Jumping off the cliff: being English in the age of Brexit

Jumping off the cliff: being English in the age of Brexit

Following the Brexit vote, much uncertainty has been felt within the United Kingdom and beyond. As international educators, we have been watching closely to understand how our field, our students and our higher education institutions will be affected by this new – and in many ways unexpected – situation. In this blog post, Michael Woolf, Deputy Director of CAPA Global Education Network, provides a passionate personal testimony that takes readers on a historical journey to better understand the reasons behind this new chapter for both the UK and the rest of European Union.

To be English in the field of international education is a complex fate. I have lost count of the times hospitable hosts in many parts of the world have taken me to sites that “you will certainly find interesting”. These are almost always locations in which the English had acted very badly indeed. You are forced to react in one of a number of excruciating ways; you may try to demonstrate historical empathy (“My ex-wife was Irish you know”). You may choose to say nothing under the delusion that silence will be interpreted as eloquence rather than cowardice and duplicity. I once, under stress, said “the bastards!” on being told of what my ancestors had inflicted upon the indigenous people, flora, fauna and wild life of a place that was comprised mostly of dust. This was taken as a symptom of early onset of, at least, malaria (perhaps senility). My pitying hosts led me to my hotel to rest “until you feel better”.

There is something that requires you (an arthritic John Bull) to play the part of a red-faced, ridiculous apologist for stupidities that had absolutely nothing to do with you. Which brings me, inexorably and sadly, to the decision of the UK (England, really) to leave the European Union. I am grateful to have this opportunity to answer the question that many friends at the EAIE have asked: “Why did you vote to leave?” Let me be clear: the ‘you’ here does not mean ‘me’. It refers to that tortured soul who carries the burden of being English. Dear EAIE friends, I will, therefore, try and offer some form of bewildered explanation for what ‘we’ did.

What happened?

On the morning of 24 June 2016, my immediate reaction was disbelief (some mistake, surely) followed by anger at the political leaders who allowed an entirely unnecessary referendum to take place. Motivated by political opportunism, the government escorted the country to the edge of peril, and the voters jumped off. Furthermore, they lifted a rock and all sorts of unpleasant things crawled out; voices of xenophobia, racism and ignorance were heard around the land.
So I moved between anger, disbelief and disdain.
My reasons for voting to stay were relatively simple (naive?) and historical. We are in the middle of the anniversary of World War I. The main protagonists were, on one side, Britain and France, and on the other, Germany. Just over two decades after that slaughter, the same protagonists engaged again in hostile confrontation. My grandfather and father fought in European Wars. I did not and it is almost inconceivable that my children, or their children, will have to join a Western European conflict. One of the reasons for the 50 and more years of peace between traditional protagonists is the European Union – and its predecessors.
This referendum was contested in conflicting zones of emotion, in which the nation was torn into rival camps with views embedded in histories, ideologies, and prejudices. On 24 June, I believed that over half of the population of my country was idiotic and bigoted: a view that, on reflection, combines arrogance with despair. What future is there if that is true? I know that there are valleys of pain and towns of deprivation where industries have disappeared and where the remaining population exists marginal and invisible to those of us in London. I believe that those who voted to leave were profoundly wrong. Nevertheless, as educators we bear an intellectual obligation to seek explanation. As citizens we have a moral obligation to avoid demonising those who disagree with us.

Deconstructing the referendum is not a task amenable to simple explanation. The result was a cataclysmic surprise – unexpected both by those who voted to leave and those who wanted to remain. At one level, the exit vote was a protest intended to shock a complacent elite. The national mood after the result suggests that intention was to rock the boat rather than capsize it.
So, how did the shipwreck happen?
We have awakened demons, given life to gorgons and golems. It may help if we try to give them names.


One of the more obvious implications is that it there is widespread alienation from mainstream politics. The leadership of all of the major parties campaigned to stay in the EU. Most leading figures, ‘the establishment’, in business, creative arts, education and politics were unequivocally in support of remaining, as were liberal cosmopolitans, urban internationalists, like you and me. The views of these groups were rejected decisively by swathes of populations who, literally and metaphorically, are excluded from corridors of influence and the airport lounges of international travellers.

A disunited queendom

The UK is profoundly fractured in many ways:  most clearly by geography, by educational attainment, and age. A younger generation exists for whom Europe is an integral element in their social and political identity. Deep division was especially manifest with regards to immigration, which reflects profound differences in ideologies and experiences. For cosmopolitan liberals, immigration has positive social, intellectual and economic impact. The oppositional view is often – and sometimes justly – characterised as xenophobic and racist. However, it would be unjust and untrue to suggest that all of those troubled by immigration are necessarily racist.
The immigration debate is not only or crucially about facts; it is an emotional issue – shaped by prejudice (certainly) but also by experience and fear. An uncomfortable truth is that, for the most part, the establishment and the cosmopolitan elite do not live in areas of high or recent immigration, nor is their employment compromised. In short, they do not share the issues faced by those who feel themselves to be disadvantaged, even threatened. Unease and fears and about immigration have been ignored or dismissed as parochial, prejudiced and reactionary: a significant population has been marginalised.
In many cases, these disaffected populations represent the traditional white working class who have over years suffered the loss of the industrial and manufacturing base upon which a sense of solidarity was built. This group historically belonged to strong trades unions and supported the Labour Party. They feel, with some justification, that the Labour Party no longer represents them or speaks to their fear, and that the establishment ignores, even vilifies, their views. To understand how parts of the United Kingdom have reached such levels of alienation, we need to delve further.

Individualism and collectivism

In the 20th century, a key ideological conflict was between collectivism and individualism. In the UK, collectivist values were eroded by the decline of those industries which had traditionally enforced community cohesion. In addition, collectivist ideologies were an anathema to Margaret Thatcher – and Ronald Reagan – during the years (1979–1990) in which she was a determined and ideologically-driven Prime Minister.
Communities, based on regional and industrial identities, had historically created powerful working class associations, particularly trades unions, to attempt to rectify unequal power relationships. From legalisation in 1871, trade unions grew in membership and influence. That power was undermined by the historical decline of traditional industries, hastened and encouraged by Thatcher’s government. The National Union of Mineworkers, probably inadvisably, chose to confront the government in a protracted strike from January 1984 to March 1985. This bitter, long and divisive struggle was essentially an ideological confrontation, a struggle for the soul of the nation that the miners were, ultimately, certain to lose.
In microcosm, the miners’ strike enacted a global ideological confrontation between the principles of state socialism and liberal individualism. The ultimate defeat of collectivist political structures was mirrored in the violent destruction of the miners’ union and their communities. It prefigured the ultimate eradication of traditional manufacturing industries and the emasculation of working class associations. The consequences were disastrous, not only economically. Community and traditional pride in identity was undermined, leaving a bitter legacy of distrust of the political establishment. Centralised authority in London (or Brussels), was not likely to be viewed as benign.
The triumph of ideological individualism may, in some circumstances, have led to benefits, but those were not felt in the alienated regions. Community values and collectivist ethics were replaced by the greed of bankers, the excesses of stockbrokers, the ethics of Enron.


We might also consider the potential impact of globalisation, in its various manifestations, upon the referendum result. The worlds in which liberal cosmopolitans – like us – function benefit from the free movement of people, goods and ideas. Despite ambiguities inherent in globalisation, we are at home with most of the consequences and subscribe to an ideology of internationalism.
Globalisation is, however, perceived quite differently by those who feel abandoned and ignored by a privileged elite. It brings foreign ideas and populations into towns. Employment opportunities are undermined; increasing demands are made on limited resources; crucially, it is felt that local identity and security is subverted. Traditional residents lose control over their own destinies. They are victims rather than beneficiaries.
It is possible to argue that this is an emotional, ill-informed view of global dynamics. That may or may not be true, but it is rooted in political and economic inequality: lived experience. Supporters of the leave position repeatedly claimed the restoration of national sovereignty as a primary motive. Control, the argument goes, will devolve to communities and individuals. They will regain the power to define and defend their national or social boundaries and become, again, masters of their own fate. That is both a delusion and a seductive image of a dreamed landscape.

Now what?

We are very far from entirely understanding either the beginning or the end. Rather than speculate, it is more important to understand what we should have already learnt.
There are multiple fragmentations along regional, political, generational, ideological, class, racial and emotional lines. Most obviously, establishment values have been rejected; globalisation is perceived as a negative, even hostile, pressure on the lives of those outside of privileged communities; mainstream political parties have failed to recognise the anxieties of their traditional constituencies and, as a consequence, there are large groups of people who feel abandoned and alienated. The referendum was an act of rebellion: a refusal to accept the opinions of a traditional leadership: a rupture in the psyche of the nation. Menacing and inexplicable shadows populated the emotional landscape. In that gloom, the majority of the population expressed anger at impotence and fear of ultimate disappearance.