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Brexit: A View from the Business School

14/07/2016 16:05 | Updated 14 July 2016

How are we to react to the Brexit bolt of lightning? I write as a passionate European. Clearly there was a strong reaction to the idea of a yet another elite making hay while life got harder and harder for so many. It is no surprise that have-nots choose to bite the hand that, they perceive, does not feed them (although, ironically, some of the areas where the Exit vote was largest are the biggest recipients of EU support).

One might conclude there is a large degree of irrationality in cutting off one of the few sources of funding open to those areas on a probably vain hope that the UK government will fill the void. Perhaps EU support was only seen as crumbs when the main feast was always, and seems likely to continue, happening elsewhere. A negative vote at least gave a brief experience of power for many who for too long have felt themselves disempowered and have lost any faith in the political status quo's ability to solve their problems.

I remain unconvinced that their Exit vote was driven by "decent" motives but I recognise the power of self-interest and share some of their frustrations. The fault lines the referendum vote revealed are stark. Universities can take some solace from the fact that the more educated voted for Remain and for a sense of European identity, whatever that means.

One thing the vote demands is a far more convincing debate about what it means to be European , as well as British, English, Scotch and Welsh. Universities need to play a key role in this debate and not leave it to - another irony - classics scholars who become the poster people for Exit by de-emphasizing our European connections. One would expect historians to challenge Boris Johnson's idiosyncratic Churchillian reading of history that the UK could somehow quit the EU and still remain a major European player.

Business schools have a particular and onerous role to fulfil in the post-Brexit era. Probably most business school faculty will have voted Remain along with the business elites they service. I suspect the business school champions of Exit will have been among the liberal market economics and finance faculty with their deluded visions of a post-industrial, post-manufacturing, post-EU prosperity.

Business schools, though, have for too long been complicit in a drift to a globalized world driven by a particular view of markets and finance that has narrowed the landscape to a very narrow definition of value. That dream came to end in 2008 with the financial crisis, caused in part by bizarre theories of ultra-free market economists and predatory business practices of banks. The ensuing austerity was a key factor in cementing the anti-establishment antipathy/hatred which exploded in the Brexit vote.

What business schools have not done at all well is to develop business leaders capable of responding to the growing distrust of business for being only interested in feathering its own nest at the expense of the common man and woman.

My own view is that there is still much to play for before Brexit becomes a reality so a degree of patience is required as events unfold. Let us hope universities and their business schools can rise to the occasion and begin to produce more convincing arguments for business, for European society and culture, and for a more effective European economy that works for the benefit of the many rather than the few. In which case any future referendum might have a different and much less damaging outcome.

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