In Defence of Politics, Politicians and Political Science: Blunkett, Riddell and Flinders

The PSA conference started this morning with an opening plenary involving three big hitters – one each from the world of politics, media and academia: In Defence of Politics, Politicians and Political Science. Each speaker’s 10 minute remarks are worth a listen.

Echoing his earlier comments in a Good Morning Ulster interview, David Blunkett MP spoke about the odd political situation in Westminster. Issues of recent importance included whether the Prime Minister had ridden a horse, the price of pasties, and the re-election to Westminster of the former member for Baghdad South. There’s a danger that politics is being seen through the prism of entertainment. Blunkett called for society to revitalise its political engagement at all levels: educational and health public bodies should be held to account at a local level.

Rt Hon Peter Riddell spoke next. If anywhere demonstrated the need for politics, he pointed to NI. He said that some of most politically engaged academics worked here. If you believe in representative democracy, then you have to have politicians – though the media sometimes forget this. Tory MPs complain they can’t implement ‘their’ policies, forgetting that they didn’t win a majority, so must must instead reach a compromise. The media seem trapped believing coalition is just a temporary period and will then return to a normal majority situation after the next Westminster election. Yet Riddell said that accusations that politicians are out of touch are unfounded: the days of an ‘annual visit to the constituency’ are over, and if anything some MPs are too in touch and not involved enough at Westminster. He finished with a call for political science academics to cut the jargon from their writings to make their work accessible (and to also be more careful with their mathematics).

Prof Matthew Flinders (University of Sheffield) was last and had to defend political science. He was critical of his profession, saying that political science is desperately searching for its soul. He referred back to Bernard Crick’s book “In Defence of Politics” and repeated its second edition’s call for academics to reconnect with society. When was the last time the audience read a political science book and enjoyed it and it fired your passions?

There’s nearly a depoliticisation of political science, instead of stirring up debate and increasing wider understanding. He found himself saying that political science was engaged in “methodological masturbation” and dancing on heads of pins away from the real world.

Flinders asked newspaper editors why they don’t use more contributions from political scientists? The answer: “they can’t write in human”. So Flinders called for political science academics to learn to ‘triple write’: (1) traditional research papers; (2) cut-down, punchy research notes; and (3) newspaper or online articles that are based on their research but are accessible by everyone.

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