Brexit as Nostalgia for Empire

This post was contributed by Dr Nadine El-Enany, lecturer in Law at Birkbeck’s School of Law School. On 15 June 2016, Dr El-Enany presented at Law on Trial – the School’s annual public lecture series which this year focused on the EU referendum. Here, Dr El-Enany touches on the themes she explored in her talk which explored Europe’s current migration crisis.

This post was originally published on CriticalThinking.org on Sunday 19 June 2016.

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This week Jo Cox, a pro-immigration Labour MP was brutally murdered by a man who shouted Britain First as he killed her and who gave his name in court on being charged with her murder as “Death to traitors. Freedom for Britain”.

Jo Cox was killed a week before the referendum on Britain’s EU membership and following months of campaigning which has been dominated by the topic of migration. This referendum has not felt like an exercise in democracy. There is something painfully undemocratic about denying EU citizens from other Member States living in Britain a vote. The message to them is that they do not belong here. Their neighbours, co-workers, friends and family decide on their future for them. Worse still, the referendum has licensed the expression of racism and xenophobia, which has been unleashed with deadly consequences. The racist discourse that has defined the Brexit campaign must be understood in the context of Britain’s imperial legacy. The terms on which the debate around the referendum have taken place are symptomatic of a Britain struggling to conceive of its place in the world post-Empire.

In this context waiting for Lexit is to be the frog in that cautionary tale — the one that sits in boiling water until it is too late. I have taught EU law for many years and have always tried to instil in my students a healthy scepticism about the EU. I have worked to show them that it is possible to be critical of the neoliberal, capitalist, imperialist EU and not fall into the anti-migrant, sovereignty-fetishising UKIP camp. When the EU referendum was first announced, I made a Lexit argument when the topic came up.

A vote for the EU is a vote for capitalism, austerity and militarised borders, I’d say. The reality is that argument has elicited only the minutest of echoes. The Brexit campaign has been entirely dominated by the ugliest form of Euroscepticism imaginable. As Priyamvada Gopal has put it, a vote for Brexit is a vote for the “magnificent lie that exploitation, austerity, greed and impoverishment have all come to Britain from the nasty outside”. Lexit is a dream that has not been realised. Waiting for Lexit is like waiting for Godot — in more ways than one. Graham Hassell has aptly described Beckett’s play of that name as “a metaphor for… mainland Britain, where society has ever been blighted by a greedy ruling élite keeping the working classes passive and ignorant by whatever means.”

The “means” adopted by the Brexit campaign in a bid to sway voters have primarily consisted of scare-mongering on the issue of migration. Despite the rhetoric about migrants being a drain on resources, HMRC tax figures for 2013–14 show that migrants contributed £2.5 billion more than theytook out in benefits, but I will neither myth-bust around migration nor be drawn into a debate about whether or not migrants enrich the societies in which live because fundamentally that is a racist question — it erases the history of the British Empire which has set in motion the migration of today and assumes a pre-existing, static society, membership of which can only be validly determined by birthright. Migrants tend to have the least capital and so are easiest to exploit. We have seen this in the unrelenting scapegoating of migrants that has characterised the Brexit campaign, a convenient distraction from the material consequences of the current government’s austerity measures.

It is not that I expected better of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. I merely hoped they would not succeed, as they have, aided by the British mainstream media, in drowning out the possibility for a Left movement in opposition to the EU to emerge. It is difficult to choose a low point in the Brexit campaign. Was it when Nigel Farage had the gall to say to a black woman who challenged him on the racist rhetoric of the Brexit campaign in the course of a live televised debate that he is “used to being demonised”? Or Michael Gove’s Islamophobic rant about Turkish birthrates and criminality? Or UKIP donor-funded Leave.EU’s recent tweet, “act now before we see an Orlando-style tragedy here before too long”? Or Farage’s latest poster depicting non-white refugees crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015 along with the slogan “Breaking Point”, which has been reported to the police for inciting racial hatred?

Being faced with a choice between between David Cameron and Nigel Farage is a nightmare scenario for any anti-racist and anti-capitalist. With the debate on the referendum eclipsed by the topic of migration, it is no surprise Cameron is struggling to hold the fort having spent the last five years peddling the lie that migrants are to blame for society’s ills rather than his government of millionaires and their penchant for cuts to vital public services. But if Britain votes Leave, it does so on the terms of the racist and xenophobic Brexit campaign. A Leave vote would provide a mandate for Brexit leaders to push for Fortress Britain, which already exists insofar as it can as an EU Member State. Britain is the most fortified of all EU countries. It is not part of Schengen. It has a flexible opt-out from all EU law on immigration and asylum, which it has consistently exercised to opt into restrictive measures that further strengthen its capacity to exclude and out of those aimed at enhancing protection standards.

There is no “refugee crisis” in Britain. Britain has barely increased its resettlement quota in light of the movement of so many desperate Syrians, and a similar number of asylum applications have been made in Britain this year as in 2008 unlike the higher numbers we see in other EU countries. Britain has been the strongest advocate of the EU Dublin Regulation, which sees people seeking asylum confined to Southern Europe, sometimes under conditions found to constitute inhuman and degrading treatment by the European Court of Human Rights. We will see no loosening of Britain’s borders if it leaves the EU, quite the opposite. A Leave vote would provide a validating framework for the enactment of the ugly promises the Brexit campaign has made — take their wish for an Australian style immigration system for example, an idea originally proposed by Tony Blair, inspired by Australia’s “Pacific Solution”. We know what that looks like, visas for the white and privileged while brown and black refugees self-immolate in prisons on remote Pacific islands.

Nor is there a “migration crisis” in Britain. The only crisis identifiable is that caused by a capitalist system which sees the ongoing enrichment of the few and impoverishment of the many. Capitalist and imperialist structures enable oppression on a mass scale. Leaving the EU is not going to ameliorate this. In fact, the British government was so afraid that the EU might empower British workers that it negotiated an opt-out from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights because it guarantees the right of workers to take strike action. Unlike in other EU countries, there is no right to strike in Britain. Successive governments have legislated to curtail the possibility for industrial action, the most recent assault being in the form of the Trade Union Act 2016.

The run up to the EU referendum has shown Britain for what it is. Woodwork: the washed-up bracken of the British Empire, and the ugly flotsam of its legacy of racism. From this woodwork the Brexiters have emerged. They have long romanticised the days of Empire when Britannia ruled the waves and was defined by its racial and cultural superiority. It is no coincidence that Farage has a preference for migrants from India and Australia as compared with East Europeans, and has advocated stronger ties with the Commonwealth. This referendum has not been about Europe, but about Britain and its imperial legacy. For Brexiters, turning their back on Europe and turfing out their neighbours is a step toward salvaging the shipwreck of the British Empire, which saw the exploitation of peoples, their subjugation on the basis of race, a system that was maintained through the brutal and systematic violence of the colonial authorities.

The violence in the Brexit rhetoric of “taking back control of our borders”, of excluding others for self-interested goals at a time when thousands of refugees are dying at sea, is resonant of the racism that pervaded imperial Britain at the time of the 1781 Zong massacre which saw slaves thrown overboard by their captor to save a British slave ship and in the interest of profiting from an insurance claim. If what we want is to live in a more equitable society, it is dangerous to begin by voting for an outcome which has been driven by racism. A nostalgia for empire is no starting point for emancipatory struggle based on solidarity with the oppressed.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck

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Europe at the Crossroads: Professor Everson comments (Part 5)

This post was contributed by Michelle Everson, Professor of Law at Birkbeck. She has written widely on European Economic and Constitutional Law and has advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Central Bank on matters of European Law.

Professor Everson is hosting a week long debate on ‘Europe at the Crossroads’ at Birkbeck (13-17 June). For details and to book your place, please visit the ‘European Law on Trial’ website.

Every day this week, Professor Everson writes for Birkbeck Comments, offering up her thoughts, opinions, and analysis on the EU referendum. Read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4 of her blog.

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European borders: a paradoxical sting in the tail?

A couple of weeks ago, as we were stuck in Rome’s eternal traffic jam, an Italian Professor friend of mine told me a story I recognised, and not without a sliver of pain. In the early 1970s, his father, also an academic, took a sabbatical year at the University of London. Subject to his parents’ irrepressibly optimistic openness to the world, my friend found himself at one of the (little-lamented) Inner London Educational Authority’s finest primary school establishments in Richmond. He did so, however, without any local cultural knowledge, or indeed, being able to speak a word of English. The well-meaning school nonetheless stepped up to the European challenge and provided my friend with mentor, a little girl of mixed Italian-British heritage who might translate. The one problem in this arrangement was the fact that up until this time the little girl had done all in her power to hide her Italian heritage from her playmates, keeping her mother away from the school gates and denying all icons of culture that were not 100% British in origin. Her mortification was absolute. My friend’s embarrassment was total.

Being of much the same age and having grown up with a German mother in Chingford, I immediately recognised the pathology, though for some perverse reason (having a French name perhaps) I always followed a reverse psychology to dealing with the inevitable issues by flaunting my Germanness. No one who didn’t grow up in those grey and xenophobic days can truly understand the frustrations of living within the imagination-stagnation of a culturally-enclosed space, and worse still of a cultural space that seemed far past its sell-by date: Sunday afternoons of interminable repeats of British war films often found me pleading with the Luftwaffe Kommandant on the television not to give Douglas Baader his legs back. At a personal level, and even though I am sometimes shocked by lawlessness of the Italian-Polish mushroom wars now playing out in Epping Forest, I am grateful beyond measure that Europe is at home in London.

Yet, by the same tokens of location and age, I am also a middle-aged Londoner and wholly aware that the xenophobia of the 1970s and 1980s was not, or was not even primarily reserved for Europeans. As successive waves of immigrants from the Caribbean, from East Africa, from the Turkish communities of Cyprus, from Vietnam and from Latin America joined my world, the ineptitude of a UK television culture which persisted in a time warp that never allowed Germans to shed their Swastikas, paled into insignificance in the face of the ready offensiveness of British society towards what was perceived as the rest of the world. Those days are not yet over, but London is at least now more globally inclusive that it has ever been.

So what of Europe, with its by now painfully apparent, increasingly rigidly-enforced and often inhumane territorial borders? Is Europe now defining itself as a stagnant, culturally-enclosed space? This question is particularly relevant for a younger generation, with a heightened global outlook that makes little or any distinction between real or virtual friends in Sydney, Warsaw or Mombasa, or between market and cultural goods created in Beijing, Budapest or Rio de Janeiro. Is a concept of Europe a sustainable or even a just one in a globalising world? Within a social theory of European integration that identifies the only possible measure of a shared European culture as being that of the philosophical universalism which originated within the European Enlightenment, the question leads to the inevitably paradoxical conclusion that Europe can only ever be defined as Europe when it has dissolved itself in the success of its own universalising mission. Equally, from the altogether more pragmatic perspective of global economic development – or of the righting of the enduring structural wrongs of historically-engendered economic inequalities – is an ideational programme of European economic ordering a retrograde step and an act of global injustice?

Professor Michelle Everson

Professor Michelle Everson

In this latter regard, I cannot overcome paradox, and can only answer within the realms of my own personal experience and outlook. For me, Europe is only an ideal and not a place. I do not belong to the Habermasian circle of democratic federalists. At the same time, I cannot but feel that, as in the case of EU Enlargement, a global market justice that is founded in the precept of competitive labour advantage, or the notion that I will correct my own disadvantaged position by working for less than you do, is not justice at all, but a recipe for the abasement of the whole of the human condition. If, in its tentative and messy mastery of the innate tensions between a human desire for economic opportunity and a human want for cultural security, the European Union manages to provide at least a hint of a new model for the globalised economy; if it reminds the world that markets must exist within rather than take dominance over society, it will have done more than we might ever have expected of it.

Law on Trial 2016: The European Union at the Crossroads, runs at Birkbeck from Monday 13 to Friday 17 June. Book a free place here.

Listen to Professor Everson on the topic of the EU referendum in the latest edition of Birkbeck Voices

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Europe at the Crossroads: Professor Everson comments (Part 4)

This post was contributed by Michelle Everson, Professor of Law at Birkbeck. She has written widely on European Economic and Constitutional Law and has advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Central Bank on matters of European Law.

Professor Everson is hosting a week long debate on ‘Europe at the Crossroads’ at Birkbeck (13-17 June). For details and to book your place, please visit the ‘European Law on Trial’ website.

Every day this week, Professor Everson writes for Birkbeck Comments, offering up her thoughts, opinions, and analysis on the EU referendum. Read part 1, part 2 and part 3 of her blog.

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More order, but less Europe

My vote for Europe is not a vote for its current malaise of totalising economic rationalism, for its political, legal and intellectual abdication, or for its heedlessness for the dispossessed of Athens or Lisbon. It is a vote for the European Union qua its status as institution; an institution unique within a global mass of bilateral trade agreements that is bestridden, at the point of its judicial application, by the disembedded economic thinking of a culturally-denuded World Trade Organisation. However imperfectly, the EU, qua institution, is open to the voices of cultural and social self-determination and also to the voices of economic value that are not simply disregarded, but also traduced within dominant economic rationality. Hobbes is very long dead: In their rush to resurrect the dusty fairy tale of national sovereignty, Brexit campaigners, would have us abdicate at the global level, all potential for the re-establishment of political and social self-determination over the economy. We, by contrast, should take our fight for the soul of economic liberalism to Europe.

Norman Tebbit tells an interesting tale of his own disenchantment with the European project. As an airline pilot, working together with colleagues from other European nations in order to ensure airline safety, he was seized by the commonality of his lived experience with the European group, excited and liberated by the ease of communication between pilot-experts who sought to solve common technical problems. Only later did he worry that this technocratic group, in all of its shared enthusiasm, had become divorced from the masses still locked in more generalist national cultural discourse. To this I answer, yes, you are right ‘Norman’ (I’m from Chingford, I can), but only insofar as you are utterly wrong. In academic jargon, ‘epistemic communities’ of shared expertise are major culprits within democracy-denuding technocratisation processes, as well as within the near collapse of the global financial system: why did no one see it coming? Yet, cross-European meetings of like minds can also produce visionary rationalities; and I count myself blessed to be able to sometimes join the first generations of Eurocrats in toasts to their retirements. But, also in the medium of day-to-day, Ryanair-facilitated movement around Europe, in the Europeanisation of media discourse (German television transmitted the Farage-Cameron debate live and in full), in the Europeanisation of consumer, environmentalist, and economic pressure groups, the far broader conversation amongst European peoples can be heard, and is similarly exciting for its commonalities, rather than made discordant by its differences.

What do the peoples of Europe want? They want what we all want: economic and political autonomy, welfare and an effective means of their realisation. In a globalised age that is as unsettling as it is exciting, people want an order of opportunity and of security; and therein lies the common ‘European’ cause for those of the left and of the right. Here, we can identify the joint project for those with tradition and for those who wish to break free from their own cultural confines, the shared programme for those who wish to make use of their new opportunities and for those who prefer their own four stone walls. Yet, this want will never be satisfied, this order will never be created, where we continue to sacrifice ourselves to the totalising and socially-disembedding powers of a dominant economic rationality that is as socially-amoral as it is delusional.

By contrast, our first sacrificial victim in the effort to save economic liberalism within Europe, or to re-establish civilised EU order, must be the notion of economic efficiency, the founding myth of bastardised capitalism. Who on the streets of Athens believes that the unbearable pain of insecurity, of myriad ruined, even curtailed lives can in some way be made good in the maybe never-to-be fulfilled promise of future riches? Also, and perhaps more significantly so, what price the economic opportunities of the farmer or the supplier forced out of business by the price-cutting imperatives of ‘perfectly-efficient’ competition between ever more fast concentrations of economic power? The second sacrifice follows from the first, and for the foreseeable future at least must be given in a commitment to less rather than more Europe.

Professor Michelle Everson

Professor Michelle Everson

Certainly, in European economic constitutionalist mode we can create circumscribed rights of cross-border economic opportunity and can similarly seek to reverse the sad surrender of a once economically-decentralising European competition policy to the efficiency demands of the globally-dominant Chicago School of economics. Yet, by the same ordered token, where the primary locus of social, cultural and emotional attachment remains local, regional or national we must curtail European regulatory impulses, however attractive they might occasionally appear. The complex of ordo-liberal, (Christian) corporatist and social-democratic interests that still, to a certain extent, defines life in Bochum would go down like a lead balloon in Birmingham. Vice versa: the National Health Service, the one major survivor of Britain’s post-war universalist welfare tradition is still met with as much incomprehension in continental Europe as it is in the United States. It is certainly possible that, with time, Europe will find its own way to cultural unity and will embed a European economy within a European society.

In the meantime, however, in the manner of European federalism, this is all just a very pretty dream. The remnants of our national economic traditions left to us are perhaps sometimes irritatingly quaint, but they are still the greatest expression of ‘independent state action in a framework of respect for the economic and political autonomy of citizens,’ and we must all defend them determinedly within the institutions of the European Union, within its law, within its Parliament and within its source of executive competence (the European Council).

Law on Trial 2016: The European Union at the Crossroads, runs at Birkbeck from Monday 13 to Friday 17 June. Book a free place here.

Listen to Professor Everson on the topic of the EU referendum in the latest edition of Birkbeck Voices

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Europe at the Crossroads: Professor Everson comments (Part 3)

This post was contributed by Michelle Everson, Professor of Law at Birkbeck. She has written widely on European Economic and Constitutional Law and has advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Central Bank on matters of European Law.

Professor Everson is hosting a week long debate on ‘Europe at the Crossroads’ at Birkbeck (13-17 June). For details and to book your place, please visit the ‘European Law on Trial’ website.

Every day this week, Professor Everson writes for Birkbeck Comments, offering up her thoughts, opinions, and analysis on the EU referendum. Read part 1 and part 2 of her blog.

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The crisis in economic liberalism: A common ground for the fight?

To confirm the worst suspicions of Eurosceptics, I once met Gisella Stewart, acceptable face of the Brexit campaign, on a bit of junket in Vienna. Maybe I did fly Ryanair (into Bratislava), but I admit that I was also a touch squiffy on a sparking little Zweigelt when, in the hotel lobby, she voiced to me her concerns about the democratic futures of the Union. It was the time of the European Convention and ‘Gisella’ (if I may) was a UK parliamentary delegate to conferences preparing for the birth and unveiling of a shiny Constitution for the Peoples of Europe. Being then as now of a cynical frame of mind I was more relieved than upset by the eventual failure of the European Constitution and the subsequently functionalist approach taken by the European Commission and the member states in the redrafting of the constitutional draft as the Lisbon Treaty.

On the one hand, the sight of past leaders of France and Italy, Valerie Giscard D’Estaing and Guliano Amato (betimes in their battle bus) suborning the peoples of Europe to join them in a glorious democratic future, induced in me only a vaguely Brechtian feeling of alienation. On the other, in my travels around Europe, the only committed federalists I have ever met have been members of the Federalist party (go figure), and some (but definitely not all) EU employees.

In Puglia, Carla looks to the Regione when her vines fail, in Manchester, Martha collects plates of royal weddings, in North Germany, Christian rejoices when Werder Bremen avoids relegation. The daily experience of the vast majority of people in Europe is one of political, cultural and emotional attachment to the local, regional or national level. Although the visions of a democratically-federal Europe proposed, amongst others by great minds such as Jürgen Habermas, offer an obvious and immediate solution to problems of democratic deficit within Europe, the precipitate federalisation of the prisoner’s dilemma would only de-legitimate itself. Bismarck and Garibaldi are long dead: today, the only sustainable European federalisation would be one that felt in the soul as strongly as it is born in conviction.

Nevertheless, Gisella Stewart now makes a telling point. For the left, or so she argues, the European Union is a lost cause. The majority of European governments are formed by right wing or Christian Democratic parties, the European Parliament voted to be led by Claude Juncker, not by Martin Schultz. Fazit: the left can never defeat the dominant economic rationality of the right within the Union. Now, this is all perhaps true, but vitally so, only insofar as the dominant economic rationality that now governs the EU, as it does the globe, is a natural appendage to the right. And here, returning slowly to our much-maligned German ordo-liberals, we might state that all is not as it seems, or that Gisella Stewart is wrong to dismiss the potential for revolution within EU institutions. To the contrary: She is wrong because she has yet to understand the depth of a current crisis that is not simply a crisis of capitalism, but is rather a crisis that challenges the entire political-social edifice of economic liberalism. Seen in this light, the left might yet have common cause with the right within the European Union.

In the years since financial crisis, I have found myself with some strange debating bedfellows; not just the usual cast of well-meaning Germans and culturally-exhausted Italians, but rather also chairs of global insurance companies, heads of compliance within multi-national banking corporations, Christian Democrats of many national hues, community organisers, small-scale entrepreneurs and anxiously-overburdened technocrats. Our shared ground, however, has been a desire to consign the rhetorical usage of the catch-all-hate-term ‘neo-liberalism’, to the dustbin: blindly hating capitalism, or those facets of capitalism we feel are bad does little to extricate us from economic malaise.

Contemporary crisis has its roots in very many distinct movements, not just in unbridled and unprincipled rent-seeking on the part of private actors, but also – in a term coined by the political scientist, Colin Crouch – within a ‘privatised Keynsianism’ promoted by Governments of the left and of the right across the globe, which is predicated on substitution of a putatively endless supply of self-generating private capital for the fiscally-engendered revenues of the now economically-castrated nation state; a process which still continues, albeit now subject to Central Bank oversight of private money creation within a new, but still very vaguely-defined, technocratic function of macro-prudential supervision. Neo-liberalism, when used to denote a rampant and uncontrolled state of market nature, first misses the immediate point that the systemic failure of capitalism is not only being overseen, but is also being promoted, within an exponential growth of regulatory oversight that is dedicated to the service of the chimera of efficiently-perfected competition. Secondly, however, and far more importantly it also misplaces the fatal underlying alienation of all of our dominant economic rationalities from our political and social mores.

If one thing unites the disparate strands of our dominant economic rationality, it is their social amorality, or a denuded worldview that is exhibited either in their belief that man is no more than an economic animal (homo economicus) flourishing or failing in a state of market nature in which not even God finds a place, or in their contrary reification of ‘scientifically-constructed’ and market-fostering regulation, and concomitant denial of any (Hayekian) uncertainty in the affairs of the market or of man: ‘if only we can identify the right logarithms, Capital will always beget more Capital, Amen.’

This is all so very far from a first incarnation of the term neo-liberalism in 1930s Paris as a moral response to the communist and fascist challenge then being made not simply to free markets, but also to the liberal framework of social constitution within which classical economic liberalism had always suspended them. It is also light years away from a first and enduring clarification of this defensive liberalism in the Berlin of 1938. It is a world away from the rebirth of a cornered but still battling economic liberalism by the (anti-) heroes of German ordo-liberalism who sought to secure an ordered, economic constitutionalism within the nation’s highest laws. It is a travesty of the work of academics, steeped in Lutheran tradition, such as, the economists Alexander Rüstow and Walter Eucken, the latter of whom, also bravely resisted Martin Heidegger’s determined attempts to Nazify the University of Heidelberg, as well as the lawyer, Franz Böhm.

For clarity’s sake, I am of the left, and consequently cannot but disagree with vast tracts of ordo-liberal writing. Reading this work often sends me screaming into the garden. Nonetheless, it is not the individual precepts of ordo-liberalism that are at issue here, but rather its idealised view of the economy within society, a model more recently enunciated by one last living link with the beginnings of the movement, the Hamburg Law Professor, Ernst-Joachim-Mestmäcker.

The Economic Constitution:

‘constitutes the political potency of the economic realm … but not with an eye to offering up this realm to the democratic regime; instead, it does so in order to place the democratic regime in a position from which it might disinterestedly achieve its tasks of securing justice and social welfare. The role of the Economic Constitution is not one of securing the priority of the economic realm. Instead, its role is one of enabling the exercise of independent state action in a framework of respect for the economic and political autonomy of citizens.’

In his very final lectures at the Collège de France, Michèl Foucault distinguished ordo-liberal thinkers from what he termed ‘anarcho-liberals’ (read Milton Friedman). Ordo-liberals, so he argued, had an abiding fear of social forces and hence sought to suppress all revolution and reaction by means of their pre-emption within a constraining narrative of constitutionalised freedom. And, indeed, for a radical or collectivist left, this distinction must inevitably mutate into a critique of the forces of conservatism with a small ‘c’ which would similarly deny socialist governments the full use of the political potency of the economic realm.

Professor Michelle Everson

Professor Michelle Everson

Yet, today, in the face of socially- and politically-alienating economic rationalities that have simply forgotten, or choose to ignore the fact that the market exists within society, the painful irony of the left enjoining in a battle to overcome the crisis within economic liberalism is perhaps ameliorated. In its ordo-liberal form, the moral language of economic liberalism is one that we can recognise and engage with. Far more importantly, it is a moral language of political self-restraint which has proven itself accommodating to the demands of counter-posing forces of social tradition and of the left. The success and stability of Germany’s post war economy – and social settlement – was not the work of ordo-liberals alone, but rather the graft of ordo-liberals who fought with but similarly adapted themselves to other world views.

The reforming economic zeal of Ludwig Erhard was open to its tempering within the traditional politics of (Catholic) corporatism pursued by Germany’s first post-war Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. In turn, the forces of social democracy, embodied by Willi Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, also shaped a now sadly-unravelling composite variety of German capitalism – a sometimes frustrating, but always democratic, culturally-rooted and socially-embedded capitalism.

Law on Trial 2016: The European Union at the Crossroads, runs at Birkbeck from Monday 13 to Friday 17 June. Book a free place here.

Listen to Professor Everson on the topic of the EU referendum in the latest edition of Birkbeck Voices

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck

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Europe at the Crossroads: Professor Everson comments (Part 2)

This post was contributed by Michelle Everson, Professor of Law at Birkbeck. She has written widely on European Economic and Constitutional Law and has advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Central Bank on matters of European Law.

Professor Everson is hosting a week long debate on ‘Europe at the Crossroads’ at Birkbeck (13-17 June). For details and to book your place, please visit the ‘European Law on Trial’ website.

Every day this week, Professor Everson writes for Birkbeck Comments, offering up her thoughts, opinions, and analysis on the EU referendum. Read part 1 of her blog here.

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What can we learn from European malaise?

In my time, I have been patronised by the very best of them, including in the late 1990s, Horst Krenzler, an eminence grise of the founding European Commission and, at that time, Chair of a working group on the Eastern Enlargement of the EU. Acting as Rapporteur for a mixed group of functionaries and academics, my frustrations with the – to me – all-too-perverse implications of sealing the liberated futures of newly re-instated nations by requiring them to submit wholesale to the established (and already vast) EU economic rule book, boiled over into the high-pitched question: ‘Why can’t we just give them a Marshall Plan?’ An outburst of general laughter followed, and then, ‘Young lady [I was young then], no-one will pay for it!’

A perception that latter-day surrender of the Union to economic rationalities of market utility dates to, and was precipitated by the unforeseen geopolitical earthquake that followed the fall of the Berlin wall, has much to recommend it. The final surrender of the Deutschmark to long-resisted plans to create a European currency within the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992 was the price that the Federal Republic had to pay for German reunification. By the same token, the EU’s decision to alter the rules of the game of accession to the Union by requiring the nations of Eastern Europe to adopt all European market regulation prior to beginning membership negotiations, cemented the enduring paradigm, whereby Eastern Europe is required to compete itself to economic parity with Western European States.

Not for Poland or Hungary, the long process of adaptation to European rules afforded to the privileged post-dictatorial nations of Portugal and Spain; a break with tradition that also has as its flip-side in an inevitable pressure on wages and social provision in Western Europe, as Eastern workers make full use of their competitive labour advantage. And finally, as Germany – under pressure both from unfavourable Eurozone interest rates and from the financial burdens of reunification  emerged in the early 2000s as the sick man of Europe, economic conditionality first made itself felt when the then socialist Government bequeathed to us all the first lodestone of subsequent austerity regimes in its brutal curtailment of national welfare provision and simultaneous establishment of a debt brake on national expenditure.

If full truth be told, however, the destructive potentialities of economic rationality had already begun to afflict the European Economic Community a decade earlier as the rhetorical dominance of Thatcherism and Reagnomics extended throughout the Continent, colonising market integration logics to lever out distinct varieties of European capitalism from complex national patterns of sometimes corporatist, and sometimes welfarist economic-political organisation.

Campaigners for Brexit are obsessed to the point of absurdity with the safeguarding of a national sovereignty that is a simple chimera in our contemporary world of global economic interdependence. They pay little if any attention to the historical paradox that, whilst the then European Court of Justice had established its doctrine of the limitation of national sovereignty as early as the 1960s (in the now legendary cases of Van Gend en Loos and Costa v ENEL), a palpable loss of national territorial control only emerged with the success – originating at national level – of programmes of new economic liberalism in the 1980s. Far more than the Single European Act of 1986, establishing majority voting in the Council of Ministers for measures creating the Single European Market, it was this new predominance of the liberalising economic-political mind that created a beginning of the end of human self-determination, be that self-determination national, European or global.

That markets are never simply markets became very clear to me with regard to my then field of study: the integration of private insurance and finance markets. Comparing German with UK provision, I was left disquieted by the happy coincidence between demands for the capital-generating efficiency promised by a single European finance market and the concomitant integrative unravelling through legislation and case law of decades-long schemes of regulation with all of their underlying interest accommodations between consumers, industry and national economic policy. Certainly, in this case the already-liberal UK was not to be an immediate looser as the axe fell instead upon a largely stagnant scheme of German financial regulation, which had escaped the reformist zeal of the Federal Republic’s economically-liberalising post-war Finance Minister, Ludwig Erhard, and which seemed instead to serve more corporatist interests within a controlled economic policy of inward investment.

Yet, as the 1980s progressed into the 1990s, which also brought with them a sea-change in European competition policy away from range of market offer and towards economic efficiency, with its concomitant prising out of Germany’s local investment banks (Landesbanken) from their restrictively-controlled role of (state-supported) structural financing, we were all soon to pay a very high price indeed for the rolling out of a level competitive field by means of the flattening of distinct, nationally-embedded economies.

The example of insurance and finance markets may be a small one, but it was replicated across the Single Market, and also gains in vital significance when seen in the light of sovereign debt crisis and the EU’s own austerity regime imposed in order to shore up the Euro. A powerful analysis squarely lays the blame for the anti-democratic and economically self-defeating regime of New Economic Governance within the Eurozone on the shoulders of a German theory and ideal of ‘ordo-liberalism’. Working with the powerful mantra of ‘never again’, ordo-liberalism, it is said, seeks still, in its unfortunately-displaced act of memory politics, to fight the bogey of hyper-inflation experienced in Germany in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street crash, asserting its supreme goal of the constitutionalisation of monetary stability throughout the Eurozone within new European technocratic crisis law.

Contrary to the explicit terms of the European treaties, financial succour may be given to the debtor nations of the Eurozone, but – with the full blessing of the Court of European Justice (Pringle) – will necessarily be subject to the imposed brutality of an economic conditionality which makes even the International Monetary Fund think again. The hands of the European Central Bank will be tied by the constitutionalised principle of monetary stability, such that it cannot engage in the inflationary policies that might save the Eurozone without imposing unbearable pain upon its weakest members.

Finally, the air of permanent austerity is cemented within the Eurozone and far beyond as its members are required to constitutionalise a debt brake, and its non-members, or their politicians, seize on the rhetorical powers of financially self-restraining government to garner votes from a public bludgeoned in to believing that there is simply no alternative. Germany reaps and Greece weeps: German history, its painful remembrances, dictate the rules of the Eurozone game such that all Greeks – and with them all Europeans – who dream of a different way of doing things are left bereft, devoid of political voice in their vain battering against a tight mesh of legal and technocratic inevitability.

So far so German, but a slightly more nuanced tale may also be told: ‘Zutiefst unDeutsch’ is my ungrammatical and increasingly exasperated cry each time I stagger out of a Ryanair flight in Berlin, Frankfurt or Munich. This is all so unGerman. All those things that used to irritate me as much as I prized them: the ridiculously restricted shopping hours nonetheless balanced by service from an assistant who knew, after years of apprenticeship, exactly which vegetable peeler I might need to tackle my slightly woody asparagus; the sense of innovative ambition frustrated by centuries of craft and guild tradition counter-posed in equal measure by continuity and security.

All gone, or going, in the blink of an eye, or in the 30 years of an equalising and disembedding bastardisation of capitalism that has seen German financial institutions ejected from their drearily-constructive roles of fostering engineering enterprises in Dresden, Dortmund and Detmold and unpreparedly-launched instead upon a global financial market ruled by a myth as insane as it an opiate for the masses who have been ejected from their economic vocations, to now flit instead from zero-hours contract to zero-hours contract: Capital will beget Capital, world without end, Amen. Take a look at the destructive role played by WestLB, once the proudest and most constant donators of venture capital to Wolfgang in Wuppertal, in the Irish housing, and ask yourself this: did Germanness or unGermanness cause financial crisis in the first place?

Professor Michelle Everson

Professor Michelle Everson

So what have we learned from Europe? That it is bad, or that it is good? In its ideological substance, it is neither, but it has been held captive for the past 30 years by an economic rationality that was born and nurtured at national level, is now dominant on a global stage, and is often seized upon by equalising institutions as a short cut to European integration. Yet, within the EU, we do at least have institutions – institutions that have betimes resisted bastardised capitalism, the extraordinarily measured European Court of Justice of the 1980s being a case in point. It is this that distinguishes Europe from the still-uncivilised global stage; meanwhile, European institutions provide us with the best framework within which we can begin the fight back.

Brexit campaigners would have us believe that with its sovereignty restored, the UK will bestride a global stage, operating autonomously and serenely within the World Trade Organisation here, and calmly concluding bilateral trade agreements there. The delusion is absolute: neither the WTO, nor international treaties possess ameliorating institutions; the Investor Protection principle – now being successfully resisted by the institution of the European Parliament within bilateral trade negotiations between the EU and the US (TTIP) – is not only the sine qua non of all existing bilateral trade agreements, but also the final bonfire of the vanity of national sovereignty, establishing the absolute primacy of all trade interests and requiring signatory states to compensate economic forces who have been so sadly inconvenienced by their (social as well as economic) regulatory protections.

Law on Trial 2016: The European Union at the Crossroads, runs at Birkbeck from Monday 13 to Friday 17 June. Book a free place here.

Listen to Professor Everson on the topic of the EU referendum in the latest edition of Birkbeck Voices

 

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If we want the UK-born poor to vote Remain we need to take their grievances seriously

This post was contributed by Professor Stephen Wright, of Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics.

drapeaux européens

I am a Remainer. As an economist the arguments for staying in the EU seem to me pretty clearly to outweigh the arguments for leaving. As a private individual I also clearly benefit from the EU. Polish carers look after my 97-year old mother (very well). I work in multiethnic and prosperous London. I have a Serbian-Dutch prospective son-in-law. I travel quite often in Europe and like the cheap flights (who doesn’t?). And the Central and Eastern Europeans who serve my coffee at the station are so polite and efficient.

But when personal incentives coincide with intellectual arguments we need to be careful. When I criticised the pro-Brexit arguments of Patrick Minford of Cardiff University in an email he responded that my arguments were a “metro-elite rant”. He had a point.

I quote from his email (my insertions in parentheses for clarity)

The problem is the balance between skilled and unskilled (migrants) and the complete lack of control that affects large swathes of the country with pressure from large numbers of
unskilled (migrant) workers: effects on housing, hospitals and schools, not to speak of wages (though evidence here is hard to get). Look, if the elite will not compensate these guys they must expect a political explosion which they have now got.

I reiterate: I am, and remain, a Remainer. But Patrick does have a point. If we Remainers do not take these arguments seriously, and – ideally – try to persuade policymakers to do something about these problems – there is a very serious risk that the Brexiteers will win the vote.

One chart, from the LSE’s John Van Reenen and co-authors (See Footnote 1) tells most of the story.

CEP 6

Source: CEP analysis of Labour Force Survey. Wadsworth et al. (2016: 7). Notes: Median wage is deflated by the CPI.

And, as with so many charts, the story that it tells depends on your perspective. From the perspective of a UK-born worker at the lower end of the distribution what they can see, without any advice from expert economists, is that the real value of their wages has fallen almost continuously (by around 10% for someone on the median wage –See Footnote 2) since the peak before the crisis. They can also see, without the aid of the chart (who cannot?) that at the same time the share of EU migrants in the population has risen steadily. And, inevitably they draw a link between the two phenomena.

Van Reenen and co-authors point out (quite correctly) that the share of EU migrants had been rising well before real wages started falling, indeed, as the chart shows, during a period in which real wages were still rising steadily. They also point to a range of evidence showing a lack of a link between EU migration and UK-born wages or unemployment. And they reiterate the arguments that Brexit would lower GDP via reduced trade, job losses, and higher prices of imported goods.

So should we just dismiss the arguments about EU migration as xenophobic scaremongering? Well of course a lot of it is pretty unpleasant, and often verges on the xenophobic. But that does not mean we can simply dismiss the arguments out of hand.

Wages and unemployment, first of all. Is the case against a link proven by the lack of a correlation? Here is one of the charts that Van Reenen and co-authors use to make their case.

Source: CEP analysis of Labour Force Survey. Wadsworth et al. (2016: 10). Notes: Each dot represents a UK local authority. The solid line is the predicted ‘best fit’ from a regression of local authority percentage change in wages on the local authority change in share of EU immigrants. These are weighted by the sample population in each area. Slope of this line is -0.08 with standard error of 0.15, statistically insignificantly different from zero.

Source: CEP analysis of Labour Force Survey. Wadsworth et al. (2016: 10).
Notes: Each dot represents a UK local authority. The solid line is the predicted ‘best fit’ from a regression of local authority percentage change in wages on the local authority change in share of EU immigrants. These are weighted by the sample population in each area. Slope of this line is -0.08 with standard error of 0.15, statistically insignificantly different from zero.

This shows that there has been essentially a zero correlation between changes in real wages in any given local authority and the increase in EU migration in the same local authority. Case proven, it seems.

But pause, just for a moment. Basic statistics courses teach that “correlation need not imply causation”. But there is a subtler version: lack of correlation need not imply lack of causation. Here’s a simple argument (which is easy to substantiate with a couple of lines of algebra).

Suppose that real wages at a regional level tend to be stronger (which in recent years typically means to fall less rapidly than the average – look at the y-axis on the chart) where the regional economy is stronger. And suppose that EU migrants know this. Where will they tend to move to in the UK? Well, to the more prosperous regions, of course. Now suppose that the Remain arguments are correct, and more EU migrants do not have any effect on wages. If that was the case, then we should expect to see a positive correlation in the scatter diagram, but we do not. Whereas if EU migrants do depress wages, this would dampen the positive relationship and possibly result in no correlation at all. Which is what we see in the chart.

Now Van Reenen and his co-authors are all excellent econometricians so they all know this kind of argument perfectly well. Which makes their arguments all the more disingenuous. I’m not claiming that this proves there has been a serious impact on wages. There has been plenty of more sophisticated research which suggests it is hard to find an impact either way (and which Minford acknowledges in the quote above). But that does not in itself prove the argument wrong.

What about hospitals and schools? Well here the Remain argument is on the face of it much stronger. Van Reenen and others have shown that EU migrants are pretty clearly net contributors to the public purse. But the only problem with this argument to the UK-born worker is that there is no direct observable impact of these higher tax receipts on hospitals and schools. We do not have labels on CT scanners or smart whiteboards saying “these facilities were paid for using the extra tax receipts from EU migrants paypackets”. All they can see is the queues and the letters assigning their child to a school two bus rides away.

And finally, of course, housing. Well here of course, all the economists agree. And the policymakers. Everyone agrees. Absolutely everyone. We must build more houses.

But we don’t. Or at least not enough. Nor have we, for decades. As a result, UK households spend more on housing, per square metre of residential land, then any other European country except Luxembourg (See Footnote 3).

Does EU migration make things worse? Well of course it must do. (Even Nigel Farage can be right once in a while.) The CEP paper documents that the number of EU migrants in the UK rose by 2.4 million between 1995 and 2015. That accounts for roughly one third of the total growth of population in the UK over that period. And meanwhile, as Bank of England governor Mark Carney pointed out back in 2014, the UK builds half as many houses each year as Canada despite having twice the population.

No one disagrees that this is crazy. Yet neither the government nor the opposition have made any move to do anything serious about it. Despite the fact that bringing down the cost of housing could be the most effective way (and possibly the only effective way) of raising living standards for UK workers in the medium to long term.

But don’t get me started on housing. It is a serious, a very serious problem, that goes way beyond arguments about Brexit. But, I reiterate, EU migration must be making it worse.

Does all of this mean that I think we should stop EU migration? (Even if we could, which is of course debatable, even post-Brexit). It does not. Despite the fact that, as I noted at the start, my personal interests coincide with my professional judgement, I stick with that judgement. The EU brings benefits. EU migrants bring benefits. To me, and people like me, especially. To the economy on average, almost certainly. But not to everyone.

Pro-Remain policymakers need to start thinking fast about acknowledging this, and how to offer something to the poor and dispossessed of this country to compensate them explicitly for the costs of EU migration. This would not be impossible: remember the last-ditch crossparty promises before the Scottish vote? Maybe these made a difference, maybe they didn’t. But it is worth a try. Very soon it will be too late.

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Courses at the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics

Images sourced from Wadsworth, J., Dhingra, S., Ottaviano, G., Van Reenen, J., and Vaitilingam, R. (2016) ‘Brexit and the Impact of Immigration on the UK’. CEP BREXIT ANALYSIS NO. 5. Available online, last retrieved 13 June 2016.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck

Footnotes

  1. “Brexit and the Impact of Immigration on the UK”, Jonathan Wadsworth, Swati Dhingra, Gianmarco Ottaviano and John Van Reenen, CEP Brexit Analysis No. 5.
  2. The CEP document shows that the fall for those on the 10th decile has been somewhat larger, and started
    earlier.
  3. De La Porte Simonsen, L and Wright, S (2016) “Residential Land Supply in 27 EU Countries: Pigovian Controls or Nimbyism?, paper presented to Birkbeck Centre for Applied Macroeconomics Annual Workshop, May 2016.
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Europe at the Crossroads: Professor Everson comments (Part 1)

This post was contributed by Michelle Everson, Professor of Law at Birkbeck. She has written widely on European Economic and Constitutional Law and has advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Central Bank on matters of European Law.

Professor Everson is hosting a week long debate on ‘Europe at the Crossroads’ at Birkbeck (13-17 June). For details and to book your place, please visit the ‘European Law on Trial’ website.

Every day this week, Professor Everson writes for Birkbeck Comments, offering up her thoughts, opinions, and analysis on the EU referendum.

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Order in chaos

Assaulted on all sides by a vilely-tempered and wholly ill-informed Brexit ‘debate’, I ask myself daily why I am going to Vote Remain. I may be known as a Professor of European economic and constitutional law, but do not belong to the ordinarily-rapturous academic fan base for the European Union. Quite the country, the determination of all-too-many of my colleagues to view the EU only through rose-tinted lenses confounds me, and always has done. From the 1980s onwards, when, as a PhD student, I discovered in my own research that European integration was synonymous with a process of the disintegration of intricate historical-political accommodations, social mores and economic interest-balancing at the national level, my default appreciation of the Union has been one of suspicion. In the meantime, as the EU has been engulfed in financial and sovereign debt crisis and has been unable to respond coherently to migration crisis, my critique of the current deeds of the Union makes many a Brexit campaigner look moderate.

From the destruction of political choices within the regime of economic austerity constructed in the effort to contain sovereign debt crisis (European Stability Mechanism and Fiscal Compact), to the reduction of Greece to the colonial status of dumping-ground within a punitive migration regime that is as dysfunctional as it is immoral, the EU has been found wholly wanting. Worse still, as the normally-sustaining European rule of law has collapsed within politically-expedient judicial law-making to sustain the Eurozone through constitutionalised imposition of economic conditionality (Thomas Pringle, heard by the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2012), the very ideal of Europe as a continent of justice, democracy and solidarity has itself been traduced.

Yet, the European Union, even, and perhaps especially so in its flawed current incarnation remains one of the most ambitious political projects ever conceived. Far beyond its original pragmatically-ideational roots within the post-war desire to bind national economies so tightly to one another that any future conflict would be an impossibility, and outside the delusional realm of federalist dreams (we, the people, simply do not want one), the Union also embodies an old-new ideal of order in chaos, or of self-determination beyond the self-referential reaches of territorial sovereignties. This is its inspirational strength, but perhaps also its real-world tragedy as it is caught up in the self-same paradoxes of all such universalising projects – be they of might (colonial), or of the mind (religious) – as it equalises differences between its constituent parts, and creates its own self-referential communitarianism through the seemingly inescapable definition of its own territorial boundaries.

The Brexit debate has been dominated by a fight about facts. In the one corner, those determined to catapult the UK out of the Union have been evermore inventive (read mendacious) in their pursuit of figures that putatively demonstrate the unbearable strains of integration upon UK population numbers and the Exchequer. In the other corner, Vote Remain’s assertion that a no vote will lead to economic shock is better backed up by reputable research, but the campaign is nonetheless careless in failing to highlight that all economic prognoses contain their own uncertainties. The debate has been sadly misdirected as each side seeks to present a ‘truth’ of statistics. By contrast, little or no attention is paid in to visions of how the global world, the EU and the UK within it, might be ordered for the good. Yet, while cost-benefit analysis of EU membership will, in any objective analysis, simply falter within the complexities of the balancing of trade or social benefits against their regulatory costs, our age of economic globalisation is urgently demanding our conceptual attention: what are its challenges, how can we tame economic powers that ignore national boundaries, is there a common good within this global world and, if so, how might we defend it?

For a present-day generation of people living within Europe, a generation long distanced from the absolute moral certainty of a post-war generation determined never again to break the peace, and, in its youthful global outlook, even less inclined to commit to a culturally-foreclosing European federalism, there is only one possible ideational vision of Europe to which they might commit: the search for an order in chaos, for a form of governing beyond closed national communities; an order which defies the inequalities created by unconstrained markets and capital, and an order which seeks also to establish justice, democracy and solidarity outside the certainties of a once-sustaining but now illusionary territorial (national) sovereignty. The European Union of 2016 is not the European Economic Communities of 1958, having morphed from an international community of market building into a supranational body of ever closer Union between its peoples. Nor is the European Union of 2016 a happy or uncontroversial one, as efforts to save the Euro feed the pressure for ‘more Europe’, but simultaneously undermine the political and social values that must always be a part of the European project.

Michelle Everson

Professor Michelle Everson

Yet, throughout its history and still today, the European project has been the drawing board for a sustainable ideal of civilised internationalism. That Europe is and always will be beset by its own contradictions of equalisation and boundary-drawing, or that it seems, currently, to be complicit within rather than controlling of the economic forces that are globally threatening to overwhelm all human (non-economic) self-determination, are happenings that simply cannot be denied. At the same time, however, Europe’s current malaise cannot and should not be taken as reason to walk away from the best enunciated and most practised iteration of the search for order in chaos offered by any post-national organisation now operating on the global stage. Instead, we must learn from Europe’s failures in order to fight within the EU for all of the advantages of order in chaos; for opportunities of human innovation on the one hand (rights of engagement within markets), and for the securities of self-determination on the other (rights of control over markets).

Law on Trial 2016: The European Union at the Crossroads, runs at Birkbeck from Monday 13 to Friday 17 June. Book a free place here.

Listen to Professor Everson on the topic of the EU referendum in the latest edition of Birkbeck Voices

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How welcoming is academia to LGBT staff?

This post was contributed by Professor Matt Cook, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. This comment piece first appeared on Thursday, May 5, in the Times Higher Education. The article “How welcoming is academia to LGBT staff?” features six academic’s responses to the question.

Birkbeck values its diversity and celebrates IDAHO – International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

“Many of those engaged in these early struggles and projects have sustained strong supportive networks. I have benefited hugely from these”

Professor Matt Cook

Professor Matt Cook

As a gay academic working on queer themes in history, my feelings of comfort and belonging owe a lot to the emergence of new areas of scholarship, to my discovery of community among colleagues and students – and to good timing.

I began my postgraduate studies in the mid‑1990s, just as work on gender and sexuality had gained some credibility and was even fashionable in some places – not least at Queen Mary University of London, where I found myself. By the time I emerged with my PhD in 2000, much ground had already been laid and my specialism was not the impediment to gaining an academic post that it had been for the preceding generation. There was a growing sense that explorations of sexuality had a real significance to broader understandings of society, culture and politics – past and present.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the scholars in the UK who inspired me – Jeffrey Weeks, Lynne Segal and Sheila Rowbotham among them – wrote much of their early work outside the university sector or against the grain of the jobs they were being paid for. They were nurtured instead by political and community networks arising from women’s and gay liberation, from the Gay Left collective and also from the History Workshop movement and journal (which, from its inception, had taken gender and sexuality – and those working beyond the academy – seriously). Such scholars had to argue that women’s and gay history were not marginal or peripheral areas of study and had a place in university departments. Once hired, some of them (including those I’ve mentioned) faced overt disdain or were “benignly” expected to focus on other things seen as more significant.

There was some notable resistance to this marginalisation. At the University of Sussex in 1991, Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore established the Sexual Dissidence master’s programme, exploring history, literature, post-structural and queer theory. It felt especially urgent in the context of the Aids crisis, Clause 28 (which prevented UK local councils from “promoting homosexuality”) and a broader homophobic backlash. Unsurprisingly, it was derided as insignificant, trendy (an insult in this context) and part of a “Loony Left” agenda. But, tellingly, the programme is still running 25 years on.

Read the original Times Higher Education article here

Read the original Times Higher Education article here

Many of those engaged in these struggles and projects have sustained strong supportive networks. I have benefited hugely from these. Research and teaching projects have meanwhile allowed me to work with LGBT community groups and with archive and museum professionals – giving me sustaining anchor points outside academia.

At Birkbeck, University of London – my institutional home for the past 10 years – I have found further communities. One is a history department with a collective commitment to wide-ranging historical work (and the intersections that it fosters). Another is with colleagues brought together through the Birkbeck Interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality research centre. A third is with students whose engagement with their studies has often been underpinned by much more direct experiences of discrimination and marginalisation than I have had to deal with. Being a white, middle-class man has made me an insider in more ways than my queerness has set me apart.

Matt Cook is professor of modern history at Birkbeck, University of London and the author, most recently, of Queer Domesticities: Homosexuality and Home Life in Twentieth-Century London (2014).

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Notes from an intern at the Guildhall Art Gallery

This post was contributed by Fiona Ratcliffe, who is currently studying for an MA Victorian Studies at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Here Fiona writes about her internship experience at the Guildhall art Gallery from January to March 2016.

The internship was carried out as a module on the MA programme – a popular element of the course in which successful students have the opportunity to spend a term working with one of London’s Victorian cultural institutions, gaining first-hand experience of working in the cultural sector and using their host institution’s archives to develop a unique research project. Previous interns have worked with the Dickens House Museum, and the Salvation Army Heritage Centre and Archive.

Guildhall Small Size-4Day One

Having cleared Security (a permanent fixture at galleries today), I meet the small, industrious team behind the scenes at the Guildhall Art Gallery – Katty (Curator), Andrew (responsible for the Roman Amphitheatre) and Jeremy who, as General Manager, handles the practical running of the Gallery.

Katty warns that finding desk (and computer) space is a constant challenge and I will inevitably have a variety of work-places, including perched in a corner of the small shop, gaining an insight into that essential income-generator for museums.

My first task is to familiarise myself with the preparations for the forthcoming exhibition, Victorians Decoded, opening in September. This exhibition will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the successful Transatlantic telegraphic cable-laying, demonstrating how artists subsequently re-imagined time and space, responding to their changing world.

In addition to artworks from the Gallery’s collection, five loans have been requested from other institutions. So far, the Royal Holloway Picture Gallery has confirmed the loan of Edward Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes with the stipulation of a T-Crate for transportation – leading to challenges of storing the crate, space being at a premium here.

Early Weeks

Switching tasks (a constant theme ensuring plenty of variety), I am asked to prepare visitor-friendly information on the ‘Fire Judges’ for a Museum of London exhibition on the Great Fire. This involves circumnavigating the archives – a tiny cupboard space – to research the portraits of the judges who processed property and boundary claims prior to rebuilding the City.

Guildhall Art Gallery

Guildhall Art Gallery

The Gallery is delightfully intimate and peaceful but being within the City’s municipal building, the Corporation’s civic presence is constantly apparent – particularly when the whole building goes into ‘total shut down’ (a security measure) while The Sun hosts The Millies, an awards ceremony commending military bravery, and I realise I may not be able to leave or return at lunchtime. In my haste to get a sandwich, I bump into Rod Stewart, Jeremy Clarkson and Boris Johnson – as a friend asked later, “What sort of gallery is this?”

It’s time for the de-installation of the exhibition “No Colour Bar”. Paintings are shrink-wrapped and swiftly taken through a side-exit by a specialist removal firm – with Katty’s eyes on every move whilst the door is temporarily de-alarmed.

Katty explains that loaned artworks are covered by ‘Nail to Nail’ insurance with the borrowing gallery insuring the painting for loss or damage for the duration. Surprisingly, the borrower also funds and organises any requisite conservation or frame refurbishment.

Exhibitions have astonishingly lengthy lead-times and London galleries are currently collaborating on exhibitions up to 2023 – including a London-themed one for which I am asked to source suitable artworks from the collection database. The remit is not just Victorian art, which is refreshing, but does lead to ‘St. Paul’s overload’.

In Week 3, Sonia (the Principal Curator) departs on maternity leave and we join the Conservation team for her farewell tea-party. Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata aloofly surveys us tucking into cake, and I notice just how exposed a painting appears without its frame. Excitingly up close to the brushstrokes, I am shown various tears and some ‘tenting’ where it has lifted from the canvas.

Middle Weeks

A memorable day! I join the planning meeting for Victorians Decoded and am asked to help with research in preparation for exhibit captions – a steep lesson in brevity. I’m struck during the meeting how much events-planning and budget control predominates – along with the logistics underpinning the positioning of cables and procurement of objects such as a telegraph machine. We didn’t discuss the art at all!

Heading towards spring, the gallery is becoming busier, visited by schools, interest-groups and individuals, many joining the in-house talks. One of the guides tells me that she’s a retired City financial journalist and had looked for voluntary work but could only find weeding in Epping Forest, so just called in at the gallery and was welcomed as a guide. Her groups are usually small and it often turns into a two-way exchange so she’s continually learning too.

In five years, footfall has increased from 30,000 to 100,000, reflecting a widening demographic – younger, international with rising tourism in the City, and also more Londoners increasingly culture-seeking in their own city. Exhibitions are vital – a way for a lesser-known gallery to achieve publicity, although a recurring tension between free access and charging for exhibitions persists.

It’s Friday afternoon and we’re surveying the new Robin Reynolds’ 2016 artwork of London commissioned by the Gallery to hang next to Visscher’s 1616 cityscape. As a commemoration of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, Reynolds has incorporated references to all 37 plays but we’re not here trying to identify them. Unfortunately, the canvas is ‘bulking’ where the artist has tried to fix a central rip, at eye level. The conservators arrive, armed with various canisters, but are unable to do a quick fix –it will have to be dismantled, repaired and re-framed as quickly as possible by this time-pressed team.

Final Week

Inside Guildhall Art Gallery

Inside Guildhall Art Gallery

Another exhibition, Martin Parr – Unseen City, begins and there is a flurry of media activity. Katty’s role requires multiple skills – preparing speeches for opening nights, coordinating hanging and lighting, and dealing with both the press and the local authority the Gallery belongs to, who approve the exhibitions but may still express criticisms with the outcome.

Preparations are escalating for Victorians Decoded, with the room layout established six months ahead. A balancing-act is required to ensure the technical aspects of telegraphy are comprehensible, whilst providing substance for visitors specialising in art and science. A subsequent challenge will be to fill the spaces in the permanent collection where paintings have moved to the exhibition. Katty describes it as a four-dimensional puzzle: satisfying the aesthetic, chronological & contextual, scale & size, and overall fit.

On my last day, Katty gives visiting VIPs a private viewing of two Pre-Raphaelite artworks held in store – Millais’ sketch of Lorenzo and Isabella (being watercolour the picture can’t be regularly exposed to UV for long periods of time, which precludes it from being on permanent display) and charcoal drawings from Holman Hunt’s sketchbook. Both the guests and I feel utter wonder at having access to these hidden gems – a true privilege of working behind the scenes in this very special gallery.

The internship has altered my perception of artworks and I’m now far more aware of their vulnerability. Visiting an exhibition will never be the same again, having witnessed the in-depth forward-planning and bustle behind the scenes. Ultimately, however, the experience has opened up new avenues and inspired me to pursue research opportunities with galleries after graduation.

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On being attractive – and dumbing down the blond(e)

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Briden-Starr Aspinell (8053352575)A congress of blonds/blondes[1] is holding a maths quiz on stage, in order to show the world that blonds/es are not as dumb as they are made out to be. The first contestant has great hair but is really struggling with the question put to her: “What is 3+2?” Eventually she screws up her courage and ventures: “6?”

The audience – made up of blonds/es – starts clapping but the compere interrupts: “I’m sorry, that is not correct”. The crowd roars: “Give her another chance! Give her another chance!” But when asked the sum of 4+1, the contestant stumbles again.

“Give her another chance! Give her another chance!”, the blonds/es chant once again. Finally she cries out “I’ve got it! It’s 5!” As one, the crowd roars out, “Give her another chance! Give her another chance!”

The audience at this contest might not be the ideal candidates for a university degree, but in the struggle to sign up students in difficult economic times, universities need to make themselves as attractive as possible to all potential applicants. Many of them are of course affected by which course has the lowest fees, the best location, the most famous professors. But how can we present the actual courses as attractively as possible?

Is ‘Linguistics’ too difficult?

Free College Pathology Student Sleeping Creative Commons (6961676525)In Linguistics as in other subjects, this means keeping up with current issues and interests; for example, our department would ideally like to introduce an option on CMC[2] – not just out of a desire to be trendy, but because this is a serious issue affecting not only how we communicate but also language itself (see for example the recent Routledge Handbook of Language and Digital Communication, eds. Georgakopoulou and Spilioti).

Another aspect of being attractive is to do with what courses, and even departments, are called. Two of my earlier blogs are relevant here: one about the – almost magical – power of names, and another about how Linguistics is among the least well understood of academic disciplines. In the second one, I was thinking of the public in general rather than potential students. The latter, one would hope, might at least have looked the word up on Wikipedia. However some colleagues seem to be taking the need to be attractive to heart…perhaps too much? It has been suggested that the term ‘Linguistics’ is too difficult, too intellectual, too off-putting. We should call our department and our courses by some other name. We have already become a Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication, but that was not in order to be more attractive; it is because we are now teaching a completely different subject alongside linguistics.

The study of Communication does not require burning the midnight oil over phonetics, phonology, syntax, morphology, language change, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, bilingualism, semantics, pragmatics – to mention but a few of the sub-categories within linguistics – and has indeed proved a crowd-puller. But does that mean we should get rid of “Linguistics”??? And that because potential students applying for postgraduate courses can’t understand what it means ?!?? Surely even in these straightened times, there are some students we actually do not want.

‘Stuff about language’

It does make you think though. How much better the History Department’s recruitment would be if it was renamed the Department of Things that Happened in the Past (or, as they define it in the History Boys, One Bloody Thing after the Other). Physics could be renamed How Objects Behave.

Why talk of Geography when you could make millions in fees by calling it Where People and Mountains Are? Economics could be How to Spend It (or Not) – though the Financial Times supplement got there first; Law could be Rules you Had Better Obey; Philosophy could be Thinking it Through, and even Media Studies could surely be made (even) more attractive by being renamed Watching the Box. Exciting possibilities.

But Linguistics? What else could we call it, with all those tiresome sub-disciplines? Stuff about Language? Suggestions from readers would be welcome – and if all else fails, I guess we could always ask a blond(e).

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[1] Linguistic fact of the day: did you know this was the only English adjective to be marked for gender?

[2] Computer-mediated communication

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