A healthy, open democracy

‘What keeps it that way?

Prosperity includes the ability to live in a robust and supportive environment, with a judicial and governmental framework that protects the rights, freedoms and security of individuals, groups and nations, educates  and develops its citizens – and also provides vital space for questioning and dissent.

Maintaining the UK’s longstanding traditions as an open society and democracy is far from automatic: it requires constant vigilance – a process heavily dependent on insights from humanities and social science disciplines. As Peter Hennessy observes, ‘If in an open society and democracy the public is denied the chance of casting an informed vote, that is an own goal of mammoth proportions. The political parties are indispensable, but they operate by mobilising prejudice more successfully than the competition. Careful use of evidence is not at the top of their hierarchy of needs, so you have to have somebody to say, “Wait a minute. It is not that simple” or “We have been here before. Just think a minute”.’ In the political arena, knowledge that is grounded in research and scholarly method will always be locked in a struggle with partisanship and supposition.

Lord Hennessy writes and broadcasts on the civil service, contemporary history and defence, on Number Ten and the office of prime minister with great authority. Now sitting as a crossbench peer, he provides powerful reminders to those holding power in Whitehall and in the Cabinet that their predecessors often confronted similar problems of security and public policy. He recalls a passage from the novelist and politician John Buchan about how we situate ourselves in time and space: ‘in the cycle in which we travel we can only see a fraction of the curve’ – and adds, ‘that matters to us as human beings but certainly applies to those in authority.’ Ministers and governments need and deserve expert advice, and although they vary in their ability to use academic talent well, scholarship and research can often contribute, vitally and immediately, to important political outcomes.

Before the last General Election, Hennessy was one of the expert scholars who studied historical precedents for transitions and hung parliaments, in an attempt to specify what the monarch does and does not do in the circumstances of the House of Commons having no overall majority. A small group of ‘five or six lawyers, historians, public policy people, with the Whitehall people, the Palace and the Cabinet Office’ met to agree ‘what the constitution was on hung parliaments, and the Queen’s prerogative to appoint a prime minister and all that. We agreed a draft, which then went public to a select committee, in time for the 2010 election, where to my surprise it turned out to be pivotal.’ So, as the exit polls came, commentators (including Hennessy) were able to talk knowledgeably about precedents and protocols – to be, as he puts it, impersonators of the British constitution, explaining the constitutional backcloth to the formation of a new government.

‘Politicians are exhausted. They are desperate. They either want to cling on to power or want their one chance of power and they are prone to say silly things about the British constitution (which slips through their fingers like mercury). So having that bit of paper, which the scholars had helped formulate, in the television and radio studios turned out to be absolutely critical. That’s an example where scholarship rather mattered.’