Professor Ben Ansell has today been named as the BBC’s 73rd Reith lecturer. And, although he has recovered from the initial shock of being asked to do the lectures by Mohit Bakaya, Director of Speech Audio and Controller of BBC Radio 4 and 4 Extra, the Oxford political scientist cannot conceal his surprise.
In terms of accolades, they do not come much bigger than this. With his first lecture on 30 October, Professor Ansell will join a highly-distinguished list of intellectual luminaries stretching back into the middle of the 20th century. Established in memory of the corporation’s first director general, Lord Reith, the lecture series began in 1948 with the Nobel prize-winning philosopher Bertrand Russell. The sixth lecture series was given by one Robert Oppenheimer. More recently, Professor Stephen Hawking; Oxford professor Margaret MacMillan; Hilary Mantell and the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave Reith lectures.
Professor Ansell’s lectures were inspired by his latest book: Why Politics Fails. Published in March this year, and written post-Brexit and post-Trump, with a war in Europe and climate change high on the agenda, Professor Ansell’s work probes why politics seems to be failing and what can be done about it. He addresses the major issues he sees as facing ‘liberal democracies’ and highlights the problems that need to be overcome. This is not a spoiler, but he concludes early on that self-interest is a key factor undermining politics and political solutions and even threatening the liberal democracy that the same self-interested people insist they cherish.
Conversation with Professor Ansell is akin to peeling back carefully a ring pull and being hit with an explosion of ideas, thoughts and interests
There are many conundrums and challenges to overcome, he says. But, Professor Ansell maintains, there are solutions. And, he believes, there are ways to avoid the ‘traps’ into which we fall when trying to combine self-interest with effective politics and democracy.
Each of his four Reith lectures will build off a different problematic theme and draw on big political ideas and Professor Ansell’s cutting-edge research to suggest how we can address these questions together. The four lectures are:
- The future of Democracy – the first lecture, to be given in London, Professor Ansell will focus on whether democracies are at risk of breakdown and authoritarianism.
- The future of Security – to be given in Berlin, he asks if wealthy countries are complacent about threats from abroad and ask what can be done.
- The future of Solidarity – to be given in Sunderland, he looks at how we can have a shared sense of belonging in today’s polarised societies.
- The future of Prosperity – to be given in Atlanta, Georgia, Professor Ansell asks if we can continue growing economically without despoiling the Earth.
Conversation with the political scientist is akin to peeling back carefully a ring pull and being hit with an explosion of ideas, thoughts and interests. In no particular order, Professor Ansel talks about education, housing, democracy, polling, Brexit, US politics, low traffic neighbourhoods, the impact of social media, Brexit and conspiracy theories. It is an irrepressible intellectual experience and Professor Ansell is happy to indulge foolish questions and interventions, diving off down another avenue in response.
Professor Ansell’s interest in ‘everyday’ politics and big questions have underpinned his research and his teaching: For me, everything is political
Professor Ansell’s interest in ‘everyday’ politics and big questions have underpinned his research and his teaching. The book was based on a syllabus he taught in the early 2000s to politics students at the University of Minnesota. It was about puzzles in politics and was based around contemporary challenges and questions, such as, ‘Why are most democratic countries rich? Why did crime decline in the US in the 1990s?’
It’s absolutely fascinating… I can see both sides. But I don’t understand how policymakers are so surprised that people are so angry
Professor Ansell on LTNs
But it was this syllabus that indirectly led him to be invited to undertake the lecture series. He had left the course behind, when he came to Oxford in 2013, but happily the syllabus was still out there. Penguin, his publisher, found it on the internet setting off their initial interest in what became the book.
‘It just goes to show, it can be useful to put things online,’ laughs Professor Ansell.
Professor Ansell’s remains focused on the everyday, he says, ‘For me, everything is political.’
He has been interested in education for years, researching attitudes to education spending. Although most people are keen on school spending (it is better to have an educated population), he says, ideas change when it comes to university education. Then, he points out, people are more equivocal, especially if their children have already been to university. Research suggests some are less happy about funding university-level studies for the general population, says Professor Ansell.
Currently, he is interested in the debates about low traffic neighbourhoods roiling London and Oxford, ‘It’s absolutely fascinating… I can see both sides. But I don’t understand how policymakers are so surprised that people are so angry.’
He notes that political debates about environmental issues are just beginning. Reflecting on the current ULEZ brouhaha, he says, ‘If you charge people 5p for a plastic bag, they will understand, but it’s a lot more difficult when you put significant costs on people and they cannot see a real benefit in their lives…It’s a tough sell.’
In the lecture on solidarity, he says, he will be talking about divisions in society and how successful ‘levelling up’ has been in the UK. Professor Ansell is currently focused on whether people have been left behind and what that means in terms of fairness in society. He points out prosperity and fortunes can change for people and for areas. At different points in life, someone may need help, and the same goes for regions, which were once very prosperous and now may be in decline or suffering issues relating to deprivation.
Everybody views things from their own self-interest...They always think that others have had it better. But that changes over time
Professor Ansell is fascinated by motivations – and whether the pollsters (and popular press) have it right. At the moment, he is also interested in intergenerational fairness.
‘Everybody views things from their own self-interest,’ he says. ‘They always think that others have had it better. But that changes over time.’
But it he is also interested in the reasons people give for their opinions and how that varies from conventional wisdom. He adds, ‘I like to find out why people hold views. Ask someone why they object to a new estate being built and they will talk about the doctor’s surgery or the flood plain – not immigrants.'
Given all that has happened over the last few years in the UK and the US, with Brexit and Trump, does he think politics has changed permanently, become less consensual, more polarised, more divided? With China leading the way as a non-democratic super-power, would it even be right to say democracy’s day could be over? Polling (of course) suggests some in ‘the west’ are less supportive of democracy and more inclined to authoritarian government.
No, says Professor Ansell, democracy is not over, ‘If the people who say they were in favour of more authoritarian government had their rights taken away, they would change their minds.'
There is a lot to unpack. But, no, says Professor Ansell, democracy is not over, ‘If the people who say they were in favour of more authoritarian government had their rights taken away, they would change their minds.’
But, he says, that does not mean, there are not very significant challenges – highlighted by issues such as Brexit.
Professor Ansell says, ‘In any democratic political system, you cannot just ignore people who oppose something. Government by consent is very hard in such circumstances. You need the consent of the losers, even if the majority agree. Democracy is hard work.’
In any democratic political system, you cannot just ignore people who oppose something...You need the consent of the losers, even if the majority agree. Democracy is hard work
So, does that mean democracy is under threat? ‘Democracy has proven resilient, but there are more concerning undertones,’ says Professor Ansell cautiously. Social media does not help, he thinks, ‘We know that Facebook and YouTube use algorithms that show people more of what they like and it leads to the exclusion of voices from feeds.’
He also notes that unhappiness with politics is widespread, ‘Very few voters haven’t had a reduction in trust in government. People are frustrated that democracies don’t seem to be making decisions effectively.’
This leads to concerns over the party system in both the UK and the US, especially when many parties are effective coalitions.
‘Parties are chaos cages,’ says Professor Ansell, throwing out another explosive thought. ’Parties help us organize people with very different views, enabling them to govern. But sometimes, the parties themselves cannot contain the chaos. And that causes dysfunctional parties, warring among themselves.’
A key issue in the UK is that there is simply less to go around now, he says, ‘We’re going through a very long hangover from the financial crisis [of 2008], which followed a long period of prosperity from Major to Blair to Cameron. Now, we’ve got lower growth than at any time since the Napoleonic wars.’
It causes problems in the population, he says, ‘When we don’t have growth, then we are splitting a fixed pie, with clear winners and losers.’
There is certainly no shortage of material for the lectures. But Professor Ansell admits, he did not start out as a political scientist. In fact, he did not start out in the UK.
He believes history will be kinder to Joe Biden than current media suggests, ‘He’s like the Lyndon Johnson to Obama’s Kennedy…he gets things done
Born in California, he returned to the UK as a toddler and grew up in northern Kent. He has recently been researching his roots and found that his great grandfather had been a manual worker involved in a shipyard on the Isle of Wight, who lost his job after the First War. His mother’s people were a little way further up the social scale, he smiles, and from East Yorkshire.
After school in Sevenoaks, he went to Manchester University to study History. He stayed on for a Masters in cultural history. And then, wanting to study something about today, rather than the past, a tutor recommended he looked at Politics. So, he did – thereby embarking on his future career.
In 2000, he travelled back to the land of his birth, where he did a Politics’ Masters at UC Berkely – followed by a doctorate at Harvard. It was a time of tremendous political upheaval, leaving the young postgrad with an abiding interest in US politics. When he arrived in California, Bill Clinton was president, when he left, Barak Obama was president – and there was George W Bush in between. Of course, at the same time, he was there for the horrific events of 9/11 and then the financial crisis.
It’s said that Oxford is like Academic Disneyland and it is...But it also has the long queues and terrible food…but it’s still worth it for the rides
Professor Ansell laughs
He watches with interest as American democracy struggles with the current internal strains of polarisation and alienation. He believes history will be kinder to Joe Biden than current media suggests, ‘He’s like the Lyndon Johnson to Obama’s Kennedy…he gets things done.’
After Harvard, Dr Ansell went to the University of Minnesota – from where, just seven years’ later, he came to Oxford as a professor of politics. He speaks warmly of Oxford’s ‘vibrant intellectual’ life, ‘It’s an international intellectual hub. Nowhere in the world is quite like here.’
‘It’s said that Oxford is like Academic Disneyland and it is,’ laughs Professor Ansell. ‘But it also has the long queues and terrible food…but it’s still worth it for the rides.’
By Sarah Whitebloom