Brexit? Cutting the old-school ties would do more for Brit tech world

There's more than one Boris in this debate

Oxford campus photo by shutterstock

Opinion In the early 2000s the United Kingdom was the powerhouse of European science and innovation. For many young, aspiring scientists from continental Europe, this meant coming here to world-leading institutes and universities to pursue research not possible in the constraints of their home countries.

In comparison to, especially, France and Germany, research in the UK seemed free from convoluted bureaucratic processes and administrative hurdles, on the surface a great environment with flat hierarchies.

In many ways, working at a Russell Group university back then reminded me of the situation of well-funded startups. Unfortunately, with the financial crises of 2008, things turned sour and I started to see the ugly side of Great Britain. Be it the distribution of grants or power, both in academia and industry, including the tech sector, I’ve seen an enormous degree of favouritism amongst people with the same educational trajectory.

Often, it seems like places outside of London and Oxbridge don’t even exist, and you either have to be based there, or at least have studied there at some stage. The acceptance of this status quo is deeply rooted in British society.

So, here is my farewell letter:

Great Britain, I’m leaving you. I’m sorry it didn’t work out. As I’m packing my suitcase, your media are shouting 'Brexit!' and for a moment I feel like we’re parents fighting in front of the children. The arguments of the Pro campaigners just add to the sentiment that I wasn’t welcome in the first place. That’s alright. We’re done. Britons are from Mars, Europeans from Venus.

Vlad and Boris, barechested...

They say don’t look back in anger, and I won’t. I’ve become a passive observer in my home of twelve years. First, I didn’t understand the British and their culture. Watching the English by Kate Fox was an entertaining and pretty accurate read. After a few years I was bemused. But now, I’m just sad how Great Britain didn’t live up to the expectations I had of a great nation. That’s us Europeans and our Union for you: Always expecting.

From you, the last great monarchy. How can we underachievers dare? No other European country has ever colonised a quarter of the world. Sometimes, when I interject that the former size of your Empire isn’t relevant anymore, your hurt pride reminds me of the Russian Bear. I can almost imagine Vladimir Putin and Boris Johnson sitting on that horse together. With bare chests.

Speaking of Empire. Something that I’ve never quite understood: How do you justify colonising from Cape to Cairo? I’m just asking, as nowadays you seem to hold quite strong views about foreigners and that they should stay in their home countries. Pesky migrants.

Sadly, it’s not just the uneducated English Defense League, Britain First or their UKIP brethren who’re saying that. It’s your government, who use cheap rightwing messages to appease the masses. Is it to distract from their own mistakes, as the fault for the misery of the working class lies deeply embedded in the British culture and the British governments of the past 30 years?

Austerity measures and the demise of the NHS have nothing to do with a few million foreigners taking your jobs and benefits. The government pretends they’re protecting you from those people in that camp in Calais, which quite obviously is an intrinsically French issue. What they don’t mention is their own contribution to the problem, largely generated by a hasty invasion of Iraq in 2003. By the way, people fleeing from war are commonly referred to as ‘refugees’. Migrant is an economic term. That’s something your media should learn as well. But I’m digressing.

What a load of ad-hoc

Admittedly, Great Britain, your actions and manners in the big wide world have never been the real issue for me. Work is work, and I might just not understand your geopolitical masterplan. It’s your behaviour at home that really made me want to go. “We are a country of ad-hoc-ery”, I’ve already heard it said in a 1980s BBC documentary, and it’s tightly linked to keeping a stiff upper lip no matter how bad it is. That begins on the level of craftsmanship.

I remember a case when an English plumber left a gaping hole in our cistern to accommodate an ill-fitting mechanism, a solution considered “not good, but what can you do…” by most of our British friends. (Do you still wonder about the success of Polish and Romanian builders?) Unfortunately, this stoic acceptance also extends into politics, and loud, visible protest against authority seems widely frowned upon by a lazy middle class.

It amuses me how subtly Londoners express their concerns about a potential Heathrow expansion, remembering months of demonstrations, riots and blockades when it came to the expansion of Frankfurt airport thirty years ago. If you put that into perspective, most European governments would fall if their approval for something like GCHQ’s Tempora became public…

Are Britons educated and drilled for obedience? Or have they just accepted that everyone has their place in society and that resistance is futile? Is the prevalent feeling that the public can consider themselves lucky to choose between candidates, who more often than not went to the same elitist schools, depicted and promoted by media run by their former classmates? A country run by a self-serving upper class and parts of a wealthy middle class, career politicians who seem to work hard that their traditional values and inherited powers remains.

The lack of social mobility is strong in Great Britain, as an OECD report from 2010 confirms. Ten years ago I was surprised that families moved into better neighbourhoods to allow their children access to good education. Now, not being able to afford public school and fearing for my children’s chances in life makes me go back home.

I’ve seen this trajectory a few times: Applicants from non-Oxbridge universities are not even looked at for influential posts in the City; to get into Oxford and Cambridge, you need to have money and the ability to speak and handwave in a very articulate way (these essay and interview questions mostly seem to test the level of sophistication, rarely an aptitude for the subject); and to learn these essential skills, you better had training from an expensive school and come from the right family background.

I just leave that here: “Three London local authorities – Richmond upon Thames, Kensington and Chelsea, and the City of London – sent more than 25 students to Oxbridge per 1,000 16-17-year-olds within their boundaries in 2012, compared with an average of just over 2.5 students per 1,000 for England and Wales.” You may want to google for a socio-economic map of London to appreciate what that means.

I'm really going, you can't stop me...

Great Britain, I’m leaving you. But before I go, just consider this: some UK businesses don’t need the EU. For many well off individuals, the question of ‘in or out’ doesn’t really matter. For them, a short-term recession would just be an inconvenience. They don’t need good state schools. They don’t need the NHS. The ties that this privileged group of people weave are strong. Their companies are fed by governmental pet projects, and the lines between political influencers, board members and subsidised commercial activities are blurry. Strategic investment that would provide UK companies with better opportunities to succeed in the single market are rare. Instead, the EU is stylised into a threat.

Why?

The Horizon 2020 programme has a €80bn package for investment into research and innovation, a resource that also encompasses the very successful European Research Council grants, with the UK being the most funded individual country (securing almost 21 per cent of the ‘Starting grants’ distributed over 31 EU countries). The programme’s SME Instrument supported almost 200 UK companies since 2014, as such the UK received the biggest share here as well. What’s not to like about that?

Brexit or not, I’m going back to a country with its own debates around EU membership and nationalistic tendencies. At least, there, I won’t be shut up as a foreigner without a right to vote. For me, the EU is not about the money, and it shouldn’t be for anyone. It is a model how people can work together on the real issues that our society is facing in the future: climate change, global security, demographic changes. These problems cannot be tackled with national pride and strong emotion. We have all got to look forward, not backward.

You got to ask yourself, cui bono? Is the Brexit debate yet another move to distract from the real issues in the country? A debate that conveniently serves two ambitious candidates to distinguish themselves from one another, although they’re both representatives of essentially the same system? I believe it’s a dangerous game with the emotions of mostly the losers in British society, who are made to believe that they might be winners in a post-EU nation that brings back the glory of the past.

Great Britain, one day we might be able to start over again. After all, my children were born here and have British passports. But first, you need to work on yourself. ®

Dr Boris Adryan is a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge. He is also commercially active as freelance data scientist and consultant with a focus on the Internet of Things. He usually shares technical content and a few strong opinions as @BorisAdryan on Twitter.

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