The Cambridge EU debate is paralysed by its elitist ethos

Joanna Taylor 22 May 2016

Brexit is an uncomfortable topic for left-wingers and an uncomfortable topic at Cambridge, so being a left-wing Brexiter in Cambridge can be almost unbearably discomfiting. To a certain extent, this unease is productive and necessary, helping to ground the debate in human realities. It is very easy for me to harp on about the democratic deficit of the European Union; far harder to reconcile my opposition with my concern for the Polish friend whose right to study here might be jeopardised in negotiations over which we as people may exert no control.

Much of the anti-Brexit pressure, however, comes from those who are without a personal investment in the EU, but are immersed in a sense that being in Europe is intrinsically right. This university is a centre of self-conscious liberal cosmopolitanism, infused with a certain clandestine disdain for those grubby people who reject our European identity for, presumably, nativist, chauvinistic, drum-beating and flag-waving little reasons. But whether or not this latent élitism surfaces with a sneer of this shape, it is pervasive in, indeed is the very essence of, the liberal argument so often articulated here.

The left-wing Bremainers, perhaps out of complacency, have alighted upon the case that Brexit would be followed by a ‘bonfire of regulations’, the jettisoning of workers’ rights and environmental protections. This is indeed a compelling warning, an outcome which we all should all be prepared to fight. Yet no-one seems willing to acknowledge the natural corollary to this argument, which is that the voters of our national democracy are not to be trusted with its legislation.

What is the purpose of a representative government – whatever its manifold flaws in fulfilling that stipulation – if we are to rely on a totally unaccountable higher power to moderate and even to dismiss its conclusions? We condone this approach – the very height of élitism, insinuating that the people’s voice is irrelevant if it does not tessellate with our own preferences – if we propose to employ the EU as a kind of political ocean, diminishing the extremes of our democratic climate.

When the liberals of Cambridge, and probably Oxford, and those in positions of authority and influence which this place and that have spawned, agree with a wry and knowing, esoteric smile that, whatever the shortcomings of the EU, “it’s a lot better than this government”, they are fobbing off the country itself with a shallow articulation of their own parochialism. The debate on our EU membership recently held by the Cambridge Union concerned itself solely with the opinions and interests of our statesmen – not one speaker addressed the concerns of those people who do not own the privilege of inhabiting their high circles. There is a sense that the common people’s concerns are insufficiently intellectual for polite company: they are probably only banging on about foreigners in their regional accents, not worth the consideration of more sophisticated minds.

This has to stop. Not only because it is insufferably condescending in itself, not only because it is impeding this vital discussion about the very future of the nation, but because it will do those liberal cosmopolitan élites no good if they do not engage with the concerns of the masses. People in this country who do not attend Cambridge University have sincere fears about the EU’s refusal to respect public opinion, its unaccountable and largely unwelcome meddling in the affairs of nations, and, yes, some worry about immigration – we cannot avoid dirtying our hands in that debate.

If Cambridge, and the Cantabrians of the British media and state, continue to dismiss the people as ignorant tradesmen guided only by their most visceral emotions, then they will find that the gulf between ourselves and real people has become impassable when 23 June rolls around.