Re-engage public to help fill growing democratic deficit

New chair of Political Studies Association stresses discipline's key social role. Matthew Reisz reports

January 26, 2012

At a time of deep disillusionment with politics in the wake of the MPs' expenses scandal, academic political scientists have a vital role in "re-engaging people in democracy".

Such is the view of Charlie Jeffery, head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, who recently took over as chair of the Political Studies Association (PSA).

Professor Jeffery said there was "relative confidence" in the UK's university politics departments as the era of higher tuition fees approaches, bolstered by healthy application levels, good graduate employment prospects and many opportunities for academics to prove the "impact" of their work.

He added that there had been "very substantial" growth in student numbers in the first decade of the new century, as factors such as the 9/11 terror attacks and "the Obama effect" made politics seem urgently relevant.

But what can political scientists do to combat the UK's more disenchanted mood in 2012?

Professor Jeffery pointed to several initiatives that should "contribute to a process of re-engaging people in democracy, or at least preventing further disengagement".

The BBC Radio 4 series In Defence of Politics, hosted by University of Sheffield academic Matthew Flinders, set out to demonstrate "the essential nature of politics in mediating our individual and collective conflicts", he said.

The PSA's new award to schoolchildren who have produced videos on the theme of "Why Politics Matters" represented another attempt "to get beyond the cynicism and mobilise younger people".

Universities could sometimes provide a valuable neutral space "outside the hurly-burly of politics", Professor Jeffery said, as with the "Edinburgh conversations" in the 1980s that brought together senior Soviet and British military staff at the University of Edinburgh.

These talks, he said, "created a framework in which people who were formerly enemies could build friendships".

Through local activism, media appearances, contributions to select committees and even having their ideas repackaged by thinktanks, political scientists could legitimately take some of the credit - and the blame - for policy-making. But Professor Jeffery also stressed the need to "patrol the barriers between scholarship and government".

He recalled a time, for example, when the Economic and Social Research Council was keen to commission research on Islamic radicalisation. "That produced some contention in the community about over-direction by the government of what academics should be doing, since the ESRC was incentivising a particular view of the world that not everybody shared," he said.

"We should be wary about being in a contractor relationship - or be clear about what it can bring with it."

A climate where "we have so many incentives to be active outside the academy", he added, could "bring tension between our professional and public roles".

But this offered challenges and opportunities, Professor Jeffery said.

"The Northern Ireland conflict spilled over into the academy because of people being associated with particular backgrounds and viewpoints," he explained. "But it was precisely those same people who played an important role in peace-building, because they had sufficient knowledge of the different communities to be able to articulate the issues that needed to be addressed in resolving the conflict."

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