Big Questions and Big Issues for the US and Britain: A Discussion with Voices from Oxford’s Denis Noble and Sung Hee Kim

When visiting Oxford in early February for a conference, I was invited to speak with my two colleagues who, with my help, founded Voices from Oxford (VOX) in 2009. The discussion was held in Rhodes House, one of the most beautiful and historic buildings in Oxford. As befitting the venue, my colleagues asked big, challenging questions about major issues in Britain and the US, particularly around Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, very soon after his election. As noted on the VOX web site:

“The three original founder members of Voices from Oxford discuss and debate Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Dr Sung Hee Kim, Prof Denis Noble and Prof Bill Dutton founded Voices from Oxford in 2009, and are reunited at Rhodes House in Oxford to discuss the monumental political events of 2016. They examine the reasons and background of the populism which led to Brexit and Trump, as well as looking at some possible ways forward for the people of the UK and USA. The role of the media and social media in both events is analysed, and they talk about perceptions of each event from the viewpoint of the other country. They then move on to a more global outlook, including the role of China and its role in East Asian and world affairs.”

The interviewers are not just good colleagues, but very prominent members of the Oxford community. Professor Denis Noble is one of the most distinguished professors I became acquainted with in Oxford. I met Denis at Balliol College, where he described for me his record of research on modeling the heart, with his models evolving in pace with the rapid evolution of computing. He remains as an Emeritus Fellow, but he also held the Burdon Sanderson Chair of Cardiovascular Physiology at the University of Oxford from 1984 to 2004 and was appointed Professor Emeritus and co-Director of Computational Physiology. Over lunches at Balliol, he and I and Sung Hee Kim began talking about the need to use new media to help bring Oxford to the larger world. Sung Hee Kim’s first career was as in broadcasting in South Korea, from which she went on to Oxford to earn her doctorate at Exeter College in the Faculty of English Language and Literature. She straddles the UK and Korea as a Visiting Professor at Seoul National University.

My major qualifications for addressing the issues we discuss are being old, and having lived in Britain for years, and only back in the States for a few years. Nevertheless, I was delighted to share my views, and would also welcome your comments and criticisms on what I said.

Watching How the EU Treats the UK

Sovereignty is one of the issues that led some politicians in Britain to vote for leaving. Since the vote for Brexit, the UK has been struggling with how to leave in a way that respects the vote, but also creates as positive of an outcome as possible for the UK and the EU. They are looking for a win-win solution. I know that many believe this is impossible, but I truly believe that is a motivation of many, whether or not it is realistic.

However, as I watch this process unfolding, it appears perfectly clear that the EU is not minded to negotiate at all. It is telling the world that it will determine the terms of the divorce, and will not negotiate related matters, such as trade until the divorce arrangements are settled. The EU wants to make an example of the UK, punish it, and show other nations what is in store for them if they do not tow the line. This is exactly the strategy the EU followed in dealing with Greece on their financial crisis.

EU
Source: TunesOnline.Net

Surely I am not the only person who sees this pattern as support for the position that the EU is over-reaching its authority and that sovereignty is indeed a really genuine issue for all the nations of the EU. Maybe this bullying is part of the EU negotiating strategy, but I’m afraid it is indicative of the bureaucratic machine that has been created, and adds credibility to the choice to exit.

Brexit: A Response from the UK by Richard Collins

In response to my blog about Brexit, Richard Collins sent me the following, originally as a personal email message. Since Richard does not have a blog, I’ve asked and received his permission to post his thoughts here:

“I am surprised by the result, it is momentous and intimidating. But, in fact, I voted for Brexit – as the least worst of unattractive alternatives. Briefly, economics points to remain; politics to leave (EU contempt for popular sovereignty, obsession with further integration, inability to retreat from mistakes notably the euro etc). But I am not excited: it will be very tough for years.

In the days immediately after the result, the sabre rattling by Juncker, Schultz etc made staying in look even less attractive – punish the UK so no-one else leaves. Their vision of a Europe bound together by fear is deeply unattractive. Merkel is being very sensible. Geography will not change. We remain neighbours and need, as she says, a co-operative and constructive relationship. I agree. Once the anger and hurt subside there will be time for sensible – difficult – negotiation. Cameron etc is right to insist on a delay. The weekend felt a bit too much like August 1914 where hasty decisions and angry rhetoric risked getting everyone into a position they would rather not be in.

My wife, originally from Finland, was pro remain and is upset by the result fearing anti-foreigner sentiment. I hope and believe she has nothing to worry about. But there have been some unpleasant anti-foreigner insults. A striking instance is that at the Polish cultural and social centre, POSK, in west London where some idiots awarded it anti-Polish graffiti. This elicited a flurry of good wishes, flowers etc, from sympathetic locals and a solidarity eat in on our part (ie, we went there for dinner – no hardship since the food is both good and good value). The offence to the Poles is particularly unwelcome since Poles made so signal a contribution to fighting Nazism alongside Britain and other allies. If ever there is a group who has earned a place in UK society it’s the Poles. More history lessons required for graffitist idiots.

Flowers and Notes received by POSK following "Poles go Home" Graffiti
Flowers and Notes received by POSK following “Poles Go Home” Graffiti

I think the Brexit decision is one from which both sides will lose. Some parts of the EU more than the UK (the financial crises in Greece, Spain and Portugal have been intensified post Brexit referendum far more than the financial pain the UK has experienced). However, I think after five – admittedly very difficult – years there is a very good chance we will be fine (depending on trade negotiations with other economies – including the EU). I am not so confident about the Eurozone. And Scotland will not find it easy to join the EU after any proximate separation from the rest of the UK (Spain will block admission fearing that Catalonia will follow). So it’s a great pity to leave – the EU has made possible notable achievements as well as the failings which stimulated more than 50% of UK voters to say “no more” – but I think the least worst thing for the UK. We will see how the EU adapts.”

Richard Collins

Brexit: No Advice from this American

After working over 12 years in the UK, I was frequently amused by visiting academics from the USA (my home), who would start giving me advice about everything from the university to the UK and Europe virtually as they were walking off the plane. So I am resisting my natural US-instinct to weigh in on Brexit, and what should be done.

What I have learned from working in the UK is that this nation of nations has a wealth of brilliant people, who will inform debate on the issues arising out of Brexit and, with the civil service and Parliament, will come up with a number of sensible and pragmatic ways forward. In due course, the leadership selection process will be pivotal to arriving at one or more compelling visions for the nations and regions of the UK. The process is already progressing.

Brexit Direction Sign
Brexit Direction Sign from Facebook

I won’t end with the quote from Churchill on democracy being the worst form of government, as I prefer another familiar quote attributed to a Dick Tuck, a political dirty trickster of the Nixon era (he organized tricks against Nixon), who later became an elected politician. In giving his concession speech after losing his election for the California State Senate, he said: “The people have spoken, the bast….!” I know that my British friends would not be so vulgar, but many of my friends feel very angry over the vote. It is frightening indeed.

That said, the voters have spoken, and the people of Britain will make this work. Count on it. I – for one – will not panic. But I will follow the course of the coming debate with great interest and with much at stake in a successful outcome.

Coda

I’ve read with interest that the Prime Minister has put together a group in Whitehall to focus on Brexit. I have high expectations for them to arrive at some sensible scenarios for the next PM and government to refine and move forward with. This would be a wonderful time for the House of Lords to rise to the occasion as well. If ever the best and the brightest need to prove their worth, it is in this context.