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Beyond the post-referendum farce there needs to be a vision

Catherine Slessor
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Curbing free movement will have severe consequences on architecture in both practice and education, says Catherine Slessor

As the blood and spittle are wiped from the walls following the carnage of the European Union referendum, I’m not the first to observe that it’s become grimly apparent the pooping flotilla of Brexiteers have no coherent plan for the great British ship of state they have just audaciously abducted. More disturbingly, as political and economic life turns into a low-rent version of Titus Andronicus, you get the sense that we’re only on the first act of the most grotesque Shakespearean psychodrama in living memory.

For architecture, it goes without saying there will be consequences. Taking the UK out of the EU is a profound and unprecedented exogenous shock to the system, the implications of which seem scarcely understood by constitutional scholars, let alone the Brexit brigade, rallying around a false flag of more cash for the NHS and their ‘take back control’ dog-whistle. Ironically, in the aftermath of Leave’s victory, any notion of ‘control’ was singularly lacking (and still is) as markets plummeted and politicians descended into internecine squabbling, while racist venom and violence were unleashed on the streets.

Yet this cathartic Independence Day was never really supposed to happen, as blond ambitionist Boris Johnson’s countenance on the morning after fatally construed, giving new resonance to the journalistic cliché ‘ashen-faced’. However, the torpedoed ambitions of those who regard the country as their personal playpen pale into insignificance before the unedifying spectacle of a fractured UK plunged into a miasma of rancour and uncertainty.

So what now? Britain’s messy Euro divorce is just getting started, but the idea postulated by the Brexiteers that you can keep the house and still shag your ex-wife on alternate weekends (have access to the single market while opting out of free movement) has so far been comprehensively punctured by those faceless Brussels bureaucrats, now desperate to chuck philandering John Bull out of their bedroom.

Who would blame staff from the EU for contemplating going elsewhere as their ‘value’ is called into question

And let’s be clear. This farrago is not about ‘sovereignty’. Rather, it is about curbing free movement as a tourniquet to stem immigration, the underlying scrofula that the Leave campaign was so keen to encourage us to scratch. But as the brave new Brexit dawn potentially purges Norfolk fields of Lithuanian fruit pickers, it also has an impact on other young Europeans, whose experience and skills enrich architectural ateliers and academia throughout the land.

Architecture, like law, finance, medicine, education and the arts, attracts a creative cohort of people from other countries, eager to improve their prospects and contribute, both economically and experientially, to their host nation. I occasionally work in an architectural practice that typically counts Portuguese, Irish, Finns, Swedes and Italians among its staff members. Disturbingly, Theresa May – now widely tipped to be the genuine heir to Margaret Thatcher – would not be drawn on whether those from the EU already here would ultimately have the right to remain. But in the meantime, who would blame them for contemplating going elsewhere as their ‘value’ is called into question.

So far, the profession appears collectively caught on the back foot by events, with practices, the RIBA and schools of architecture all issuing bleary-eyed ‘business as usual’ imperatives. And well they might, as frankly no one could have predicted such farcical turmoil. But beyond the farce, there needs to be a plan and, more importantly, a vision of what this new settlement with our immediate neighbours might actually mean, constitutionally and culturally. At present that vision is depressingly defined by what it is not – atomising decades of pan-European cooperation, openness and fraternité. As the fog in the Brexit saloon bar slowly clears, the real hangover is yet to come. And it promises to be excruciating.

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