When Kezia Dugdale opened our Politicians & Professionals series in January, I introduced her by saying she was the first Labour leader in the four-year history of the event to appear more than once. All the other party heads had been in post throughout the period.
I knew then that I would not be able to welcome her for a third time because I would be retiring before the fifth series. What I had not anticipated was that she would be stepping down too.
31 August was my last day as Director of the David Hume Institute, but when my successor, Jane-Frances Kelly, introduces the fifth Politicians & Professionals series in the New Year, there will be a new face – as yet unknown – among the political elite.
My term of office has been 50% longer than Ms Dugdale’s, but both of us have seen a decade or more of political activity compressed into those short periods. She has faced two UK general elections, a Scottish Parliament election, local government elections and the EU referendum in her tenure. I can add to that the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.
Constitutional questions have dominated the work lives of both of us. Firstly Scotland’s place in the UK, a question posed most starkly in the 2014 referendum, but also clouded by its aftermath – the Smith Commission on new powers for the Scottish Parliament, the debate over how they should, or should not, be used and the hanging uncertainty over whether there should be a second vote on independence.
Those issues are as yet unresolved, but they have for the time being at least been shunted aside by the larger constitutional crisis posed by the EU referendum result – what will be Britain’s (and inevitably Scotland’s) place in Europe and the wider world?
The failure of politics
What should be the role of politicians and think-tanks in an era when life-changing political decisions come in rapid succession?
In her speech Ms Dugdale described the EU referendum as a failure of politics – a failure to give people proper debate “beyond sloganeering and posturing” which addressed the issues that mattered most to them. She saw it as her task to try to foster a more meaningful dialogue.
And she quoted Hume: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,” which, of course, has been the guiding principle of the David Hume Institute throughout its three decades and one which I tried to follow as Director during my 10% of its history.
So in 2014, with the Centre on Constitutional Change and the Hunter Foundation, we published a book of factual information and impartial analysis designed, not to tell people how to vote in the referendum, but to give them a firm basis on which to make up their own minds. The printed copies of Scotland’s Decision were snapped up in days and the e-book was downloaded 100,000 times – proving that there was a demand for something beyond slogans and sound-bites.
In 2016 we repeated the exercise with the same partners. Britain’s Decision sought to inject some hard facts into a debate characterised by miss-information and hyperbole. Although not as popular as our first publication, it was still downloaded more than 15,000 times. Many of its chapters remain relevant to the Brexit debate.
Evidence-based policy research
Outside the constitution we have also tried to provide the factual basis for discussion and decision on diverse areas of policy: two thorough research studies on inequality in Scotland; a comparison of the way public procurement is done in Scotland, Australia and Canada; a survey of social mobility in Scotland; a report on the important but neglected issue of the under-achievement of boys in education – and more.
Through our regular programmes of events we have tried also to provide a platform for rational debate. In the Politicians & Professionals series the party leaders have the opportunity (and the discipline) to explain themselves at a length not normally accorded them in rallies, broadcast interviews or parliamentary debates, in front of an audience which is interested, engaged, questioning and frequently sceptical.
The rest of our series have given academics, educators, businessmen, philosophers, bureaucrats and others the chance to explain their beliefs and have them challenged. We don’t do slogans or soundbites and the David Hume Institute audience can see through posturing.
I leave the Institute in better qualified hands than mine. I shall not say goodbye because I intend to be frequently in the audience at events, adding my opinion, although not perhaps as forcefully as Sir Alan Peacock, the first Director, who sometimes emphasised his point by waving his stick.
“Truth springs from argument among friends,” is often attributed to Hume, although it doesn’t appear in his writings. As long as it doesn’t count as a slogan or a soundbite, I’m happy to subscribe to it.