Michael Kosterlitz, one of the four British-born but American-resident winners of Nobel prizes in science this year, is so incensed by Brexit that he is considering renouncing his British citizenship: “The idea of not being able to travel and work freely in Europe is unthinkable to me.” He has been misled — not by Leavers but by Remainers.
It’s not just that the overseas press have consistently portrayed Brexit as a nativist retreat, despite Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan consistently saying the very opposite. Throughout the referendum campaign — and, shamefully, since — academics have been told by their lobby groups (such as Universities UK) that Brexit probably means losing access to European research funds, European scientific collaborations and European talent.
They knew, and know, that this was, to borrow a word thrown at Leavers a lot, “a lie”. The main European research funding programme, Horizon 2020, includes as members Norway, Iceland, Tunisia, Georgia, Turkey, Israel, Serbia and eight other non-EU countries. Project co-ordinators, who control the money, are appointed from Iceland more often — not less often — than from any EU country, in proportion to population. Switzerland and Israel get the most grant funding, per capita, from the prestigious European Research Council.
The major European science collaborations — in particle physics (CERN), molecular biology (EMBO), nuclear fusion (ITER), space research (ESA) — are nothing to do with the European Union and include non-EU member nations. Throughout the referendum campaign, the leaders of universities either did not know or chose to ignore these facts. No wonder academics were so alarmed when the result came in.
Where was the contingency planning to reassure their colleagues in the (highly possible) event that the country voted Leave? To say: “Although we hope Britain votes to remain, if it votes to leave, this should not affect our membership of European research collaborations, and it is highly likely we will still be able to access Horizon 2020 funds by joining the programme in the same way as 15 other non-EU European countries. So please don’t worry: we are unlikely to be excluded from a club that includes Albania and Moldova.”
After the vote there was a vogue for research laboratories to take group photographs of their members with flags denoting their country of origin, to show how international they were. This backfired because so many of the flags were Asian, South or North American, African or Australasian — exactly the point we Leavers had been making, that science is a global, not a regional, activity. It’s a fair bet that foreign researchers in British labs who come from continents beginning with A outnumber those from continents beginning with E. Professor Kosterlitz is a prime example of the fact that the top destination for ambitious British scientists heading overseas is America.
Now, to make matters worse, comes the home secretary, Amber Rudd, and her clumsy floating of the idea — which Justine Greening and Michael Fallon have rowed back on — of threatening to name and shame employers, presumably including universities, who employ too many foreigners. This could not have been better calculated to reinforce fears among scientists. Never once during the campaign did I hear anybody prominent on the Leave side ask for anything remotely as xenophobic as this.
Roland Rudd (her brother), a leader of the Remain campaign, said “those of us who want a sensible Brexit, who want Britain to remain a beacon of tolerance and who find the denigration of non-British workers appalling have a duty to speak out”. Steve Hilton, a leader of the Leave campaign, called the proposals “divisive, repugnant and insanely bureaucratic”.
At the very least, there is clearly a problem of people who campaigned for Remain having caricatured the Leave argument among themselves and then believed the caricature. (It’s a given of political debates that people don’t read their opponents’ views so much as their friends’ accounts of their opponents’ views.) Ms Rudd seems to think that northern Britain thinks the way north London intellectuals think it thinks.
It doesn’t. I recall a conversation over a garden fence on a housing estate in Gateshead on referendum day with a shaven-headed, tattooed and pierced, Rottweiler-restraining gentleman. Have you voted, I asked him. Yes, Leave, he replied. Mind if we ask why, said my friend: was it about immigration? No, he replied, I don’t mind immigrants, though I think we’ve been unfair on the Commonwealth ones, wouldn’t mind seeing more of them, and we’ve let in too many east Europeans instead. No, it’s about making our own laws.
Ipsos Mori conducted a poll last year asking people if they wanted more, fewer or the same number of different kinds of immigrants. While 63 per cent of people wanted fewer low-skilled immigrants, just 24 per cent wanted fewer immigrant university students, and only 15 per cent wanted fewer immigrant scientists and researchers.
This is a rational response. For the average Briton, as opposed to the wealthy customers of waiters, plumbers and nannies, unskilled migrants are a potential threat, putting downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on waiting lists for housing and services. Migrant scientists and students, let alone doctors or nurses, by contrast, are unambiguously good for the economy.
People voted to escape the subordination of our laws to unelected Brussels bureaucrats on June 23. To the extent that they also minded about immigration, the great majority of them wanted it controlled, not halted, let alone reversed by discrimination and repatriation. And biased towards people who bring skills, investment and ideas, and away from people who compete for public services: that’s what the “points system” argument was all about.
The impression left by the Conservative Party conference was that foreigners are less welcome, even if they are about to start a business or win a Nobel prize. Where is the expedited academic talent visa, like America has? America, Canada and Australia have a higher proportion of overseas researchers than Britain, Germany or France — alongside stricter general immigration policies.
If we are to thrive, Britain must redouble its efforts to be a beacon for talent, attracting ambitious students, scientists and entrepreneurs from India, China and elsewhere, in the same way that America attracted Michael Kosterlitz and his fellow Nobel laureates.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com. This article was first published in the Times.