The value of sitting

January 9, 1998

What is an academic's role on a parliamentary committee? Anthony King tells of his work on the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life

Three years ago I met my wife in a London restaurant before we both went to a concert. She arrived saying there had been a mysterious phone message at home and would I please ring -Jurgently -the person whose name and phone number were on the scrap of paper she handed me. The number was new, but the name was familiar: Alex Allan, then principal private secretary to then prime minister John Major at No 10.

"Ah ha," I thought, "I wonder what this is all about." I suspected it might have something to do with the new Committee on Standards on Public Life that the prime minister had established -Jamid a great furore over alleged ministerial and backbench misconduct -Jtwo days earlier.

I was right. It did have to do with the committee. They wanted me to be on it. I thought about the matter overnight, talked to Lord Nolan, the committee chairman, and decided to accept. I had read in the papers that the new committee's members were to include an academic. I was to be him.

I informed the Essex vice chancellor of my appointment, but I did not ask for any time off. It was only four weeks into the new academic year, and I did not see how any of my colleagues could pick up any of my courses -or indeed why they should be expected to. Why should they pay a price for my swanning off? I hoped that I could wrap the Nolan committee's work around my teaching, and in the end found I could. I admit to being proud of the fact that since October 1994 I have missed only one hour's teaching because of being on the committee -Jand that was covered by someone else.

I am often asked how I came to be appointed. I can only guess. Sir Robin Butler, then cabinet secretary, knew me slightly, and the then government chief whip, Richard Ryder, was (and remains) an old friend. Perhaps they thought I was "safe" (whatever that might mean under the circumstances).

Once we had bedded down, the Nolan committee was remarkably collegial in character. There were no factions, and no one "represented" anything or anyone. The committee was neither secretariat-driven nor chairman-led. It met as a group and formed its views collectively. We originally thought we might break up into three working groups, but that scheme collapsed when almost everyone on the committee turned up to the first working-group meeting.

It was also remarkable -at least to me -that the committee was not subjected to any external pressure. There was no lobbying. There were no "look old chap" phone calls in the evening. The prime minister may have expressed his views privately to Lord Nolan, but Nolan was hardly the man to respond favourably to pressure.

What could I, as an academic, contribute to the work of the committee that could not have been contributed perfectly well by someone else who was not an academic?

That is a difficult question to answer. I did not have the time or inclination to ponder the role I was playing. I was far too busy playing it. Nor did I keep a diary. (I am continually amazed by busy people, like Douglas Hurd, who do.) That said, it may be -with the emphasis on "may" -that I contributed to the committee's work in four ways that are related to the fact that I am an academic political scientist rather than a politician or retired civil servant or captain of industry.

One may be that I brought some sense of the relevant history -specifically, the history of sleaze. I wrote my doctoral thesis on the pre-1914 history of the Liberal Party; therefore I knew all about the Marconi affair and other scandals of that time. I also had written a somewhat tongue-in-cheek academic paper comparing political scandals in Britain and the United States.

All this meant that I probably had a more vivid sense than some of my colleagues of how the scandals of the Thatcher and Major eras "fitted in". It certainly was the case that there were more such scandals in the 1980s and 1990s than during any other period of like duration since the 1920s.

It may also have helped that I knew a little about political corruption and other forms of political malpractice in other countries. I am not a student of corruption, but one can hardly read about politics in other countries, including the United States, without finding out just how widespread corruption and malpractice can be and what luxuriant forms they can take.

More hesitantly, I would say that it may have made some difference that my personal intellectual disposition -one I hope most political scientists share -Jis towards generalisation and theory-building rather than towards the amassing of facts for their own sake. In a situation like the one the Nolan committee found itself in, the temptation -Jwhich I shared -was always to focus on the specific case. The danger was to fail to see which features of that specific case were peculiar to that case and which had wider implications. Every member of the committee was aware of the temptation and the danger, and I doubt whether my contribution counted for more than a little. But it may have counted for that.

Finally, I should mention a contribution that was probably more personal than professional. I am, by nature, inclined to want to push the boat out. I am inclined to pick up an argument and see how far I can run with it before I get tackled. A lot of my arguments did get tackled, but it may have helped the committee that there was someone present willing to be dumped on in this way. After all, what are academics for if not to take chances with ideas?

Anthony King is professor of politics at the University of Essex.

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