16 July 2016

The EU referendum and UK cultural heritage

It has been a turbulent few weeks, politically, personally and professionally, and only now have I found the time to reflect on one of the most momentous political upheavals of my lifetime.

On 23rd June 2016 a referendum was held in the UK, which asked whether voters wanted to 'remain' or 'leave' the European Union. The referendum was a consequence of a manifesto commitment by the Conservative Party which had not expected to win the 2015 General Election, and had been made to appease a minority of its backbench MPs. Like many colleagues I went through a 'grieving' process - utter disbelief, followed by depression and anger.

Flags outside the Welsh Government buildings in Aberystwyth, on 12th May 2016.

Friends will know that I am a passionate enthusiast for European unity. I see the EU as the best mechanism for maintaining peace, equality and prosperity across most of a continent which has been in almost continual warfare for all but the most recent 70 of more than 3,000 years. I welcome open borders, and I am happy that a small part of my taxes goes to support citizens in other EU countries. In my lifetime the existence of the EU has helped Spain, Portugal and Greece to emerge from fascist dictatorships, and has helped large parts of eastern Europe to emerge from behind an 'iron curtain'. 28 democracies working together - not always in agreement, certainly, but working together constructively.

Archaeology does not respect modern national borders. Indeed it is only relatively recently that the British archipelago was separated from the mainland. Whilst there is no doubt that co-operation will continue with European colleagues, there will be some very serious impacts in archaeology and cultural heritage which are deeply regrettable.

Firstly, academic colleagues will lose an enormous amount of funding, and it will be much more difficult to co-operate internationally. Already long-term projects with European funding and EU partners are under threat. There is a danger of increasing insularity, isolationism and ultimately the marginalisation of UK academia.

Secondly, with arts and cultural heritage funding already very much at the bottom of the list of priorities for any UK government - particularly the current one - a diminution of funding in particular areas threatens those of us who depend to a greater or lesser extent on public funding. Wales receives a large subsidy from the EU; when that money is no longer available then other budgets - such as heritage - will be cut to make up for the loss in areas such as health, infrastructure and employment.

Thirdly, the uncertainty during the period between the referendum and the eventual moment of leaving will create at best economic stagnation, and at worst a deep recession. Archaeological colleagues whose funding relies largely on the construction industry - whether it is housebuilding, industrial expansion or infrastructure - will also suffer.

It is less than a month since the referendum, and the political situation is still unsettled. But the next few years are going to be tough for archaeology, and archaeologists, in the UK.

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