The universities are sometimes thought to consist entirely of Remainers who are determined to thwart Brexit and silence anyone who disagrees with them. This view was last night demolished at University College London.
For UCL hosted a meeting entitled “The Intellectual Case for Brexit”. It is true that other views are still entertained there: Nick Clegg recently spoke in the same series, organised by the UCL School of Public Policy.
But last night was the turn of Robert Tombs, Professor of French History at Cambridge, who has just helped launch a website, Briefings for Brexit, on which academics make the case for leaving the European Union.
There was standing room only in the J.Z.Young Lecture Theatre at UCL, where Tombs and Sir Richard Aikens, a former Court of Appeal judge, were to speak in favour of Brexit. I was somewhat surprised, and even impressed, to find that the three young women sitting next to me, who were from Turkey, supposed the main interest of the evening would be psychological.
But it emerged the hall had been double booked, and some members of the audience thought they were about to hear a lecture about “The psychological impact on children of parental alienation”.
Once that muddle had been cleared up, and the psychology students had departed, there was still standing room only to hear Tombs, who in 2014 published his magisterial account of The English and Their History. His analysis was not, however, historical.
He was concerned instead to throw the subject forward, by pointing out that if a second referendum were now to be held, we could not “just put the clock back to 2016”, and would instead face the question, “Do we want to rejoin or not?”
And even supposing we had not voted to leave the EU, we would still find ourselves facing “a rather difficult choice”. For as President Macron pointed out in his speech at the Sorbonne, the EU faces an existential crisis: either it will break up, or it will move forward and become a true federation – a sovereign Europe.
“What EU do we want to rejoin?” Tombs asked. Is it “the Macroniste vision of a federal Europe”, to which national politics will in future be subordinate? Polls suggest that only four per cent of people want to hand more powers to the EU, and Tombs has heard that Jeremy Corbyn is among those who are “absolutely determined” we should leave.
“Tony Blair and Ken Clarke and Peter Mandelson and the rest should say what the future of Europe is in their view,” Tombs declared. Otherwise they would be “asking us to buy a pig in a poke”, and would provoke a constitutional crisis within Britain itself, “tearing ourselves apart for no clear aim at all”.
Sir Richard Aikens, a former Appeal Court Judge who served as Vice President of the Council of Europe’s Consulative Council of European Judges, wondered how many of the several hundred people in the room had read the treaties which determine how the EU is run.
Fewer than ten hands went up.
He observed that these treaties set political and economic integration within a federal Europe as the EU’s goal. But who has ever asked the people of Europe if they want this? “Answer, no one,” Sir Richard replied, added to which a federal Europe would be contrary to the German constitution, which would therefore have to be changed. But he had been assured by a friend in Germany, a lawyer younger than himself, that “Germany would not vote for that”.
And yet, he pointed out, the EU already has legal personality, the appearance of a state, a parliament and a constitutional court. Sir Richard’s problem with the EU is that “it does not in fact function as a representative democracy” – it follows neither the British nor the French nor the German model of democracy, and therefore “lacks democratic legitimacy”.
He added that he is “not prepared to sell my democratic birthright…for a mess of pottage”.
The two speakers took questions. Someone asked Tombs “why academic opinion is so overwhelmingly anti-Brexit”. He suggested there was “a certain pressure to conform”, and to protect “the corporate interest” of universities in obtaining research funding from the EU, and added that “a worrying number” of pro-Brexit academics have told him: “I do not dare to express my opinion openly – I don’t have a job, I need to feed my family.”
Sir Richard reported the same sort of feeling among lawyers: “those pro-Brexit are much less willing to come out and say so”.
Tombs suggested a lot of anti-Brexit politicians “are rather like pit ponies – they’ve done the same thing for so long they’ve no other manner of moving.” He warned that if Parliament sabotaged Brexit, there would be “a Trump-like rejection” of the whole political system.
But Sir Richard reckoned such a rejection by Parliament of Brexit was pretty much impossible, for it would require, in the next year, another Act of Parliament, which in turn would require a general election.
It was refreshing to hear this subject discussed without the terms “customs union” or “single market” being mentioned once. The insoluble problem of the democratic deficit – recently somewhat occluded by worries about trading arrangements – came once more to the fore.
Perhaps “insoluble” is an unfair term to use, when President Macron is proposing a solution. But since his plan would entail the creation of a United States of Europe, and the extinction of national sovereignty, it would be almost certain to create more enmities and dangers than it removed.