During the autumn I was asked to join up to a campaigning group that would have assembled people working in universities with a predisposition for voting Yes in the referendum as a counterweight to the rather limp Academics Together arm of the Better Together campaign.
I declined for a number of reasons, including that it was evident a great many other people of more academic standing than myself had probably said no before me, but mostly because there is something deeply wrong with academics getting involved in political campaigning. This is especially the case when you’re writing about the referendum, as I currently am, and when the respective campaigns wish to appropriate the legitimacy that comes with having academics on board without paying due attention to what those people might actually be saying.
Every time anything vaguely academic comes about that supports the needs of either side it is jumped upon as empirical, rational and falsifiable proof of the madness of the other team. The truth of the matter is, you can always do more research and you have to ask the right questions. The Economics and Social Science Research Council report on inequality in an independent Scotland that was seized up by Better Together when it came out recently is a case in point. It is, by the looks of things, a well put together piece of research, but its research parameters are based on SNP policy outcomes and not on the actual policies available to an independent government. As a stick with which to beat the SNP that is all well and good, but in terms of independence as concept it does not tell us all that much. I also feel sorry for Dr David Comerford, who no sooner than he had signed off his name at the bottom of the study found his words selectively used by both The Scotsman and the Better Together press team. The report even mentioned that changes to Scottish employment law, not currently on the table in the UK, would make a difference to tax takes and general equality. From reading the newspapers and the press releases associated with the story you’d have struggled to pick out the truth. What the paper actually says is that tackling inequality in Scotland would require more radical change that what either the No Campaign or the SNP policy advocate.
We should, of course, be making an informed decision about the country’s constitutional future, but when ‘academic’ knowledge is propagated and appropriated by the press teams of the Yes and No campaigns it becomes contaminated by their own desire to give a rational justification to a choice the people behind the desks have already made. Moreover, these people will be particularly loyal and convinced by particular old and concrete sets of beliefs, identities and standpoints that give them a high threshold for resistant readings of the other side’s outputs. Ironically, they are also some of the worst placed in the entire country to convince the middle ground of their case because they are almost incapable of seeing the justification for their opponent’s course of action. This is why academia is such a boon for them, because it allows them to seize on what the public might see as objective truth (there’s a discussion to be had there, but that is for another day), and claim that they were indeed right all along.
The other side is that there are a number of academics who are ‘out’ for either camp, but because academics are people they can have all kinds of reasons for being so. A physicist worried about childcare might be tempted to vote Yes, not because it would have any bearing on the world of physics but because they cared about their child’s future. A Perthshire-born political scientist who has written extensively about the advantages of smaller democracies might vote no because they like the idea of watching the Football League Show and have a dislike of Alex Salmond. It isn’t cut and dried, and none of us are as rational as we think, but academia is there to serve Scotland’s people and not the press-desk loyalists of the referendum HQs.
*I had originally intended to include a tweet from Better Together’s Gordon Aikman on the ESRC story, but it appears to have been deleted from his account. I’ve asked Gordon why this is.