Brexit and the Democratic Intellect


The roof of a market hall decorated with Union Jack flagsThe debate surrounding Britain’s vote to leave the European Union exposed, among other things, a suspicion of ‘experts.’ How did intellectuals become alienated figures? And how might citizens and academics come together in order to better understand the attitudes and experiences of the other? Simon Grimble introduces Brexit and the Democratic Intellecta collection of essays and poems derived from discussions at a symposium in January 2017.

On 13 and 14 January 2017, a symposium was held on the theme of ‘Brexit and the Democratic Intellect.’ Four papers were given in four different sessions: each paper lasted thirty to forty minutes, but the rest of the ninety minutes were devoted to open discussion between speakers and other participants: questions were asked of the individual speakers, but also participants responded to each other. The event took place in a boardroom, and all participants had a place at the table. Over the course of the two days, a very full and rich dialogue emerged, a dialogue that was made possible by the preparedness of the participants, and not just the speakers, to engage in frank and direct discussion.

Readers may ask why the discussion was set up in this way.  My intention was to provide, in this very small scale, a version of a democratic space, in the sense that, in the course of each session, there was space for an individual to rehearse an argument with a degree of detail, but then a space for discussion was opened up. In that sense, the symposium was supposed, in a very old philosophical tradition, to model a polity, one where there is space for this detailed intellectual consideration, but also space for responses, comment, and, perhaps, disagreement.

By setting up the discussion in this way, I was trying, in a very small way, to provide a counter to the way in which the debate over the UK’s membership of the European Union had taken place: a debate in which many strong feelings had circulated, but one where detailed intellectual consideration could lack prominence, especially as aspects of the ‘leave’ campaign focused a hostility to the figure of ‘the expert’: as Michael Gove MP said, ‘people in this country have had enough of experts.’ The point of ‘Brexit and the Democratic Intellect’ was not to defend the role of experts – although there could be many reasons for doing that – but to think about why they became this despised figure, and in so doing to think about how a different kind of social role for academics and ‘democratic intellects’ – which should mean all citizens – could be established. As Stefan Collini says in his book, Common Writing (2016), ‘attitudes are what consumers have: they must be simply pandered to or exploited. Citizens, on the other hand, need to be given reasons, including reasons to change their attitudes on this or that topic.’ This symposium was one very small attempt to think about citizens and the reasons they are given, or not given, and to think about how we could all give each other better reasons, in the context of this particular, very pressing, debate.

These revised versions of the papers given at the event are presented in the order in which they were given. Peter Robinson and Gerald Dawe’s papers are followed by poems that they read at a reading at the end of the first day: these poems link to some of the themes of the event, and to the question of these islands’ relation to the continent of Europe.

The symposium Brexit and the Democratic Intellect was supported by Durham’s Institute of Advanced Studies and Department of English Studies. An earlier article on Intellectuals and the Politics of Style, written by the organiser, Simon Grimble, looks more deeply into many of these themes. Also see Liam McHugh-Russell’s Fifteen Thoughts on Brexit for the Cosmopolitan Intellectual Elite.

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