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I love my country so I need to say: Britain, you’re being an idiot over Brexit

We can turn this around, and we ought to – not just for our own good, but for every­one else’s, too.

What does it mean to love your country? Is it the sort of love that means you never have to say you’re sorry? The late, great critic AA Gill once observed that just as the Inuit people are rumoured to have dozens of words for snow, none of which actually mean “snow”, the British have “many, many” uses of the word “sorry”, but are somehow unable to apologise when it actually matters. It matters now. It matters because we have made a terrible mistake, and as the flaming omni­shambles of the Brexit negotiations roars on, the one option that almost nobody seems to want to discuss is the one that would cause the most embarrassment in the short term and the least pain in the long run: cancelling the whole thing and moving on.

Those of us peering through our fingers at the oozing 28-clown-car pile-up of British politics have largely been restricted, in the public sphere, to arguing for the process to be slowed and insisting on a better divorce settlement. It is not considered politically astute to come out and say categorically that we should not do Brexit at all. That it’s a terrible idea. That we ought to apologise.

I don’t think that saying so  means I hate democracy. To suggest that things have changed, that the “hard” Brexit looming on the horizon is almost nobody’s choice, is not at all undemocratic. We are told that the will of the people can be encapsulated by a non-binding referendum that, after a campaign riddled with misinformation, delivered a 4-point victory for Leave.

Except that perhaps it didn’t. The Leave campaign is under investigation for potentially breaching campaign finance rules, and there’s more than a suggestion that the Kremlin was involved in massaging the messaging in the weeks leading up to the vote. Bring back the good old days, I say, when all our consent was manufactured on home soil, instead of in warehouses in St Petersburg. At the very least, give us British lies for British voters.

But telling people that they were lied to is no winning strategy, just as telling people that they made a mistake and are about to suffer for it hardly ever wins an argument.

The larger, more important point is that democracy is not a sports game. It’s not a weekend match in which one side wins and the other loses. Democracy is not a game at all, and those who approach it as one should have a chat with their consciences, especially those in parliament who persist in seeing it as a gentleman’s pursuit whose consequences are not felt by anyone with a stately home to scuttle back to. Democracy is, or should be, an ongoing relationship between human beings trying to live together without murdering each other, making collective decisions about their future, not just hammering the other team into submission.

There is no good outcome here, for anyone. There might one day be a reality in which Britain could leave the European Union with its economy, dignity, reputation and social fabric intact, but not now. Brexit must be stopped, and the best way for that to happen is for this government to do the decent thing: withdraw Article 50 and fall on its sword. It’s not as if the administration is long for this world anyway. We can turn this around, and we ought to – not just for our own good, but for every­one else’s, too.

We like to think that, as a country, we’re above all the swivel-eyed flag-wagging zealotry that has driven the US bananas. A British politician would be laughed at for promising to “make Britain great again”, but then again, they wouldn’t have to, since it’s in the name. A significant number of the conservative troglodytes currently holding the nation to ransom seem truly to believe that it is a cosmic accident that they are no longer directly in charge of half the planet and imagine that the loss of our empire is an embarrassing faux pas that will be sorted out when the waiter returns with the bill.

Britain has no idea what it is because it hasn’t a clue what it was, because it chooses not to remember. As Shashi Tharoor notes in his recent book Inglorious Empire, it is normal for British schoolchildren to study history all the way through to university without learning a thing about our colonial legacy. This may explain how we got to the point where, with a straight face, politicians can seek election on the basis of how terribly unfair it all is that people from other countries are coming over here and asking to share our stuff.

We have to row back on Brexit, and that will not be comfortable. You would think that saving ourselves from social and financial ruin and international disgrace might be worth a little temporary embarrassment, and for other countries it might, but it happens that our entire culture is based on the principle that the people of this little island will submit to any hardship to avoid dealing with conflict or admitting that we made a mistake.

We don’t just owe this to the generations shortly to inherit this trash-fire of a political system who voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. We also owe it to the rest of the world. The reason I feel so strongly about this is that I have realised, to my great surprise, in the course of the past year, that I actually do love my country.

There are all sorts of ways to love your country, and not all of them involve singing it songs of lost greatness even when it’s about to do harm. That’s a twisted, messed-up sort of love. Personally, I love my country in the same way that I love members of my family: for no particular reason other than that we happen to be part of each other. I am fond of its foibles and tolerant of its idiosyncrasies and disappointed by its minor cruelties and moments of self-deceit. But more than anything else, I consider it my right as well as my duty to let it know, as I would let anyone I really loved know, when it’s being a bloody idiot. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.