"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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad