Brexit mustn’t impoverish us culturally

by Michael Prest | 18.09.2016

Among its many failings, the Brexit referendum debate never seriously got to grips with the central issue about our relationship with the rest of Europe: what kind of society do we want to be? And as we move closer towards negotiations about the UK’s new relationship with the EU, there are disturbing signs that we will miss the opportunity again.

The economy, boiled down to trade, investment and immigration, hogs the headlines. It is the woeful legacy of half a century in which the UK has justified Napoleon’s jibe that we are a nation of shopkeepers and has failed fully to grasp the much deeper purpose of bringing Europe together. But every major part of the coming negotiations has profound implications for what our country will be like in 20, 30, or 40 years time. Indeed, economic questions may be more important for how they mould culture and identity than for how much they increase or reduce GDP.

Trade is not just about single markets, tariffs and non-tariff barriers. It will partly determine the scale of the divisions between rich and poor, well educated and less educated, old and young, urban and suburban and rural communities which influenced the Brexit vote.

Trade arrangements affect who is employed where in what jobs, how much they earn, what investment is made in which industries. If we really want the high-tech, high value-added, high paying economy beloved of every politician, can we achieve it outside the EU single market? Imperfect as the single market in services is, cutting ourselves off from it or reducing access to it is vey likely to harm the creative, intellectual services at which we are so successful.  For all the Brexiteer talk of new opportunities in emerging markets, we have been very successful at selling all kinds of services, not only financial ones, to Europe. Do we want fewer creative jobs for young people now in school or university?

Immigration more obviously cuts closer to the bone. There is no doubt that some communities felt that change came too fast after eastern Europeans began to arrive in significant numbers, even if the country as whole benefitted from EU migration. Yet historically the UK has a creditable record of taking in immigrants and we view ourselves as open and tolerant. What immigration policy can reconcile the hard line Brexiteer demands for a sharp reduction in immigration with our self-image of tolerance and diversity? In a globalised world, do we want to dilute the fruitful mix of cultures which immigration has given us?

Trade and immigration raise another fundamental question. If we do less business with, and receive fewer immigrants from, the rest of Europe, do we become less European in culture and attitudes? UK membership of the EU has seen a relatively insular and somewhat smug post-imperial culture subtly transformed. Younger people in particular often feel at home in Europe as an entity; in food, drink, art, fashion, and music the UK is integrated into Europe and has often become a leader – a far cry from the 1950s.

Intellectual life has benefitted enormously from the freedom of experts to work and study in British universities and from a complex network of funding and research teams, linked to industry and government as well as higher education institutions. Will these networks be weakened or ruptured? Will we suffer a diminished intellectual life if it becomes harder to participate in the pan-European sharing of ideas?

With empire consigned to TV costume dramas and our relative power in the world inevitably declining, the UK needs an anchor. The UK is inescapably part of Europe geographically and has also been an integral part of Europe culturally, socially, politically and economically for much more of its history than it has been a far-flung imperial power and the subordinate partner in the “special relationship” with the United States, itself in relative decline.

Whatever form our eventual relations with the EU take, the negotiating priority must be to retain and strengthen the UK’s European culture and identity. It is likely that an unimaginative British government does not appreciate what it is at stake and will pursue the negotiations along predictably narrow lines. But many citizens do understand. They should make the case for the UK’s European culture and identity.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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One Response to “Brexit mustn’t impoverish us culturally”

  • Dear Sirs
    I’m very pleased that someone has eventually, no criticism, got around to this issue. One of the primary reasons that I voted remain was to maintain the cultural and historical values that we share. i don’t think that people understand just how bonded we all are as Europeans, what we share from our various histories, the bonds we created politically, our shared languages. All of these things are what should be making us realise that we are Europeans, and uniting us.
    Thanks again, and I look forward to reading more from you.

    Yours sincerely

    Jonathan Stiles