Obsessed with politics, intrigued by politicians

Profile - Anthony King Professor of British Government, Essex University. 

November 30, 2007

Whether you are a political scientist or a bioscientist, chances are you've heard of Anthony King.

Receiving a special recognition award this week at the Political Studies Association's annual awards, the 73-year-old professor of British government at Essex University has had a career in political studies spanning more than 45 years. He is a familiar figure in both academe and the media, thanks to his definitive studies, the polls he organises and analyses for The Daily Telegraph , and for the contributions he has made to the BBC's election-night coverage since 1959.

"I started helping to feed data into an enormous computer for Richard Dimbleby's programme," he recalls.

In 1964, when the Labour Party won under Harold Wilson, Professor King covered the elections on the BBC's Home Service, and in time he made the switch to television - a role he's kept ever since.

"Initially I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. In fact, I didn't study politics at university, I studied economics and history," says Professor King, who was born in Toronto, Canada, and took his first degree at Queen's University in his native country.

Soon, however, he realised he would rather "stand back a little and look at political questions from a greater distance".

He came to the UK in 1956 as a Rhodes Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, and read philosophy, politics and economics. He stayed for almost a decade, becoming a fellow in 1961.

Life in the UK was "more exciting", he explains.

"It probably made a difference that my parents were both Europe-oriented. From an early age, I had a very vivid sense that the great world was somewhere other than in Toronto."

Professor King left the prospect of a chair at Oxford to join a brand new university in 1966. "At first I turned it down," he says of Essex University's offer.

But a second attempt found him feeling "pretty disillusioned" with Oxford.

"At that time - things probably have changed since - they thought they were the centre of the universe," he said, describing Oxford at the time as "an extraordinarily complacent, self-satisfied place".

In contrast, Essex - where he has stayed for four decades - was "hungry". "They wanted to make their mark, they wanted to achieve things."

As for his own involvement with politics, Professor King briefly "flirted", as he puts it, with the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s.

"Back then, I shared the feeling a lot of people had that the Conservatives were becoming too rigidly right wing and Labour was becoming too absurdly left wing, and that there must be a better way."

He never joined the SDP, but describes his role as one of advising friends.

But the new party's dreams were not to be. His 1995 book, written with Ivor Crewe, tracks its birth, life and death.

"If I've written an important book at all," he says, it is his latest, The British Constitution , an attempt to chart all the changes that have taken place since the 1970s.

He argues that Britain has revolutionised its constitution without a revolution, and believes there is much unfinished business.

"I'm concerned at the moment that the Government, which is engaged in further constitutional reform, is not addressing some of the big questions," he says.

These include the future of the House of Lords, the desirability of referendums, the status of Scottish MPs at Westminster, and the way in which devolved institutions are financed.

In his lifetime, the party system has changed enormously - not least voter turnout, which has plummeted from 85 per cent after the Second World War to 60 per cent.

The issue of trust in politicians concerns him. "One of the reasons that people cease to trust politicians, is that, sadly, I think an awful lot of politicians have become less trustworthy."

Too many, he thinks, "pander" to public opinion.

Professor King's role has not only been one of analysis of politics. He has helped to shape it, with roles on the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life, on the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords and as chairman of the Royal Society of Arts Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy.

Professor King thinks "there's everything to be said" for politics academics having this type of involvement with politicians and people in government.

Asked why he has never been drawn into politics himself, he says: "I think simply I have an academic's desire to understand rather than a politician's desire to exercise influence.

"But what it is that causes people to catch the political bug, I'm not entirely clear about. Indeed, it's something I'd some day like to write a book about, because politicians as a class of person intrigue me - not least because I know so many of them."

rebecca.attwood@thes.co.uk

 

OTHER PSA AWARD STARS

John Denham has won a top political award - not for his role as Universities Secretary, but for his previous position as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

At the Political Studies Association awards, Mr Denham was named Parliamentarian of the Year. Judges said he had demonstrated "forensic analytical skills", earning widespread respect.

Meanwhile, former Labour Chancellor Denis Healey is "the best Prime Minister we never had", according to a YouGov poll of Britain's politics professors and lecturers, conducted on behalf of the PSA.

In second place was former Labour Chancellor, Roy Jenkins, while another former Chancellor, Conservative Ken Clarke, came third.

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