It could easily have been a scene from one of this week’s post-election victory rallies in Greece, as supporters of the victorious Syriza party cheered, surrounded by posters and banners.
Yet the setting was not Athens but central London, where hundreds of the party’s UK branch gathered at the TUC’s headquarters on Wednesday to celebrate Syriza’s election victory alongside peers from the British left and other Europeans energised by Syriza’s feat.
A lesser known story of Syriza’s rise, however, has been the role played by a sizeable number of Greek intellectuals based now or previously at British universities – some of whom have been catapulted from academia to senior positions of power in Greece’s new government.
Most notable is Greece’s new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who obtained a mathematical economics degree and PhD at the University of Essex, later teaching at East Anglia, Cambridge and Glasgow.
Tipped to join him in the cabinet is Costas Lapavitsas, a professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of London, who was also elected as a new Syriza MP.
“The profile of the Greek academic community in the UK has been becoming more diverse – with many having to come here to get jobs after training in continental Europe – and clearly there is a very significant proportion who are left-leaning or radicals or Marxist,” said Stathis Kouvelakis, one of the speakers at Wednesday night’s rally at Congress House, and who combines teaching political theory and philosophy at King’s College London with being a member of Syriza’s central committee.
Like others, he was part of a core of Syriza-linked intellectuals for whom the pubs and restaurants on and around Marchmont Street, near University College London, became an incubator for ideas about the future of Greece over late-night discussions.
Kouvelakis said Syriza’s cadre of British-based academics had also developed a distinctive political outlook within the party – perhaps reflecting the UK’s political atmosphere. “What is I think distinctive, at least of Syriza London or Britain-based academics and intellectuals, is that we have a more critical attitude of the EU than others,” said Kouvelakis.
Kouvelakis suggested academics based in a non-eurozone country such as the UK were likely to be more sceptical than their peers on the continent when it came to pro-mainstream European ideas about issues such as the single currency.
Syriza UK emerged in June 2012. It has established links to the British left and organisations such as the Greek Solidarity Campaign, which raises money for medical aid in Greece, and organises regular events, including one which attracted 800 to hear Alexis Tsipras – now the prime minister – speak in London last year.
Syriza celebrations in London
The list of other senior Syriza figures who have either studied in the UK or teach here goes on: Costas Douzinas, a professor in the law faculty at Birkbeck has played a central role in the party while Euclid Tsakalotos, an Oxford-educated economist who teaches at the University of Athens, has become deputy minister for international economic relations.
Others include George Stathakis, a University of Crete economics professor who obtained his MA and PhD from the University of Newcastle, and who will oversee a new super-ministry that includes tourism, transport and shipping. Other University of Essex alumni include Rena Dourou, the governor of greater Athens, and Fotini Vaki, a Syriza MP for Corfu.
Syriza’s intellectuals stand in contrast to those from the prestigious Hellenic Observatory, established in 1996 at the London School of Economics (LSE), but who are regarded as being traditionally linked to the Greek establishment and the older political mainstream.
That said, Giannis Dragasakis, the new Syriza deputy prime minister, studied economics at the LSE, and has been picked out as having a crucial role to play.
“It’s very important as he’s the only one in the current Syriza government that has previous governmental experience,” said Vassilios Paipais, a lecturer on international relations at the University of St Andrews, who describes Syriza as neither a disaster for Europe, nor a panacea for Greece’s crisis.
Paipais added that the UK was home to many Greeks who, as a result of dire work opportunities at home, felt they were in a state of forced exile. Previously, many of the Greek intelligentsia, who later became government ministers, had studied in France and had a francophone education, but Paipais said many Greeks were now taught English early on and often found it easier to do their postgraduate studies in English. “You rarely find a Greek nowadays that doesn’t learn English in school,” he said.
Nearly 4,000 Greek students have studied at the University of Essex in recent decades. Professor Todd Landman, executive dean at its faculty of social sciences, said: “During the period of austerity the countries in southern Europe have struggled to send their students abroad, but we still have very strong connections with Greece and we have a large number who have stayed on and become members of staff.”
Syriza UK has moved to recruit widely from those student ranks. According to Elli Siapkidou, a London-based political economist, the membership of its growing UK branch is peppered with PhD students and academics, including some with tenure and others with PhDs through working in other sectors.
“A 2012 analysis of Greek voters found that Syriza was the party with the highest number of PhDs, the best educated of the 20- to 45-year-old strata of society. If Syriza represents the most highly educated of Greek society, then Syriza UK has that in an even more pronounced form,” she said.
Of London’s attraction to Greek academics in particular, Siapkidou added: “There is more room for different voices in the UK compared to other places. Marx used to live in London for example. I think it is a quite liberal society in terms of political view so their work is objectively appreciated and not stigmatized.”
The Guardian: How British universities helped mould Syriza’s political elite