Tom Sutcliffe: When did the Big Society turn into Big Brother?

Social Studies: The academic community is already maddened by having to fill in "impact statements"

Share
Related Topics

We may not quite be back in the days of Nazi Germany. The rhetorical suggestion that we are was one of the more extravagant reactions to a report at the weekend that the Arts and Humanities Research Council would be requiring fund-seeking academics to study the Big Society as a priority, as part of a deal with the Government over its continued funding. Others who were outraged drew their analogies from the opposite end of the political spectrum, warning of Soviet-style control of academic research and the death of intellectual freedom.

And on the face of it, it looked as if they had a lot to be worried about. The Government, it was suggested, had effectively ripped up the Haldane principle, which protects academic freedom from the influence of those who write the cheques, and was attempting to co-opt English dons and history professors into the thankless task of making sense of David Cameron's favourite buzzwords.

The reaction, to put it mildly, was not measured. The Royal Historical Society described the move as "gross and ignoble" while an unnamed Oxford college principal denounced the way that "a slogan for one political party has become translated into a central intellectual agenda for the academy". Commentators on Twitter and the internet expressed their anger and dismay. And yet it still wasn't entirely clear what had actually happened. The AHRC categorically denied that any government pressure had been applied, insisted on its independence, and pointed out that the contentious sections of its Delivery Plan involved a project that long predated the Big Society – the Connected Communities Research Programme. "Any major funding awarded by the AHRC will continue to be decided through academic peer review and is totally independent of government", it insisted.

One wonders suspiciously about "minor funding" there, but, quibble apart, what probably happened here was this: the AHRC, aware that it was operating in a climate of cuts, thought it might be helpful to re-phrase part of its mission statement in a way more congenial to its new paymasters. It's a human enough instinct, after all. Isn't "Big Society" just another way of saying "Connected Communities", someone thought – and if that's true, then where would the harm be in letting the Government think we're on side? Stick it in the document here and there. It'll make them feel better about signing the cheque, and once we've got the money we'll decide how to spend it as we usually do. And only then did the AHRC find out where the harm lay – as an academic community already maddened by having to fill in "impact statements" to prove that their research has an effect on wider society (a witless and time-wasting obligation introduced by a Labour government) detected another and more serious encroachment on intellectual liberty.

It's possible that the encroachment isn't imagined at all. It's possible too that the implication that the words "Big Society" might be helpful to AHRC's cause came from civil servants rather than ministers – and that, though some way short of the totalitarian thought-control – there really is an issue of academic freedom here. Pressure doesn't have to be explicit to be damaging. But I'm guessing that humanities departments won't be turning wholesale to the study of the Big Society. Which leaves us with a problem: who else is going to tell us what it actually means?



Wild firing isa worrying sign



As a Twitchy Hawk (in favour of UN action in Libya but in a nervous way) I've been reassured by rebel successes in driving back pro-Gaddafi forces. Although for us Twitchy Hawks this only brings with it another anxiety, which is exactly what position to take on providing a de facto air force for the Benghazi Provisional Government.

I'd also feel a lot more sanguine about the ultimate outcome if "our" side (the rebels) could be persuaded to give up their mystifying addiction to shooting at the sky. Perhaps there is a cultural subtlety I'm failing to grasp here, but every time I see a rebel unleashing another wild fusillade my optimism about Libya's peaceful democratic future dwindles a little. I think of a previous insurgency in which irregular militias with a poor command structure came up against a professional army and made them pay so dearly for a victory that it was all but indistinguishable from defeat. The famous command at the Battle of Bunker Hill, you may recall, was "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes," not "Oh go on, just let rip whenever you feel like it".



Sorry, no celebrities are in this show



Overheard at the box office for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg last week: a passing tourist asks whether there are any big names in the production.

The box office man begins to explain what Kneehigh's adaptation involves, gamely attempting to sell the vehicle before coming clean about the fact that it has no star in it.

His sales pitch is interrupted:"No, but is there anybody that I'd know off the telly?" Only celebrity was of any interest.

I suppose it would have been unethical to tell this punter that the show starred Dancing on Ice's Jason Gardiner and Kim Woodburn from How Clean Is Your House, but that they only appeared after the interval. I can't help feeling it's what he deserved, though.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Arts Editor: The Great Character Actors of Football

David Lister
 

What I saw on the night my husband was hit by a car

Rebecca Armstrong
Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players