Palace of Westminster
The Palace of Westminster serves as the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom

Bishops, Brexit and bridge-building: connecting political research and public policy

As a constitutional crisis unfolds in the UK, Iain McLean, Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford, is witnessing the arcane legislation and precedents he has studied over decades take centre stage within Brexit debates in parliament and courts of law.

Calum Miller, Chief Operating Officer and Associate Dean at the University’s Blavatnik School of Government, spoke to Iain to find out more about the links between his research and policy, and explored his motivation and achievements over a career spanning more than 30 years. These include securing compensation for victims of one of the UK’s worst environmental disasters, and advising on a memorial for those who died in the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

Calum Miller – What motivates your research, Iain? Why do you study the things you study?

Iain McLean – Talking about public policy, the most unexpected answer is revenge – based on the 1966 Aberfan disaster, when a coal waste tip in Wales collapsed, killing 144 people, mostly children at school.

From the moment it happened, it was clear there was a disgraceful cover-up on the part of the National Coal Board. You could say I was waiting 30 years to explore it. When the archives were released, I got straight in, courtesy actually of a national broadsheet editor, I got a press pass for the annual release of documents.

My single biggest achievement in public policy was getting the people of Aberfan their money back.

We established beyond doubt that Chair of the National Coal Board, Lord Robens was a monster and the victims of Aberfan were victims of the Coal Board in every possible way. This extended to the misuse of the Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund, which was directed to spend funds on the clean-up, in contravention of its charitable purpose. My single biggest achievement in public policy was getting the people of Aberfan their money back. It was the first tranche in 1997 at the change of government. It was a totally amazing day.

Further to Aberfan, another more general answer is this very 'bridge' idea that the University is trying to encourage. That goes back to the start of my career, because I was both an academic and a politician in my time in Newcastle in the 70s. My applied research has always been directed to those whom it might influence.

Talk us through some of your early policy engagement activity.

The fact that I am a professor of politics does give me some authority to, in this case, carry out below-the-surface work in Parliament.

One example is my intervention with voting procedures in the 1999 round of European elections. The UK government was finally forced to go for a proportional representation system for these elections because it had dragged its feet on this for several previous rounds.

The minister clearly wasn’t interested, and they went for D’Hondt allocations of votes to parties within regions, and he said in a Commons speech that Home Office simulations had proved that this was the fairest method. Now I happened to know from first principles – mathematical principles – that that is not true.

So I wrote to the Home Office asking to see the simulations. It didn’t take long to work through. I presented this to the Home Office, saying 'You might be interested that the Secretary of State misled Parliament on this matter.'

This forced a very grudging apology from one of the junior ministers.

It didn’t force a change of policy, they continued to use D’Hondt including in the election that the Government has reluctantly held recently. But it had important policy implications, because D’Hondt gives an advantage to the largest single party, which the minister thought would be the Labour Party. It has actually turned out to give one to UKIP and the Brexit Party in successive Euro elections."

Thinking about your historical research on the constitution and other significant parts of political history in the UK, to what extent has that influenced or fed into policy advice? To what extent have policy advisers and others wanted to engage on historical precedents as a way of guiding the development of new policy?

It's the best day you could ever have asked that! I just had to tear myself away from the proceedings in the Supreme Court, where David Pannick is going through all the constitutional cases that Scot Peterson and I have been drawing attention to for quite a long time. These include the Case on Proclamations 1610, Bill of Rights Act 1688, Claim of Rights Act (Scotland) 1689, and Acts of Union 1706-7.

It’s not appropriate for academics as academics to give opinions on Brexit. But I, and other historians who have looked at past constitutional crises, think we have things that lawyers and political commentators can draw on.

If you're talking constitutional statutes, you have to remember that those which predate 1707 don’t automatically apply to Scotland or Ireland; you need to be familiar with the Scottish constitutional tradition as well. I was delighted to see that David Pannick has been banging that drum.

I’d like to think that I also had some influence in Gordon Brown putting a reference to the Claim of Rights Act (Scotland) 1689 in his constitutional green paper of 2007. That Act matters acutely because of the behaviour of the current Prime Minister. Engagement on constitutional issues may happen very rarely indeed, but very rarely indeed it really, really matters. It’s not appropriate for academics as academics to give opinions on Brexit. But I, and other historians who have looked at past constitutional crises, think we have things that lawyers and political commentators can draw on.

One example I am quite proud of is that, at no notice, in March, a colleague and I went to see a former Conservative MP and a high profile Labour MP, to talk through voting procedures which they might use in the previous round of the Commons trying to take control. They didn’t take our advice – but we were able to offer our professional expertise, in that case to parliamentarians.

You've created networks of people and strands of access or influence. What advice would you give an earlier career research colleague, on how to create similar networks of contacts or engage with collective bodies such as academies?

I started making links way back in the 70s when I was an elected member of Tyne & Wear County Council, elected at a very young age. In the 80s, I was a Fellow of University College here in Oxford. I was building up links with people who were going to become extremely influential. Since I came back to Nuffield, I’ve done a good deal more. It’s helped by having a research-only contract.

In terms of achieving successful engagements, first – always think whether your research really is likely to have impacts. Some of it is not likely to, but don’t not do it just because you can’t see a practical impact. Second: if it does have impact, be realistic about it – don’t make excessive claims – but engage nevertheless.

If it's research which does impact on public policy, then a very easy way, which I recommend, is parliamentary select committees, because they are woefully under-resourced. Once you’re in a network you can snowball from that network to others. I have been adviser to a couple of select committees and frequently give evidence.

One way of acting is through the social scientific academies, so I’m a Fellow of both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and for four years I was the Vice President of the British Academy for Public Policy. I was involved in an initiative which was joint between the two, called Enlightening the Constitutional Debate in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum.

Across all government departments, the common task is to establish your credibility. My team and I know what we’re talking about, but we have to establish that, because the set of those who know about the subject and those who think they know about the subject is not identical, and this is especially true with one of my interests, namely electoral systems.

Sometimes officials will be interested in genuinely impartial results, and sometimes they won’t. There are departments that don’t want evidence-based policy; they want policy-based evidence.

It's worth noting that some departments are remarkably receptive, and others – which I happen not to have dealt with – have a bad reputation.

How have you navigated that, and has that presented any particular tensions, and does it lead to any advice?

There’s a negotiation in all of that at some level. As an academic, one wants to maintain scrupulous independence, rigour and impartiality. Sometimes officials will be interested in genuinely impartial results, and sometimes they won’t. There are departments that don’t want evidence-based policy; they want policy-based evidence.

How do scholars avoid being seen as advocates? This could happen if they believe very strongly in scientific evidence and think it’s just so blindingly obvious that that should lead directly to a policy move.

Although climate-change denialism is not so much of an issue here as elsewhere, we had a salutary example of that in the rubbishing of the environmental scientists from East Anglia by, mostly, Americans. Two other cases which come to mind are road pricing and fuel taxes. These examples are uncontroversial scientifically but are politically 'too hot to handle'.

My advice would: choose your interlocutors carefully. You wouldn’t tangle with climate-change deniers, or go to the tabloids and say that there should be road pricing. But you would go to the Transport Select Committee and engage with the Department of Transport directly, where you would presumably get a hearing.

One of the things that comes up quite a lot in conversations with colleagues is the arc of policy and research development.

Yes. The rather crude model appears to be one where research happens largely independently and produces some interesting findings, and then an academic seeks to influence the policy process with those findings.

A more sophisticated understanding sees ideally a much more intuitive process, where a researcher is in close contact with policymakers, having a dialogue, which is fruitful in establishing some really interesting applied questions. In those instances, the researcher is also motivated by the knowledge that if they can answer them robustly and well, they might have a direct channel into the policy process.

You’re identifying a few different strands of access, or influence if you want to put it like that. You're also often studying the institutions of government and the policy making process, and perhaps drawing conclusions from that about how policy should be conducted. How do you see that process of engagement?

In terms of public expenditure, in effect, Treasury asked me to do a job for them which involved sorting out the public expenditure PESA, Public Expenditure Statistical Analysis some years ago.

I’m now the co-investigator on a live project about public expenditure – The History of UK public spending control 1993-2015.

Treasury had lost its collective memory and it wanted to commission research which told the story of its own efforts at public expenditure control, on from the last academic study, which ended in 1992. Our remit is to look at the interaction between HM Treasury as the public spending control body for the whole UK, and the fact there are autonomous governments in Scotland and Wales and sometimes Northern Ireland.

Has it controlled public expenditure? Well, in year one of the project we got the Institute for Fiscal Studies to look into the numbers, and the answer, which surprised me, is: yes – in the sense that out-turn in year two is pretty well what was planned or proposed in year one or year zero.

Grenfell Memorial

Then, building on my archival research at Aberfan, I was recently approached by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, who have been tasked with creating a memorial for the victims at Grenfell House.

It fell to Government because Grenfell is in the patch of Kensington Council, and the victims and relatives would rather trust anybody rather than Kensington Council.

The ministry called me and asked whether there were any lessons from Aberfan for a Grenfell memorial. I said there were lots, so I went to a meeting with the ministry and shared my experience.

In the case of Aberfan, the Charity Commission was actively obstructive; that’s one of the scandals. I don't think that would happen now, the common theme between that and Grenfell is that there is sometimes a difficult relationship with charity law: normally the trustees of a charity cannot be its beneficiaries. So, it’s difficult having relatives of victims in either case on the trustee body.

I gave advice on how everything should be set up for Grenfell – what sort of people should be the trustees, how it should secure an endowment, and how that endowment should be made safe from raids by politicians, such as those that occurred at Aberfan.

Church of England Committee

The most surprising policy intervention that I’m involved in is as an adviser to a Church of England committee about the appointment of bishops, based on earlier work and on my election expertise.

I am a Quaker – a strong proponent of same-sex marriage – all of that background is very easy for the people who have commissioned me to do this research to find out.

The CNC Elections Process Review Group was given one remit originally – to look at the process by which a body called the Crown Nominations Commission, a joint church and state body, selects candidates for bishoprics. Another remit was added after a successful candidate in a Synod election did not disclose the fact that she was the trustee of a church which was trying to set up in opposition to the Church of England in her local patch. So, this body faced the question of candidate disclosure being made more rigorous.

I came onto this panel, I thought, as an electoral systems adviser– and found that I seem to be a full member. It's due to report in early 2020.

It’s fairly hard – well, impossible – to suppress where I am coming from. It's all a great surprise and, like so much in politics, you never know what tomorrow will bring.