On the evening of Thursday 2 June 2016, the University of Bath hosted a debate on the upcoming EU referendum, and its particular impact on business in the South West. Organised jointly by the School of Management and the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), the event took place in the University’s arts and management building, The Edge.
The debate was chaired by School of Management Dean Professor Veronica Hope Hailey, and featured six expert panellists: Graham Cole, former Managing Director and Chairman of AgustaWestland and Chairman of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) South West; President of Copenhagen Business School Professor Per Holten-Andersen; Director of the IPR and former Head of Policy at 10 Downing Street Professor Nick Pearce; John Mills, entrepreneur, economist and founder of Labour Leave; Professor Bill Durodie, Professor and Chair of International Relations and Head of the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies at the University; and Lucy Woodcock, Bath Students’ Union Education Officer and President-elect.
Audience members were invited to vote electronically both before and after the debate on the question: ‘Is EU membership good for business in the South West?’ Initially, 53% of voters answered ‘yes’ to only 8% ‘no’ – but a substantial 38% of voters hedged, saying they were ‘unsure’*.
Professor Hailey guided the panellists through a set of six topics before taking questions from the audience. Frank debate arose between Cole and Mills from the first, as they evaluated the challenges facing the South West in 2016 with differing viewpoints on the current state of business in the region; Cole contested that the current situation is positive, and would be threatened by the uncertain prospects of Brexit – whereas Mills believed that companies in the South West are suffering under the EU, and would benefit from new bilateral trade agreements.
Professor Holten-Andersen, who travelled from Denmark to attend, combined an economic analysis – “the majority of Denmark knows that our GDP would be a third of what it is today without the EU” – with more personal views of the European project. In statements he would echo in a later discussion of European perceptions of the UK referendum, he spoke of a common destiny for member states, and a real desire on the part of our continental neighbours to see us remain and help to drive reform. The third topic began with the labour market and employment in the South West, issues with which Professor Pearce is very familiar, but evolved into a discussion of migration that Mills was keen to settle. Professor Pearce asserted that: 'Although public concern about immigration is high, EU migration has generally benefitted the UK – not least its universities. As half of our migration is from outside the EU, Brexit is not a "magic bullet" solution'. Professor Hailey, equally, raised concerns over EU citizens who are already here, but might be ineligible to stay after Brexit. 'I think it is fairly clear that people already in the UK could stay after Brexit,' said Professor Pearce – 'but beyond that there are huge uncertainties.'
Woodcock was then invited to give her perspective on the referendum, and highlighted the different preferences of distinct age groups; she drew distinction between her friends working abroad in Spain and Germany and her grandmother, whose reason for voting to leave was that she 'likes Boris'. As Professor Pearce subsequently pointed out, this logic may not be as far off the mark as it seems – in the event of Brexit, he suggested, a Johnson government might become reality.
Finally, Professor Durodie summarised a more libertarian argument for voting to leave – one of the central contentions of which was that an exit from the EU would allow UK citizens to bring back accountability to our own national government. During the questions, Professor Durodie engaged in impassioned debate with his colleague Dr Nicholas Startin, who is Senior Lecturer in the same department.
After the debate itself had come to an end, the audience was once again prompted to vote – and the results were very telling. The final poll saw ‘yes’ increase to 74% (+21%), ‘no’ increase to 20% (+12%) and ‘unsure’ drop dramatically to 7% (-31%)*. Regardless of what these statistics mean for the referendum and the quality of the arguments on both sides, they do demonstrate the link between information and voter engagement. What Professor Hailey called 'an informed, sober debate' evidently made a big difference to the confidence of this small electorate.
If you’d like to inform – or further inform – your vote in the EU referendum, then you can also read our new referendum policy brief, which contains expert commentary from University of Bath academics on the key debates surrounding this crucial event.
*These figures represent data gathered using electronic voting, and are therefore subject to a margin of error.