The humanities fishbowl has been fizzy since Sunday over hotly denied allegations that the Government has been telling the AHRC what to think (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here, and don’t come back till you’re confused and crying slightly).
Usually, when my students come to me with arguments in this state, I suggest they try rearranging them in chronological order to see if that helps. Applying this approach, we get the following…
2009: earliest discussion of Connected Communities I can readily find. It’s still vestigial in this RCUK annual report and THE reporting, as one of three intended cross-RCUK programmes, alongside food supply and economic slump-survival measures.
11 May 2010: after an exciting few days during which Peter Hennessy frequently appears to be the only person alive who knows what the hell’s supposed to happen next, it is affirmed that the people campaigning on Big Society rhetoric (hereafter “BS”) are approximately in charge of the country.
June 2010: Connected Communities inaugurated.
November 2010: call for scoping studies applications for Connected Communities. This is a general RCUK call, described as AHRC-led. It contains a muted, brief reference to studies which might “explore the possible lessons that could be drawn for” the BS “and/or” other social initiatives, including some (co-operativism?) obviously distinct from the BS vision.
6-8 December 2010: AHRC holds another workshop meeting under the Connecting Communities banner. One of the four invited presentations strongly invokes and appears to promote BS rhetoric and concepts; see Naomi O’Leary’s comments on what’s going on with the others.
December 2010: BIS Statement on the Allocation of Science and Research Funding, including the “Statement on the Haldane Principle.”
December 2010: AHRC launches its Delivery Plan 2011-15. This states that “Connected Communities will enable the AHRC to contribute [sic] to the government’s [sic] initiatives on localism and the ‘Big Society’” in broadcasting, urban regeneration, heritage, history and “Values and concepts”. Elsewhere it states that the Council “will contribute to public services and policy, collaborating with other [sic] government departments”, including DCLG on BS.
It was at this point that we should probably have flung the lid off the world and started jabbering like maniacs.
Yes, of course, the Haldane Principle is not all that, and all research is intrinsically political. The BS, though, is party-political. It was the Conservatives’ chief rhetorical device in the election campaign, and is still the only conspicuous indicator of Cameronic political allegiance. Only Cameron-friendly Conservatives want it or like it or will give it house room. Which is in no way a case against it, but which is as sure as flip a case for not making it a criterion for Research Council support. It’s bleeding obvious how to direct people’s attention to the BS without telling them what to think about it. You use something like the wording from that November call. Which they must have had on file, but didn’t use. Which scares me.
Also – the AHRC is not a government department, as those in charge of it surely know full well. This is why I think these Delivery Plans and Strategic Briefings and whatnot ought to have named authors.
However: I, for one, said nothing about that blessed document. Because I didn’t notice it.
January 2011: Peter Mandler did notice, and complained.
27 March 2011: the Observer publishes a piece entitled Academic fury over order to study the big society. This quotes Peter Mandler as stating categorically that the Government threatened to withhold funding unless funds were diverted to BS, implying that the AHRC was acting under duress. [UPDATE: Peter Mandler has commented explaining that claims he actually made concerning the British Academy, rather than the AHRC, were misreported.]
(The only sources for this new assertion are the quotation attributed to Mandler, plus one weasel passive: “It is claimed…” Comments from others – Colin Jones, Tristram Hunt, Gareth Thomas, an unnamed Oxford college “principal” – are presented so as to appear to relate to the new claim, though they could equally be responses to established developments.)
It was only at this point that the lid actually did come off the world and everyone started jabbering like a maniac.
28 March 2011: the AHRC takes the unprecedented step of posting what it describes as an Important Statement on its website, directly responding to the allegations: “We did NOT receive our funding settlement on condition that we supported the ‘Big Society’, and we were NOT instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced.” This notes that work on Connecting Communities began “in 2008”, and argues that the programme “happen[s] to be relevant to debates about the ‘Big Society’ which came two years later.”
This is then followed up by a story in the THE in which an unnamed AHRC spokesperson adds that references to the BS in documentation are merely a device to (THE paraphrase) “help policymakers understand the concept of Connected Communities.”
29 March 2011: sporadic skirmishes. Thom Brooks sets up a petition to delete BS from the list of “strategic areas”. Bert Provan on his way to becoming a national figure, if the humanities are a nation.
As ever, what people make of all this comes down to who gets in quickly with their preferred framing (‘framing’, there: one of the select supply of little bits of terminology which look like humanities cobblers but actually do something fantastically useful). There is a framing doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment which reduces in essence to this:
(a) the Observer article said a bad thing about the AHRC;
(b) the Observer article is wrong;
(c) the AHRC is not at all bad.
If I believed in neat conspiracies, I’d be invoking Father Brown here: “They would have boomed the miracle. Then they would have bust up the miracle…” There are no neat conspiracies, of course: the whole thing probably just proceeds from a ghastly error of fact or judgment on someone or other’s part, as is usual for the human race, though at an intellectual level I would be most interested in exactly how the first few pars of the Observer piece came about.
More important is the fact that everyone who bats for My Lot is now having to rush around nailing into place the alternative framing:
(a) the Observer article said that the AHRC’s enthusiastic co-option of a party-political principle was instituted under duress from the Government;
(b) the Observer article is, probably, wrong;
(c) the AHRC has presumably co-opted a party-political principle of its own free corporate will. (Its statement gives no alternative explanation.)
My professional experience tells me that the second formulation better addresses the evidence of the historical record. (It’s also probably much sounder syllogistically, though I’d want to ask a logician.) Is anybody going to fund me (or my logician) if we keep insisting on pointing this out?