Thinking About Brexit: An Interview with Founder Kwame Boateng

By Rory Mondshein

Thinking About Brexit Founder, Kwame Boateng [right], leads a student-led think tank in London

On June 23, 2016, citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland voted to leave the European Union. The controversial referendum to leave the European Union is known as Brexit, a portmanteau of the words “Britain” and “exit”. Brexit’s intersectional relationship to social issues, like border security, poverty, and inequality, made it an extremely divisive referendum.

In the end, 51.9% of the electorate voted to leave, which led to immediate consequences including the resignation of then-Prime Minister, David Cameron, and a compromised public image. Shocked by the results, many constituents demanded a secondary referendum, but a second tally was never conducted. Forced to accept the consequences of the decision, the British government invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union to begin the process of withdrawing from the European Union on March 29th, 2017.

With official plans to leave the European Union on March 29, 2019, there are many debates about the logistics. For example, Prime Minister, Theresa May, publicly stated that the United Kingdom does not intend to permanently remain in the European Common Market, which enables greater trade amongst European states through free movement. Yet, the Labour Party supports regulated immigration, which would allow more students to study in the UK, unlike the Tory and Conservatives’ targeted regulation.

There are many different visions for the post-Brexit United Kingdom, and, currently, there are more questions than answers. The uncertainty surrounding a post-Brexit U.K. has led to many publications, public lectures, and the creation of think tanks, like Thinking About Brexit, that study the process and potential implications.

Started by London School of Economics student, Kwame Boateng,  Thinking About Brexit is a think tank that will spend the next seven months creating a realistic and actionable vision for Brexit to produce positive outcomes in key areas. Comprised of seven undergraduate and postgraduate students at the LSE, members will produce a range of content over this period including Thought Pieces (articles), Thought Sessions (filmed discussions) and Reports, allowing people to follow them as they think about Brexit.

This week, I spoke with Kwame Boateng to learn more about his work with “Thinking About Brexit,” and his ultimate visions for student-led think tanks.

Hi Kwame, can you tell us a little about yourself?

At the moment I’m doing a Masters in Human Rights at the LSE whilst throwing myself into a few ventures that I’ve wanted to do for a while. I recently launched a media production hub called Project Five Fifths, which is growing well and even more recently, I’ve launched Thinking About Brexit! Many other ideas I’ve had, I’ve sat on for a little while before I’ve decided whether or not to launch them, but for Thinking About Brexit, the turnaround time from conception to launch was relatively quick- maybe two months

How would you describe this think tank?

I think it’s a project that aims to bring both optimism and pragmatism together. I have three words that I use to describe the kind of findings we will produce, they are: positive, realistic and actionable. Each of them are equally important because I feel like they balance each other out. I want us to find positive solutions, but I don’t want us to lose sight of what is actually realistic, it’s easy as an optimist to see things through rose-tinted glasses but this must be balanced with an understanding that in a negotiation, there are many sides and each side needs to feel like they’ve ‘won’ in some sense. Being actionable is important because we could come up with a grand vision that is positive for us and the other negotiating party but is practically impossible to implement. So, being aware of practical issues such as time constraints.

What made you want to start Thinking About Brexit?

Thinking About Brexit actually came from a place of frustration. I was frustrated with the consistently negative discourse surrounding Brexit- I still am if I’m honest. I look at the current state of Government and I think I can agree with most people when I say that the answer to the question ‘will we leave the EU?’ is a foregone conclusion, now we are solely left with the question ‘how will we leave the EU?’. And to me, it’s in the interest of every person with a British passport to make sure that that question is answered favourably!

Nevertheless, putting on my pragmatic hat, I am well aware that the answer to that question looks very bleak from a lot of angles, so there are a multitude of valid reasons to have a negative outlook.

So this is pretty much where Thinking About Brexit slots in. When I was convincing the Thinkers to be part of this think tank I told them that we are trying to do something very difficult and I likened it to us trying to win a game of poker with a poor hand. So I understand that this vision might sound a little crazy, but it’s a challenge I want to take head on and I believe that we as Thinkers can overcome it.

Oh, and it took some motivation from my Dad too, to convince me that I wasn’t crazy!

Describe the setup of the think tank.

There are 7 Thinkers, each of us are students at the LSE and over the next 7 months we will come up with a vision of how Brexit can bring about a positive outcome in 7 key areas:Trade & Relations: EU; Trade & Relations: ROW; Economy; Immigration; Law: Rights & Legal Protections; Business & Employment; Social Policy.

Each Thinker has an area that they are leading on, we will take one area per month and each month will follow the same pattern. At the start of the month we release a Thought Piece, which introduces our vision for that area. Then we meet for a Thought Session, in which we interrogate and dissect the Thought Piece to make the vision stronger. Then at the end of the month we release a Report which gives a more detailed outline of our vision in that area.

How did you pick the students?

I pretty much scrolled through LinkedIn for hours, looking for students at the LSE with certain experiences or skill sets that made them stand out. For example, Karim completed a GCSE in ICT when he was six years old! So that’s basically a qualification that’s typically earned when you finish high school, being given to someone at the start of elementary school. Then Tosin, for example, started an organisation called hi-r which works to increase access to higher education for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. So it was little things like that that made these students stand out for me.

How did you decide on these areas of specialization?

This was actually quite difficult to do, it took quite a few revisions to get it to where it is now and even still, I think it could do with a few more revisions. Most important though, wasn’t necessarily choosing the specific areas, but rather choosing the order in which we addressed key issues. The vision is meant to build up over time so it was important to get the foundations down first, so for example, we had to establish what kind of relationship we want with the EU before we could start looking at concrete options for what we could do in the rest of the world- this is why Trade & Relations with the EU was the first topic.

What do you hope Thinking About Brexit add to the broader discussions on Brexit?

Primarily I want to inject some new, positive ideas. I want to do this using accessible and engaging methods, which is why we’re filming our Thought Sessions and releasing bitesize clips which are more digestible than a long discussion- but if you want a long discussion that’s available too. So I guess it’s quality and also appealing content this will primarily add.

However, there is an important by-product of all this and I think it will happen by virtue of the above happening. This byproduct is people taking students and young people more seriously. This think tank shows that our concerns are complex, and that means that you cannot simply assume what is important to us. Also, it shows that in the right context, we can produce solutions that are positive, yet realistic and actionable!

What are some solutions that you see as realistic?

So an important issue that was spoken about in some length at our last Thought Session was the Irish border. We pretty much all agreed that there needs to be a bespoke agreement negotiated for that border. Because of the recent history of the Troubles and the very real tensions that still exist, it’s too much of a risk for either side to play hard ball with, so we believe there will be concessions made from both the UK and the EU there. Support has been shown for this type of agreement by the EU and the UK with both of them calling for the Irish question to be dealt with uniquely, they’ve used words like “unprecedented” and “specific” to show that they are willing to deal with it as an anomaly.

I also see further investment in other major cities in the UK as a realistic solution. This means an increased championing of the services sector in Britain, creating more expertise for the country to export and make money from.

How are you advocating for these solutions?

I think the first step has to be firmly establishing them, testing them and seeing how they may be received by the various parties involved. This comes from discussion and debate with the Thinkers. Then the advocacy comes after we’ve completed the monthly Reports, There are a few platforms that are already established and are doing amazing work to advocate for policy solutions to Brexit. A great example is Generation Brexit. So we will look into a number of options but at the moment the key for us is just to establish the ideas we have.

Which politicians are on board? Which professors?

We’re only about two weeks in so we’re still working on making sure people know about us. But we have had support and conversations with a number of academics and other people interested in the media and politics. As we develop our content, we will see some of these come to the surface but at the moment we’re still building.

Where do you see this in five years? Ten years?

The answer to this question could go in so many directions. I’ll give you one, the debate around Brexit will not finish once Britain leaves the EU. I liken it to a young adult that’s decided to leave the comfort of his parent’s home. Once she or he has come to an agreement with their parents, they leave and enter their own apartment, ideally they would have had a source of income set up before they left. But once they are out, things will likely be much more difficult for them but the horizons are much broader.

So leaving the EU is really just a gateway, there will be much more Thinking to do once Britain has left!

Now, acknowledging that this is The Political Student, I want to shift the focus to civic engagement by asking how students can get involved.

A big part of what we’re trying to do is just be aware of all the concerns and views that people have on Brexit. So students should get involved by simply engaging with our content. Watching, commenting, liking, disliking!

What skills do you think are important for students that want to be involved in a think tank.

I think it will differ depending on what the focus of the think tank is, but for me it was simply being well-rounded. So it wasn’t all about having an amazing academic background, but also showing, through your experiences, what kind of person you are.

How did you go about starting a think tank? What resources did you take advantage of?

I don’t think there are many social media tools I haven’t used in building this think tank: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube and maybe some more I’ve forgotten about. I’m still learning how to fully take advantage of them and of the strengths and weaknesses of them, so I’m still in the trial and error phase. But I would say that I’m happy I’ve been experimental so far. One resource that I really enjoy using is Medium, I think something as simple as telling people how long it will take to read an article is genius- they aren’t the only ones to do it but their whole package and design has definitely put them ahead of other blogging platforms in my opinion.

The reason social media has been so important is because fundamentally this think tank is about people. Bringing people together to think about an issue, then telling other people what that group of people has thought about. It’s simple, it’s really just about networks and exposure and social media is the champion of that for this era.

Finally, I want to ask you if you have any advice for our readers.

Brexit will affect our generation more than it will any other generation, so I don’t really think we have the luxury of being passive, we need realistic and positive solutions to this and if we don’t see them being created, we need to create it ourselves.

I’ve also met so many fellow students with amazing ideas but they fail to see them through because of really minor issues, this project is just one way of me saying to other people: if you have an idea you believe is good, don’t be discouraged by anything, keep going with it!

Thanks, Kwame!


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