A discussion with Professor Robert Tombs on persecuted Leave academics and Britain’s precarious new future.


Whether you’ve voted to leave or remain, I think most British voters hoped that when Boris Johnson promised to ‘get Brexit done’ at the 2019 election, it would get done. Sadly, it was not to be. Since the UK formally left the European Union, the relationship between Britain and the EU has soured. The British Government has threatened to break international law, and there was an outcry when, at the height of a row over vaccine procurement, the EU threatened to create a border on the island of Ireland.

An open supporter of Brexit

Robert Tombs, a professor of history at the University of Cambridge, has been one of the few academics to openly support Brexit (it is estimated that around 90 per cent of academics were Remainers), and has written extensively on the subject. We sat down to discuss the future of Britain post-Brexit.

I started by asking him what it is like to be a Brexiteer in Remain-voting Cambridge?

‘People come up to you and say “I read what you wrote, and I just wanted to say I agree with you” ‘, he recalls. Tombs believes that there is a lot of moral pressure, particularly on young academics, to conform to what he describes as ‘the majority view’.

I point out that there are British academics who were Brexiteers, and that he is one of them. ‘But many of them tend to be, like me, retired, and therefore not susceptible to pressure’, he replies. I also point out that the Oxford and Cambridge unions frequently invite conservative Brexiteers such as Ann Widdecombe and Toby Young. ‘I think the Cambridge Union and the Oxford Union are rather unusual’, he argues somewhat enigmatically.

I ask him if he thinks young academics who support Brexit are right to fear for their careers?

‘Yes’, he says bluntly. I press him on whether he knows of any specific examples of anyone being sacked or not getting a promotion because they voted to leave. He says he does but points out that he cannot go into too much detail, except that he knows of someone (not in Cambridge) who had to resign from one of his positions (although not from his whole job).

We then go on to discuss Brexit itself, and its effect on Northern Ireland:

In recent months, we have seen violence and unrest in the province, which brought back painful memories of The Troubles. He believes that the EU is partly to blame, as they used the issue ‘as a weapon against the UK’.

I argue that, given that the UK chose to leave the Customs Union, there had to be checks somewhere between the EU and the UK, and that the choice was between having them on the island of Ireland, or in the Irish sea.

Tombs argues that Brexiteers tried to resolve this issue during the negotiations. ‘There were all sorts of proposals made … for how you could handle this without having a hard border, and the EU turned them all down’. The EU and the Irish Government argued that the suggestions made by Brexiteers for the Irish border were unrealistic, and would require technology that did not exist.

The government is now trying to rewrite Northern Ireland Protocol. Tombs concedes that Boris Johnson did sign the Brexit deal that included the Protocol. ‘Yes, he did sign it, in difficult circumstances … perhaps he should not have signed it’, but, ‘it is a very contradictory document’.

When it comes to Irish reunification, Tombs is not particularly concerned. He believes that the people care more about their standard of living than they do about identity issues, and that if they thought Irish unity would cost them £5,000 a year, they would not want it. He also thinks that voters would be concerned about the Irish healthcare system: ‘there is no NHS in the Irish Republic’, he points out.

I put to him that young people in Northern Ireland, are pro-EU, which might make a united Ireland (an EU member) more attractive. ‘Yeah, quite possibly’ he concedes. But he thinks that this will depend on whether Brexit is a success, ‘or even if it is not a disaster’.

For Tombs, the greatest threat to the Union is not Scotland or Northern Ireland, but England. ‘A threat to the Union might well be that English voters get fed up with it’, because there may come a point where the English no longer want to subsidise Scotland and Northern Ireland’ — a contentious argument in itself.

On France and Britain’s ‘delicate’ relationship

Robert Tombs and his wife Isabelle wrote That Sweet Enemey, a book that explores the long history of rivalry and friendship between France and Britain. I ask him what he thinks the future of Anglo-French relations will be post-Brexit. He smiles and says, ‘relations between France and Britain have always been rather delicate … we are quite sensitive to what the other one does or says’.

I ask him what effect he believes Brexit will have on relations between the two countries?

‘The EU is France’s great project … In fact, Victor Hugo wrote about a United States of Europe with its capital in Paris’, he says suggestively.

Tombs believes that, from France’s point of view, Britain has ‘rather put a spanner in the works’ and that ‘there is a lot of anger in France, particularly among French politicians, commentators and so on’. He also thinks that there is some concern in France that if Brexit were a success, it could bolster Eurosceptic politicians and political parties across Europe, including Marine Le Pen (although she has changed her position on the EU).

Still, he does not believe that ‘Frexit’ is likely because of France’s position in the Eurozone. ‘If you’re in the Eurozone, leaving is very difficult, and risky, and costly’ which means ‘there are barriers against Frexit’.

Despite the current tensions between Britain and France, Tombs believes that the two countries will find a way to work together. ‘They [France] need us quite a lot … we’ve got to try and reconcile these things’, he maintains optimistically.