Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Brexit means...

     Brexit means, according to our omnishambles of a Prime Minister, ‘Brexit’. Very good, well done. But what does it actually entail, in practical terms? So far, it seems to translate into the real world as loss of access to the single market, the end of freedom of movement, an explosion in hate crime, British farming possibly not being able to feed us, a reduction of 96% in EU residents applying to work in the NHS, people who have lived and worked in this country for decades being denied the right to live here, increased inflation with no real rise in income, the value of the pound dropping like a stone. A heavy stone. Oh, and did I mention the loss of jobs, lack of political stability, the potential end of the Good Friday Agreement, international companies leaving the UK in droves, and a widespread feeling that politicians are hellbent on making sure this country implodes in ever more unlikely ways? No? Oh well. You’re probably getting there yourself already.

     Aside from that, it’s all going swimmingly. As anyone caught in a riptide will tell you. There might be some positives from Brexit. I just honestly can’t see any and don’t even bloody START with bollocks about ‘taking back control’ or ‘funding our NHS’ or ‘making Britain great again’, because that’s just soundbite bollocks and I’m not going to listen to cheap little knock off  claptrap. I want facts and figures here, not the meaningless  slogans that translate no further than some kind of wispy belief that it’s all health and safety gone mad, and we have too many human rights and we should look after our own, and somehow being part of a wider community  weakens us so much more than standing on our own. The EU is a community, in just the same way that so many other things are, where we live, where we work, the people with whom we socialise, or come together to effect change.

     The thing that Vote Leave loved to bang on about during their campaign was telling us how much we pay in to the EU. That bloody £350 million… What they cannily avoided was mentioning how much of that comes back to the UK. The things in the UK that are solely funded by the EU kitty that we’ve paid into. Yes, some of our money goes to other countries. But we get money back in ways that so many were blissfully unaware of. In science, in arts & culture, in construction, in education, in collaboration, in so many Cinderella areas of study and research that the UK government overlooks. When you consider the value of being able to share ideas with almost an entire continent so freely, then we get that £350 million back in spades. Actual spades. And trowels. And all sorts of other stuff, but I’m going to bang on about archaeology for a bit, because that’s what I do.

     Archaeology in the UK receives 38% of its funding from the EU. 38%. Higher than any other discipline. Once Brexit actually is Brexit, as opposed to just meaning it, that funding is gone. We won’t be paying in, so we won’t get anything out. Losing 38% of funding is pretty much unsustainable for anything. So what that will mean – because I can actually define what words mean, rather than just repeat them – is that there will be scores of archaeology projects that will simply never happen, because there is no money for them. There will still be some funding available, in the form of UK based donations, loans, and grants, but effectively there will be the same number of people chasing money that has been reduced by over a third. Not hard to see where the bottom line is. Projects and groups will miss out. The prestigious organisations probably won’t. The esteemed universities and academics probably won’t. But the little fish in the big pond will, because they don’t have the back up or the cover or the funding. And of all the small fish in the pond, community archaeology is the tiddler.

     Community archaeology, where ordinary people with no previous experience or knowledge can get involved with little or no demand on their pockets. Where the guidance and expertise of professional archaeologists is needed to encourage and inspire people to get stuck in, to learn, to enjoy, to make a difference, not just to archaeology but to the  volunteers lives too as they become part of a community. Part of a community that’s not just the non-professionals having a go, and getting stuck in, making friends and having fun, but a broader, wider community of Historic Environment Record officers, of professional archaeologists giving up hours of their time to help plan and liaise a project before even a single civilian has been recruited, who organise and run the training events, the open days, who advise on funding and grant applications. Who are so often the ones steering and guiding even the most volunteer led community archaeology groups. The ones who actually have to deal with the information generated by groups. Volunteers may like to think of themselves as being the ones who make the difference (and god knows I’ve banged on about that enough), but without the support of so many people whose careers are rooted in archaeology, we’d be both useless and clueless (and I’m not even going to go into how having even just one Real & Proper Archaeology Person linked to something grants it legitimacy, invites respect and elevates it beyond simply a group of people with a shared interest. Oh piss off, I’m not being snobby. You know it’s true; if you’re good enough to have a professional working alongside you, you are considered in the eyes of others to have something special. See? Me not going on about it). But without funding, these experts won't be in any kind of position to make those vital contributions that allow archaeology to be open to you, me, them, us, everyone.

      Community archaeology has changed my life and many others too. But it’s going to wither away to almost nothing, or almost certainly require people to no longer be volunteers but paying customers instead, which is quite some shift. It’s already starting to happen. Crowdfunding to enable digs to go ahead. Paying for access to excavations or membership fees because in the age of austerity, every penny of funding counts, and it’s got to be spent wisely. As council budgets shrink, the museums services face cuts, the archaeology departments are outsourced, HERs are deployed ever more sparingly, and public outreach programmes to encourage participation are either mothballed or never even started in the first place.

     Because when that EU money shrivels up, when archaeology has to face this funding crisis, when archaeology is cut to the financial bone, then anything that doesn’t make money – and community archaeology really doesn’t – is going to be bottom of the pile when grants are handed out. If it isn’t economically viable, it has to go. And professional archaeologists, lovely and shiny and sweet as they can be, have to make a living somehow (although as today’s Guardian  points out, even those who are highly experienced and qualified struggle to do even that when working full time).  So they’ll either have to charge people to be part of the project, or the project will just never happen at all. Those communities of volunteers will never again be the same, or just won’t be created in the future.

     I make jokes about not being your average volunteer. Because I’m not. I don’t fit the demographic. Community archaeology has, for now but not much longer, been able to thrive thanks to an army of retired people who are far from being on the scrapheap, and want not only to keep busy, but also to make a contribution to the groups and places around them. Their communities.

     The demographic of volunteers is generally white skinned, white haired, middle class, retired Brits. People living comfortable lives, in comfortable middle England, comfortable lives that the EU barely impinges on in any real sense. The very same demographic who, by a majority, voted for Brexit, yet can’t tell us what Brexit means. The very same demographic who go out and give up their time to support history and heritage, yet fail to understand what is happening to archaeology. The very same demographic who gave life to community archaeology have effectively ensured that its demise is almost inevitable. They ‘won’ the referendum. Eventually, they may come to see that it was a Pyrrhic victory, when the projects they have been part of can no longer continue as they have done. So that’s one very narrow, very personally relevant, definition of what Brexit means to one small fish in one big pond. There will be a lot more small fish washing up.