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Why do so many academics struggle to understand the politics of modern Britain?

  • 3 December 2019
  • By Simon Goldsworthy

This blog was kindly contributed by Simon Goldsworthy, Professor of Public Relations and Advertising, Richmond, the American International University in London.

Two years ago, I wrote about the apparent inability of academics – not least political studies experts – to predict election results: in a Political Studies Association survey in 2016, almost 9 out of 10 predicted a Remain victory.

As the 2019 general election approaches, academics across the UK are no doubt as right as everyone else to be cautious about voicing predictions. Opinion polls have often proved to be false friends to those who rely on them, particularly in the last two general elections and the EU referendum. Almost enough experts have been proved wrong to demonstrate Michael Gove’s point about them.

There is a danger in only accepting research which supports your personal views – many Remain supporters who have highlighted post-referendum opinion polls backing Remain now dispute the validity of polls which, at the time of writing, show the Conservatives well ahead of Labour.

It is worth re-examining why universities have difficulty taking the pulse of contemporary Britain. One reason is founded on a prediction I make with confidence – that however the Conservative Party performs on 12 December, its share of the national vote will exceed by many times its share of the vote among academics. This bias is an international problem and affects the whole academic community. I teach plenty of American students, but I have not found any who publicly admit to having backed their current duly elected President: they are either hostile or remain silent. I find their silence a poignant reflection on the limitations of contemporary university life.

One of the talking points of this election has been the possibility of large parts of the English and Welsh working-class electorate abandoning the Labour Party (they’ve already deserted the party in Scotland). This possibility was epitomised in the early talk of ‘Workington Man’. The northern town of Workington may house a fragment of the University of Cumbria, but that did not really feature when it was used as an emblem of Britain’s white working class in recent weeks. That class, not least those from England’s smaller towns, is poorly represented in universities. As one Russell Group university used to put it, they recruit from ‘the four corners of Surrey’.

Therein lies part of the problem. Universities are out of touch. In so far as they are aware of poorer people they are aware of those people living in the larger cities and conurbations where most universities are based and where their employees form part of the modern public sector middle-class – shrugging off the fact that they are not actually part of the public sector. But it is not the only weakness.

Another problem is that, uniquely, academics are often people who have spent their entire conscious lives in one environment: education. After ascending the different tiers of study, from school to university, they seek permanent jobs in higher education. Their experience of the outside world is therefore often limited. The world they inhabit, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, can also be rather introspective. They are appointed to their jobs and promoted by, and socialise and indeed frequently mate with, people who often share the same rather restricted experience of the world.

Nor does the nature of contemporary study necessarily help. In many subject areas a rich diet of politically-skewed theory does not necessarily help one understand the realities of contemporary Britain. The omnipresent Research Excellence Framework (or REF) compounds this as, to a large extent, the most valued measure of academic work is placed in the hands of colleagues, a form of marking your own homework that most academics would frown upon in any other walk of life. As a result, in the political sphere, while there are some sharp-eyed observers such as Matthew Goodwin at the University of Kent and skilled psephologists such as Sir John Curtice, the conclusions of far too much academic work are utterly predictable and indeed boring.

Through a half-conscious process of selection, alternative views are strained out of academia. Any Conservatives figure precisely because they are eccentric aberrations. Support for Labour, or perhaps the Greens and national parties outside England, with the Liberal Democrats hovering on the borders of respectability, is taken as a given and may well influence research agendas. One sociologist recently observed on Twitter that there is a lot of research on New Labour, yet next to no academic interest in post-1997 Conservatives. Labour academics write about Labour rather than ‘studying the enemy’, he suggests. Meanwhile too many academics cultivate their own prejudices unchallenged, and, for all the noise they make as avid users of social media and writers of articles, barely engage with alternative thinking. As JS Mill put it, ‘he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.’

Despite the picket lines, there are no formal walls enclosing modern universities, but contemporary academics are often remarkably insulated from wider society and alternative intellectual currents. It is worrying when supposedly objective academics criticise views opposed to theirs and attribute that opposition either to class self-interest or stupidity, neither of which apparently ever clouds their viewpoint! There is no need to detail the widely reported incidents of ‘wokeness’ in higher education, newsworthy precisely because they seem strange or ridiculous to outsiders, to know that universities are marching to a different tune to many of their fellow citizens. Maybe in due course the rest of society will fall in step with them – or maybe after 12 December they will march in a different direction.

1 comment

  1. Nicholas Bryars says:

    Hasn’t Professor Tim Bale researched post 1997 Conservatives?

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