August 2016

The lead time between writing this piece and its publication in AEROSPACE means that the August issue is the first opportunity to reflect on the UK’s decision to withdraw from the European Union. Prior to the vote, the Society offered analysis of the potential impacts of a Leave vote within the pages of this magazine, but did not put forward a public position on the issue. In the event, such a position would surely have been dashed by Mr Gove’s now famous remark, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” In general, the quality of the Brexit debate was poor, at least at headline level; while the obvious unpreparedness for the result by the leaders of the Leave campaign, and the subsequent political shenanigans, have created a thought ‘vacuum’ in UK government which, ironically enough, has made input from experts ever more important over the next few months. UK civil servants are already seeking evidence on the main areas of risk and opportunity arising from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and the Society will be drawing on its specialist groups and other sources of expertise to support this process.

While I am hopeful that many of the strengths of the UK-EU relationship can be salvaged over the medium term, and that there are indeed opportunities for the UK created by leaving the EU, I remain concerned at two environmental factors which emerged from the debate and the vote. Firstly, a number of politicians and columnists portrayed the result as a rejection of ‘globalisation’ by the majority of the UK electorate. For those working in aerospace and aviation, globalisation is now a fact of life: while it is essential that the benefits of globalisation extend to the whole of society, simply rolling back the clock is not a realistic response to inequality. This is a much more deep-rooted issue than the nature of the UK’s political and economic relationship with other nations. Secondly, the most dismaying aspect of the Brexit debate has been the sentiment – apparently held by many in the UK – that Brexit will “make Britain great again” or the belief that the UK’s standing in the world is, on its own, the answer to most of the difficult questions about the way forward. The idea that a UK passport brings with it greater endeavour, creativity and opportunity for success is, for me, an embarrassing conceit: one which drives a wedge between the UK and the rest of the world, not just Europe. I have spoken recently with many non-UK professionals working in the UK, both in aerospace and within academia, who have acknowledged that the tone of this unfortunate message has indeed made them feel uncomfortable. For the Society, as Council attempts to pull together a more robust vision of what being ‘international’ means, this sort of message is entirely counter-productive; likewise, for many parts of the UK aerospace industry, where investment depends upon political good will as well as a strong business case.

As professionals working towards spreading economic growth evenly across society, we obviously champion our local regions and home nations; but as members of an internationally-respected learned society, working in a global industry, we must show genuine and tangible respect for the achievements and talents of colleagues and competitors around the world, as has been the tradition of the Society for 150 years.

Professor Chris Atkin CEng FRAeS