Join us on Saturday 15 October from 1pm at the Monument!
If you are anything like me, the past few months have probably felt like a very bad dream, and you are only just coming to terms with the fact that a lot of things you took for granted are no longer part of the unwritten consensus, the mainstream, or what most people consider the norm.
The European Union has been a crucial institution in my life. In my early 20s, the Erasmus programme allowed me to explore other cultures, learn other languages, and make friends for life all over Europe. Those were life changing opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. My circle of friends comes from practically every country of the 28, and especially from the UK. At my age, friends often get married, a constant reminder that tempus fugit. The creation of many cross-national, cross-cultural, wonderfully unconventional and wonderfully conventional families around me is also a reminder of the 'real life' impact of those values I took for granted: freedom of movement, the freedom to study, work, travel, live, love and retire, not necessarily in that order, in some of the most wonderful parts of the old continent of Europe.
You see, these days I am often told to "accept" the referendum result, and to "get on with it". But I wonder, get on with what exactly? Get on with accepting that I am now a bargaining chip for Cruella de May and the Three Brexiteers? Get on with accepting that my current and future students here at Northumbria will not be able to enjoy the same opportunities that I had? Get on with accepting that the many generations of wonderful British students I have taught here and who now live and work so successfully in my own country were, in historical terms, just a one off? Get on with accepting that I am, all of a sudden, only partially welcome as 'skilled workforce' and not as a human being? Get on with accepting that my rights, as well as yours, can be removed in an advisory, ill-conceived referendum, where campaigners lied to their hearts' content? Get on with accepting that this country that I love and admire is now home to the most repulsive, xenophobic, populist rhetoric (and actions) I have witnessed in my entire life? Get on with accepting that the vomit-inducing headlines of the Express, the Mail or the Sun, so similar to those of Der Stürmer back in the day, are now the reflection, and the reinforcement, of the opinions of what Farage calls "the decent people"?
Look, I am not naive enough to think that the European Union is some kind of utopian wonderland. Most of the people who voted Remain have a sophisticated understanding of what Europe is as a political, cultural and commercial entity. I know full well what the shortcomings of the project are, and I know full well that no human endeavour is free from the forces of greed, power hunger, and the inevitable friction between the strong and the weak. This has come to the fore particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, which has now sparked a societal crisis that could reach critical proportions soon. History tells us, in a sobering manner, what happens when the world succumbs to populist rhetoric, simple answers (yes-no, in-out) to complex questions, emotional decision making, the sidelining of moderate, fact-based politics, the derision of so-called 'experts', the blaming of collective, vulnerable scapegoats in society for our discomforts, and the irresponsible pandering by political leaders and creators of opinion to the most primeval of human feelings: tribe, fear, hatred.
As educators it is our responsibility to look at things critically, reading between the lines of words and events, interpreting history as it unravels in front of our eyes, and leading on a societal debate that should go beyond the immediate, economic and 'commercial' interest of our sector. I am not in this fight because of the Single Market, however important that is, or because of the "passporting rights" for the City of London, or because of the recruitment interest of the universities. I am fully involved in this because of the real danger that the values that have shaped our coexistence over the past few decades are being eroded beyond recognition; because I want my future students to go into the world in hope rather than fear, to look at their life prospects with excitement rather than being forced to choose a trench to protect their safety. I want them to thrive rather than just survive. I want them to look at refugees as fellow human beings in times of distress rather than potential threats. I want them to be part of a world where positive, forward-looking values become, once again, the mainstream, the consensus, what most people consider the norm.
Let me be clear: this is not about, somehow, 'overturning the referendum result', or going against democracy. Democracy, as we all know, is much more than 'just' voting. Democracy includes separation of powers (ah, Montesquieu, that pesky, foreign bureaucrat), it includes a healthy respect for the vulnerable and for minorities (48% plus a few of us who were not allowed to vote being a sizeable minority) and it even takes sophisticated forms, such as parliamentary democracy, in order to avoid the dangers of ochlocracy. Yes, I personally think that the referendum was a travesty. Not primarily because of its result, or because of the false premises upon which campaigners based their pitches. It was a travesty because a binary choice for a hellishly complex problem seems to have given carte blanche to an unelected government to do as they please with workers' rights, with the basic rules of coexistence within our society, with human rights, with the status of people like me in the UK, with the life prospects of every holder of a British passport, and with the very essence of parliamentary democracy in the UK, with May announcing crucial details, and hinting at potentially devastating stances by our government (so-called "hard Brexit") at the Tory conference rather than at the House of Commons, where legitimate, democratic sovereignty resides.
The utter inadequacy of this binary choice is highlighted when I discuss such issues with left-wing colleagues and comrades who are against the EU and voted Leave: who is representing their views in May's government? Johnson, Davies, Fox...? Anyone? Of course nobody. How could their anti-racist, internationalist vote end up in the same pile as those casted by EDLers, UKIPers and other tribes? How does one produce a road map that blends those views into a coherent, legitimate strategy for the UK? In times like these, I am grateful to UCU for the forum of solidarity, free speech and open discussion that it provides me with; I am grateful for the uncensored echo chamber that they provide for noble ideas, wherever they come from. UCU is a modern, forward thinking union, and our local branch in particular is passionate about the ideals that we all share, regardless of our political leanings. If you know an EU, foreign (or British!) colleague who is worried about their present and their future as a result of the current uncertainty and hasn't yet joined us, please ask them to do so: UCU provides the most effective of human networks for academics, and the most pragmatic help for any immediate concerns they may have.
We have the right to be heard, and we have the right to speak up with our heads held high: to speak up for the human values we believe in; to speak up for solidarity, internationalism and progress; to speak up against racism, xenophobia and populism; to speak up, yes, for democracy beyond ochlocracy; to speak up for the future we want for our students, for our children, for our universities, for our societies, and for ourselves. Please join us on 15 October and make your voice heard!
When: Saturday 15 October from 1pm
Where: The Monument
With whom: This event is organised by like-minded individuals in the North East, with a strong presence of university staff across the five institutions. Political leaders will address the rally, including:
· Lord John Shipley, The Liberal Democrats
· Chi Onwura MP, The Labour Party
· Lee Ferris, The Green Party
We will also have live music (by Jazz Riot) and other performances, not to be missed, as
well as a few surprises!
Newcastle Rally for Europe, https://www.facebook.com/events/1666904310295941/
Help us spread the word by sharing on your social media, inviting colleagues, friends and family. It promises to be fun, constructive and useful, and the event will be fully covered by Northumbria Police and Newcastle City Council. A final extra: we'll finish on time to go to St James' Park for the Toon's game against Brentford!
Dr Carlos Conde Solares is a Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies (Department of Humanities), an elected UCU officer (Northumbria branch) and a member of the Liberal Democrats.