“We’ve had enough of experts.” So said Michael Gove, gentleman and amateur, and self-confessed uninformed cheerleader of Brexitism. But I’m one of those sad souls who sometimes likes to know things, so I took myself along to an event held by the University of Birmingham as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Festival of Social Science. On Brexit.
To my surprise, I wasn’t photographed by the Tory Whips on the way in. No Daily Mail hacks sought a quote from anyone around me in denouncement of pointy headed saboteurs. It was all quite civilised.
So what did Professor Long Hair have to say? Well, there were six of them, or eight, if you add in the PVC for International Affairs (a title probably better suited to Boris J than his actual one), and the Head of School. 50 short of the full set of impact studies, but more hard information than the government has yet released.
First up was Dr. Nando Sigona. He flew through his data packed slides at a frustrating pace, for I would really have liked time to study them in detail (perhaps he’ll make them available online for attendees of the event?). His work of late has been on EU families and ‘euro children’ in Britain. Because of course a relationship of 45 years since Britain joined the then EEC has led to migration, relationships, and families who reflect that history. Untangling those relationships is impossible – they are literally in the DNA of many British citizens, especially a whole generation of children. Listening to Dr. Sigona, it was impossible not to think of how the referendum campaign might have played out rather differently if the Remain campaign had used some of these human stories to show the wrenching complexity of the very idea of leaving the EU in an abrupt manner without considering the impact on real lives. It also set me thinking. I know that the polls have barely moved on support for Brexit amongst those who voted for it, but it is at least anecdotally interesting that when a small number of people call in to phone-in shows to express regret for voting Leave, they are nearly always men with EU nationals as partners, often longstanding ones, and multilingual children.
Dr. Kelly Hall followed, with research on the impact of Brexit on British pensioners living in Spain. I could see that her work was useful in enabling preparatory work to be done by the British Consulate to prepare for various outcomes to Brexit negotiations, but in truth, most of them don’t look particularly good for the individuals involved. In a worst case scenario, tens of thousands of frail elderly people with few material resources could end up air ambulanced to Britain, and to an NHS and social care system without the resources to cope. (I’d have liked to have known how some of these people voted in the referendum, too, and not just to be mean. As with the phone-in callers with their Dutch, or Polish wives, I wonder whether the Brexity pensioners on the Costas had failed to link their votes to their own lives?)
Two presentations followed which concerned health. The first of these, by Professor Mark Exworthy, looked at the impact of Brexit on patients and the NHS. His evidence debunked the tabloid view that EU migrants are a strain on the NHS. Quite the opposite is true, from the impact of their tax contributions, to their labour as clinicians and carers. Whatever might have been written on the side of a bus last year, Brexit doesn’t look like being a bonus for the NHS.
Prof. Exworthy was followed by Professor Jean McHale. A legal scholar, Prof. McHale looked at the impact of Brexit on regulating pharmaceuticals and clinical trials. This is an important sector of the British economy, and one of the few which is highly technical and often world-leading. The integration of regulations isn’t simply a matter of custom and practice arising from four decades of proximity – it is about best practice to ensure effective research and development, and swift and safe routes to market for new treatments. I did not feel reassured that the tight Brexit timetable is remotely suited to dealing with these vital issues both for our health, and for our economy.
Professor Raquel Ortega-Arguiles offered a broader economic overview of the impact of Brexit on the UK, its regions, cities, and sectors. Actually, she roamed wider, demonstrating clearly that with the obvious anomaly of Ireland, the UK would be more adversely affected by Brexit than the rest of the EU, and within the UK it would be London and the South East which would be least negatively impacted by Brexit, and the manufacturing and industrial areas, often Leave voting, which would be most disadvantaged by leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union. The slides she showed were powerful evidence of this; maps shaded to show degrees of impact.
Finally Professor John Bryson looked at the local and regional impact of Brexit. Birmingham and the West Midlands is a manufacturing area, so no surprises there. But he did offer an important sense of perspective on Brexit – that in the scale of challenges on the horizon, it is relatively insignificant. The impact of robotics and AI on jobs is rolling towards us and gathering speed. He might have added climate change. Brexit kind of looks like a self-indulgence in face of the real issues the world has to face this century.
And so to audience questions. It seems that there was not a Brexiter to be seen in the house. We’d been treated to a series of impact studies, with real data, and much serious food for thought, and no politician or voter from the winning side seemed to have the slightest interest in knowing more about their favourite subject.