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The Trials of a Brexiteer Academic – Niall McCrae

Briefings For Brexit Holdings
Written by Niall McCrae

Here is a brief illustration of what Brexit-supporting minority in academe are up against.

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Here is a brief illustration of what Brexit-supporting minority in academe are up against. Last year I was invited by the editor of International Journal of Nursing Studies to write a commentary on Brexit and the NHS. This would be published alongside a staunchly anti-Brexit argument, by Professor Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

This week, I discovered that the journal had allowed McKee to respond to my piece. Nothing wrong with that: academic debate on a topic of major significance. But I will not get to participate in a second round; at least, not in the IJNS. The editor is reluctant to continue the debate.

In his letter, McKee was obviously fuming at my optimism, as I had expressed fore and aft in my article. A short excerpt from my article makes clear the general tenor:


For much of the global readership of this journal, arguments on Brexit may seem parochial: a storm in a teacup. Why should nurses in China, Brazil or the USA be concerned that the British people exercised their democratic rights in a plebiscite on membership of a transnational organisation?  The UK is leaving the EU, not Europe. With London the financial capital of the world, a boom in manufacturing and tourism, highest-ever employment figures, and UK universities riding high in the world rankings, Britain can hardly be perceived as a nation in crisis.

            ‘I appeal to Remainers to relinquish their pessimism. Britain has a proud record in the development of medicine, nursing and health services, with a rich legacy of medical discoveries, Nobel Prize winners, the founding of the nursing profession by Florence Nightingale, and creation of the NHS. If the answer to everything is the EU, you are asking the wrong question.


In his Britain-bashing response, McKee angrily lashed out at my references to sovereignty, democracy and taking back control, treating me as a jingoistic half-wit.

I relented to the IJNS editor’s advice not to take up my right to reply. To some extent, I can understand his point. The rancour of my opponent’s letter, in stark contrast to the relatively moderate tone of my article, does not grace the pages of the world-leading nursing research journal. This leaves an uneven contest on the journal’s pages, and I have attached the letter I would have liked to have responded with below.

On reviewing the original articles by McKee and I, another troubling discrepancy was also apparent. My piece was issued with a heavy ‘health warning’, noting that my opinion was neither that of the journal nor my faculty. This was quite unnecessary: academic opinion articles are by definition the opinion of the author; it goes without saying. While my workplace was distanced from my measured commentary, McKee’s article and his subsequent rant were published without any disclaimer. There’s no glory in beating a guy with one arm tied behind his back.


“Dear Sir

            In response to my article on Brexit and the NHS, McKee fires a scattergun of partisan political points. The relevance of Grenfell Tower and foodbanks to the EU is lost on me. The journal readership is more interested in how Brexit will affect the NHS than on electoral machinations, but I must confront McKee’s distortion of the plebiscite as an advisory or reversible decision. The wording on the UK Government leaflet distributed to every household before the vote stated unequivocally that the result would be binding: –

            ‘This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.’

            McKee has a perverse sense of democracy if he believes that a referendum should only count if it delivers the ‘right’ result. Of course, Britons could in future decide to apply to renew membership (should the increasingly troubled EU still exist).

            Perhaps one area of agreement between McKee and I is in valuing the NHS, which (for all its faults) is a cherished institution of British society. I am doubtful, however, of McKee’s sense of importance of the EU to the existence of the NHS. While all healthcare workers from abroad are appreciated for their contribution, McKee puts too much emphasis on employment opportunities for workers from the EU, overlooking the desirability of British recruits. As argued in my original article, we should be doing more to entice homegrown talent into nursing and medicine.

            The potentially adverse impact of Brexit on the NHS has been exaggerated. Reports of an exodus of European doctors and nurses were given prominence on the BBC and in the Financial Times and Guardian newspapers, with suggestions that the NHS will collapse after Brexit . This, frankly, is scaremongering by news outlets that make no secret of their anti-Brexit bias. Merely 5% of the NHS workforce is from the EU, and scrutiny of NHS data revealed that while 10000 workers had left since the Brexit vote (as reported by the Guardian), 13000 had arrived (as unreported by the Guardian). In fact, there were 3193 more workers from the EU.

            This, sadly, is the extent of fake news in mainstream media, often citing evidence-free predictions of gloom from the ivory towers.  Privileged people in positions of power are throwing their toys out of the pram. With their condescending and often vindictive attacks on ordinary people across the political spectrum, it seems that some influential Remainers regard themselves as experts who know best.

            The rude and ostracising behaviour experienced by Brexit-supporting scholars has led to a heartening fightback, with the recent launch of the Briefings for Brexit academic group, which I have been pleased to join. I would suggest other nursing lecturers and researchers come forward: I personally know many who voted Leave but have felt scared to divulge this in a hostile atmosphere.  

            Finally, I would like to say that I happily work with Remain-voting colleagues, and I hope that over time this conflicted division will recede. Disentangled from Brussels bureaucracy, Britain has prospects of a bright future as a sovereign and caring nation.

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About the author

Niall McCrae