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Wednesday 22 June 2011

AHRC and the Big Society: An appeal for a big push

You might have been following my intermittent reports on the campaign to get the AHRC to drop its repeated mention of 'The Big Society' (a vacuous notion dreamt up by David Cameron as a smoke screen for the Tories' final assault on the 1945 settlement).  If not, you can find them via the blogging labels 'AHRC' and 'The Big Society'. The real bottom-line, though, is not party-political, as has been made clear from the start.  The same problems would have attended the AHRC's adoption of 'The Third Way' or any of New Labour's equally vapid slogans. 

To recap: initially, this blew up as a result of a claim in an article in The Observer that the AHRC had been forced by government to accede to prioritising research on the Big Society in return for a certain exemption from The Cuts.  Prominent historians, notably professor Peter Mandler (Cambridge) and Colin Jones, the president of the RHS, weighed in against this.  The AHRC issued a fairly unconvincing and grammatically dubious 'refutation' (sic) of this claim, whereupon the suspicion emerged pretty quickly (largely on the basis of the AHRC's own statements) that what had actually happened was that the AHRC had shifted and renamed its priorities to include The Big Society itself, presumably to make itself less susceptible to the cuts.  Which of these versions of events is the accurate one has not, to my knowledge, ever been definitively established.

Be that as it may, the phrase 'The Big Society' remains in the AHRC's delivery plan, producing a petition with thousands of signatures, and an open letter supported by over 30 learned societies (not, at that point at least, including the Royal Historical Society).  I have not been able to find out whether the RHS' stance has changed.  A current statement by the Society simply says it maintains a 'watching brief', by which phrase I understand 'sitting on the fence until it is clear which way it ought to jump 'for the good of history': a prize example, if true, if the dynamics of HE politics, as I have discussed before.  Never mind.  Whatever the RHS' position, Peter Mandler, to his credit, has continued to snap around Rick Rylance's (the Head of the AHRC) heels, like a little cultural historical terrier, and Rylance and the head of the BA have not managed to issue any sort of convincing response, either to that or to the campaign mentioned above, spearheaded by philosophers James Ladyman and Thom Brooks.

To me, it seemed that by sitting tight, Rylance was going to weather this storm.  However, the tempo has changed, with Labour's shadow education minister, Gareth Thomas, weighing in, and doubts having been expressed by David Willetts himself (here, as a piece in the Higher suggested, the recent vote of no confidence in Willetts, rather than his policies, might turn out to be counter-productive).

Now, on Thom Brooks' blog, which I have recommended before, I read the following extracts from an article in the Guardian:
"[. . .] Rylance agreed with critics that the big society was "a government policy" but said that it included "a range of activities" from health to the arts which left room for many different projects and angles for research.

"People have said this is about promoting the big society. It is categorically not about that. It is indicating an area of research which will fund individuals who may well come up and be critical of it. We don't forecast outcomes of these things," Rylance said.

However Rylance said that removing all six references to the big society from the AHRC's strategy would have to involve a renegotiation with government."

It might be that, like mine, your eyebrows were immediately raised by the last statement.  If, as has been maintained all along, the AHRC weren't brow-beaten into including a priority on The Big Society, why should the term's removal require 'renegotiation' with the government?  Or, at least, why should any such 'renegotiation' be problematic?

Rylance might be on the ropes, which would make it timely to launch a big push to put an end to this once and for all.  With that in mind, I reproduce, with permission, an e-mail by Thom Brooks and urge all British historians to support these efforts according to their position vis-a-vis the AHRC.  It'd also be nice if the RHS would abandon its 'watching brief' and make a formal, public statement against the AHRC's adoption of party political slogans.  Thanks. 

Dear friends and colleagues,

My thanks again for your support in the campaign to persuade the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to remove the "Big Society" from its current delivery plan. Please take a moment to read this important message.

We have widespread support for our campaign. Our petitions have attracted over 4,000 signatures from across disciplines and political divisions. Signatories include Fellows of the British Academy and Royal Society. More than 30 learned societies agreed a joint statement in support of the petition. Hundreds of emails and letters of support have been sent to Rick Rylance, the AHRC CEO. The UCU has supported our campaign and the Rt Hon David Willetts (Minister of State for Universities and Science) has recently remarked on the "hazard" of including political campaign slogans in research council delivery plans. The support has been truly unprecedented and the issue has received much media coverage. This includes new articles published in the Guardian yesterday: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jun/19/academics-quit-over-big-society  This has encouraged the Shadow Universities minister, Gareth Thomas MP, to write to Willetts to demand action: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jun/20/labour-steps-into-big-society-row?CMP=twt_fd

The AHRC response has been disappointing. They continue to reject calls for this brief, but important, change to the AHRC Delivery Plan. We argue a point of principle, not politics: political campaign slogans have no place in research council delivery plans for strategic funding priorities. Period. I believe we are now at a critical moment and I request your help:


I am a member of the AHRC Peer Review College. If you are also a member, then please contact me ASAP by THURSDAY MORNING, 24th JUNE to confirm whether you are willing to join me with many others and resign on MONDAY, 27th JUNE if no action is taken on amending the AHRC Delivery Plan. I will offer a press release later this week. Resignation is surely a last resort, but I believe that all avenues have been explored without success. While I hope we need not act on our threat, it is clear that we must now come together and show the strength of our support for our principled position. I hope all AHRC Peer Review College members will accept this call -- and please circulate this message to anyone on the College.


Please write to the AHRC and voice your continued support for our campaign. The AHRC appears to believe our opposition is fading: in fact, it is growing and recent publicity in the Guardian confirms this. Contact information includes the AHRC CEO Professor Rick Rylance (r.rylance@ahrc.ac.uk) and AHRC Chairman Professor Sir Alan Wilson (executive@ahrc.ac.uk).


Please write to David Willetts and voice your support. You might use the following template:

Dear Rt Hon Willetts,

I want to share my support for the campaign to remove the "Big Society" from the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Delivery Plan. This is a position of principle, not politics: political campaign slogans should have no place in research council delivery plans. This position is endorsed by over 4,000 academics and 30+ learned societies as well as the UCU. Petitions (see http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/thebigsociety/) have drawn support from across disciplines and political divides. Please communicate to the AHRC the importance of taking action and removing this campaign slogan immediately.

Yours sincerely,


I believe that the momentum is on our side and positive action likely, but only if we act together and we act fast. I hope I can look forward to your support one last time. We are very close to achieving our goal and defending an important principle.

Warmest wishes,