"Observergate" and academic freedom

It's time for the AHRC to remove all reference to the "Big Society" from its documents.

The "Observergate" saga began with an essay published in the Observer on 27th March that included the claim that political pressure was exerted upon the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to include the "Big Society" in its funding plans. It was claimed that inclusion was even "non-negotiable". This was met with a strong denial by the AHRC. It claimed that no such pressure existed and that its "Connected Communities" research theme - one of its six areas for strategic research funding priority - had been agreed long before the last general election. The denial was very specific: there was no pressure on the AHRC to adopt any particular research theme.

My concern was that this denial did not extend to a fundamental issue reported by the Observer: should the political party campaign slogans be included within research council funding documents? The AHRC nowhere denies the repeated mention of the "Big Society" in its current delivery plan. This plan states that its "Connected Communities" research theme will "enable the AHRC to contribute to the government's initiatives on localism and the 'Big Society'" (sect. 2.4.4). The AHRC delivery plan also states that it aspires to make a "contribution" to "the 'Big Society' agenda" (sects. 3.10, 3.12). The "Big Society" is mentioned five times in total.

If we believe the AHRC and reject allegations of political interference, there remain significant concerns with regard to the decision to include the "Big Society" within the delivery plan and especially as an illustration for where funding for a strategic research funding priority area might be directed. It has been revealing that such a concern went unnoticed both in the original decision to include the "Big Society" in its delivery plans and its response to the Observer.

This situation led me to draft a petition on behalf of fellow members of the AHRC Peer Review College, AHRC funding applicants, and others with an interest in AHRC activities in response. The petition is based upon a position of principle, not politics: research councils should not direct funding to strategic areas which overlap with any political party slogans. This is not a petition against the "Big Society" but against political campaign slogans becoming incorporated in funding documents spelling out funding priorities. The petition clearly states that we would all have equally opposed the "Third Way" receiving the same attention after the 1997 election: this is not at all a comment on government policy, but on the inclusion of party slogans in research council delivery plans. We have called upon the AHRC to remove all references to the "Big Society" in its delivery plan with immediate effect.

The petition attracted over 1,000 signatures in less than 24 hours with more than 3,000 at present and growing. Those who have signed the petition come from across political and disciplinary divides and include fellow members of the AHRC Peer Review College, Fellows of the British Academy and Royal Society, Fellows of the Royal Historical Society, the Academy of Social Sciences, and many other learned societies demonstrating clear and widespread support.

Some may argue the petition's success is based upon a mistake or that it wrongly accepts a contested allegation. However, the petition does not take issue with what the AHRC contests (e.g., the allegation of political interference). Moreover, the petition is not critical of the "Connected Communities" theme nor does it reject the idea of a "Big Society". There need not be any opposition to colleagues seeking to conduct research into the "Big Society" within the "Connected Communities" theme. Academic freedom is to be protected. This is precisely why we should unite to oppose the AHRC's decision to illustrate how funding applicants might successfully contribute to the "Connected Communities" research through research related to the "Big Society". This is a mistake. If this matter were left unchallenged, then the possibility would arise that the use of including political party campaign slogans within research funding delivery plans might become more common. Some may argue that we must speak the language of our politicians to best demonstrate the "impact" and funding importance in this age of austerity. Our response should be that inclusion of political party campaign slogans is a move too far. The ability to communicate our funding priorities need not rely on explicitly linking them with such slogans.

I emphasize that the petition is based upon principle, not politics. No matter our political or disciplinary differences we can unite around the idea that political party campaign slogans have no place in research council funding documents spelling out strategic priorities. The AHRC can address this satisfactorily by immediately removing all references to the "Big Society" in current and future documentations. We should constructively support the AHRC to make the right decision and enact this important change. This might better enable a positive platform from which we may join together in defence of the arts and humanities. Failing to do so would be to choose both a failure of principle and furthering unnecessary division at the worst possible time. If the AHRC is correct to claim mention of the "Big Society" in its delivery plan is trivial, then it should hasten its removal from all research funding documents rather than delay.

Thom Brooks is Reader in Political and Legal Philosophy at Newcastle University. He is a member of the AHRC Peer Review College and author of the petition to end inclusion of the "Big Society" in the AHRC's delivery plans.

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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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