A healthy, open democracy

Academics and policy-makers

‘An academic can bring passion and energy,’ says the barrister, human rights expert and LSE law professor Conor Gearty FBA, ‘but also a strong sense of independence, of not being bought. They are, after all, usually funded by the taxpayer to teach and research. What an amazing social good that is. We academics can call it as we see it. That is a fantastic resource for policy-makers and politicians who are interested in reason.

‘The inter-relationship between the academic who is thinking about what ought to happen, and the politician or policy-maker who is saying “Yes, you may be right, but let me tell you why that won’t work” is a tremendously creative space, and it works to the benefit of the general public because they get policies mediated by a politician but rooted in independent thought.’

For Gearty, this has never been more important. ‘We seem to be drifting into a state of affairs where we think we are in a democracy, we think we respect the rule of law, we think we respect human rights, but in fact people are getting poorer, people are getting discriminated against more than they were, and we have secret justice, and we have special courts, and we have Guantanamo.’

Crucially, he sees the future of intellectual work in the social sciences as a future centred on problem solving: ‘that is where there is an explosion of energy from the academics, and it shows the public that actually they can produce value.’ His recent book Liberty and Security  C. Gearty, Liberty and Security, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2013discussed democracy, the rule of law, discrimination and secret justice, all subjects of intense contemporary political and public interest. What the social scientist can do, he says, ‘is take a jumble of stuff that looks very confusing and arrange it in a readable form. This book is short, because I wanted people to read, then understand stuff and then, because they understand it, see that they can cope. They can cope by engagement as citizens; they can cope by knowing how to contribute to a circumstance they want to bring about. The academic renders intelligible that which is confusing, and provides an agenda for those inclined to take action.’

There is a long and important tradition of challenge and subversiveness here; at times society’s health may best be served by scholars from the ‘awkward squad’. The 2002 Reith Lectures by Professor Onora O’Neill FBA, which offered a powerful critique of notions of accountability throughout the public sector, led to widespread acceptance that the supposedly remedial introduction of transparent performance indicators had in fact lessened public trust.  See Onora O’Neill’s Reith Lectures. See also her recent TED talk on the decline of Trust.Baroness O’Neill’s subsequent work on the BBC after the Hutton Inquiry and more recently on press ethics and regulation has also been widely influential at a time when debate over the accountability of the fourth estate has perhaps never been louder.  See her chapters ‘Accuracy, Independence and Trust’ in Hutton and Butler: Lifting the Lid on the of Power, British Academy/OUP, 2004; and ‘Transparency and the Ethics of Communication’ in Transparency: The Key to Better Governance, British Academy/ OUP, 2006. On more recent press regulation, see here for example, May 2012

Anthony Heath says it is the duty of scholars and researchers to remind decision-makers about unintended consequences or evidence they may prefer not to hear – ‘telling truth to power’. He says: ‘I take the optimistic view that more information is going to make for better government – and that even information that you do not like, you would still be wise to take on board rather than suppress. I hope my research would be of interest to a government of any complexion.’

His latest project ‘was going to be a book all about the political exclusion of minorities and how this has all kinds of unfortunate consequences for lack of political participation, apathy, alienation, and so on. In fact the evidence did not show that; the evidence is a very positive story that second-generation ethnic minorities are politically very well-integrated. They participate at more or less the same rates as their white British contemporaries. In fact Britain, compared with many other countries in Europe or indeed America, has been rather successful at the political integration of ethnic minorities ... All the things that politicians have complained about you actually find are getting better in the second generation without any political interference.’  A.F. Heath, S.D. Fisher, G. Rosenblatt, D. Sanders & M. Sobolewska, The Political Integration of Ethnic Minorities in Britain, Oxford, 2013 He adds: ‘One of the crucial things about social science is to get genuinely independent evidence which we can check against the claims made by political parties for their own political advantage. It gives you an independent basis for holding government to account.’

The economist and commentator John Kay FBA makes a similar point. ‘When people are rightly more and more sceptical about the value and the reliability of the information with which they are presented, in the press or, equally nowadays, by government, then having people out there who are just trying to tell the truth as best they can is terribly important’, he says. To achieve this involves education and the spreading of understanding so that citizens can be equipped to debate, discuss and challenge. In his influential book The Long and the Short of it: Finance and Investment for normally intelligent people who are not in the industry, Kay further extends the principle to enabling people to challenge received wisdoms and question the quality of advice they receive. ‘In that little book I said to the reader that, even if at the end of this, you still do not feel confident enough to manage your financial affairs yourself, at the very least you will be able to ask some pretty penetrating questions of the people you do hire.’  See J. Kay, The Long and the Short of it: A Guide to Finance and Investment for Normally Intelligent People Who Aren’t in the Industry, London, 2009.