Political dons come out of the closet

June 1, 2001

Mandy Garner asks whether political scientists can influence policy-making.

As prospective Labour MP Paul Whiteley knocked on the door of a potential voter, he was rehearsing his "standard sales pitch", but things did not go to plan. The person greeted him with screams of, "I am National Front" that continued for ten minutes. When the man had calmed down, Whiteley coolly said: "Your problem is that there is no National Front candidate in this area." The man replied: "In that case, I will probably vote Liberal."

It is not the textbook response you would expect as a candidate in a general election, but then practical experience of politics provides a different perspective on voter behaviour for political scientists such as Whiteley who take to the hustings.

Whiteley stood for Labour in two elections in 1974 in the safe Conservative seats of Petersfield and North West Surrey, the first following the death of the sitting MP.

He was a lecturer in politics and social statistics at Kingston Polytechnic at the time, and he says it was "a very useful exercise in understanding how British electoral politics works" and in meeting the electorate face to face.

"It is easy to get very sophisticated, especially if your focus is Westminster, but it is also easy to forget that at grassroots level, politics works differently," he says. Although he did not win the seat, he did emerge with a renewed respect for the democratic process.

Whiteley, professor of government at Essex University, where the 2001 British Election Study is based, says his experience as a candidate has had an influence on the main thrust of his subsequent academic work on parties and electoral behaviour. Some of his work on grassroots membership has been conducted with Patrick Seyd, professor of politics at Sheffield University and another past election candidate, though a decade before Whiteley.

He also stood in a safe Tory seat in a by-election and a general election, but his campaign attracted more media attention than Whiteley's. He was only 24 at the time and was Labour's youngest candidate. He had just finished his postgraduate studies and was lecturing in politics at Portsmouth Polytechnic.

It was a time when Harold Wilson was on a roll. Seyd thinks that nowadays he would have been eased out straight away, but then he fitted Wilson's modernisation image: he was a former grammar-school boy and university graduate and he contrasted well with the Conservative candidate, a rear admiral.

Although he reduced the Conservative majority, he decided after the election that politics was not for him. He says that, even then, there was a lot of spin.

"I was uneasy about the way one had to dance to a particular tune. The scope for being yourself was rather restricted because you had to slot into a particular framework."

It was not so much having to toe the party line, as being told what he could and could not do with regard to his personal life, such as not being seen in pubs. "I realised that if I won I would be other people's property. I was only 24 years old and had lots of things I wanted to do. It was the 1960s! I just found it very restricting. Maybe if I had been 45 or 50 it would have been OK."

But the experience has not made him cynical about politicians. In fact, he says he has a lot of respect for them. "My job is never at the whim of the electorate."

He thinks he would not have survived if he had entered politics now, because of the immense power of the media, which, he says, has converted byelections into "almost a sporting game" and relishes taking candidates apart and finding splits.

"Most politicians cannot speak their minds. They get jumped on by the media so debate is restricted. In a sense, the whole quality of political life has been devalued."

Although Seyd and Whiteley seem happy not to have made it to the House of Commons, many political scientists feel the urge to "cross over", whether it be by becoming MPs or Lords or by getting involved directly in policy-making. Mo Mowlam and Alan Beith are perhaps two of the most successful contemporary examples of political scientists who have become MPs, but politics academics such as Harold Laski, Ramsey Muir and Richard Crossman have long been involved in public affairs. During the second world war many were called into government not just to provide advice but to take decisions.

However, according to the Liberal Demo-crat peer Trevor Smith, Lord Smith of Clifton, the general attitude in the United Kingdom, unlike in the United States, has been that politics and academia should be kept separate and that once they became statesmen and women, political scientists should no longer be seen as "objective" academics.

"In the 1950s and 1960s (when political studies was beginning to take root as a discipline) there was a feeling that political scientists should be apolitical," he says.

He believes this started to change under Wilson, who brought academic economists on board. Political scientists participated in policy-making in a "more covert" way, for example through think-tanks.

According to Smith, they started coming out of the closet under Margaret Thatcher. The emergence of her ideologues, Maurice Cowling at Cambridge and Kenneth Minogue at the London School of Economics, as polemicists "absolved the rest of us and convinced us that we also could have a go", he says.

They are much more involved nowadays, says John Benyon, treasurer of the Political Studies Association and professor of political studies at the University of Leicester. But compared with other European countries and the US, Britain "still does not call on the expertise in universities as a matter of course".

"British academics in the field of political studies are among the finest in the world," he says, adding that, ironically, they are often consulted more frequently by foreign governments.

Part of the problem, he believes, is that British government ministers have tended to rely on a mainly Oxbridge-educated civil service and political advisers, although he admits this is changing.

Smith, former vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster and former president of the Political Studies Association, believes this is partly due to a shift in the kind of issues that concern Parliament. Post-1945, there was a preoccupation with social issues and economics whereas now there is an interest in devolution and other constitutional matters requiring political expertise.

"In the 1970s political scientists began to get involved in pressure groups such as Charter 88," Smith says. "They were trying to influence government and put constitutional reform on the agenda, but they had to work in the closet in a way. They had to put the issues on the agenda before there could be recognition of the contribution they could make."

Philip Norton, professor of government at Hull and one of four peers, including Smith, who are linked to Hull, chairs the Lords select committee on constitutional issues. Despite maintaining a fairly heavy teaching load, he says he often speaks in the House and was recently congratulated for a "constitutional lecture" by a fellow peer.

He finds the experience of being in the Lords "tremendously valuable" and says it has reinforced his ideas about the value of the legislative scrutiny process.

It also gives him direct access to research material - for instance, he wanted to do research on the 1971-74 Labour shadow cabinet and "virtually everyone I wanted to interview was sitting opposite me". And it helps with his teaching - part of the four-year politics and legislative studies course at Hull involves an internship at Westminster.

Although he was tempted to stand as an MP as a teenager, he soon realised that he preferred academia. Being in the House of Lords, though, allows him to combine both interests.

Smith, who has taught three sitting MPs - Peter Hain, Frank Field and Harry Barnes - and who himself stood for election in 1959, thinks political scientists are highly suited to dealing with the kind of problems Britain faces, and he rails against what he sees as a tendency for the government to rely on "narrow experts".

"Experts are people you hire. For government you need people who can synthesise hitherto unrelated topics. Almost all political problems are multidimensional," he says.

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