This blog is not normally overtly political, but I make an exception for the referendum on British membership of the European Union, which is probably the most significant vote any of us will cast in our lifetimes.
I urge readers of this blog who have a vote to vote today to remain in the EU.
Among many reasons I could cite the single market, which allows British firms to trade with other European nations with a minimum of bureaucracy; the threat to peace in Northern Ireland if the border between it and the Republic of Ireland has to become a sealed national border instead of the county boundary-like thing it is now; the workers’ rights European law has laid down which our national government would be reluctant to preserve; or the problems such as climate change which require supranational action to solve.
But it is the implications for the pursuit of scholarship which concern me here. In the sciences international co-operation in research projects is essential, and the availability of EU grants has made so many research projects possible. Professional scholars are free to seek work in any EU country, and EU membership has brought us easier travel, in its turn making easier the exchange of ideas between scholars through meetings and conferences.
The creative and performing arts – surely the first cousins of scholarship – are big earners of invisible exports; when orchestras and theatre and dance companies can travel abroad with the least difficulty it cannot but improve their ability to contribute to the country’s trade. And do remember the opportunities provided for the talented young in such ventures as the EU Youth Orchestra, a popular attraction throughout Europe, not least annually at the Proms.
But above all there is this. The pursuit of scholarship necessarily involves the qualification of rigid ideas, theories and categories. Archives, to take the principal preoccupation of this blog, can always disclose awkward facts for any pre-existing thesis; we must always be prepared to modify our view of matters we investigate. It follows that as scholars we should not treat nations as monoliths, nor should we wish to see rigid and impenetrable boundaries around them. We should rather look for all opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas between nations and engage wholeheartedly in the great construction for the international meeting of minds which is the EU.
Local history in the UK is a pursuit which engages all kinds of people: amateur and professional, and throughout society. It helps to preserve the character of localities against the encroachment of uniformity, including that imposed from the centre by governments. This problem of imposition from the centre would get worse if we left the EU, membership of which spreads power, and so counteracts the overweening power of Westminster. I believe it is not a coincidence that the first person I saw wearing an “I’m in” sticker was at the West London Local History Conference in March. The proprietors of the popular press favour our leaving the EU because they fear European law will curb their monopoly power. They are emphatically against the general improvement of minds which interests such as local history bring about; they want to be free to exploit us with their mind-rot.
I sketched out the above ideas some time ago. I write them up now in the wake of the indescribably terrible news of the murder of Jo Cox MP. A few weeks back I heard someone argue that we should leave the EU because “we want our country back” (I was not aware that we had lost it). But people are now saying in as many words, “I want my country back” in a very different sense: they want its gentleness, tolerance and open-mindedness restored. That includes an openness to other cultures which leaving the EU would negate. They are qualities which the disinterested pursuit of ideas encourages. Those of us who are engaged in the disinterested pursuit of ideas should not shun an organisation which provides so many ways to make that pursuit so much easier and broader.
Update. See this post by Simon Wren-Lewis for an exceptionally fine defence of remaining in the EU and of reasoned argument.