than mine. This is just one blog, amid a cacophony of voices, and that's the way the world is. Moreover, Brexit has become such a huge topic that no one 'owns' it.
It seems that other people also see a value in it. At first, inevitably, hardly anyone read this blog because hardly anyone knew about it. But in February 2017 I created a Twitter feed to publicise it (and also to share quality news and analysis about Brexit) and since then the readership has increased dramatically (as has my Twitter followership, which includes thousands of leading journalists, politicians including cabinet ministers, diplomats, thinktankers and senior business people), most of whom seem to appreciate it. Over time, it has settled into a format whereby there is normally a weekly post, on a Friday, analysing the week's developments, with supplementary posts according to events. As at February it has been visited over eight million times, the vast majority since January 2018, and with many thousands of others reading each week via the email sign-up. As the strap line at the top of the Blog indicates, many leading commentators have been kind enough to praise its quality, and it is frequently quoted in the national international media.
Many of the posts are re-syndicated on other sites (especially Politics mean Politics and The I), and some have been published in The New European, Prospect and elsewhere. The blog is also increasingly widely quoted, for example in the Financial Times and The Times, and on many blogs and corporate sites For anyone interested, I have compiled an (incomplete) list of re-syndications, original writings for other outlets, and media references.
There have also been plenty of negative reactions and abuse (hence comments are disabled on this site). The only one of these I want to mention is the criticism that I have an anti-Brexit POV and that this is out of keeping with academic impartiality. The first is certainly true. I stated clearly in the first post on this blog that I start from the position that the Referendum decision was a “national catastrophe” and I believe that as strongly, or more strongly, now as I did then. The second is based on a misunderstanding of what being an academic means and what impartiality means. We don’t expect a medical academic to be ‘impartial’ about the effects of smoking. Her responsibility is to state the facts as she understands them, with due regard for the evidence.
Few things in social science are as clear cut as that, and ‘facts’ are always open to interpretation, as is ‘evidence’. But my view is that Brexit is as clear cut as any such issue can be: it will be damaging economically, culturally, socially, geo-politically and in every other conceivable way (indeed, it is already damaging). Of course I know that many disagree – if that were not so, Brexit would not be happening. But my view is based on the arguments and evidence that I have seen and not the other way round (and it certainly isn’t, to respond to one asinine criticism that is sometimes made, because I receive funding from the EU which I do not and never have done, even if that would make a difference). It is not that I am opposed to Brexit despite good evidence and argument, but because of good evidence and argument. As, for that matter, are almost all who have specialist academic or practical knowledge of what Brexit entails.
So not only do I make no apology for having a view about Brexit, I think that is my duty as an academic to try to inform anyone amongst the public who will listen of that, and to explain why. Which, through a mixture of evidence and argument is what I do on the blog. It is ironic that many who habitually accuse academics of ‘living in ivory towers’ want to keep them there when the views expressed are not to their liking.
Indeed, one of the leitmotifs of Brexit has been the populist notion that ‘the people’ (in some mythologised abstraction, invariably invoked by plutocrats and privileged demagogues) have a blood and soil wisdom that trumps the knowledge of experts. We saw that deployed in the Referendum, and it permeates the faux anti-elitism of Brexit. But, like it or not, some people do know more about things than others. Brexit was sold on the basis of slogans like ‘take back control’ and is being pursued on the basis of similar slogans about ‘our money, our laws, our borders’. But its enactment entails deeply technical matters that almost no voter can reasonably be expected to know about. For that matter, it entails things which were scarcely, if at all, mentioned in the Referendum campaign.
Even so, that leaves a problem because understanding all the arcana of what is involved is pretty difficult, even for those who are open to doing so. Thus what I try to do in this blog is to translate the arcane into the comprehensible. Which might actually be a pretty good definition of what the public role of academics should be.
Update: It might have been logical to end this blog when the UK left the EU in January 2020 or perhaps at the end of the transition period at the end of 2020. Instead, at the latter point, I renamed it Brexit & Beyond and continued, for the reasons set out in the first post under the new title.
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