Has Labour had enough of experts?

Lise Butler and Marc Stears talk to Emily Robinson | Renewal 29/4

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Contemporary politics often seem to be pulled between the competing claims of technical expertise and lived experience. In an age of populism, these different ways of knowing the world have taken on a heightened ideological significance. But this tension has long been a problem for Labour.

Emily Robinson: Thanks for agreeing to speak to me, it’s great to see you both. I wanted to get you together to think about Labour’s relationship to expertise – and particularly social science expertise, although I know we’re all interested in the humanities as well. As a journal run by academics, which is trying to speak to Labour politics, it’s something that we at Renewal consider quite often, though never really in a formal way. So, as two academics, who are both also involved in Labour politics, I wanted to get your views on how this relationship could and should work. And, as two historians, I hoped you might also reflect on how this relationship has and has not worked in the past. What’s changed, when, and why?

Marc Stears: Well, thank you so much for the chance to chat. It’s a really important topic and I can’t think of two better people to discuss it with. The relationship between expertise and social change is a crucial but a complex one. And the Labour Party has always, right from its inception, grappled with the difficulties at its heart. You can’t change a social system without knowing how to do it, without having a plan, and without being able to evaluate how it’s going. So that requires expertise, training, and intellectual equipment. On the other hand, you can’t change a social system without deep values and deep understanding of the lives of the people who are affected by that change. And values and experience are not within the remit of expertise, at least as it is usually understood. Indeed, questions of values and experience tend not to be dealt with particularly well by conventional social science. At all.

I think Labour has known this, right from the start. One of the first articles I read when I started my PhD back in the day was Harold Laski’s Fabian Essay ‘The limitations of the expert’. It is a brilliant study of exactly this quandary. Laski knew the desperate requirement for knowledge and for skill and for understanding and for analysis, on the one hand.1 And, on the other hand, he appreciated the need for depth of experience, for practical wisdom, for morals, even for spirituality. And he knew the latter have a tendency to get crowded out in the social scientific academy. We just need to come to terms with the fact that it’s always been there, and it always will be, and each generation tries to grapple with it in their own way.

Lise Butler: Different political eras often feature different analytical and intellectual frames. My own research has really emphasised the importance of the social sciences, and specifically sociology, for framing the kinds of questions that post-war policy-makers were asking in the context of the development of the welfare state. In my book, Michael Young, Social Science and the British Left, 1945-70, I describe this as a reaction to overly economistic ways of thinking about policy that were common amongst left-wing policy-makers in the Attlee government and during the post-war period more generally. One of the arguments I’ve tried to make in my book is that Young was part of a battle in the post-war period between economistic thinking about policy, and a more humanistic approach which drew on the insights of social sciences like sociology, psychology and anthropology.

I often note the disproportionate number of historians on the Renewal editorial board, and I think that says something about the cultural role of history and the historical profession today. Indeed it might also give us some insights into why history has become such a target in the current culture wars. Whereas sociology achieved cultural prominence in left-wing circles in the 1960s and 1970s, and was subsequently attacked by the Thatcher governments in the 1980s, I think history has become prominent in progressive political circles in recent decades and has, as a result, become a target for the contemporary right. I think we need to see expertise as fundamentally tied to different frames for thinking about policy-making, which are historically contingent.

ER: That’s really interesting, and raises the question of whether those intellectual frames are attached to a general cultural moment, or whether they are also ideologically driven. As you mentioned, sociology was attacked by the right, so would you see it as a particularly left way of approaching knowledge?

LB: Well, we all know Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement: ‘there’s no such thing as society … there are individual men and women and there are families’, which is commonly understood as a rejection of the idea that social problems have structural explanations.2 I think there certainly was a sense that sociology
provided a language and a framework for policy-makers to think more structurally about social processes, which challenged a more individualist political project. But the point that I’ve tried to make in my own work is that – and I think that Marc might be sympathetic to this – in the 1950s and the 1960s sociology provided a language for progressive policy-makers to conceive of individual action in terms of communities, in terms of families, and in terms of social groups. And I think that part of that story might not have been fully appreciated by some of the antagonists towards sociology in the 1980s. So, I don’t think that any policy science or any way of thinking is intrinsically left-wing or right-wing, but these things are grasped by different actors and come to have certain meanings in different contexts.

ER: Yes. One of the things that often comes up when we’re thinking about experts and expertise is the idea of technocracy. This is an accusation that has been thrown at lots of people on the left at various times, and has been particularly associated with Keir Starmer in recent years. This is usually seen as a bad thing, and in conflict with many of the calls in recent years (including from people like Marc) for politics to be more human, more relational. But then, running alongside this, we see another kind of discourse about people having had enough of experts, which is associated with a much more populist, post-truth and anti-democratic strain of thinking. Could you maybe say a bit more about that tension? Are these opposing sides of the same debate, or are they actually completely different conversations that just happened to be framed in similar language?

MS: It’s a great question. I think, essentially, there are two kinds of problems with technocracy. The first is the kind of knowledge that technocratic knowledge gives you, which tends to be very abstract, hyper-scientific, economistic, in Lise’s terms. So, it leaves out parts of human experience which non-technocratic ways of looking at the world include. We can think about that as an intellectual challenge to technocracy. One of my great intellectual heroes, the philosopher Bernard Williams, always said we need to take a ‘humanistic’ rather than a technocratic approach to the social problems that we are confronted with. So one of the problems with technocracy is its dryness, its abstraction, its over-reliance on a particularly narrow set of analytical skills.

I think the other problem with technocracy, though, comes from the question: who are the technocrats? What kind of people have that knowledge or that expertise? Where are they trained? What are their material interests? What backgrounds and what experiences of life do they have? And the criticism of technocracy on that score is that (to simplify) technocrats tend to be middle-class professionals. They don’t, as a class, have rich and diverse social experiences. They can often be quite disconnected from the rhythms of everyday life as experienced by people who have different kinds of lives. As a result, they may even be quite disdainful of what they take to be the messiness of everyday life, and even contemptuous of working-class life in particular.

Those two criticisms of technocracy often get read together, but they are in fact separate. Nonetheless, you can see some connections and some overlaps between them. My own view is that there’s truth in both of them, though. As Peter Mair pointed out in Ruling the Void, our politics has become overly reliant on a narrow set of analytic skills – as in critique number one – but it is also overly reliant on a particular set of people as leaders, as in critique number two.3 Coming to the question of populism, my instinct is that these failings of technocracy open the door to populism. Because, if you are a Boris Johnson type or a Donald Trump type, you can come in and shout quite loudly about those two evils. But, of course, populism doesn’t provide any answer to them. It’s a false solution, a tempting rage that you might have if you lived in a world which was completely controlled by technocrats. But, actually, the kinds of answers that ethical socialists or moral socialists over generations have looked for – or democratic theorists, participatory theorists, localists, advocates of mutualism, municipalists – offer a different bundle of solutions to the problems of technocracy that I’ve just sketched.

LB: Just as an aside, I have some issues with the idea of ‘the everyday’. We’re talking about people’s lives, and I’m not sure what an everyday life, or an ordinary life, is as opposed to just a life. Also, I think we need to be careful about using the word ‘technocracy’ in the abstract, as we can use it derisively to mean a lot of different things. There’s a long tradition on the left of critiquing the Fabian model of thinking about state planning – a critique of the notion that you can understand society scientifically, and unpack it, and improve it. And that is often coming from people who are critical of the notion of planning – the planned economy, the planned state, and the idea of scientific management. But, on the other hand, many of the advocates for more populist politics are themselves very wedded to different forms of expertise, for example, polling methodologies. I think there’s a risk here of conflating technocracy with expertise, and I think that doesn’t necessarily help us unpack these categories.

ER: That’s really interesting. One of the other things I was thinking about was that expertise and common sense often seem to be completely opposed approaches, but that pragmatism sits somewhat uneasily between them. For instance, New Labour presented their pragmatism as common sense rather than doctrine, in an attempt to wrest common sense from the right. But their pragmatic approach – ‘what counts is what works’ – was also grounded in faith in expertise, in evidence-based policy-making and so on. So, where do you think pragmatism fits into this conversation?

MS: I think that’s a crucial observation. The Blair approach has got multiple problems, but just to focus on one, again, it takes out the question of who the experts are, and from a political perspective that’s just crucial. So, the Blair presentation of evidence-based neutrality was intended to go something like this: we will have clever people who will, without value judgments or bias, analyse complex social situations and come up with practical and meaningful interventions which we then should implement. That’s the ‘what works’ methodology that Blair was famous for. But one of the fundamental problems with such an approach is that it doesn’t ask the question of who’s getting to set the agenda, who’s getting to evaluate the experts’ advice, who’s getting to set the outcome targets, or the values at the heart of it. It’s almost as if Blair just thought, well, it’s obvious that those people should be people like us: well-educated, middle-class, politely-spoken, mainly English people.

I think the biggest critique which has emerged of the New Labour perspective in the years since was that it’s just not right for one small segment of the population to claim that their expertise trumps all other expertise. Of course, the analytic frameworks and the skills of that group of people can be tremendously important and useful. But we’ve got to be conscious that they are a very small segment of the overall society, that they’re very self-selective, and that they smuggle a lot of assumptions into their analysis, without necessarily being aware of it. I think one of the reasons that New Labour came to a juddering stop is that lots of people around the country at some point said: hold on you don’t represent me anymore, these people aren’t me, they’re not my friends, they’re not my neighbours or my community group, so I don’t care that they’ve got a PhD or whatever it might be that gives them this status; it’s time for their expertise to be equally weighed with our lived experience, or the assumptions that we get from our parts of the world, or our value propositions.

LB: I wonder, Marc, if there’s a risk of framing the New Labour project as intrinsically an elitist project by virtue of its reliance on a certain kind of expertise, in a way that overlooks the ways in which other kinds of political projects (such as Conservatism) are equally elitist in terms of who they allow to have influence and to have a say, but which appeal more to populism in their rhetoric and their messaging. I worry that there can be a tendency to be too critical of technocracy insofar as it attempts to harness the insights of intellectual elites, and that this critique frames progressive politics as intrinsically elitist, when in fact it is less elitist than its alternatives in terms of its goals.

MS: You are absolutely right that rival groups on the right, the populist groups especially, are often as elitist – both in their intentions and in their demographics – as the ones that they’re criticising. The absurdity of a Jacob Rees-Mogg or a Boris Johnson claiming to speak on behalf of the population of the country, as opposed to the other side of politics, is clear.

I do think, though, that there is a problem, which I’ve been trying to identify for a decade or so now in my work, which is that the left is often not honest enough about its own exclusivity. We’re still tempted to present our expertise as neutral, or as impartial, or as always well-meaning, or as having no social base. We too often speak as if material interest is the business of the right – those nasty people over there are looking after themselves, whereas we here on the left are in it for the common good, or for social welfare, or to improve the lives of millions of our fellow citizens. Whereas, in fact, we need to acknowledge that left-leaning, university-based, academic elites do have their own material interests or other social interests and cultural interests, the existence of which they don’t do enough to acknowledge.

One of the things that we’ve been trying to do here in Sydney is to get academics to explain what they’re doing to community groups who don’t have any decision-making power in academic research settings. There are all kinds of social scientists out there, getting big grants from the Australian Research Council or from the ESRC in the UK, or whatever, to do well-meaning pieces of work. But they never have to hold themselves accountable to the people that they claim to be doing their investigations on behalf of. So, what we’ve tried to do in Sydney is to say: hold on a minute, start your research project with a genuinely empowered advisory group who represent the people you claim to be interested in serving – whether that’s the homeless, or people with drug addiction problems, or young people with educational difficulties, or people with autism if you’re thinking about disability policy. Bring the people most impacted by the research results into the decision-making, right at the start of your research project, so that they can tell you whether you’re working in their interest or not, rather than just presuming that you are. What’s been interesting about watching this is that many people have taken to it extremely excitedly and there have been some fantastic partnerships. But there are still some academics who say: no, I don’t want to talk to them. I’m the impartial expert and I will lose my impartiality if I actually have to speak to any real people from the community. And that is always a red flag for me as it shows that they’re not really ready for their privilege to be challenged, or their exclusivity challenged, or their own personal interests revealed. And that’s a serious problem.

LB: Yes. It also seems to me that one of the problems with evidence-based policy, or the notion of evidence-based policy, is a very crude understanding of the relationship between knowledge and policy. It seems to presume that there is a discrete body of knowledge that we can access, and simply feed to policy-makers, which will then inform policy. And if that relies on any notion of academic expertise, that’s particularly problematic, because academics have their own preoccupations; they speak to each other in the context of different kinds of debates which are important to their field, but aren’t always the questions that do or should immediately shape policy-making. Not all academics should be concerned with policy-making. Academics often take a long time to do research, and they don’t necessarily know how to engage with policy-makers or to have those kinds of conversations. So assuming that there can be a straightforward relationship between policy-making and expertise is problematic.

Similarly, policy-makers are often preoccupied by different concerns than those that the evidence or ‘experts’ are providing for them. They’re often concerned with whatever political issue they’re facing at a particular point. So evidence-based policy-making was always a rather spurious framework. I don’t think that the issue is necessarily too much technocracy, or too much expertise, but rather this notion that we can clearly base policy-making on a specific kind of expertise. My book on Michael Young concludes with the failed attempt to build a sociologically-informed policy-making framework within the Wilson government. Young optimistically became the head of the Social Science Research Council, and he thought that he could create a new sociologically-minded framework for policy-making, which had been his ambition since he led the Labour Party Research Department during the Attlee governments. But that idealistic project came face-to-face with the realities of the Treasury, with the political preoccupations of the moment, and also with the inconclusiveness of many insights from the social sciences and what they might actually tell us about certain areas of policy. So, the notion that there is a straightforward and linear relationship between expertise and policy is one that should be problematised in the first place.

MS: I fully agree with that. I think you can envisage three constituencies. First of all, there’s the classic policy-making political constituency, which is interested in all the things that politics is interested in: maintaining power, winning elections, getting one up on rivals (be they inside or outside their own party). So, there’s that bundle, which has a strong grip on the way in which policy-making is run, even in well-functioning democratic societies. Then there’s a second bundle, which is the expertise bundle. Thinking about Lise’s example, that’s where your Michael-Young-type figures are. And they’re in an uncomfortable partnership or battle with that first constituency: they’re trying to get more influence over policy, and that’s difficult because sometimes they get out-strategised by the political cunning of those conventional political actors. But sometimes they prevail and their ideas managed to change agendas, or to change legislative ideas.

But there is a third constituency, too, which is the people who aren’t invited to either of those first two parties. They’re not in political power, neither do they have the tickets to come into the expertise bundle. And too often they’re just left out, almost entirely. The characters in my book were just enraged by that. I talked about George Orwell and Dylan Thomas, who, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were saying, look: the Labour Party is building a manifesto and a programme which serves the interest of that second group, the middle-class experts, but is increasingly excluding the voices and the experiences ‘ordinary people’. And it seems to me that that critique is still powerful.

I’ve seen that in the Covid debate here in Australia, where those first two groups have been at each other’s throats throughout the whole pandemic. We have had Scott Morrison, the prime minister, arguing with the health officers or medical officers or the epidemiologists. It’s a battle between conventional political power and conventional expertise. But the actual experience of people on the ground has been almost entirely missing from either of those two groups’ concerns and that’s been terrible. The experiences of disabled communities, ethnic minority communities, essential workers, have just been nowhere in our political debate, because neither the experts nor the conventional politicians have been interested in connecting with them. I felt that I’d just seen another version of what Orwell was complaining about in the 1930s and 1940s playing out here, in the early twenty-first century, in a very different setting.

LB: I wonder, though, if it’s important that we don’t overlook the extent to which contemporary conversations about expertise and technocracy are themselves being shaped by – and indeed are a part of – the political dynamic of our time, whereby politics is increasingly divided and polarised between educated, younger, urban voters, and less educated, older, non-urban voters – as in the ‘left behind’ debate. I think you make really important points about the extent to which policy-makers – perhaps progressive policy-makers as well as policy-makers on the right – don’t pay enough attention to the experiences of ‘ordinary people’. But I wonder to what extent that framing of the problem, as one of too much expertise and technocracy, is itself more a symptom of the ways in which politics has become polarised. So when we start talking about expertise are we actually talking about populism?

MS: I agree. And I guess I would say the same about expertise itself, which is that we’ve probably just not done enough in the academic world, especially, to grapple with the challenges that we’ve just been talking about. So, politicians have made hay with it, with their anti-expertise rhetoric, with populism, and polarisation of the kind that you’ve described so well. But also, many of us in the academy have let ourselves get into a situation where we haven’t realised quite how narrowly professionalised we’ve become, and quite how disconnected we’ve become from a whole host of social experiences. That isn’t to say that we did that through ill intent or because we’re feathering our own nests (there’s not a lot of salary in academia!), but I do think it is real, nonetheless.

Here in Sydney, we have a partnership with the Wayside Chapel, which is a faith-based homelessness and drug addiction charity in Kings Cross in Sydney. And in general both the social workers there and the people who use the services hold academia in extraordinarily low regard. They just think we are parasites: we turn up with our clipboards occasionally to do some research, we disappear, we publish an article that they can’t understand in a journal that they’re never going to be able to access, and then three or four years later, we come back, and we do all the same again. There are PhDs being published on homelessness and drug addiction, there are professional careers to be made in this, but the actual experience of the people on the ground isn’t given the sort of power or status that it ought to be given. I don’t think it was always thus, and one of the insights to be gained from reading your work and thinking about what Michael Young and others were trying to achieve is that they were trying to narrow that gap between professional expertise and the experience of the ordinary citizen. I do worry that we’ve taken our eye off that issue for too long now, and have suffered politically as a result, but also that our work has suffered as well.

LB: Yes, I generally agree. I think that one of the key things about the Michael Young example is that that his brand of activist-minded sociology came out of a moment when the discipline hadn’t yet become as professionalised as it is today. Activist researchers like Young had a lot of agency, although perhaps also a certain degree of arrogance about engaging with the communities who they studied and making policy prescriptions on the basis of their research. But as these disciplines have become more rigorous and professionalised, they’ve become more specialised, and that’s part of the process that you are describing.

Nevertheless, I’m sceptical of this notion that there needs to be a constant interaction between practice and theory. I think that different kinds of work have different space for that sort of engagement and that it’s okay for some disciplines and some modes of engagement and critique to be a little less ‘impactful’ in that sense you’re describing.

MS: I guess my instinct is that it all comes down to power. You’re absolutely right to say that there are academic professionals, or strands of thought within academia, that have made very bold and exciting efforts to connect beyond the academy with community life beyond expertise. But the other stubborn thing which has not shifted is the power question: who’s setting research agendas, who’s determining where research grants go, who’s shaping people’s career structures. And the answer to that is still experts on experts. The career structure for the conventional academic, in both the arts and the sciences, is to publish articles in learned journals and get grants from grant-giving bodies which are almost entirely staffed by academics. But where are the non-experts or the non-conventional experts in that process? Many of us now realise that people who don’t have letters after their name might nonetheless
have an expertise that comes from their own experience, which is crucial to effective policy-making. And yet that kind of expertise is missing from the conventional academic assessment of the quality of people’s work, and it’s missing from the decisions over how research funds are spent, or who gets promoted.

Just a final thought on that. I was at an amazing event in America just before the pandemic, hosted by Danielle Allen. And she had invited around twenty-five really prominent, really exciting, social scientists from all across the world to talk about their work. We had a three-day workshop, but the best bit was right at the end. We were all sat around a circular table in some ridiculously fancy room at Harvard, and she said: okay we’re going to go around the table now, and each of you are going to tell me to whom you consider yourselves to be accountable. And people really struggled, because they thought well, probably my Vice Chancellor or my head of department, but not to the public at large, or to any particular community. And the point, of course, was to show that we as progressives, or as people on the left, who had spent the last three days talking about inequality, weren’t able to identify the relationships we have – or should have — with communities who are genuinely suffering as a result of structural economic injustice. And the reason that people couldn’t answer that is because there is no system in place to guarantee that at the moment, or very rarely.

And so that’s kind of my mission in life in a way. Closing the gap between academic expertise and non-academic expertise has to involve actually sharing power outside the academy with those people who we claim, as progressive social scientists, or historians, that our work serves. And I just don’t think we do that, and it’s time we started.

LB: This is really interesting, and I think it’s a useful thought exercise. My initial response, though, is that academics are currently forced to justify the impact of their research more than they ever have before. When I look at any grant application, or promotion application form, or anything like that, there’s always a pretty big section that forces you to justify what you want to do in terms of its ‘impact’ on external audiences. ‘Impact’ is particularly important for various research funding bodies, and also for the Research Excellence Framework, against which all UK academics are judged. Now the impact agenda is itself partially coming out of very technocratic concerns and considerations, but I think that by some measures we live in an era of more highly engaged academics than ever before.

Following up on that great question, though – to whom are we accountable? – I’m interested in what it would mean for progressive academics to be held accountable to the broader community. How would that work? Some might say that that accountability already exists in terms of public funding for academic research. So what would a deeper relationship of accountability look like? How would we make ourselves accountable?

ER: Yes. And I’m also thinking about the comment you made earlier, Lise, about the contestation over history and the attempts we’re currently seeing by the political right to hold historians accountable for receiving research funding because they are not telling the sorts of stories that the right want to hear – people like Corinne Fowler, of the Colonial Countryside project, who wrote a piece for the last edition of Renewal about the hostility she’s facing.4 If we are going to make academics more accountable, what do we do with that?

LB: Yes, of course, and that can be pretty pernicious. Historians of empire and slavery and colonialism, and members of ethnic minority and immigrant communities shaped by Britain’s colonial past, do know more about these topics than the Daily Mail or the Sun, or than the general public. And I think that as a result the notion of popular accountability vis a vis the politics of history can be really dangerous.

MS: That is a really important challenge, but to my mind it is too anxious that the only people out there who can hold us to account are conservative forces, or nationalist forces, or reactionary forces. You’re right that at the moment often we frame this debate as between a kind of politics which is controlled by the reactionary right or a sort of independent expertise/academia, as if those are the only two games in town. I guess what I’m trying to do is to say that there’s another constituency out there who want to be engaged, but who currently aren’t engaged.

If we were devising a programme for imperial history, given that’s the example that you’ve used, who could imperial historians be engaged with more formally to hold them to account, other than just other imperial historians? Well, you’d imagine that people who’ve suffered as a result of the structural racism that was perpetuated by colonialism would be a fundamental part of that constituency, and would also be regarded as having specialist knowledge to contribute. And I’m sure there are many imperial historians who already do that extraordinarily well in their work and many who are from those communities themselves. But I would love to see that formalised in a peer review process.

That’s the problem with the ‘impact’ agenda, as you’ve described it – which, I think, is probably well intentioned. But, again, the assessment of whether the work is impactful or not rests with the same old people – either professional politicians and policy-makers, or professional academics. But there’s a whole host of other people out there who would love to get engaged in this work. The opportunities for us to experiment in that space are really profound. You’re absolutely right that there are some funding bodies like the Wellcome Trust in the UK who are doing that already. There would often have to be a disability rep, for example, on a grant which was on disability history. And that’s a first step for this transformation, but I would just love it to be injected into the mainstream. Always, we need to be trying to explain the value of our expertise in conversations with people who have previously not been welcome to join those debates, but whose lives are touched by them. And I just think that would be a profoundly exciting thing for a modern university to do.

To bring it back to the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, the area of our historical interest, that was one of the things that folks then were trying to do, which got lost along the way. Sorry to get all scholarly, but one of my favourite articles is Robert Dahl’s 1947 article on the Attlee government, which was just a beautiful piece, because it melancholically looked back to the 1930s when there were all these participatory dreams about community voice, or about union voice, or worker voice that just disappeared in the actuality of, for example, the nationalisation project.5 I would love for us to go back to those aspirations, to say: let’s make a more participatory expertise, let’s make a more participatory politics. And then we can genuinely feel as if our work is advancing social justice in a way which is not just determined by us, but determined by the broader community at large.

LB: I share that aspiration, and your vision of how a more engaged imperial history (for example) could work is really compelling. But I think it’s also important to remember that whilst we might idealise the more socially-engaged mode of mid-twentieth century social research, far fewer people actually had access to higher education at that point, and the extent to which most people were coming into contact with these projects was very limited. We have a very different social model now. We have a vastly more educated population. I teach at City University, which has a very high percentage of working-class, Black and minority ethnic students, and a very high proportion of widening participation students, so in terms of my own teaching I’m forced be quite practical, quite pragmatic, and quite democratic in terms of how I think about the impact of my research or my intellectual interests. As higher education has democratised, a lot of academics have operated in that space, and I think that’s a very good thing.

Perhaps one of the deepest and greatest threats to a more socially-engaged academy is the increasing pressure coming from the government to restrict access to subjects like history, or English or the social sciences to students who come from more elite backgrounds, and to increasingly promote exclusively technical or vocational education for students from less privileged backgrounds. So I think that we can conceive of these things in terms of the broader political project of higher education and the importance of continuing to offer broad access to it.

MS: Yeah, absolutely right. I think that’s tremendously important.

ER: Yeah, and I think a great point to end on as well. Fantastic. Thank you both.

Lise Butler is Senior Lecturer at City University and author of Michael Young, Social Science and the British Left, 1945-1970 (Oxford University Press 2020). She is a Contributing Editor of Renewal.

Marc Stears is Professor and Director of the Sydney Policy Lab, and author of Out of the Ordinary: how everyday life inspired a nation and how it can again (Harvard University Press 2020). He was chief speechwriter to Ed Miliband and is a member of the Renewal Editorial Advisory Board.

Emily Robinson is Reader in British Studies at the University of Sussex, and
Co-Editor of


1 Harold J. Laski, The Limitations of the Expert, Fabian Tract 235, London, Fabian Society 1931.
2 Margaret Thatcher, interview with Douglas Keay for Woman’s Own, October 1987: http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689.
3 Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: the hollowing of western democracy, London, Verso 2013.
4 Corinne Fowler, ‘Red walls, green walls: British identity, rural racism and British colonial history’, Renewal, Vol 29 No 3, 2021.
5 Robert Dahl, ‘Workers Control of Industry and the British Labour Party’, American Political Science Review, Vol 41, 1947, pp875-90.