Valedictory Presidential Address to the 119th Annual General Meeting of the British Academy by Professor Sir David Cannadine
Thursday 22 July 2021
Fellows of the Academy:
In this, my final address to what is our 119th Annual General Meeting, I shall undertake, I hope appropriately, to provide a broad and panoramic survey of the years during which it has been my privilege to have served as your president – years when a great deal has been happening, within the British Academy itself and also in the wider world beyond, both domestically and internationally. I begin with the summer of 2016, when two electorates, albeit of very different size, took two decisions: the voters of the United Kingdom determined in favour of leaving the European Union, and the Fellows of the Academy resolved that I should become their 30th president. I am not for one moment suggesting that these were events of equivalent historical significance, public importance or political consequence. But I was certainly correct in observing, on taking office in the summer of the following year, that I would be the Academy’s one and only Brexit President, which was what I duly became when Brexit was allegedly "done" in January 2020 – a distinction (if such it be) I have shared with none of my predecessors, and which I shall not share with any of those who come after me.
But in terms of disruptive public events, the Brexit referendum was merely the beginning. In November 2016, Donald Trump became president of the United States, and his invincible ignorance, contempt for expertise and evidence, for reason, thought and truth, and his xenophobic nativism and hostility to the rule-governed world order brought into being since 1945, stood in marked and deplorable contrast to the liberal, learned and cosmopolitan values for which the British Academy has rightly and steadfastly stood since its foundation at the beginning of the 20th century. One general election was held in Britain in June 2017, the month before I assumed the presidency, and another took place in December 2019, when I was a year and a half into the job. Since I became President, there have been two Prime Ministers, four Secretaries of State at BEIS, our sponsoring department in Whitehall, and six junior ministers to whom the Academy has been answerable. These are not tenure-track positions. And in March 2020 came the COVID lockdown, when the Academy went virtual, as it remains to this day: hence my virtual presidency, to add to my Brexit presidency, and hence this second virtual AGM, and the second year in which, sadly but prudently, there is no annual dinner. I do so hope it may be revived and reinstated in 2022.
These external random shocks, over which the Academy has had no control, even as we have been compelled to adapt and come to terms with them, are described by economists as "exogenous variables". And as if they have not been enough, there have also been "endogenous variables" a-plenty during the last four years, with which we have had to cope, and which have been no less disruptive, especially an unexpectedly rapid turn-over in senior staff, including four heads of finance, three chief executives and two heads of HR, although not, I hasten to add, a partridge in a pear tree. (The bird-life on Carlton House Terrace is rather less exotic than that.) No Academy President, and least of all one who is an historian, should complain about what Harold Macmillan once called "events, dear boy, events", whether they be good or bad, since without them, there would be far less history for people like me to write about. But the Academy has certainly had more than its fair share of challenging external tremors and destabilizing internal perturbations these last four years, which makes it all the more impressive that it has not only endured and coped and got by, but has thrived and flourished in many ways as never before.
The essential precondition for this, if I may borrow and invert a phrase associated with Theresa May, was getting the Senior Management Team stabilized and strong: as now constituted it is the best and most collegial with which the Academy has been blessed for a very long time, perhaps ever, and it is brilliantly led by Hetan Shah, our CEO, whose drive and energy are matched by his command of detail and mastery of our ever-increasing amounts of business. He understands how an unusual and complex organisation such as ours works, and he has made great efforts to get to know as many Fellows as possible, even in circumstances where that is not something it has been easy to do. We have brought in an outstanding head of HR, and these changes, along with our recent, expanding work on equality, diversity and inclusion, involving staff as well as Fellows, mean that the level of trust and engagement across those working at the Academy has greatly increased, and morale and job satisfaction are encouragingly high, which is particularly noteworthy in these testing times. We have also refurbished our office spaces on the second and third floors, and this has greatly improved the working environment for staff, as and when they return to Carlton House Terrace in large numbers, which I hope they will soon be able to do.
The changes in the Senior Management Team also help explain how the Academy’s routine business has been so energetically and vigorously carried on. During the last four years, we have elected the most diverse range of Ordinary Fellows, Corresponding Fellows and Honorary Fellows, in terms of their subjects, their methodologies, their geographical location, their institutional affiliation, their gender and their ethnicity; and we have worked hard to improve the annual electoral cycle and procedure. Since 2017, we have given out more research grants than ever before, amounting to £110 million, to scholars working in the United Kingdom at all stages of their careers, and many of them located beyond the Golden Triangle, from Bolton to Belfast, Bournemouth to Bangor. Across the same period, our conference program has doubled in size, with a corresponding increase in the publications derived from them, our journal has been transformed in scale and scope, and we are putting on more public events than we have ever done. Among those who have appeared, either for real or virtually, over the past four years are David Attenborough, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Margaret Atwood and Mary Robinson; and our book prize in global cultural understanding has become an established fixture among literary awards.
But as I anticipated on assuming the presidency, there has also been a great deal of extra, reactive work, much of it in response to Brexit. Our Brexit briefings on the vexed matter of the Irish border were avidly and appreciatively read by civil servants in Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels, though perhaps less so by some of the politicians involved. I long ago lost count of the number of additional meetings Fellows and staff have attended, at BEIS and across Whitehall, working with the three other national academies to push for continuing association with Horizon Europe – and in the end doing so successfully. I hope our subjects will continue to benefit disproportionally, as they did in pre-Brexit times, from this important source of European funding. To this heavy additional workload has been added another, as government spending reviews no longer take place once every four years, but have become annual occurrences, necessitating the preparation of endless additional submissions to BEIS, in inappropriate formats of particular complexity, and often, under pressure from the Treasury, at very short notice. Once again, the Academy’s staff have responded brilliantly, and we have obtained a succession of annual settlements as good as we might have dared to hope for. But dealing with these demands is unrelentingly stressful, especially in August, when the new annual cycle begins. In earlier times that month provided a much-needed breathing space for staff, but there is now just no let-up, any time, any month, any year.
So much for the Academy’s routine and reactive business, which has resulted in a great deal of demanding extra labour and enforced additional activity. That, in turn, makes even more remarkable the amount of new and highly proactive work the Academy has initiated and driven forward at the same time. We have become much better at raising money, having set up an Acceptance of Funding Group to assess potential donors, and having secured more than L20 million in terms of gifts and pledges across the last four years. This includes £10 million from the Wolfson Foundation to establish a new Fellowship Programme, to fund our new Early Career Researcher network and provide the lead gift for the transformation of our building, and also £4 million from the Wellcome Trust for a major research program in medical humanities. We have continued to receive extensive support from the Leverhulme Trust, for our Small Research Grants Scheme and our Senior Research Fellowships, our project on the Future of the Corporation has brought in many first-time corporate donors, and we obtained £14 million from BEIS, to extend our lease on Carlton House Terrace. We remain excessively – albeit gratefully – dependent on government largesse, but I’m hopeful there will be more fundraising successes in the not-too-distant future.
Before COVID obliged us to shut our doors, more people than ever came to Carlton House Terrace, for our conferences, seminars and events, numbering an estimated 40,000, and we also put on more events in collaboration with universities across the United Kingdom than we had ever done. We established the Summer Showcase as a highly successful annual occurrence, which has proved to be an energising and enriching experience, especially for some of our funded researchers, who have been given the opportunity to present their work in new and creative ways. Alas and again, an in-person Showcase was not possible this summer, but I eagerly look forward to its real return and re-appearance next June. Before COVID struck, we had also established a significant presence at summer literary festivals, such as Hay, Buxton and Edinburgh, and we look forward to strengthening and extending these contacts beginning next year. And despite what might seem the constraints of our virtual existence, we have been reaching out and drawing in as never before, as tens of thousands of people the world over have regularly engaged with the Academy online, tuning into our events and podcasts, and reading our blogs.
Our policy work has also prospered and blossomed in new and exciting ways. The publications and gatherings that form part of The Future of the Corporation project have attracted world-wide attention, bringing together leading figures in industry and finance, public policy and academe, to help formulate principles for purposeful business, and securing the support of luminaries such as Mark Carney and Al Gore. We have worked closely with the Royal Society on issues such as Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and climate change, and we are fully engaged with official preparations for COP26 this autumn. And COVID has made repeatedly plain that the health of society is more than a medical issue, exposing deep economic inequalities, social fissures and cultural anxieties that need to be dealt with if we are to build back better. The Academy was asked by the Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, to undertake a report on COVID and Society that has been vigorously ventilated and widely acclaimed in the media and across government. And we provided special grants to support researchers looking into the impact of the virus, and their work, like our report, will be of indispensable value as we try to navigate our way through the current "COVID decade".
All this helps explain how and why the Academy’s public profile has never been higher: with MPs, who received our first ever manifesto for the subjects we represent before the last general election; with journalists, from whom there have been twice as many inquiries, resulting in much greater coverage of our work; with the BBC, as our Fellows have become a regular and active presence on the Today programme; and with the public, as evidenced by the letter we sent out to all those graduating from universities this summer in the humanities and social sciences, which was widely picked up in the media. But the need to keep speaking up for the value and importance of our subjects remains as great as ever. Hence our work in developing the acronym SHAPE – standing for the Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy – to sit alongside STEM, which has been well received in Britain and around the world, and which got its first mention in the House of Commons just a few weeks ago. Hence our work on the importance of teaching languages in collaboration with the British Council, and the closer relations we have formed with the AHRC, the ESRC and UKRI. And hence our continued monitoring of the regrettable closures of university departments in our subjects, and the behind the scenes lobbying that we vigorously undertake.
Although we are the British Academy, we are also active and engaged in more than 100 countries around the world, and during my presidency we have overseen the distribution of £100 million in global grants and funding. We remain a strong supporter of our International Research Institutes in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, with whom our relations are much better than they were four years ago. We collaborate closely with many organizations around the world, among them the Royal Irish Academy, the Humboldt Foundation in Germany, and the Social Science Research Council and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States; and in the aftermath of Brexit, we wrote to all the European Academies with whom we work, assuring them of our eagerness to continue to co-operate. Our overseas programme of research collaborations makes possible work in subjects as diverse as risks and forecasting, nature and technology, and cities and infrastructure. And I am particularly proud of our recent work to create partnerships in the Global South, using our experience and expertise to build capacity and provide support to researchers in developing countries on subjects ranging from access to energy in Mozambique to the improvement of kindergarten education in Ghana. My only regret is the government’s recent decision to cut ODA funding, which is not only mean-spirited but is also at odds with its own oft-proclaimed commitment to "Global Britain".
Be that as it may, the Academy in recent years can rightly boast an unprecedented record of effort and achievement: we have become more joined-up in our internal operations, we have tried to improve communications between Council, chairs of Sections, and the Fellowship as a whole, we have become more outward facing and publicly engaged at home and overseas, and we seem to have ridden out the financial challenges of COVID better than we dared to hope this time last year. As one Fellow of the Academy recently wrote to me: "Despite all the obstacles that might have suggested simply battening down the hatches until the COVID storm passes, the Academy has never been more active, its profile is higher than ever before, as is its influence. It is also striking to note how many comparatively new recruits to the Fellowship have come forward to serve as Officers or committee members, which is a sign of a changing and, I think we can say, a more inclusive and dynamic culture."
To whom, then, is the credit due for this outstanding work, accomplished in what may have been the most challenging and demanding years the Academy has faced in peacetime? Once again, I express my heartfelt gratitude to all the staff, from the most junior and recently-employed to the most senior and long-serving, for their exemplary professionalism and dedication, without whom and without which none of the routine, the reactive or the proactive work that has been accomplished to such great and good effect would have been achieved. The staff toil and labour very hard: indeed, in too many cases, they do so too hard, and I very much hope that, as things may ease up later this year, their burdens will be lifted and lightened. But meanwhile, no thanks or praise of mine can be adequate or do them appropriate justice, and it has been a pleasure and a privilege to have worked so closely with so many of them.
It is overwhelmingly on account of their efforts that I am also able to thank the growing number of external supporters who have helped sustain the Academy through these difficult and demanding times. I think of the lay members of our many committees, who give so freely of their wisdom and advice; I think of the external members of our Development Committee, who have done so much to help us bring in so much money; I think of our growing number of friends in the media, who have enabled us to raise our profile as never before; I think of the many corporate sponsors in finance, business and industry, who have been brought into contact with the Academy for the first time, and who I hope will stay with us going forward; I think of our colleagues in the civil service, with whom our relations are now much wider and deeper, and of both the government and the opposition, of whom the same may be said; and I think of what has become our world-wide audience, of (among others) Corresponding Fellows, global grant holders, and the many people who Zoom in to our events and programmes.
During the course of my presidency, I have also come to appreciate just how much the Academy depends on the pro bono labour of its Fellows. In earlier decades, election to the fellowship meant little more than putting FBA after your name, with the only obligation being to turn up, if you were so minded, to Section meetings, the AGM and the annual dinner. But while those three post-nominal letters remain the unchallenged gold standard of scholarly distinction and recognition in our subjects, they now carry with them an increasing expectation of reciprocal obligation: to be chairs of Sections or members of Academy committees, to sit on Council and the Standing Committee of Council, to act as referees and evaluators of the many grants and fellowships we assess and award, and to support the overseas research projects that we fund. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that without the dedication and engagement of so many Fellows, the Academy would not be able to function, or accomplish so much of what it does; and a recent calculation suggests that collectively, the Fellowship contributes 30,000 person-hours a year to our work, unremunerated. This is a very high level of involvement, and many Fellows are also generous givers, sometimes on an annual basis, sometimes via legacies, and sometimes both. I thank them all, and I do so with abiding appreciation and unstinted gratitude.
During my term of office, I have especially relied, and I have done so both happily and heavily, on the unfailing expertise, wisdom and support of no fewer than 14 Vice-Presidents. They do so much of the Academy’s work, and they do so freely, voluntarily and generously: engaging closely with members of the Senior Management Team, chairing all our important committees, sitting on Council and its Standing Committee, overseeing our international engagement work, keeping a close eye on our funding and staffing, and driving and leading so many of the big changes that have taken place during these past four years. In other places and jurisdictions, Vice-Presidents are not invariably distinguished people: indeed, it was said of Richard Nixon’s unlucky and unlettered deputy, Spiro T. Agnew, that when his library was burned down, both of his books were destroyed, and that he hadn’t finished colouring the second one in. No such disparaging comments could possibly be made about my Vice-Presidential colleagues, who are women and men of exceptional devotion and distinction. Once again, it has been an honour and privilege to have worked with them, and once again, my gratitude and admiration are boundless.
I have also become ever more aware how much each Academy president owes to, and builds on, the work of their predecessors, and in extending the lease on our building, up-scaling our fundraising efforts, embracing the Future of the Corporation project, working more closely in collaboration with the other national academies, and raising our public profile, the Academy has been following through on the ambitious agenda that Nick Stern set. I am deeply grateful to him, and to his predecessors, Adam Roberts, Onora O’Neill and Keith Thomas: they are in so many ways the collective keepers of the Academy’s institutional memory, and all of them have given me wise counsel and good advice; but, and much to their credit, they have done so only when I have sought it and asked for it. I am eager to assure my successor that as a soon-to-be former president myself, I shall do all I can to adhere to that practice and convention.
Another collective attribute of former Presidents of the Academy is that they are well above averagely long lived. I have naturally become attracted to that encouraging demographic as my own term of office nears its end, and I am eager to do all I can to help keep that average high. But not even they are immortal, and this year we have mourned the passing of Viscount Runciman of Doxford, who served as our 26th President from 2001 to 2005. Garry, as he was known to all his friends, was a scholar of exceptional confidence, distinction and command, and he straddled more of our disciplines – from history, classics and philosophy to political theory, political thought, and sociology – than any of our presidents with the possible exception of James Bryce. He was also a fully paid up and card-carrying member of "the great and the good", while for much of the time also moonlighting as a highly successful shipowner. Next February, the Academy will be hosting an event to celebrate Garry’s exceptional work and multi-faceted life – and there will be a great deal to discuss and to acclaim.
In the summer of 2002, Garry delivered his presidential address at the Academy’s centenary dinner. He told some very good jokes about and against sociology, the subject with which he self-identified, and he eloquently reaffirmed "the continuing importance of what the Academy was founded to do": to maintain the standards of scholarly excellence that were its very reason for existing, to promote and champion the disciplines it represents in the humanities and social sciences, and to help make available their insights and research to the widest possible audience. Amen to all of that, but things have moved on during the intervening years, as it is right and proper they have done. Academic distinction among our Fellowship remains fundamental and non-negotiable, but we are ever more aware how varied and diverse outstanding scholarly activity can be. We continue to champion our disciplines, and as they develop and multiply, we have further increased the number of Sections, most recently adding Education, Business and Management Studies, and Culture, Media and Performance. And since we remain heavily dependent on public funding, for which we are more accountable than we were in earlier times, it is right that the Academy is more concerned with public policy, public engagement and public benefit than it was in 2002.
I turn, finally, to the impending transfer of presidential power and authority, if such they be, that will take place in Carlton House Terrace, and which is now but a few moments away. Six months ago, the transition which occurred in Washington DC from Donald Trump to Joe Biden was, at least on one side, a Gothic horror show of inefficiency, obstruction, bad-temper, petulance, malevolence, unreality and ill-will. I am eager to reassure Fellows that, by contrast, our more recent and soon-to-be completed transition in London has been a model of cordiality, co-operation and thoughtfulness, as a result of which my successor will take office exceptionally well-prepared, well-briefed and well-informed about the Academy’s current business and future work. And that is only one of many reasons why I look forward to Julia’s presidency with (am I allowed to admit this?) even greater enthusiasm than I looked forward to my own, and I hope it will be launched in appropriately festive style during Sections Week in September, by which time such joyous and purposeful gatherings may once again become possible.
Meanwhile, it only remains for me to bring these valedictory remarks to an end, and thus my presidency to a close – abidingly grateful, as I am, to the Fellowship for having done me the honour of electing me to preside over the Academy’s affairs these last four years, and consoling myself, as I make ready to depart, with these wise and comforting words of John Dryden: "what has been has been, and I have had my hour." So, it has, so I have, and so it is time for the Academy to move forward and onward – in what remains, to be sure, a challenging and testing world, but one which also holds out the possibility that the 2020s may be pre-eminently the decade of the humanities and the social sciences. If anyone can make that happen, it is our next President, I am sure she will lead us brilliantly, and it is with the greatest pleasure that I am able to say "she", not "he". Fellow Fellows, please join with me in welcoming our 31st President, Professor Julia Black; and Julia, I hereby give the British Academy into your care, your keeping and your charge.