As Britain endures the slow-motion car-crash of a constitutional crisis, Dr Victoria Bateman took to the stage in Cambridge to speak out against Brexit. Back in July, the Gonville and Caius economist received both praise and abuse for an online video in which she protested against inequality in the discipline, and two years previously garnered the same response in the aftermath of the EU Referendum. The reason? The videos she posted featured her entirely in the nude. Her free talk at the Cambridge Junction, the day before the key parliamentary vote on Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal Agreement, was entitled ‘Brexit: The Naked Truth’, and by five minutes in she had removed every item of clothing.
She began with a declaration: “Brexit will happen over my naked body.” She made a brief justification of her way of presenting the lecture, which was simultaneously an artistic statement and an academic exposition. “Art has a power to go beyond what academic writing alone can offer”, she told the audience. She spoke of how the Cambridge UKIP branch tweeted a link to one of her protest videos, claiming incredulity that she was a fellow of the University. To which her response, with which the audience was undoubtedly in full agreement, was: “Can women, who have bodies, not also have brains?”
However, most of the talk focused on substantial analysis of Brexit, rather than her method of presentation. She listed the facts about the positive contributions made by EU immigrants, talked of the foolhardiness of breaking away from the world’s most advanced free trade block in a world turning its back on free trade, and lamented the turn from a “free, open, and tolerant society.”
But her talk was arguably at its most interesting when it moved away from the economics. After noting that both remainers and leavers, according to polling, have nearly the same attitude when asked about ‘capitalism’, she explained how the biggest divergences between these voters seems to have been cultural – for example, they differ widely on attitudes to the environment, and feminism. That, she implied, is why the rhetoric of ‘take back control’ was so powerful. She pointed out that getting rid of borders would add more to the economy than trade liberalisation. As she argued, “in medieval times, the way that elites controlled the population was by limiting our freedom of movement”, although she seemed to accept that we have sadly rejected the sort of thinking that might lead to a freer and more tolerant society.
In the end, she made an impassioned appeal to freedom and reason. The most successful society, she concluded, is the “liberal society”, based upon “individual freedom”. When asked what she would most like to say to the Prime Minister, her response was typically concise. “A little bit of numbers and a little bit of nakedness will help show [May] the way forward.”
The talk finished with members of the audience going up on stage to sign her body as an open petition against Brexit. I was able to ask Dr Bateman several questions via email, covering her style of naked protest and the various fraught issues into which the Brexit debate is recurrently drawn.
Have you come to the conclusion that anything said by the Remain campaign in the run up to the referendum was, in fact, ‘project fear?’
‘Project Fear’ was coined by Brexiteers in the hope of discrediting expert economic opinion on the effects of Brexit. Economists are a pretty argumentative bunch – there are many things that we really don’t agree on – so the fact that the vast majority are united (and remain united) in the view that Brexit will be bad for Britain really should tell us something. For most economists, the question is not whether Brexit will hurt the economy, but to what degree and over what timescale (a sudden recession once we leave, or something more gradual but equally as damaging in the longer term).
Where do you stand on a People’s Vote? Will it threaten to unleash far-right forces, as Cabinet ministers have recently been claiming?
If parliament cannot agree a way forward, ‘we’ the people need to be brought back into the picture. We’re now two and a half years on from the referendum, and, unlike then, know under what terms we would be leaving the EU. Given this, I think a vote is perfectly justifiable. Brexit is a decision of such gravity that it’s only right that we’re all given a chance to absorb the actual deal and make a decision about whether we still wish to proceed. If the majority are still in favour of Brexit in such a vote, then at least no one can turn around once the consequences hit and say: ‘this wasn’t the Brexit we voted for’. If the majority are no longer in favour, then surely it’s undemocratic to keep on proceeding down the current path – especially when Brexit tramples on the freedoms of more than 3 million EU citizens in the UK, along with British citizens in Europe, and also the ability of each and every Briton to live a life that goes beyond the boundaries of the UK? Why should we all be held hostage to a decision that was made more than two years ago if it’s a decision that the majority no longer want? Threats of unrest from the far-right are the very last thing that should stop us proceeding in a democratic way.
What is the most significant impact a no-deal Brexit would have on Cambridge University?
Across the UK, universities are deeply concerned about Brexit. As our Vice-Chancellor has noted: “there is much at stake”. The University’s ‘Advisory Group on Strategic Responses to Brexit’ has said that Brexit “is likely to have major repercussions.”. Around 20% of the university’s staff are from the EU, along with more than 10% of undergraduates and 24% of postgraduate students. Furthermore, 18% of the university’s research funding comes from the EU, an area of funding for which we receive more than we ourselves contribute to the Europe-wide pot. But the effect of Brexit goes far beyond money. Science has gone global, meaning we cannot expect to return to the days of the Victorian inventor in the way some Brexiteers imagine. Nowadays scientists are collaborating across borders – bringing together great minds – in a way that delivers the most bang for every buck (or Euro!) spent. This is what enables Britain (and Europe) to continue to be world leading in science. Even if the UK government does replace the funds lost (which is not guaranteed), without the collaborations and without the brilliant EU academics and students within our university, how can we possibly expect to remain at the scientific frontier? And, since science is so crucial to economic prosperity, this is one of the reasons why I’m deeply pessimistic about the economic effects of Brexit – along with the anti-immigration nationalistic rhetoric that has come to the fore since the referendum, which hardly serves to attract or retain great minds.
Students care a lot about the EU, and most voted to remain. But are they currently doing enough to mobilise around the issue?
Students and young people are doing a brilliant job – both in terms of national campaigns, such as ‘Our Future Our Choice’, and by engaging with family and friends on a daily basis in a way that helps to make people aware of the types of freedoms that are lost with Brexit.
You have a unique method of protest – when you first got naked for a cause, did people (colleagues at the University, students, people online) react as you expected?
I first used my body to make an artistic statement by commissioning a nude portrait back in 2014 – to show that behind every image of a naked woman was a thinking being. We are used to seeing images of female nudes on the wall of galleries, but they are almost always anonymous, meaning we only ‘see’ the woman as a body. Some people find it uncomfortable when a woman is naked on her own terms, rather than for the onlooker’s pleasure, and find it unsettling when she is ‘let loose’ – when she can talk back. I think that’s why I receive a lot of abuse online. The abuse from women has always been the most visceral and vehement, and that was more unexpected. I’ve certainly seen for myself how some women apply the concept ‘my body, my choice’ in a way that only suits themselves, and see themselves and other women through heterosexual male eyes (believing women should cover up purely because of what heterosexual men might think). My view is why should that restrict my freedom to do what I want with my own body? Every woman should truly be free to do what she wants with her own body, without being limited by what anyone else thinks. Women’s bodies are one of the big battlegrounds we face today – from increasing restrictions on our clothing (whether burqa bans or modesty ponchos), reduced funding for birth control (as with the ‘global gag rule’) and attacks on the livelihoods of voluntary sex workers (such as FOSTA and SESTA in the USA and Nordic Model proposals for the UK). Unless we stand up to these incursions into women’s bodily autonomy, we’re going to keep on moving backwards not forwards. A woman’s value should not be tied to her bodily modesty, and the way it is currently is doing a great disservice to women. Women should be free to choose what to do with their bodies as well as their brains.
Is your method of protest inspired by anyone, and do you hope to inspire others?
Feminist Art has been a big influence. I first came into contact with it at a small exhibition at Oldham Gallery when I was doing my A-levels – though when I visited, I was the only person in there. I was initially shocked by women using their own bodies in art, but it made me confront my own assumptions about women’s bodies – and served to snap me out of the so-called ‘internalised male gaze’ that many women still have. The other big influence has been my own experiences growing up as a working-class teenager in Oldham. I saw the way in which teenage girls were regularly labelled ‘trashy’ simply because of the way they dressed, and that has deeply concerned me since. My initial response was to want to cover up to avoid being thought of in that way. But then I thought to myself: why not instead challenge the notion that a woman with flesh on show really is trashy? Why not help to show that behind every scantily clad or naked woman is a real thinking being (one who should be judged on much more than her body)? You asked whether I hope to inspire others. The first thing I’d say is that I’d never advise anyone to protest naked unless they were truly 100% sure for themselves, and had spent quite some time thinking about it. The amount of criticism and abuse you receive is endless, and so unless you are 100% sure and confident in what you’re doing, it would break you. There are also, clearly, potential negative effects career-wise, and so there are big risks. However, I’d certainly encourage anyone to think more about how we implicitly judge women, and how dangerous it is to make assumptions about women purely on the basis of how they dress. Every society has its own ‘modesty’ norms, to whatever degree.
Is Brexit a feminist issue?
Brexit is, amongst many things, a feminist issue. The ‘Women’s Budget Group’ and the Fawcett Society have jointly published a report setting out the gendered consequences of Brexit. They point out, for example, that the adverse consequences for public services that would likely come alongside an economic decline would hit women particularly hard. There are also potential consequences for women’s rights, something that Roberta Guerrina (amongst others) has written about. And, since Brexit leaves the personal freedoms of more than 3 million EU citizens in the UK hanging in the balance, along with Britons in Europe, it’s already hitting many people hard. It’s not just about money, it’s about whether basic family life (something so easy to take for granted) can continue – whether couples and families (and them and their elderly parents) will literally be torn apart simply because they are from different parts of Europe. Brexit makes us hostage to the country into which, by chance, we were born. It limits our ability to form personal relationships with those outside, and our freedom to pursue opportunities beyond our own little island. The world we should be aiming for is the opposite of what Brexit brings. We should be working towards a Europe (and indeed a world) in which our ability to make the most of our life – whether through education, work or personal relationships – is not limited by where we are born. Brexit is leading us to turn direction completely: away from a free, open and tolerant society to one that is illiberal and unwelcoming. That won’t be good for any of us.