Three Brexit lessons from our work at Kent Law School.

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We are some of the staff who work at Kent Law School, one of the UK’s leading critical law schools. We value working in a place where people disagree with each other, where diverse colleagues, often from different schools of thought and political convictions, feel a sense of shared belonging, and where our jobs give us the chance to meet wonderful people from all over the world. But while many of those who voted for leave may have been celebrating this week, we have been feeling shocked, subdued, and concerned. As a result, we have been uncharacteristically quiet during the most significant period in the UK’s recent legal and political history.

People with different kinds of jobs, as well as others without secure employment, also feel shocked, subdued, and concerned. Our concerns are not unique:  they are shared by millions of people and are even more alarming in light of the policy vacuum that has emerged in the aftermath of the referendum. Some among us were entitled to vote, whereas others were not, whether citizens of EU countries or on visas from other parts of the world. For those of us who were able to vote, we voted to remain while fully cognizant that the EU is an imperfect Union that must end its anti-democratic hubris, but believing that a progressive and socially just European Union remains a force for good. We are convinced that turning away from Europe toward isolationism, nostalgia for empire, and immigrant-blaming would not offer greater equality, social justice, or democracy.

Now some of us are worried about the safety of those we care about in the face of a rise in anti-immigrant, racist, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic violence and abuse.  Some of us are concerned about job security, and about the jobs of our friends and colleagues in professional services across the sector, as universities may restructure to account for the potential loss of revenue from reduced EU student numbers and reduced research funding.[1] Some of us are concerned about the students in our care whose future has been made even more insecure both in terms of their education as well as their future employment opportunities. We are all dismayed at the direction in which British and European politics is headed, especially in the last two weeks,  with a politician murdered by a man shouting far-right slogans, with posters fomenting anti-immigrant sentiment, a rise in xenophobic incidents and the prospect of even further cuts to public spending as the right wing of the Conservative party consolidates power. We are far from unique in any of that.

We believe that the repercussions of the outcome of the referendum will be long-term and damaging both within the UK and within the EU at a time when a xenophobic, deflationary 1930s economic and social abyss is a real prospect (and Brexit cannot shield the UK from this).

Several of our concerns this week are partly informed by our work as academics, as well as by our everyday lives. We are thus drawing three preliminary lessons from the situation in which we find ourselves:

  • EU membership has brought higher labour standards to many workers in the UK, despite the UK having acted to weaken EU labour standards through various means. The debate over workers’ rights has largely ignored these complex interactions. Many of us, no matter what our current job or status, have benefited from rights for fixed term workers and agency workers, restrictions on working time, and provisions protecting workers from discrimination due to pregnancy, sex, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, age, and disability. These rights were initially introduced through EU law or have been considerably bolstered by EU developments. UK governments on both sides have been happy to claim these successes as their own but also to criticise them as ‘interference from Brussels’ whenever it has suited them. Unlike the message of the Leave campaign, workers’ rights will be affected by the political developments surrounding the process of leaving the EU. The current moment provides a Conservative government with the opportunity to attack or downgrade a wide range of rights for working people, whether or not these rights originated in EU law. The broader legal principles underpinning workers’ rights cannot be quickly disentangled from EU law given the years of legal interconnectedness we have had.[2]  Nevertheless, whilst workers’ rights continue to be held up as ‘foreign’ or an ‘impediment to business’, we need to remain aware of the benefits that EU standards have brought to normal working people over the years. We continue to hope for a socially progressive Europe with high labour standards.
  • In addition, in contrast to a common view held among some Leave supporters, there is no evidence that Brexit will reduce austerity. In fact, as already announced by prospective Conservative party leader candidates, Brexit could lead to more cuts in public spending. It will likely exacerbate poverty, failing the most economically disadvantaged. This will fuel the growth of political parties and sections of the population who blame the most vulnerable groups in society for that poverty, such as immigrants and the poor themselves. The economic implications of Brexit are very likely more austerity, more poverty and more xenophobia. Since Thatcher, successive UK governments have implemented policies that have increased inequalities and undermined the welfare state. Indeed, UK governments have not only fostered and exacerbated inequality at home, but also promoted inequality as a model of development internationally, including at the European level. It is clear that austerity will not end by identifying the EU and immigration as key enemies. The deflationary forces in the EU that are strengthened by Brexit will not leave Britain unaffected. We fear that the newly acclaimed independence of the UK in an interdependent world (economically, politically and otherwise) is regressive and to its own detriment.
  • We are worried about the UK’s apparent failure to learn key lessons about the limits and dangers of referenda as an expression of democracy. All of us have taught students about those fundamental rights -especially of so-called minority groups- that are generally thought not to be subject to the majority’s will (the right to freedom from torture, for example). When those rights are put to referenda, they often fail.[3] The claim that the EU referendum was about democracy ignores a substantial field of complex debate about the role of majoritarian decision-making and the role of the rule of law in advanced liberal democracies, especially regarding the protection of citizenship rights of minorities by governments and courts. The referendum was an abdication of representative democracy to direct democracy, without the necessary safeguards that direct democratic responsibility would require (e.g. access to impartial information and media responsibility). The celebration of democracy by Brexiters should not lead one to disregard the fact that this referendum appears to have also reinforced the most undemocratic forces within society and the political system. One can sympathise, in certain respects, with many who voted for Brexit but one has to also remain aware that democratic expression without social justice, equality, care for the other, interdependency and anti-austerity will remain symbolic and counter-productive.

Many of us have been raising these points in places outside the university: in political parties of which we are members; in social movements and activist groups; in unions; in legal circles; in pubs with our friends; on the phone with our families. But universities are also an important place to raise these issues. We share our views as a group seeking to make sense of what has happened with the tools available to us, but also in order to find common ground with each other, and others, about what we want as an alternative in general terms, but also towards the firm assurance of EU citizens’ rights and workers’ rights in general.

 

John Ackerman

Jonathan Austin-Jones

Yutaka Arai

Anneli Albi

Donatella Alessandrini

Kate Bedford

Nicola Barker

Samo Bardutzky

Jose Bellido

Ruth Cain

Helen Carr

Donal Casey

Emilie Cloatre

Davina Cooper

Darren Dinsmore

Maria Drakopoulou

Mairead Enright

Luis Eslava

Iain Frame

Judy Fudge

Simone Glanert

Emily Grabham

Emily Haslam

Didi Herman

Kirsty Horsey

Nick Jackson

Suhraiya Jivraj

Hyo Yoon Kang

Sara Kendall

Ed Kirton-Darling

Robin Mackenzie

Wade Mansell

Colin R Moore

Rose Parfitt

Connal Parsley

Joanne Pearman

Lorenzo Pezzani

Nick Piska

Iain Ramsay

Sinead Ring

Priya Srivathsa

Gavin Sullivan

Theresa Thurston

Hannah Uglow

Sophie Vigneron

Thanos Zartaloudis

Michalis Zivanaris

Asta Zokaityte

[1] We welcome the University of Kent’s prompt pro-European stance and we hope it shall be sustained and ever more firmly and concretely supported in a period of what is expected to be one of prolonged uncertainty; see https://www.kent.ac.uk/post-euref/. We also welcome the support of Kent Law School to this; see https://www.kent.ac.uk/law/news/index.html?view=1760.

[2] See, for instance, Michael Ford QC, Workers’ Rights from Europe: The impact of Brexit, 2016 https://www.tuc.org.uk/international-issues/europe/eu-referendum/workers%E2%80%99-rights-europe-impact-brexit.

[3] See, e.g, Barbara Gamble’s 1997 study on what happens in US states that put civil rights to referenda (in area such as housing for racial minorities, gay rights, and HIV/AIDS policies). She found that “without the filtering mechanism of the representative system, direct democracy promotes majoritarian tyranny” (Barbara Gamble, Putting Civil Rights to a Popular Vote, American Journal of Political Science 41.1, Jan 1997 p. 245).

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  1 comment for “Three Brexit lessons from our work at Kent Law School.

  1. Almost a year after your article was published and every word of it being substantiated by events. Keep at it on behalf of those whose only source of knowledge and information are the tabloids and daytime media whose collective intent is the lowest common denominator for the UK and Europe. And, as is evident, the USA also!

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