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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"

Tuesday 29 March 2011 00:00 BST

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.

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