Presidential Address by David Cannadine, 2020

Address by the President, Sir David Cannadine, to the 118th Annual General Meeting of the British Academy, 23 July 2020

Just over 40 years ago, in early July 1980, there took place what was, until today, the most remarkable Annual General Meeting ever to have occurred in the Academy’s history: not because it was a virtual meeting, which makes today’s gathering if anything even more exceptional, but because the Fellows declined to vote to expel the art historian Anthony Blunt, who a few months before had been unmasked by Margaret Thatcher as a former Soviet spy. This was – and is – an extraordinary story, which even John le Carre could not have made up, and today the Academy publishes a book on the whole episode, which I have edited and topped and tailed with an introduction and conclusion.

The book has already received a considerable amount of media ventilation, including a BBC Radio 4 Archive programme, a full-page article and leader in the Times, and a 10-Minute Academy Talk, and I strongly recommend you all to buy it. I had wanted to entitle the book 'The British Academy and the Blunt Affair’, but I was advised that it would then be assigned by the appropriate algorithm to the bibliographical category of cutlery and utensils; and while the Academy is undoubtedly more fully engaged with the life of the nation than ever before, we have not thus far intruded ourselves significantly into the world of saucepans, egg whisks and toasters.

Most of the book consists of documents collected at the time by the then-President of the Academy, the eminent Hellenist Sir Kenneth Dover. Like Blunt, Dover was a very clever but rather strange man, who later published an autobiography which was exceptionally revealing about many aspects of his private and sexual life that would have been better left untold and undivulged. So strange, indeed, did this book and its author seem that as a result, Dover was invited by Anthony Clare to appear on the BBC Radio 4 programme In the Psychiatrist’s Chair. I am very anxious to reassure Fellows of the Academy that I have received no such equivalent invitation – at least, not yet, but there is of course still a year to go.

My journey back to the early 1980s has also served as a vivid reminder that the Academy today is in so many ways a very different body to that of 40 years ago. Of course, we still believe in the highest standards of academic excellence in electing our Fellows and that is certainly true of those who join us this year in all three categories, to whom I offer my warmest and most delighted congratulations, which I hope to be able to convey in person at a later time. But today we have a much wider awareness of the varied and manifold nature of academic excellence and endeavour, and also of the expanded range of scholarly subjects that now come within our remit, among them psychology, anthropology, political studies, management and business studies, and culture, media and performance, all sections added since 1980. And this year we have added yet another new section, namely education.

In terms of the work they do, their academic affiliations, and their gender balance, our Fellows today are so much more varied than they were in Blunt and Dover’s time: there is additional work to be done on further engaging with diversity and widening access, a point to which I shall return; but we should not lose sight of how much has changed – and how much has changed for the better, not just across the last 40 years, but even during the 20 years since I was elected a Fellow.

The Academy now funds researchers at all stages in their career, from post-doctoral fellows to Wolfson Research Professors. Our policy work, on subjects ranging from the Irish border, to the future of the corporation, to the importance of foreign languages, to the wearing of masks in the current pandemic, is widely recognised and esteemed, in government and far beyond. We are deeply involved and heavily engaged in discussions in Whitehall about the nature of the European research landscape in the aftermath of Brexit, and we work more closely with the other three national academies than ever before. Thanks to our overseas institutes, our global professors, our international collaborations and our corresponding fellows, we are more connected to the world beyond these shores than in Blunt and Dover’s day. Although as the treasurer has pointed out there is much more to do, the fact remains that we are more successful at raising money than we have ever been and the Academy enjoys a far higher level of public recognition than it did 40 years ago. If in 1980 the Academy had possessed the communications team we are lucky enough to employ today, the media would have been much better handled than they then were.

Hetan has already drawn attention to many aspects of the Academy’s work during the last 12 months and I don’t want to go over that ground again. But may I add that we have taken advantage of our building’s enforced closure and are in the process of refurbishing our offices on the second and third floors to provide improved IT and a better working environment for our staff when it is safe to return. We have also put in a bid to government for the balance of the sum we need to complete the basement transformation. In the language of our time, this is a ‘shovel-ready’ scheme all set to go. It will put us in charge and command of our building as never before, and make 10-11 Carlton House Terrace an appropriate headquarters for the global organisation we rightly aspire to be and are in the process of becoming. I am guardedly hopeful, but even if we don’t get the amount we have applied for from Whitehall, I remain strongly committed to raising the money elsewhere, ideally during the remainder of my presidency, but, if needs be, thereafter as well.

As part of the work we are already undertaking, we shall be re-locating the Fellows’ Room to the ground floor to enable easier access and to ensure that it is not tucked away upstairs, but is right at the heart of the building, as the Fellowship itself is right at the beating heart of the Academy. I know that many Fellows appreciate using our headquarters as a London base and we are committed to making our building more welcoming, accessible and attractive to the Fellowship and to the wider public. We have, as I hope you have noticed, also recently introduced a new e-newsletter to improve our links and communications with all Fellows, both in the United Kingdom and far beyond, and we are actively working to build closer links between Fellows and Academy staff, the details of which we will shortly announce.

When Onora O’Neill was President, she regularly confronted us with the challenging and disturbing interrogative: "what is the British Academy for?" I am convinced that we can answer that question much better now than we could then, and certainly much better than our predecessors could in Blunt and Dover’s time. When one of our most recent Honorary Fellows, Robin Jackson, returned so selflessly to help us out in the difficult times of last year, he was amazed at how much more was going on at the Academy than had been so during his earlier time as chief executive and secretary. But this unprecedented range of activity and engagement does not happen without effort, and I doubt if the Academy’s staff have ever been busier than they have been since we went virtual in the middle of March.

Many of them, and at all levels of the organization, are working on Zoom and email from eight in the morning to six in the evening; and before that they have to prepare for these meetings, while afterwards they have follow through on the decisions that have earlier been made. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that our staff have been working day and night, night and day, during the week and often at weekends, and they all deserve, once again, yet also more than ever, our deep appreciation, our abiding thanks and our heartfelt gratitude. And in recognition of their unprecedented labours, we are awarding all of them an extra four days’ holiday in the hope this may go some way to compensating for the exceptional stresses and unrelenting strains that they, like so many others, endure at this extraordinary time.

Beyond these general expressions of thanks, I want to pay especial tribute to Hetan Shah, our new and brilliant Chief Executive, whose first months in office since March this year have been an unrelenting baptism of fire by comparison with which the London conflagration of 1666 was little more than a minor combustion. He had barely been in post a week before he had to move our entire operation offsite and online, and it is thanks to him that all this was accomplished seamlessly and with the minimum of disruption. As a result, and even as most of our work is now being done remotely, the Academy is thriving as never before.

But it is not only the staff who more than ever deserve our gratitude, and especially mine, in these difficult and demanding days. The more time I spend as President, the more I realise just how much the Academy owes to so many Fellows, who give so freely of their labour and their wisdom, and in so many ways, from assessing applications to serving on committees to chairing sections and to holding high and responsible office. That’s especially so of those who serve as Vice Presidents and as members of SCC and as members of Council. And I want to extend appreciative thanks to those members of council completing their term: Professors Julia Barrow, Christine Bell, Julian Birkinshaw, Stella Bruzzi, Eleanor Dickey and Nicholas Sims-Williams, all of whom have contributed in many valuable and memorable ways to our discussions and our decisions.

May I also take this occasion to pay huge tribute to two Vice-Presidents who step down this year. One is Professor Dominic Abrams, our outgoing Vice President for the Social Sciences, who has done so much to engage and energise our social sciences sections, who has played a critical role in establishing our cohesive societies programme, and who has recently developed and overseen the important work we are undertaking in response to COVID-19. I also extend my warmest possible thanks to Sarah Worthington, our outgoing Treasurer. For five years, she has kept an ever-vigilant eye on our finances, her presentations of the accounts have been masterclasses in elegance, lucidity, transparency, command and mastery of the detail, she has shown constant care, concern and consideration for the staff, and I cannot imagine how we would have got through the domestic difficulties we endured last year without her. She has been an outstanding source of strength, wisdom and level-headedness at a time when we needed them most, and only I know just how much the Academy owes her.

I now turn from the recent past to the immediate future. I begin by extending the warmest welcome to Conor Gearty, our new Vice President for Social Sciences, and to Sally Shuttleworth who succeeds Sarah Worthington as Treasurer. They are academics of exceptional distinction and experience, they bring great strengths and wisdom to the conduct of our affairs, and I look forward eagerly to working with them in the coming months. That in turn brings me almost seamlessly to the exciting and exhilarating prospect of our next President, Professor Julia Black. As many of you may know, Julia is a brilliant academic lawyer; she has high-level administrative experience at the LSE; and she is amazingly well networked across the research community, especially UKRI and the Council for Science and Technology. As a former member of council, as chair of the Audit Committee, and as one of the prime movers in the SHAPE initiative, she knows the Academy very well already and I am sure Julia’s will be a brilliant presidency.

Julia is on record as saying that the 2020s will be the decade of the humanities and social sciences, and if anyone can make that happen, then she surely can. As we build back better from the ravages of COVID, from our fractured economy, our broken society, and with so many people’s lives and mental health severely damaged, the humanities and social sciences are going to matter and to be needed more than ever, and Julia is absolutely the person to champion our subjects in such challenging times. I am also delighted that one of the biggest hopes I entertained of my presidency, namely that I should be succeeded by a woman, has indeed been realised and come to pass. Doing something once is an innovation, doing something twice makes it a tradition, and I hope that the tradition that has now been established of electing women as our Presidents will embed and strengthen in the years ahead.

But while I look forward to Julia’s succession with an enormous sense of enthusiasm and expectation, excitement and anticipation, I remain in office for the next 12 months. Little did I know, three years ago, when beginning my presidency, that there would be Brexit, two general elections and now a global pandemic, to say nothing of some very significant internal disruptions, thankfully now long since behind us. As I mentioned to the Academy’s staff in my speech on the eve of their Christmas party late last year, we have had more than our share of endogenous and exogenous shocks – words and concepts not often deployed by Her Majesty in her own yuletide greetings, but certainly applicable in our case. A few months ago, one Fellow told me that my presidency has turned out to be unlike any other: I think that was meant in a comforting and reassuring way, but I am still not as sure as I would like to be.

Having already been the Brexit President, the COVID President, and now the virtual President, I wonder what further challenges await the Academy in my final year. How, then, do I see the remainder of my presidency, where do I think the Academy will be in July 2021, and where would I like it to be? In some ways, these are exceptionally difficult questions to answer, for the Academy as for all organisations, because we simply do not know what course the pandemic will take over the next 12 months and what the consequences will be. Will it return with renewed virulence, or will it tail off and go away? When will a vaccine be perfected and produced in global quantities, and when if ever will social distancing end? How will the Academy’s working and meeting practises be changed, in terms of the shifting balance between real-time personal encounters and continued Zooming for so much of our business? When shall we all be able to return to Carlton House Terrace? What will the new normal look like for the Academy, how long will it take for us to get there, and when shall we know that we have reached it?

These are deeply unsettling questions, to which there are no convincing or definite current answers, and although we are far from being the first generation in the Academy’s history to have faced an uncertain future, it would be irresponsible to underestimate the challenges that lie ahead, not least because, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are so many unknown unknowns, which make all attempts at forward planning so provisional, difficult and uncertain. But while these are not the circumstances and constraints of our own choosing, there remain many things that we can do, or at least can try to do, and there are many things that I can do and that I very much want to do in the time that is left to me as President.

I greatly look forward to working ever more closely with Hetan, with whom I have had scarcely any real-time, face-to-face meetings thus far, beyond his job interview last autumn; and I take real pride and pleasure in saying that I shall hand on to my successor the best staff and the best Senior Management Team that the Academy has ever had. I am eager to help settle Connor Gearty and Sally Shuttleworth into their new roles as Vice President and Treasurer, and to collaborate with Julia on what will, I am sure, be a much smoother presidential transition on Carlton House Terrace in London than tends to occur these days on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. And within the limits of what it will be possible to achieve, I am determined to hand on to my successor an Academy that is stronger, more vigorous, more publicly engaged and more widely appreciated than ever before; and in the light of what we have accomplished this past year, I believe there is every likelihood of doing so.

More particularly, I hope that we will finally be able to get through the long-delayed Spending Review, which really must happen by the end of this calendar year, and I am guardedly hopeful that we may obtain a good settlement from it. I am eager to push forward our work on diversity and inclusion: as I said at the beginning my speech, we have made great progress since the days of Dover and Blunt, but we still have a long way to go. I want to pursue and promote the SHAPE initiative which we have recently begun, and which Hetan has already described; and it’s good and reassuring that both diversity and SHAPE are going to be high on Julia’s presidential agenda. Among those in academe who are being hardest hit by the consequences of the virus are early career researchers, many of them on short-term contracts, whose job prospects dwindle and diminish by the day. This is a tragedy for them and also, potentially, a tragedy for the long-term well-being of our subjects and our profession. We need to listen to them, to find ways to help them, and I very much hope we can.

I also remain strongly committed to supporting our policy work, our profile-raising endeavours, our research programmes and our development activities – all of them currently more vigorous than ever, and I want to do all I can to ensure that they remain so. I also look forward to continuing collaboration with the presidents of the other three academies, the Royal Society, of medicine and Engineering, on the Council for Science and Technology (of which Julia is already a member) and elsewhere. And of course, I very much hope that we shall meet for real, back in Carlton House Terrace, next July for what will be my final AGM as President. I began by saying that the meeting held 40 years ago was the most remarkable in the Academy’s – until today: I do very much hope that next year’s meeting will be in every sense rather less extraordinary.

So while, across the next 12 months, I shall gradually and inexorably be moving into the ornithological and recessional phase of my presidency, as the lame ducks begin to quack and the swans start singing their songs, I am eager to reassure you that I intend to remain every bit as engaged and involved with the Academy during my final year as I have always sought to be since you did me the honour of electing me your President. There is so much still to do and to be getting on with, and despite the headwinds and the buffeting we are going through, I am determined that we shall continue on our upward trajectory and forward path. The Fellows and the staff deserve no less, there is no other way to do this job, and be in no doubt that that is how I shall continue to discharge my tasks until my term is over and my time is up.

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