Rightly or wrongly, today it seems quite widely assumed that a defence of high culture (and its public funding) is a conservative position, at odds with ‘progressive’ arguments which reject that it has any intrinsic value over and above popular/commercial alternatives, and as such deserves no special treatment (also that Western high culture is deeply entwined with colonialism, an argument I have attempted to address in a musical context in this article recently published in The Critic magazine).
At the height of the Thatcher-Reagan era, in 1989 (when both politicians were near the end of their careers, but their policies had become firmly entrenched), two books in the field of cultural studies appeared which argued this perspectively on high/low culture most fervently: John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989) and Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989). Fiske interprets various approaches to consumption (which he describes as ‘a tactical raid upon the system’), such as sporting of particular garments, make-up or hairstyles, as guerrilla actions which subvert dominant values, writing that ‘At the point of sale the commodity exhausts its role in the distribution economy, but begins its work in the cultural. Detached from the strategies of capitalism, its work for the bosses completed, it becomes a resource for the culture of everyday life’. Ross is utterly scathing about any type of defence of high culture, seeing in this an affront to the values of democracy, and a hegemonic attempt by a dominant class to protect their privilege.
Yet in the House of Commons, a very different political alignment was made clear the following year. It came about in a speech during a debate on arts funding by hard right-wing Conservative MP Terry Dicks (1937-2020), then MP for Hayes and Harlington:
Terry Dicks: My hon. Friend said that the arts contribute to the quality of life. Perhaps he could explain to me one day how the arts’ contribution to the quality of life affects my pensioners and ordinary people who want to buy a pint and have a game of bingo– [Interruption.] Their quality of life is not enhanced by seeing some man prance about in a box or by listening to the different range of an opera singer.
Other questions that I should like to ask–which nobody answers, certainly not any of the great and the good on the Opposition Benches–is, what is art? What is culture? Who defines it? The answers to those questions are personal, but I know who the hell pays for it. The ordinary chap down the street pays for most of it, while the great and the good take advantage.
We have heard about the royal opera house. I shall show the way in which it thinks about money. I gather that it is about £3 million in debt. It spent £200,000 recently on a production. It has agreed to a 15 per cent. increase for ballet dancers who prance around, pretending they are toys, at an annual cost of £600,000. I find it strange that the arts world is up in arms about the lack of money yet ballet dancers can get a 15 per cent. increase, which is twice the rate of inflation. Nobody mentions that–certainly no Opposition Member has mentioned it. When extra money is called for, all the whingers appear on both sides of the Chamber [Interruption.] Every man, well and good, appears. Nobody should need to question the situation : everyone should understand what needs to be done. Why should we subsidise old pros dressed in doublets and hose? I do not understand.
In common with my right hon. Friend the Minister, I could say that it is all “Much Ado About Nothing”, but I am not an expert on Shakespeare. The Royal Shakespeare Company has made its bed and it must lie on it. I see no justification for a grant increase, nor can I see any justification for any grant. No one in the working class, or the people I represent, could give a toss about the Royal Shakespeare Company staying open or closing down. There is nothing special about it.
One can compare and contrast the RSC with the commercial theatre, which must survive by putting on a programme that people are prepared to pay an economic cost to see. The same argument applies to professional football. In common, I am sure, with many colleagues I received a copy of a letter from Ken Bates, who is the chairman of Chelsea football club. He says :
“The Arts Council grant to the Opera House this year is more than £13.3 million, or £75,000 a week I’d be interested to know what percentage that is of the Opera House’s total income.”
So would I.
“Far from offering us any subsidy or assistance, it”–the Government–“takes £300 million a year in betting tax out of the game, which is equal to £3 million per Football League club”
Is it not strange that the working-class pastime gets hammered by the taxman while the upper-class pastime–I notice that a member of the middle class is sitting next to the upper-class man on the Opposition Front Bench- -is subsidised all the time by the rest of us. The poor chap down the road must pay the full whack to see Brentford or Chelsea, apart from the cost that he must meet in the future towards increased safety in those football grounds. He must pay for that ticket from his own pocket, but the great and the good, in their bow ties and long frocks, get them paid for by someone else. It is strange that we adopt such an approach to the upper class in this House and we forget the ordinary people who put us here. [ Hon. Members– : “Hear, hear.”] I am glad that the audience is so good, and that most of the audience have had a good dinner.
Child benefit has not been uprated for a couple of years and the ambulance men are being offered only 6.5 per cent. for this year–
After a few other interventions, and more from Dicks, the then-Labour MP for Newham North-West, Tony Banks (1942-2006) (associated with the relatively hard left, an ally of Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn), responded as follows:
Tony Banks: My right hon. and hon. Friends know that an economically efficient and socially just society will not only address the problems of homelessness, poverty and unemployment that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) mentioned. Such a society will support also a thriving and burgeoning arts expenditure. It is a mark of a confident and strong society that it encourages and nurtures the arts. The Victorians did it in the past in this country, and the French, Germans and Italians do it today.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington is not in his place, because listening to him opining on the arts is rather like listening to Vlad the Impaler presenting “Blue Peter”. The hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly living proof that a pig’s bladder on a stick can be elected as a Member of Parliament.
Several Hon. Members rose —
Mr. Speaker : Order. I know–but although the hon. Gentleman’s comments may not be very pleasant, they are not unparliamentary.
This amusing exchange shows how the political alignment I outlined at the beginning of this piece has by no means always been accepted. Some of us on the left still believe passionately in the value of high culture, and of subsidy to try and make it available to a wider section of the population. For all that I would never defend Soviet communism, the success of such a venture on a large scale is made clear in Pauline Fairclough’s book Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet Musical Identity under Lenin and Stalin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), and recently in a fantastic keynote on ‘The Soviet model of teaching music at universities and conservatories, and its implementation in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe’ at my conference on ‘Music and the University: History, Models, Prospects’ (of which more in a blog post to follow), Serbian musicologist Ivana Medić gave plentiful detail about how this approach was disseminated through Eastern Europe (including in countries which had broken with Moscow such as Yugoslavia), and still informs musical education today. There remains plenty to learn from this.
Like many others, I was deeply disappointed to read Jeremy Corbyn’s interview with Der Spiegel published two days ago (Jörg Schindler, ‘Interview with Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn: “We Can’t Stop Brexit”‘, Spiegel Online, 9 November 2018). This was published right after the news of transport minister Jo Johnson’s resignation and calls for a second referendum on Brexit, since which he has said it would be a ‘democratic travesty’ not to have another Brexit vote. Corbyn’s statement seemed to make this impossible, as a new referendum bill or amendment to that effect of an existing bill could not happen without Labour support.
The 2017 General Election produced 317 Tory MPs, 262 Labour, 35 SNP, 12 Liberal Democrats, 10 DUP, 7 Sinn Fein, 4 Plaid Cymru, 1 Green, 1 Independent and the Speaker. There is no likelihood at all of the Sinn Fein MPs ever taking up their seats, whilst the Speaker remains nominally neutral. Neither he (John Bercow (Conservative)) nor his three deputies (Lindsay Hoyle (Labour), Eleanor Laing (Conservative) and Rosie Winterton (Labour)) vote, by convention. The meaningful total is therefore 639 rather than 650, and so the government needs 30 seats for a majority. Following the Confidence and Supply agreement with the DUP, the government can count on their support in motions of confidence and various aspects of their legislative agenda, thus producing effectively 326 (316 Tories, without their Deputy Speaker, plus 10 DUP) MPs, as against 311 in the Opposition. Since the General Election, 2 Tories and 5 Labour MPs have either been suspended from their party or have resigned the whip, so there are a total 8 Independent MPs, whose loyalties in confidence or crucial Brexit motions may be unknown.
But assuming the suspended/resigned MPs continue to vote according to type, the government has a working majority of 13 votes. This means that if seven Tory or DUP MPs vote against them, they could lose a vote if there is also 100% opposition from the other parties.
It is now looking possible, even perhaps likely, that Theresa May will fail to get any deal through Parliament, with a range of Brexiteer Tories and the DUP warning they will vote against, while the deal is also opposed by some Remainer supporters of a second referendum such as Justine Greening. Representatives of the government have been allegedly attempting to woo some Labour MPs to support them on a deal. The Mirror suggested as many as 30 may be prepared to do this, but this may be too few, though the consequences of last-minute pressure from whips in both parties should not be underestimated.
But if the government fails to get a deal through Parliament, it is highly unlikely that they themselves would introduce a second referendum bill, having repeatedly ruled it out (though, as has been noted, Theresa May as repeatedly ruled out an early general election, then called one). However, there are various means by which such a thing could be triggered, either through primary legislation or amendments to existing bills; a UCL paper details five possible scenarios (Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell, ‘The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit’ (London: The Constitutional Unit, UCL, 2018), pp. 23-28).
The major question is whether a parliamentary majority could be found for this option. As the DUP are firm supporters of Brexit, there is little chance of their supporting any second referendum motion. At present, The Sun counts eight Tory MPs supporting a second referendum: Johnson, Philip Lee, Justine Greening, Anna Soubry, Guto Bebb, Amber Rudd, Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston. They do not list Dominic Grieve oddly, but he has made clear his support for this for some time. There are plenty of suggestions that a variety of other Tory MPs would support this if it came to it, despite not having yet said so publicly. The Liberal Democrats and SNP are likely to vote solidly for such a measure. As for Labour, in June The Independent counted 42 MPs backing a second referendum, to which there are probably a few other names to be added. But almost none of the Corbynistas, nor many of the Brownites/(Ed) Milibandites are on this list. Then there are the pro-Brexit Labour MPs, including Grahame Stringer, John Mann, Kate Hoey, Dennis Skinner and (formerly holding the Labour whip) Frank Field, while others such as Caroline Flint and Stephen Kinnock appear opposed to a second referendum. The 2018 Labour Conference saw a motion passed keeping a second referendum option open if MPs are deadlocked, but this does not firmly commit to anything. That said, Corbyn’s statement to Der Spiegel would appear to be in direct contravention of conference policy.
A second referendum will only get through with relatively solid Labour support, and a significant number of Tory MPs voting for it. My guess is that between 10 and 20 Labour MPs will definitely oppose even if the party institutes a three-line whip, so this requires 20 to 30 Tory MPs to vote for it and against their own government, a tall order. However, if the country looks to be heading for no deal (and Theresa May has set a date of this week, as Parliament returns from recess, for the government will begin to set into motion many emergency measures to deal with this), all sorts of new options are possible.
So, in light of Corbyn’s statement, a second referendum may seem impossible. Or is it? Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show this morning (42’27”-56’22”). After Marr brought up Corbyn’s statement, apparently ruling out a second referendum, Thornberry began by saying that ‘the results of the referendum need to ought to be abided by’, but then immediately afterwards said ‘We do need an injection of democracy in between the results of the referendum and us going any further’. She then said that Labour wanted a ‘meaningful vote’, which was not what Theresa May was giving them in offering the choice between her deal or no deal, ‘the devil and the deep blue sea’. Thornberry said that instead, there should be a general election, but if that did not happen, then ‘yes, of course, all the options remain on the table and we would, you know, campaign for there to be a People’s Vote, but there are several stages before we get there’. Pushed further on Corbyn’s statement, Thornberry attempted to diffuse this by claiming context, need to be democrats, etc., and went onto discuss staying in the Customs Union, trying to produce ‘a Brexit which is good for the country’ (with no details of what this might be) and so on. When brought back to what is Labour’s procedure, Thornberry said ‘First stage is we demand a general election and that is what the proper thing should be. If we don’t get a general election then what we have said is all options remain on the table, and we will…’ then Marr interrupted to point out that Parliament has passed statute and so there are no options for overturning that. Thornberry then said ‘The difficulty is, our system is such that we are in opposition. You know, there are many ways in which we would want to have proceeded over this period of time, and we have a government…’, when Marr interrupted again to point out that they had a general election last year. Thornberry continued to say ‘But we have been doing our best to try to keep this government honest, try to keep this government focused on what’s good for the country, and we have been entirely consistent about that. She knows what it is that…. and like everyone else, vacillating backwards and forwards. We have said: six tests, we will vote for it, bring back a deal we will agree to. If she’s sensible, what she’ll do, is she’ll negotiate properly and bring back a deal which means that we’re in a Customs Union, and that we’re in a free market agreement with the European Union, based on free market rules, and if she brings back something like that, then it may well be that she’ll get sufficient support, but she won’t [attempt from Marr to interrupt again], hang on hang on, let me just, because this is really important, she won’t do that, because she’s more interested in saving her own skin and the Tory Party, because what she will rely on is Labour votes and some Tory votes, and she doesn’t dare do that. She ought to, because she’s the leader of the country. That is not leadership.’ Marr then noted that Kier Starmer had said that the six tests would be in the next Labour election manifesto and asked Thornberry to confirm this, to which she asked when the election would be, pointing out that an election manifesto in the next few weeks would be very different to one in a year’s time. She then said ‘In the next few months, what we would have in our manifesto is we would say: we have a vision for this country, we have a vision for Brexit. We know that the best way to proceed on this is to try to get a deal which is, as I’ve said several times, the model that I’ve put forward [Marr: ‘Six tests’] and with the six tests, and which is the six tests, and that’s what we would be working towards. And we would go in as pragmatists, and we would say to the European Union: the grown-ups have arrived and we’re no longer shouting at you, we’re going to sit down pragmatically and sort out something which is good for our economy and your economy.’ Marr pushed Thornberry further on one of the six tests , that which requires the ‘exact same benefits’ as membership of the Customs Union and Single Market, asking if there was a shred of evidence that the EU would contemplate that. Thornberry avoided this question, just saying that they had had meetings with the EU, who knew their position, but couldn’t negotiate with them as they were not the government. Marr pushed further, quoting Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Junker on how third countries can never have the same rights and benefits as full members. Thornberry again had no real answer other than to say that these were negotiating positions, and that May had put down unrealisable red lines and ‘ridiculous tests’, unlike Labour. She continued to reiterate the same stuff, then Marr claimed Labour had a ‘fantasy prospectus’ and there was no way of getting anything like what they wanted. After more vacillation from Thornberry, the interview turned to Trump and some domestic issues.
But I think this interview may be significant in many ways, notwithstanding the waffle and false claims about being able to obtain a deal (in reality, Labour would end up in a very similar situation to Theresa May, save for accepting the Custom’s Union). Thornberry is probably the sharpest politician on the Labour front bench, and clearly knows exactly what the brief is and what needs to be said. The fact that she mentioned a People’s Vote early in the interview is vital, even though she was careful not to return to the issue. The official Labour line is to want a general election. The chances of this are very slim (though not impossible if the government truly alienate the DUP over a border in the Irish Sea, to the point where the DUP would no longer support them in a confidence motion). But Labour have to stick to this line, which would be easily dismissed if they were vocal about supporting a second referendum. But Thornberry said that failing to get an election, they would campaign for a People’s Vote.
So I believe that Labour are talking down a second referendum in order to maintain their line, but do have plans to support it when it becomes inevitable. This could be soon – if a confidence motion is put and the government wins it, thus precluding an election. Of course it is also possible that Thornberry, Starmer and Corbyn are all putting out different lines publicly. I just hope this may have been co-ordinated.
There are many practical complications in bringing about a second referendum, which are explained in the UCL paper, but as this makes clear, it is possible, regardless of what Corbyn says. Labour could be acting more shrewdly than some imagine.
I am writing this piece during what looks like the final phase of the USS strike involving academics from pre-1992 UK universities. A good deal of solidarity has been generated through the course of the dispute, with many academics manning picket lines together discoverying common purpose and shared issues, and often noting how the structures and even physical spaces of modern higher education discourage such interactions when working. Furthermore, many of us have interacted regularly using Twitter, enabling the sharing of experiences, perspectives, vital data (not least concerning the assumptions and calculations employed for the USS future pensions model), and much else about modern academic life. As noted by George Letsas in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), Becky Gardiner in The Guardian, Nicole Kobie in Wired, and various others, the strike and other associated industrial action have embodied a wider range of frustrations amongst UK-based academics over and above the issue of pensions: to do with casualisation and marketisation in academia, the growth of bloated layers of management and dehumanising treatment of academics, the precarious conditions facing early career researchers (ECRs), widespread bullying, and systemic discrimination against female academics, those from minority groups, and so on. Not least amongst the frustrations are those about various metrics employed to judge ‘performance’ relating to the government Research Excellence Framework (REF, formerly the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)), and new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
In this blog post, I will outline a short history of the RAE/REF with relevant links, and collect together recent comments about it and suggestions for alternatives. For most of this (except a few places), I will attempt to outline the arguments of others (including my own expressed online) on either side, rather than try to unpack and critique them – this blog is undoubtedly a ‘survey text’ in the sense often dismissed by REF assessors, though hopefully should serve some useful purpose nonetheless! In an academic spirit, I would welcome all comments, however critical (so long as focused on the issues and not personalised towards any people mentioned), and will happily correct anything found to be erroneous, add extra links, and so on. Anyone wishing to make suggestions in these respects should either post in the comments section below, or e-mail me at the addy given at the top of this page.
One of the most important pieces of sustained writing on the RAE and REF is Derek Sayer, Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF (London: Sage, 2014), a highly critical book which carefully presents a large amount of information on its history. I draw extensively upon this for this blog, as well as the articles by Bence and Oppenheim, and Jump on the Evolution of the REF, listed below. A range of primary documents can be found online, provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and its counterparts in the rest of the UK, on RAE 1992, RAE 1996, RAE 2001, RAE 2008, and REF 2014. These are essential resources for all scholars investigating the subject, though obviously represent the perspectives of those administering the system. Equally important are Lord Nicholas Stern’s 2016 review of the REF, and the 2017 key policy decisions on REF 2021, made following consultation.
There are many other journalistic and scholarly articles on the REF and its predecessors. Amongst the most important of these would be the following:
Michael Shattock, UGC and the Management of British Universities (Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press, 1994).
Valerie Bence and Charles Oppenheim, ‘The Evolution of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise: Publications, Performance and Perceptions‘, Journal of Educational Administration and History 37/2 (2005), pp. 137-55.
Donald Gillies, ‘How Should Research be Organised? An Alternative to the UK Research Assessment Exercise’, in Leemon McHenry, Science and the Pursuit of Wisdom: Studies in the Thought of Nicholas Maxwell (Heusenstamm: Ontos Verlag, 2009), pp. 147-68.
Zoë Corbyn, ‘It’s evolution, not revolution for REF’, THES, 24 September 2009.
John F. Allen, ‘Opinion: Research and how to promote it in a university’, Future Medicinal Chemistry 2/1 (2009).
Jonathan Adams and Karen Gurney, ‘Funding selectivity, concentration and excellence – how good is the UK’s research?’, Higher Education Policy Institute, 25 March 2010.
Ben R. Martin, ‘The Research Excellence Framework and the ‘impact agenda’: are we creating a Frankenstein monster?’, Research Evaluation 20/3 (1 September 2011), pp. 247-54.
Dorothy Bishop, ‘An Alternative to REF 2014?’, Bishopblog, 26 January 2013.
University and College Union, ‘The Research Excellence Framework (REF): UCU Survey Report’, October 2013.
Paul Jump, ‘Evolution of the REF’, Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), 17 October 2013.
Peter Scott, ‘Why research assessment is out of control‘, The Guardian, 4 November 2013.
John F. Allen, ‘Research Assessment and REF’ (2014).
Teresa Penfield, Matthew J. Baker, Rosa Scoble, Michael C. Wykes, ‘Assessment, evaluations, and definitions of research impact: A review’, Research Evaluation 23/1 (January 2014), pp. 21-32.
Derek Sayer, ‘Problems with Peer Review for the REF‘, Council for the Defence of British Universities, 21 November 2014.
‘Telling stories’, Nature 518/7538 (11 February 2015).
Paul Jump, ‘Can the research excellence framework run on metrics?’, THES, 18 June 2015.
HEFCE (chaired James Wilsdon), ‘The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management’, 8 July 2015.
James Wilsdon, ‘The metric tide: an agenda for responsible indicators in research’, The Guardian, 9 July 2015.
Paul Jump, ‘Is the REF worth a quarter of a billion pounds?’, THES, 14 July 2015.
J.R. Shackleton and Philip Booth, ‘Abolishing the Research Excellence Framework’, Institute of Economic Affairs, 23 July 2015.
James Wilsdon, ‘In defence of the Research Excellence Framework’, The Guardian, 27 July 2015.
Alex Jones and Andrew Kemp, ‘Why is so much research dodgy? Blame the Research Excellence Framework’, The Guardian, 17 October 2016.
James C. Conroy and Richard Smith, ‘The Ethics of Research Excellence’, Journal of Philosophy of Education 51/4 (2017), pp. 693-708.
A Short History of the RAE and REF to 2014
There were six rounds of the RAE, in 1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008, with the gaps between each becoming progressively larger. The REF has run just once to date, in 2014, with the next round scheduled for 2021.
The first ‘research selectivity exercise’ in 1986 was administered by the University Grants Committee (UGC), an organisation created after the end of World War One. As noted by Bence and Oppenheim, there was a longer history of the development of Performance Indicators (PIs) in higher education through various metrics, but definitions were unclear, so this exercise was viewed as an attempt to convert other indicators into a clear PI, which it was thought would add efficiency and accountability to university funding through a competitive process, in line with other aspects of the Thatcher government’s policies.
The 1986 exercise involved just the traditional universities, and only influenced a small proportion of funding. It consisted of a four-part questionnaire on research income, expenditure, planning priorities and output. Assessment was divided between roughly 70 subject categories known as Units of Assessment (UoAs). There were wider criticisms of the 1986 exercise, to do with differing standards between subjects, unclear assessment criteria, and lack of transparency of assessors and an appeals mechanism. As such it was much criticised by academics, and reformed for 1989, in which ‘informed peer review’ was introduced for assessment, following wide consultation. This year, a grading system from 1 to 5 was also introduced based upon national and international criteria, 152 UoAs were used, sub-committees were expanded, and details of two publications per member of staff submitted were required, as well as information on research students, external income and plans. It was used to allocate a greater proportion of funding. There were still many criticism, to do with the system favouring large departments, a lack of clear verification of accuracy of submissions, and late planning causing difficulties for institutions preparing their submission strategies.
Other important changes affecting higher education took place during this early period of the RAE, including the abolition of tenure by the Thatcher government in 1988, then the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act , which abolished the university/polytechnic distinction, so that the latter institutions could apply for university status, and then be included in the RAE. The Act also established four funding councils for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to replace the UGC, and made research funding allocated entirely on a selective basis, replacing previous systems of funding based upon student numbers. There had been no formula funding for research in polytechnics, so the new system radically altered the balance, allowing them to compete openly with the more traditional institutions for such funding.
RAE 1992 then brought major new changes, with institutions able to select which ‘research active’ staff to put forward, a longer timescale allowed for research in the arts and humanities, improved auditing processes, and reduced assessment down to 72 UoAs. 192 institutions participated, covering over 43,000 full-time equivalent researchers. Practically all university research funding from this point was determined by the exercise, based upon a quality rating, the number of research-active staff, amount of research income and some consideration of future planned activity. Departments which were given an assessment of 1 or 2 would not receive any funding. The result was that the older universities received 91% of the available funding, new (post-1992) universities 7% and colleges 2%. 67% of departments were ranked 1, 2 or 3. This led to objections that the system was biased in favour of the older and larger universities, which had supplied many of the panelists for certain UoAs. Some results were challenged in court, and a judge noted a need for greater transparency.
Changes for RAE 1996 involved the submission of four publications for selected research-active staff, and stiffer requirements on a cut-off date for outputs being placed in the public domain. Rating 3 was divided into 3a and 3b, and an extra 5* rating introduced, while each panel was required to make clear their criteria for assessment. 60 subject panels, with chairs appointed by the funding councils on the basis of recommendations of previous chairs, and other panel members selected on the basis of nominations from various learned societies or subject associations. These considered 69 UoAs on the basis of peer review. This was also the first RAE which allowed performance submissions for musicians (see below), which was encompassed in the following definition of ‘research’ provided by the funding councils:
‘Research’ for the purpose of the RAE is to be understood as original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce and industry, as well as to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship*; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances and artefacts including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental development to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction. It excludes routine testing and analysis of materials, components and processes, eg for the maintenance of national standards, as distinct from the development of new analytical techniques.
* Scholarship embraces a spectrum of activities including the development of teaching material; the latter is excluded from the RAE.
One of the major problems encountered had to do with academics moving to other institutions just before the final date, so those institutions could submit their outputs, as well as early concerns about the power invested in managers to declare members of staff ‘research-inactive’ and not submit them. Furthermore, it was found that outcomes were biased towards departments with members on assessment panels. Once again, no funding was granted to departments graded 1 or 2. This time, however, 43% of departments were ranked 4, 5 or 5*, a rise of 10% since 1992.
The changes to RAE 2001 involved panels consulting a number of non-UK-based experts in their field to review work which had already been assigned top grades. Sub-panels were created, but there were also five large ‘Umbrella Groups’ created, in Medical and Biological Sciences; Physical Sciences and Engineering; Social Sciences; Area Studies and Languages; and Humanities and Arts. Some new measures also acknowledged early career researchers, some on career breaks, and other circumstances, and a new category was created for staff who had transferred, who could be submitted by both institutions, though only the later one would receive the resulting research funding. Expanded feedback was provided, and electronic publications permitted, though different UoAs employed different criteria in terms of the significance of place of publication and peer-review. 65% of departments were now ranked 4, 5 or 5*. 55% of staff in 5 and 5* departments were submitted, compared to 23% in 1992 and 31% in 1996.
The Roberts review of 2002 expressed concern about how the whole exercise could be undermined by ‘game-playing’, as institutions were learning to do. Furthermore, there were concerns about the administration costs of the system. A process was set in place, announced by Gordon Brown, to replace the existing RAE (after the 2008 exercise) with a simpler metrics-based system. As detailed at length in Sayer, despite major consultations involving many important parts of the UK academic establishment, an initial report and proposals of this type were quickly changed to a two-track model of metrics and peer review, then the whole plan was almost completely abandoned.
RAE 2008 itself had fewer major changes. Amongst these were a renewed set of assessment criteria, especially as affected applied, practice-based and interdisciplinary research, a two-tiered panel structure, with sub-panels undertaking the detailed assessment and making recommendations to main panels, who made broader decisions and produced a ‘quality profile’ for a department, in place of the older seven-point system. Individual outputs were now given one of five possible rankings:
4*: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour
3*: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence
2*: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
1*: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment
By 2008-9 (before the results of RAE 2008 took effect) about 90% of funding went to just 38 universities, but from 2009 48 institutions shared this amount (after 15. As Adams and Gurney have noted, the weighting of the 2008 exercise meant that the difference between obtaining 2* and 3* was greater than that between 3* and 4*, or between the previously 4 to 5 or 5 to 5* rankings. 54% of 2008 submissions were ranked either 3* or 4*, 87% 2*, 3* or 4*.
The plans for post-2008 exercises were finally published in September 2009 by HEFCE, indicating a new name, the REF, but otherwise the system was much less different to those which preceded it than had been assumed. Now the ranking was to be based upon three components: ”output quality’ at 60%, ‘impact’ at 25%, and ‘environment’ at 15% (later revised to 65%, 20% and 15% respectively). Outputs were to be assessed as before, though for sciences, citation data would informed various panels. ‘Environment’ was assessed on the basis of research income, number of postgraduate research students, and completion rates. But the most significant new measure was ‘impact’, reflecting the desires of the then Business Secretary Lord Mandelson for universities to become more responsive to students, viewed as customers, and industry, defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Each department was to submit a general statement on ‘impact’ as a whole, and could submit between 2 and 7 impact ‘case studies’, depending upon the number of research-active staff submitted to the REF. This was a huge shift, and restricted to impact which could be observed during the cycle between exercises, and derived from research produced when the academic in question was already at the submitting institution.
Other changes including a major shift in the number of UoAs and sub-panels to 30, and just four main assessment panels. One single sub-panel would assess outputs, environment and impact. However, the same number of experts were involved as before.
Since REF 2014, the Stern Report has informed significant changes to the system, in part intended to avoid the potential for gaming. Following further consultations, it has been announced that a minimum of one output and a maximum of seven from each member of a department will be submitted. Further measures have been introduced to ensure that most short form text-based submissions must be ‘Open Access’, available freely to all, which generates its own set of issues. Further plans for REF 2028 indicate that this will also apply to long form submissions such as monographs; the situation for creative practice outputs currently appears not to have changed, but this situation may be modified. HEFCE was abolished at the end of March 2018, and replaced in England by the new Office for Students (OfS) and Research England, the actions of which remain to be seen.
The RAE and REF have caused huge amounts of resentment and anger amongst academics, and produced sweeping changes to the nature of academic work as a whole. Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, architect of the first RAE (interviewed in Jump, ‘Evolution of the REF’) argued against many of the subsequent developments, and with every reform to the system, institutions would put greater pressure on individuals, especially those in junior positions, leading to some of the awful cases of chronic stress, mental illness and bullying which have been detailed recently on social media.. Many report that REF submissions constitute the only research valued by their institutions. A Head of Department (HoD) or other REF supervisor who achieved a high REF scoring could expect to win favour and further promotion from their management; in practice, this often meant cajoling and bullying of already-overworked staff with threats and intimidation about whether they would maintain their job, and and little favour or support shown to those who might not produce the right number of 3* or 4* outputs. Those dealing with mental health issues, trying to balance impossible teaching and administrative workloads (all fuelled by the Mandelsonian idea of the student-as-consumer) and research demands with major care commitments for children or the elderly, were often driven to breakdowns or to quit academia; some cases of this are documented below. Academics ceased, in the eyes of many managements, to be human beings towards whom they had a duty of care as their employers, but merely as potential cash cows, to be dispensed with if there was any pause in this function.
Gaming of the system continued in many forms from RAE 1992 onwards. Many institutions would award 0.2 FTE or short-term contracts in the run-up to the RAE/REF, so that institutions could profit from particular individuals’ outputs (not least ECRs who might have a monograph and were desperate for any employment record on their CVs). All of this could mean that rankings were unrepresentative of the research carried on by the majority of a department’s full-time, permanent staff. Research projects taking more than 6-7 years were greatly disadvantaged, or at least those embarked on them would still have to produce four other world-leading outputs in during a RAE/REF cycle, in many institutions, sometimes in order to retain a position at all. Callous HoDs or other REF managers could dismiss some work which had occupied academics for years (whilst maintaining hefty teaching and administration workloads) as merely 2*, on the grounds of its being ‘journalistic’ (often it was relatively readable), a ‘survey text’ (if it drew upon a wide range of existing scholarly literature), or the like, often with crushing impacts on the academics concerned.
The period of the RAE’s history saw other sweeping changes to Higher Education in the UK. Between 1963 and 1970, numbers of young people attending university had doubled following the Robbins Report, but then remained essentially static until the late 1980s, when over a decade numbers rose from 17% in 1987 to 33% in 1997 (see Ann-Marie Bathmaker, ‘The Expansion of Higher Education: Consideration of Control, Funding and Quality’, in Steve Bartlett and Diana Burton, Education Studies: Essential Issues (London: Sage, 2003), pp. 169-89). Since then numbers participating have continually risen, to a peak of 49% in 2011. This was an unrepresentative year, the last before the introduction of trebled tuition fees, which were a disincentive for students to take a gap year, followed by a concomitant dip of 6% (to 43%) in 2012, then a further rise to 49% in 2015, exceeding the pre-2011 peak of 46%, thus confounding (at least to date) those who predicted that increased fees would lead to decreased participation.
Sayer points out that there are few equivalents for the REF elsewhere in the world and none in North American or Europe. Furthermore, few have sought to emulate this system. Some of those cited below argue that most of the known alternatives (including those which preceded the introduction of the RAE) may be worse, others (including myself) cannot accept that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. I would further maintain that the human cost of the REF should not only be unacceptable, but illegal, and that only a zero tolerance policy, with criminal charges if necessary (even for the most senior members of management) could stop this. Dignity at work is as important in this context as any other, and little of that is currently on display in UK academia.
Creative Practice and Non-Text-Based Outputs
An issue of especial relevance to those engaged in performing-arts-based academic disciplines such as music, theatre, or dance (and in many cases also creative or other forms of writing, the visual arts, and so on) is that of outputs submitted to the REF in the form of creative practice. By this I mean specifically outputs in the form of practice (i.e. practice-as-research), as opposed to those simply documenting or critically analysing one’s own or others’ practice. I have previously blogged extensively on this subject, following the publication of a widely read article by John Croft (‘Composition is not Research’, TEMPO 69/272 (April 2015), pp. 6-11) and replies from me (‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’, TEMPO 70/275 (January 2016), pp. 60-70 ) and from Camden Reeves (‘Composition, Research and Pseudo-Science: A Response to John Croft’, Tempo70/275 (January 2016), pp. 50-59), and a subsequent public debate on the subject. Amongst the issues raised, some of them familiar from wider debates on practice-as-research which are referenced in my own article, were whether creative practice on its own can stand as research without requiring additional written documentation (not least the now-familiar 300-word statements which can be regarded as deemed essential by the REF, as I argue in response to a claim made by Miguel Mera in that debate), whether creative work which most resembles ‘science’ is regarded as more ‘research-like’, an implicit claim unpacked by Reeves (as one colleague put it to me, ‘if it has wires going into it, it’s more like research’), with all this implies in terms of (gendered) views of STEM versus the humanities, or whether certain types of output are privileged for being more ‘text-like’ than others (scores versus recordings, for example) and thus some practitioners are at an advantage compared to others (here I give some figures on the relative proportions of composers and performers in different types of music departments). Attitudes to the latter vary hugely between institutions: at least one Russell Group department was happy to award a chair to a performer whose research output consists almost exclusively of performances and recordings, mostly as part of groups, while at others, especially those without strong representation of the performing arts amongst managements, such outputs are hardly valued at all and are unlikely to be submitted to the REF, nor win promotion for those who produce them.
Another issue is that of parity between creative practice outputs and other types. Many creative practitioners will never have had to submit their work to anything like peer review in the manner known for articles and monographs, and questions arise as to, for example, what number or type of compositions or recordings, visual art works or dance performances should be viewed as equivalent to the production of a monograph, when assessing promotion and the like? Music departments in which half or more of the faculty is made up of practitioners (usually composers) may have limited experience of peer review, or for that matter of wider academic debates and discourses, and some might argue that they are able to get ahead in their professions with considerably less time and effort than their equivalents who produce more traditional outputs. This is, I believe, a very real problem, which then maps onto questions of the significantly different requirements for producing different types of creative practice outputs, and needs serious consideration if there is to be any semblance of fairness within such academic departments.
Sayer also notes how many works in the humanities gain impact over an extended period of time, giving works of Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault and Benedict Anderson as examples, and also notes how many can remain intensely relevant and widely cited long after publication, in distinction to a science-based model of cumulative and rapidly-advancing knowledge, whereby a certain passage of time leads to some outputs being viewed as outdated.
Over the last few days, various academics have been commenting on the REF, mostly on Twitter. I attempt to collect the most important of these here.
One of the first important threads came from geographer Julia Cupples (@juliecupples79). In this thread, she called the fundamental status of REF classifications ‘ludicrous’, argued how problematic it would be to direct research exclusively for REF and elite British academics, called the demands of ‘originality’ for a single publication ‘masculinist and colonial’, argued that female authors and those from ethnic minorities are at a disadvantage, not least because of less likelihood of citation. The ranking of junior colleagues by senior ones was labelled ‘one of the most toxic mechanisms in place in the neoliberal academy’, making a mockery of most other means of achieving equality, and so that the REF works against attempts to ‘dismantle discrimination, build collegiality, prevent academic bullying, and decolonize our campuses’. This thread was widely tweeted and praised, inducing others to share similar stories, with Cupples responding that the REF is ‘a means to discipline, humiliate and produce anxiety’. Not all agreed, with Germanist Michael Gratzke (@prof_gratzke) arguing that the peer review element for arts and humanities was a good thing, and that as the scheme would not disappear, one needed to deal with it reasonably. More respondents were sympathetic, however. Urban Studies Professor Hendrik Wagenaar (@spiritofwilson) cited the REF as a cause of ‘the demeaning command-and-control management style that has infected UK universities, and the creation of the soulless apparatchiks that rise up through the ranks to take every ounce of pleasure out of research and writing’, and how it prevents ‘a climate of psychological safety, trust, mutual respect, and togetherness; a place where it is safe to take risks’. Molly Dragiewicz (@MollyDragiewicz) asked whether metrification fetishises ‘engagement’, though a different view was taken by Spanish musicologist and novelist Eva Moreda Rodriguez (@TheDrRodriguez), in response to some queries of my own to Cupples. Cupples had said that it would be ‘deeply problematic if we started writing for REF and a panel of elite British academics rather than for our research communities’, to which I asked about the definition of a ‘research community’ and why they should be exempt from external scrutiny and issues of parity with other (sub-)disciplines, also pointing out that both the Chicago School of Economics or some groups of racial theorists would have fitted this category. Cupples maintained that such communities were not groups of academics, but Moreda asked in return how ‘we avoid academic work being judged on the basis of whether it reinforces& confirms the basic tenets & prejudices of said research community?’, as well as whether such community engagement was already covered through impact assessment?
Around the same time, drama lecturer Kate Beswick (@ElfinKate) blogged on ‘REF: We need to push back against a system that has lost its way’. Whilst accepting the need for assessment of academic research, she noted how layers of bureaucracy were created to game the system, the growth of internal practice REFs, the pressure to produce outputs simply to satisfy the REF rather than for any other value, and the new pressures which will follow implementation of open access policies. This, argued Beswick, would force scholars to find ‘REF compliant’ publishers, which would compromise academic objectivity, rigour, reach and international credibility. However, she did not suggest any alternative system.
However, the first major thread in defence of the REF came from historian David Andress (@ProfDaveAndress). Andress argued that the RAE/REF enabled quality research funding to go to post-1992 institutions, that every alternative had worse biases, and that the distributive mechanism was so wide that it could almost be called ‘a relic of socialism’, concluding with the confident claim that ‘If you get rid of it, you will definitely get something worse’. This was sure to produce many responses. Clinical psychologist Richard Bentall (@RichardBentall), who was a panelist in 2008 and 2014, argued that the process was ‘conducted with absolute fairness and integrity’, but the problem was with the interpretation of it by universities (a point which many others would also evoke in other threads). Bentall noted how his own former institution gave an edict telling no researcher to publish 2* papers, which constitute 80% of world science, so that the REF ‘has become an end in itself’. I myself responded that many places have concluded that research is of no value unless beneficial to the REF, also raising the question (about which I am most definitely in two minds) as to whether we need to accept that some institutions need to be focused on teaching rather than research, rather than all scrambling over a sum of government money which is unlikely to increase. Some subsequent interactions have however made me rethink this. I also noted how some assessors have little knowledge of anything beyond their own narrow and underdeveloped fields, but which nonetheless are felt necessary to be represented on panels, noted (as would many others) how a similar process is not used in many other countries, and was sceptical about any ‘better than any conceivable alternative’ argument. Andress responded that he was not saying that, but that better alternatives which can be conceived cannot be easily put into effect, and also that, in light of the expansion of the sector, ‘RAE/REF is on the positive side of the ledger’, and shouldn’t simply be dismissed. In a series of tweets, I also expressed some questions about whether all aspects of the expansion had been positive, without corresponding increases in the level of secondary education, which can have a net levelling effect when the Oxbridge/Russell Group model is applied to institutions with very different types of student bodies, from this arguing that REF was a part of a process which pretended there were not major differences between institutions, and causes huge pressures for academics at institutions where the teaching demands are higher for students with less inclination towards independent study. These are highly contentious arguments, I realise, which I want to throw out for consideration rather than defend to the last.
Moreda also responded to Andress, taking a medium view. In a thread, she acknowledged the potential of the REF for management to use to bully academics and the inordinate use of resources, but noted that it had enabled her to gain an academic position in the UK, which would otherwise have been very difficult without an Oxbridge pedigree, also on account of having a foreign accent, with little teaching experience at that point, and so on. However, she did also temper this by noting that the ability to produce REFable publications relied upon her being ‘able-bodied and without caring duties’, and that a continued discourse was required in order to consider how to accommodate others.
I asked REF defenders whether REF panellists ever read more than a few pages of a monograph, because of the time available, or listened carefully to audible outputs (rather than reading the 300-word statements which can act as spin)? Moreda responded by framing the issues as whether the REF or equivalent can ever be free of corruption, and whether such a system needs to exist at all. She was ambivalent about both questions, but also disliked the implied view of some REF-opponents that ‘research shouldn’t be subjected to scrutiny or accountability’. Whilst agreeing on this latter point, I argued that REF does not really account for parity between disciplines and sub-disciplines, some with vast differences of time and effort (especially where archival or fieldwork are involved) required for producing an equivalent output. I proposed that no output should receive 3* or 4* where authors ignore relevant literature in other languages, and that the standards of some journals should be scrutinised more. Moreda essentially agreed with the need for wider factors to be taken into account, whilst (in somewhat rantish tone!) I continued that examiners needed a wide range of expertise across multiple sub-disciplines, and asked how in historical work like hers and mine (I work on music in Nazi and post-war Germany, she works on music in Franco’s Spain and amongst Spanish exiles) how many would know if we were making up or distorting the content of the sources? Knowing of a time when there was a leading REF assessor who could not read music, I asked how they could judge many music-related outputs, and both Moreda and I agreed there could be merit in using non-UK examiners, while I also suggested that a department should be removed from the REF when one of their own faculty members is on a panel, because of the potential for corruption.
Theatre and Performance/Early Modern scholar Andy Kesson (@andykesson) posted a harrowing thread relating to his early career experiences at the 2014 REF, for which his outputs were a monograph and an edited collection. In the lead-up, he was informed that these were ‘”slim pickings” for an ECR submission’, and pushed to get them out early and develop other publications. This came at a time when Kesson’s father died and he was forced to witness his mother in the late stages of a long-term fatal illness. Whilst deeply upset by these experiences, Kesson tried to explain that he would struggle to fulfil these additional publication demands, and was told this work was non-negotiable. After the death of his mother, her own father also became extremely ill, and Kesson was forced to do his work sitting next to his hospital bed. When offered a new job, his previous institution threatened legal action over his ‘slim’ REF submission, leading to a dispute lasting two years. Many were upset to read about the callousness of Kesson’s former institution. Social identity scholar Heather Froehlich (@heatherfro) responded that ‘academics are the most resilient people on earth, who are willing to endure so much yet still believe in their absolute singular importance – only to be told “no, you are wrong” in every aspect of their professional lives’. However, one dissenting voice here and elsewhere was that of Exeter Dean and English Professor Andrew McRae (@McRaeAndrew), who cited Wilsdon’s defence of the REF mentioned earlier, and argued that no QR money would ever be given without state oversight, asking whether a better model than the REF existed? Engineering Professor Tanvir Hussain (@tanvir_h) argued that the problem was with Kesson’s institution’s interpretation of REF rules rather than the rules themselves, a theme which others have taken up, on how the ambiguities of the REF are used as a weapon for favouritism, bullying and the like.
Geographer Tom Slater (@tomslater42), having read many of the worst stories about people’s experiences with the REF, called out those who serve on panels, making the following claims:
A) you are not being collegial
B) you are appallingly arrogant if you think you can offer an evaluation of the work of an entire sub-discipline *that has already been through peer review*
C) you are not doing it because somebody has to
D) you are not showing “leadership”
E) you are contributing to a gargantuan exercise in bringing UK academia into international disrepute
F) you are making academia an even more crappy for women, minorities, critical thinkers, and great teachers
G) if you all stood down, HEFCE would have massive problem
Various people agreed, including in the context of internal pre-REF assessments. Another geographer, Emma Fraser (@Statiscape) suggested simply giving any REF submission a 4*, a suggestion Slater and sociologist Mel Bartley (@melb4886) endorsed, and was made elsewhere by novelist and creative writing lecturer Jenn Ashworth (@jennashworth). Linguistics scholar Liz Morrish (@lizmorrish) was another to focus on the behaviour of individual institutions, maintaining that ‘the
#REF was NEVER intended to be an individual ranking of research. It was intended to give a national picture and be granular only as far as UoA. What you are being asked to do is just HR horning in on another occasion for punishment’. Slater himself also added that ubiquitous terms such as ‘REFable’ or ‘REF returnable’ should be abandoned.
Paul Noordhof (@paulnoordhof) asked in this context ‘Suppose there were no REF, or equivalent, linked to research performance. What would stop the University sector achieving efficiency savings by allowing staff numbers to reduce over time and doubling teaching loads? Especially for some subjects’, but Slater responded that collective action from academics (as opposed to the more common action supporting and promoting the REF) would stop this. Slater also responded directly to McRae’s earlier post, including the statement ‘Careful what you wish for’, by arguing that ‘most would wish for a well funded sector where we don’t have to justify our existence via an imposed, reductive, compromised, artificial assessment system that destroys morale. Careful what you lie down for’.
Italian social scientist Giulia Piccolino (@Juliet_p83), responding to my retweeting of Slater’s original thread, called herself ‘the last defender of the REF’, which she felt to be ‘a bad system but the least bad system I can imagine’, a similar position to that of Andress. In response, I suggested that a better system might involve the submission of no more than two outputs from any department, allowing much more time to be spent on peer review. Piccolino noted that in other countries where she had worked, appointments depended simply on one’s PhD supervisor (a point she also made in response to Cupples), that scholars stop researching after receiving a permanent job (but still try and control junior figures) (something I have observed in some UK institutions), and so argued that while the REF could could be improved and humanised, it seemed a break on arbitrary power as encountered elsewhere. Piccolino’s returned elsewhere to her theme of how the transparency and accountability of the REF were an improvement on more corruptible systems, with which many UK academics were unfamiliar.
The debates with McRae continued, after his response to Cupples, in which he called the REF ‘an easy target’ and suggested that its demise would leave academics reliant on grants (a view endorsed wholeheartedly by Piccolino), claimed that many would prefer to replace peer-review with metrics, and that impact produced some important activity. Legal academic Catherine Jenkins (@CathyJenkins101) asked if things were so bad before the introduction of the RAE in 1986, to which McRae responded that he did not work in the UK then, but saw the problems of an Australian system in which publications in ‘a low-achievement environment’ in which many had not published for years, did not help a younger academic get a job. Modern Languages scholar Claire Launchbury (@launchburycla) argued that the modern Australian system (despite, not because of, its own ‘Excellence in Research for Australia’ (ERA) system for research evaluation) was practically unrecognisable in these terms. In response to a query from Marketing lecturer Alexander Gunz (@AlexanderGunz) relating to the lack of a REF equivalent in North America, McRae responded that that system was radically different, lacking much central funding, but where ‘state institutions are vulnerable to the whims of their respective govts, so in that respect greater visibility/measurability of performance might help’. Cupples herself responded to McRae that ‘The vast majority of universities in the world have no REF (and neither did British universities not so long ago) and yet research gets done and good work gets published’. Historical sociologist Eric R. Lybeck (@EricRoyalLybeck), a specialist in universities, echoed the view of Swinnerton-Dyer in hearkening back to the ‘light touch’ of the first RAE, which ‘would be an improvement’, and also argued against open access, saying this ‘distorts and changes academic practices’.
Film lecturer Becca Harrison (@BeccaEHarrison) posted her first REF thread, detailing her disillusion with UK academia as a result of the system, noting that she was told when interviewing for her first post-PhD job that her research ‘had to be world leading’ (4*) in order to get an entry-level job, and feeling that even this might amount to nothing because ‘there are 100 ECRs with 4* work who need my job’. This led her to support calls to boycott preparations for the REF as part of continuing industrial action. Another thread detailed common objections to the REF, then in a third thread, Harrison detailed her experiences with depression and anxiety attacks during her PhD, leading to hair loss and stress-induced finger blisters making it impossible to type, as well as early experiences with a poorly-paid teaching fellowship together with a non-HE job to pay bills, working 18 hour days in order to produce a monograph and endlessly apply for jobs. In her first full-time job, Harrison encountered bullying, misogyny from students, a massive workload and obsessiveness about production of 4* outputs. This did not lead to a permanent contract, but a new job offer came with huge requirements just for grade 6/7. She rightly said ‘please, people implementing REF, people on hiring committees, please know that this is what you’re doing to us – and that when we’ve done all this and the system calls us ‘junior’ and treats us like we don’t know what we’re doing we will get annoyed’.
Some further questions were raised by several on the new rules on open access, for example from Politics scholar Sherrill Stroschein (@sstroschein2), who argued that this would ‘just make book writers produce best work outside of REF’. But this important debate was somewhat separate from the wider question of the value of the REF, and what system might best replace it, which I decided to raise more directly in a new thread. There were a range of responses: musicologist Mark Berry (@boulezian) argued for a move away from a model based upon the natural sciences, and claimed that ‘Huge, collaborative grants encourage institutional corruption: “full economic costing”‘, while Moreda alluded to an article from 2017 about the possibility of a ‘basic research income’ model, whereby everyone had a certain amount allocated each year for research, so long as they could prove a reasonable plan for spending it (David Matthews, ‘Is “universal basic income” a better option than research grants?’, THES, 10 October 2017, though engineer David Birch responded that this would ultimately lead to another system similar to the REF). She saw how this would be insufficient for most STEM research and some in the humanities, but this could then be supplemented by competitive funding, as is already the case. Berry made a similar point to Moreda, also noting how much money would be saved on administration, whilst Cupples also agreed, as did sociologist Sarah Burton (@DrFloraPoste). Sums of up to around £10K per year were suggested; Burton also added that larger competitive grants should be assigned on a rotating basis, so that those who have had one should be prevented from holding another for some years, to create openings for post-graduate researchers (PGRs) and ECRs. I responded that this might exacerbate a problem already prevalent, whereby time-heavy species of research (involving archives, languages, old manuscripts, etc.) would be deterred because of the time and costs involved; Burton agreed that ‘slow scholarship’ is penalised, especially ethnographic work (this type of point was also made by archaeologist Rachel Pope (@preshitorian), comparing time-intensive archaeological work with ‘opinion pieces’ judged as of similar merit), while Moreda suggested that some ‘sliding scale’ might be applied depending on whether research involves archives and the like, though acknowledged this could result in ‘perverse incentives’.
I also noted that one consequence of Burton’s model would be a decline in the number of research-only academics, but that it would be no bad thing for all to have to do some UG core teaching (with which Cupples agreed). Burton’s response was ambivalent, as some are simply ‘not cut out for teaching in a classroom’, though I suggested similar problems can afflict those required to disseminate research through conferences and papers, to which Burton suggested we also need to value and codify teaching-only tracks for some. Moreda was unsure about the proposal to restrict consecutive grants, especially for collaborative projects, though also suggested that such a model might free up more money for competitive grants. Noting earlier allegations of careerism, etc., Berry argued that one should not second-guess motivations, but there should be space for those who are not careerists, and that it would be helpful for funds to assist with language or analytical skills or other important things.
I asked who might have figures for (i) no. of FTE positions in UK academia at present (to which question I have since found the figure of 138,405 on full-time academic contracts, and 68,465 on part-time academic ones, in 2016-17); (ii) current government spending on research distributed via REF (the figure for 2015-16 was £1.6 billion), and (iii) the administrative costs of REF (for which a HEFCE report gives a figure of £246 million for REF 2014). This latter figure is estimated to represent roughly 2.4% of a total £10.2 billion expenditure on research by UK funding bodies until REF 2021, and is almost four times that spent on RAE 2008. Nonetheless, its removal would not make a significant difference to available research funds. If one considers the ‘basic research income’ model (in the crudest possible form) relative to these figures, an annual expenditure of £1.6 billion would provide £10K per year for 160,000 full-time academics, which would be a very large percentage. if the part-time academics are assumed to average 0.5 contracts.
An arts and humanities scholar who goes by the name of ‘The Underground Academic’ (@Itisallacademic) (hereafter TUA) felt the basic income model would prevent a need to apply for unnecessary large grants, and also expressed personal dislike for collaborative projects, a view which runs contrary to orthodox wisdom, but was backed by Moreda and Berry. I agreed and also questioned the ‘fetishisation of interdisciplinary work’ as well. TUA responded with a pointer to Jerry A. Jacobs, In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), which is a sustained scholarly critique of interdisciplinarity, so often assumed to be an unquestionable virtue. Burton also asked that employers and funders value book-based research more, and expressed frustration that her own work on social theory is deemed ‘easy’, to which I added an allusion to a common situation by which reading-intensive work, often involving carefully critical investigation of hundreds of books, can be dismissed as entailing a ‘survey text’.
There were a range of other more diverse responses. Cupples also argued that the New Zealand system, the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), whilst imperfect, was ‘a thousand times better than the REF’; Cupples and Eric Pawson authored ‘Giving an account of oneself: The PBRF and the neoliberal university‘, New Zealand Geographer 68/1 (April 2012), pp. 14-23. Amongst the key differences Cupples outlined were individual submissions, crafting of one’s own narrative, own choice of most suitable panel, own choice of nominated outputs, information on how one did oneself (not available to others), and greater support from departments.
Piccolino returned to her earlier questions about the potential for corruption in non-REF-based academic cultures, and asked ‘which system guarantees that people are hired for being committed, dedicated researchers vs being friends, friends of friends, products of elite institutions etc?’. Following Cupples mention of the PBRF, Piccolino also mentioned the Italian abilitazione nazionale, providing criteria for associate and full professors, but she suggested it was of little effect compared to patronage and the need for compliant researchers. This system was, according to Piccolino, closer to the REF than the German Habilitation. She also drew attention to a scathing article on corruption in Italian academia (Filippomaria Pontani, ‘Come funziona il reclutamento nelle università’, Il post, 11 October 2016).
Social scientist Gurminder K. Bhambra (@GKBhambra) pointed out the intensification of each iteration of the REF, with the current post-Stern version more individualised and pernicious than before. Medievalist James T. Palmer (@j_t_palmer) argued that REF is not the primary means of distributing research funding, because the majority is distributed through competition, though the REF may determine university funding in general (a profound observation whose implications need wider exploration).
Medieval and early modern historian Jo Edge (@DrJoEdge) asked why, in a REF context, peer-reviewed book chapters are seen as inferior to journal articles, to which Andress replied that (a) some believe book peer-review is less rigorous, as chapters are pre-selected and reviewed collectively; (b) the chapters will have less impact since less easy to find through the usual search engines (a point which Burton said she had also heard); (c) old-style elitist prejudice.
A sardonic exchange proceeded between three musicians or musicologists : composer Christopher Fox (@fantasticdrfox, himself a REF 2014 panelist), Berry, and me. Fox felt that ‘the current UK research model is counterproductive in the arts’ and that ‘Competition is a useless principle around which to organise our work’. I asked what it would mean to rank the work of leading late-twentieth-century composers such as Pierre Boulez and Jean Barraqué, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono, Brian Ferneyhough and Robin Holloway, or the playing of pianists Aloys Kontarsky and David Tudor, or clarinettists Harry Sparnaay and Armand Angster, as 3* or 4*, especially if non-musicians were involved in the process? Fox also referenced US composers Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, and as how one can fix criteria which account for the disparities in their aesthetic intentions, while Berry pointed out that Anton von Webern (almost all of whose works are short in duration) would ‘never have been able to “sustain his invention over a longer time-span”‘, alluding to a common criteria for composition. Conversely, I asked if Erik Satie’s Vexations (which consists of two lines of music repeated 840 times), or the music of La Monte Young (much of it very extended in duration) should ‘have been regarded as streets ahead of most others, if submitted to REF?’, in response to which musicologist (French music expert) Caroline Potter (@carolinefrmus), author of several books on Satie, alluded to an upcoming ‘REF-related satire’ which ‘seems like the only sane way to deal with the business’. I asked about whether all of this contributed to a ‘a renewed, and far from necessarily positive, concept of the “university composer” (or “university performer”)’ (terms which have often been viewed negatively, especially in the United States), when academia is one of the few sources of income. Fox felt that this culture encouraged ‘the production of compositions that only have significance within academia’. I also raised the question of whether academics looked down on books which could be read by a wider audience, which Berry argued stemmed from envy on the part of those with poor writing skills.
Independently, cultural historian Catherine Oakley (@cat_oakley) echoed the views of Kesson and Harrison, as regards the impact of REF upon ECRs, who need ‘monograph + peer-reviewed articles’ to get a permanent job, yet start out after their PhDs in ‘precarious teaching posts with little or no paid research time’.
Elsewhere, industrial relations expert Jo Grady (@DrJoGrady) advocated boycott of preparations for the REF and TEF. In a series of responses, some asked how this could be done, especially when individuals are asked to submit their own outputs for internal evaluation. Further questions ensued as to whether this might lead to some of the worst (non-striking) academics undertaking the assessment.
Sayer himself (@coastsofbohemia) also contributed to these Twitter exchanges. In a first thread, he alluded to a passage from his book: ‘In a dim and distant past that is not entirely imaginary (and still survives for the shrinking minority of faculty members in N America) research was something that academics undertook as a regular part of their job, like teaching … Universities … expected their staff to publish … and academics expected universities to give them sufficient time to pursue their research … There was no *specific* funding for time for research but … the salary was meant to support and remunerate a staff member’s research as well as his or her teaching … [whereas today] Because the only govt support for universities’ “research infrastructure … and pathbreaking research …” comes through QR funding and QR funding is tied to RAE/REF rankings, any research that scores below a 3* necessarily appears as unfunded. The accomplishment of the RAE/REF … is to have made research *accountable* in the literal sense of turning it into a possible object of monetary calculation. This makes the REF a disciplinary technology in Foucault’s sense … which works above all through the self-policing that is produced by the knowledge that one’s activities are the subject of constant oversight. Both inputs (including, crucially, academics’ time) and outputs (as evaluated by REF panels and monetized by the QR funding formula) can now be *costed.* The corollary is that activities that do not generate revenues, whether in the form of research grants or QR income, may not count in the university’s eyes as research at all.’ In response to a question from me about his feelings on the argument that RAE/REF had helped post-1992 institutions, Sayer argued that there were other alternatives to no funding or REF-based funding, alluding to some of the suggestions in his article on peer review listed earlier. In a further thread, he summarised these arguments: the relative merits of peer review vs. metrics was ‘not the issue’. Sayer asserted that ‘Peer review measures conformity to disciplinary expectations and bibliometrics measure how much a given output has registered on other academics’ horizons’, and that neither of these are a reliable basis for 65% of REF ranking. Instead, he suggested that more weight should be allocated to research environment and resources, research income, conference participation, journal or series editing, professional associations, numbers of research students, public seminars and lectures, all of which are measurable.
Literature and aesthetics scholar Josh Robinson (@JshRbnsn) joined the discussions towards the end of this flurry of activity. Coming into one thread, he noted that internal mock-REF assessments meant ‘that the judgements of powerful colleagues with respect to the relative merits of their own & others scholarship can never be held to account’, since individual scores are not returned to departments, also arguing that this would be exacerbated in REF 2021. In response to McRae, Robinson added his name to those advocating a basic research income, which McRea said would technically be possible, but in practice ‘would redistribute tens of millions per year from RG to post-92 unis. Try that on your VC!’. Robinson’s response was to quote McRae’s tweet and say ‘the manager at a Russell Group insitution shows what he’s actually afraid of.’ But in response to a further statement in which Robinson thought that what his VC ‘would be afraid of would be a generally good thing’, McRae suggested that this might simply lead VCs to make redundancies. Robinson pointed out that an allocation by FTE researcher would provide an incentive to hire more people with time for research. Robinson has indicated that he might be able to make available a recent paper he gave on the REF, which I would gladly post on here.
But Morrish, responding that McRae’s claim that the REF is ‘the price we pay, as a mechanism of accountability’, retorted that ‘the price we pay’ is ‘a) Evidence of mounting stress, sickness and disenchantment among academics REF-audit related; b) Ridiculous and career-limiting expectations of ECRs’.
A few other relevant writings have appeared recently. Socio-Technical Innovation Professor Mark Reed (@profmarkreed) and social scientist Jenn Chubb (@JennChubb) blogged on 22 March calling on academics to ‘Interrogate your reasons for engaging in impact, and whatever they are, let them be YOUR reasons’, referencing a paper published the previous week, ‘The politics of research impact: academic perceptions of the implications for research funding, motivation and quality’, British Politics (2018), pp. 1-17. Key problems identified included choosing research questions in the belief they would generate impact, increased conflicts of interest with beneficiaries who co-fund or support research, the necessity of broadening focus, leading to ‘shallow research’, and more widely the phenomenon of ‘motivational crowding’, by which extrinsic motivations intimidate researchers from other forms, and a sense that impact constitutes further marketisation of HE. Chubb and Richard Watermeyer published an article around this time on ‘Evaluating ‘impact’, in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF): liminality, looseness and new modalities of scholarly distinction’, Studies in Higher Education (2018), though I have not yet had chance to read this. Historian Tim Hitchcock (@TimHitchcock) also detailed his experiences of the RAE/REF from the late 1980s onwards, first at North London Polytechnic. Hitchcock argues that:
I have always believed that the RAE was introduced under Thatcher as a way of disciplining the ‘old’ universities, and that the 1992 inclusion of the ‘new’ universities, was a part of the same strategy. It worked. Everyone substantially raised their game in the 1990s – or at least became more focussed on research and publication.
Hitchcock goes on to detail his experiences following a move to the University of Hertfordshire after RAE 1996. He notes how hierarchies of position (between Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor) became more important than ever, and recruitment was increasingly guided by potential RAE submissions. However, Hitchcock became more disillusioned when he took a position at the University of Sussex after REF 2014, and saw how the system felt ‘more a threat than a promise’ in such places, in which REF strategy was centrally planned. He notes how ‘The bureaucracy, the games playing and the constantly changing requirements of each new RAE/REF, served a series of British governments as a means of manipulating the university system’, the system was increasingly rigged in favour of ‘old’ universities, and made life increasingly difficult for ECRs, who had to navigate ever-bigger hurdles in order simply to secure a permanent position. Hitchcock concludes that:
Higher education feels ever more akin to a factory for the reproduction of class and ethnic privilege – the pathways from exclusion to success ever more narrowly policed. Ironically it is not the ‘neo-liberal’ university that is the problem; but the ‘neo-liberal’ university dedicated to reproducing an inherited hierarchy of privileged access that uses managerialism and rigged competition to reproduce inequality.
He does not write off the potential of the REF to change this, and appears to see the particular ways it is administered and used (and viewed by some in ‘old’ universities) as the problem.
There is more to say about the Thatcherite roots of the RAE, her disdain for the ‘old’ universities, especially after her alma mater, Oxford University, refused in 1985 to award her an honorary doctorate, and what the 1992 act meant in terms of a new vocational emphasis for higher education in general, to which I may return in a subsequent blog post.
It is very clear that the majority of Academic Twitter are deeply critical or bitterly resentful of the RAE/REF, and most believe reform to be necessary. Editorial director of the THES, Phil Baty (@Phil_Baty) offered up a poll asking whether people thought the REF and RAE had been positive or negative; the results were 22% and 78% respectively (and further comments, mostly making similar points to the above, followed). The arguments pro and contra, as have emerged over the weekend can be summarised as follows:
Pro: provides some transparent external scrutiny and accountability; enables funding for post-1992 institutions; enables some to find work who would find it impossible in other systems dominated by patronage; is a better model than any other which has been discovered; employs peer-review rather than metrics.
Contra: invests too much power in managers; creates bullying and intimidatory atmosphere at work through REF preparation mechanisms; makes job market even more forbidding for ECRs; highly bureaucratic; very costly; dominates all research; time-consuming; discriminatory; sexist; colonialist; makes few allowances for those with mental health, care, family, or other external commitments; uncollegiate; employs assessors working outside their area of expertise; uses too many UK academics as assessors; marginalises 2* work and book chapters; fetishises collaborative or interdisciplinary work; falsely erases distinctions between institutions; relies on subjective views of assessors; artificially bolsters certain types of creative practice; is not employed in almost any other developed country; employs mechanisms more appropriate that STEM subjects than arts, humanities and social sciences; has increased pressure on academics with every iteration; causes huge stress and sickness amongst academics.
Stern has not been enough, and there is no reason to believe that those making the final decisions have much interest in the welfare of lecturers, or for that matter the creation of the best type of research culture. Major reform, or perhaps a wholly new system, are needed, and both government and the OfS and Research England should listen to the views expressed above. And new employment laws are urgently needed to stop the destruction of academics’ lives which is happening, regularly as a result of the REF.
A lot has been made of the fact that Labour under Corbyn gained many votes in the June 2017 election, enough that some think the party has full victory (in the sense of an overall majority) in its grasp. I wanted to look at some comparative figures, so compiled the following chart of votes (not seats) and percentages in each UK election since 1979:
Year Conservatives Labour Lib Dems SNP UKIP
1979 13.7m/43.9% 11.5m/36.9% 4.3m/13.8% 0.5m/1.6% (Liberals)
1983 13.0m/42.4% 8.5m/27.6% 7.8m/25.4% 0.3m/1.1% (SDP/Lib Alliance)
1987 13.7m/42.2% 10.0m/30.8% 7.3m/22.6% 0.4m/1.3% (SDP/Lib Alliance)
1992 14.1m/41.9% 11.6m/34.4% 6.0m/17.8% 0.6m/1.9%
1997 9.6m/30.7% 13.5m/43.2% 5.2m/16.8% 0.6m/2.0% 0.1m/0.3%
2001 8.4m/31.7% 10.7m/40.7% 4.8m/18.3% 0.5m/1.8% 0.4m/1.5%
2005 8.8m/32.4% 9.5m/35.2% 6.0m/22.0% 0.4m/1.5% 0.6m/2.2%
2010 10.7m/36.1% 8.6m/29.0% 6.8m/23.0% 0.5m/1.7% 0.9m/3.1%
2015 11.3m/36.8% 9.3m/30.4% 2.4m/7.9% 1.5m/4.7% 3.8m/12.6%
2017 13.6m/42.3% 12.9m/40.0% 2.3m/7.4% 1.0m/3.0% 0.6m/1.8%
So Labour under Corbyn did well, gaining 3.6m votes, but the Tories under May did even better. Two factors are of primary importance: (a) the collapse of the Lib Dem vote in 2015, following the Tory/Lib Dem coalition (see my earlier blog putting this in context); (b) the collapse of the UKIP vote in 2017, following the EU referendum, after having done exceptionally well in 2015, quadrupling their vote from that in 2010.
Labour certainly did manage to benefit from getting more young people to vote, but they also gained from the UKIP losses, which were threatening them in various traditional constituencies. But the Tories gained more, though the first-past-the-post electoral system threw up the bizarre result by which May gained 2.3m more votes than Cameron did in 2015, but won 13 less seats than the latter. The Conservative vote has not fallen, far from it (May won more votes than any Tory leader since John Major in 1992, and more than Thatcher in 1983), it is really just a question of how it is distributed.
The widespread tactical voting generally believed to have occurred from 1997 onwards, which helped the Lib Dems more than double their seats in 1997 (from 20 to 46) and go onto peak in 2005 (with 62), must be assumed to have disappeared, unsurprisingly as Labour voters are disinclined to vote for a party which spent five years in coalition with the Tories, even where they are the primary alternative in some constituencies to the latter. But the current voting system still works against Labour, and it should not be forgotten that they only won 262 seats in 2017; to win an overall majority by one seat they need another 65, whereas for a workable majority (not too vulnerable to backbench rebellions over contentious legislation) they need at least 85.
I cannot see this happening, certainly not with Corbyn as leader. The electoral landscape has changed fundamentally since the pattern between 1997 and 2010. The Lib Dems and UKIP have collapsed, the Tories have swung to the right (though could move further right still) while Labour has swung to the left. Brexit has changed a lot; the good result for Labour and Corbyn this year came about in part through triangulation on this issue, managing to convince both Leavers and Remainers that they supported them. I cannot see this holding up further, and without a major and clear shift of policy, I believe Remainers will move away – though many, like me, feel politically homeless at the moment (a reason why a new centre party would be no bad thing).
On Tuesday Parliament will reconvene, and will start to debate the EU Repeal Bill. There has been talk of the government being defeated on this, which I would hope for greatly, but am not too hopeful, again for reason of numbers. There are four Tory MPs identified by John Rentoul as possible rebels – Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan, Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve – and possibly a few more, but nine Labour MPs who supported Leave in the referendum – Ronnie Campbell, John Cryer, Frank Field, Roger Godsiff, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, John Mann, Dennis Skinner and Graham Stringer – while Caroline Flint indicated this morning that she is not prepared to help obstruct the bill. The Tories and DUP together have 327 MPs, whereas the opposition (not including the seven Sinn Féin MPs who will not take up their seats, nor the Speaker) have just 315. Even if all the four Tories listed above voted against the government, and the DUP abstained, they would still have 313 votes and could comfortably beat the opposition if just the nine Labour MPs vote with them. If things got tighter, May could take the same course of action as John Major did twice when facing defeat, and turn a vote on legislation into a vote of confidence. With no parliamentary majority, it is hard to imagine many Tories (most of who, when in the last parliament, voted for Article 50, including Soubry) voting against the government then.
Labour have proved themselves utterly incapable of proper opposition on Brexit. The Michel Barnier/David Davis press conference on Thursday was quite farcical, and it is clear the talks have hardly progressed, yet there was hardly a squeak from Corbyn and Keir Starmer until Starmer’s ineffectual interview this morning, which only served to muddy the party’s Brexit policy further. Never has there been a time during which proper scrutiny of the government and their approach to negotiations was more important; never has Labour proved so inept at providing this.
Where I have some hope, paradoxically, is in the possibility of a large-scale grassroots Tory revolt following acknowledgement that the government is preparing to pay a large Brexit divorce bill (with some leaks in the press today suggesting a figure of €50 billion). A recent Guardian/ICM poll suggested that two-thirds of voters would find a figure of €10 billion or more unacceptable, and the government has done nothing to try and explain the reason (not even clamping down on Boris Johnson over his ‘Go whistle’ remark). While the legal obligation to pay such a bill has been questioned, Barnier has made it clear that without the government coming clean on their position on this issue, they cannot proceed with trade talks. With time ticking down until Article 50 expires in March 2019, the UK government cannot really afford to keep delaying this, when the chances of even coming up with a workable transition arrangement – which all the other EU nations will accept – are slim in the time available.
So I think we will hear the sum confirmed soon, despite the denials. May will try to wait until after her party conference in Manchester, 1-4 October, but this may be difficult. The Tory membership have already indicated their wish for May to stand down; if she is conceding a major Brexit bill, then the pressure may become unbearable. May appears to be trying to keep Davis and Johnson close, so that they cannot dissociate themselves from what results, and so would go down with her; in that situation, I still do not think it impossible that the membership might make a crazy choice like electing a figure like Jacob Rees-Mogg or Andrea Leadsom, beloved of Conservative Home and the like.
Then, if a new leader was feeling optimistic or simply deluded, they just might call another election. I do think (or hope?) that a lot of decent Tory voters could not vote for a party led by someone so right-wing. But in order for a different government, Labour will have to make a proper case for an alternative in terms of Brexit, and make more overtures to the Lib Dems and others. I cannot imagine the Lib Dems or SNP supporting a Labour government which is going ahead with Brexit. At present I still cannot support Labour because of Brexit, and am sure they are a very long way from being an electorally viable party.
This afternoon (Wednesday October 21st, 2015), the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) will be taking evidence relating to allegations and investigations into the abuse of children committed by VIPs (and in at least one case, alleged rape of an adult woman) from five important people: Detective Chief Inspector Paul Settle, formerly of Operation Fernbridge, Assistant Commissioner Patricia Gallan and Deputy Assistant Commissioner Steve Rodhouse of the Metropolitan Police, Tom Watson MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and a prominent campaigner on child abuse, and Alison Saunders, Director of Public Prosecutions. A report this morning makes clear that the committee have decided not to interview Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park and Conservative candidate for London Mayor.
Over the last two weeks, ever since the broadcast on October 5th of the BBC Panorama programme on the alleged VIP Paedophile Ring, there has been a concerted media campaign targeting Tom Watson above all, who has been labelled a ‘witchfinder general’, as responsible for supposedly unfounded claims of high level abuse. I do know Tom personally, vouched for the importance of his work on abuse as part of his deputy leadership campaign materials, and so obviously am far from impartial, but can see in absolute honesty that I do not recognise the figure portrayed by much of the press, and also have very strong reason to believe Tom has acted with integrity and in good faith. I suspect that his conciliatory position as deputy to new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, despised by the right-wing media and many Blairite elements in the party, is fuelling this campaign. Furthermore, there are complicated reasons which may become apparent this afternoon why some conflicts have arisen between various parties all devoted to uncovering and preventing child abuse by prominent persons. Last week I posted a detailed timeline of events relating to Leon Brittan, which I believe show clearly that the decision to pursue further the rape investigation into him, after it had been dropped, came from the Met, not from Tom.
The following are issues I implore all members of HASC to consider before questioning this afternoon.
Allegations of a statement taken by an ex-customs officer about the late Lord Brittan
The distinguished journalist Tim Tate has written what to my mind is the most important piece on the allegations surrounding Leon Brittan (later Lord Brittan). Tate does not accept the claims, printed in Exaro and elsewhere, that a video seized in 1982 from Russell Tricker featured the Home Secretary themselves, but crucially claims that a statement was taken from the customs official in question, Maganlal Solanki, attesting to having seized video tapes from Brittan upon entering the country at some point in the 1980s. If a written statement exists attesting to this, it is of crucial importance in establishing whether there might be any truth in the allegations against Brittan. HASC should ask Settle to explain whether this exists or not. Furthermore, at the time of the 1982 siege of Elm Guest House, a then-eight-year-old boy was found and questioned, later (now an adult living in the US) questioned by detectives from Operation Fernbridge. On at least one occasion, this boy identified an ‘Uncle Leon’ from the ‘big house’ as being involved. It is equally vital that Settle is questioned about this. Furthermore, Solanki should also be summoned to speak to HASC.
Tate sent the following questions to the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse (to the best of my knowledge he has not yet received an answer) – I suggest these are equally relevant for HASC:
1. Has the Inquiry yet established direct contact with Operation Fernbridge ?
2. Will the Inquiry be examining documentary evidence held by Operation Fernbridge concerning its investigations into the late Baron Brittan ?
3. Specifically, will the Inquiry secure from Operation Fernbridge copies of all such documents including, but not limited to, formal statements made under caution, officers’ notebooks, internal memoranda and historical documents acquired during its investigation into the late Baron Brittan ?
4. Does the Inquiry plan to require public testimony from the current head of Operation Fernbridge, AND its former senior investigating officer, [NAME REDACTED HERE] concerning the late Baron Brittan?
5. Does the Inquiry plan to require public testimony from the former Customs and Excise officer Maganlal Solanki who gave evidence to Operation Fernbridge concerning the alleged seizure of child pornography from the late Baron Brittan ?
6. Does the Inquiry plan to take evidence from the US Marshall formerly attached to Operation Fernbridge in connection with a visit he made at the request of Operation Fernbridge to a suspected victim of Baron Brittan ?
7. Does the Inquiry plan to publish the documents acquired and/or generated by Operation Fernbridge during the course of its investigation into Baron Brittan ?
Involvement of other MPs
By far the majority of the focus has been on Tom Watson, but other MPs have been equally involved with campaigning on abuse, and some have made more extravagant claims or threats. Specifically:
1. The Labour MP John Mann has handed police a list of 22 politicians alleged to have been involved with the abuse of children. Furthermore, in July last year, Mann indicated the possibility of using Parliamentary privilege to name abusers.
2. The Labour MP Simon Danczuk also threatened to use Parliamentary privilege to name a politician alleged to have visited Elm Guest House; whilst Danczuk did not ultimately do so, it is widely believed to have been Brittan.
3. On October 28th, 2014, the Labour MP Jim Hood did indeed name Brittan in Parliament. The following day, Danczuk backed Hood for having done so.
4. On November 27th, 2014, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith said the following:
We need only consider the Elm guest house in Barnes, which was run by Haroon and Carole Kasir. It was raided more than 30 years ago, back in 1982. The couple were fined and given suspended sentences for running a disorderly house, but at the time there were already questions and allegations around the abuse of young children at the house. Allegedly—we are reliably told this—12 boys gave evidence in 1982 that they had been abused, yet all these allegations simply evaporated at the time, some 30 years ago. They are only resurfacing now.
When Mrs Kasir died a few years after the house was raided, in very odd circumstances, a child protection campaigner from the National Association Of Young People In Care called for a criminal investigation into events at Elm guest house. He said he had been told by Mrs Kasir that boys had been brought in from a local children’s home—Grafton Close, also in Richmond—for sex, and that she had photographs of establishment figures at her hotel. One of them apparently showed a former Cabinet Minister in a sauna with a naked boy. She had logbooks, names, times, dates, pictures of her customers and so on. All that evidence simply disappeared after the raids and no longer exists. That is astonishing.
The Met has since confirmed that Cyril Smith visited the place—the hon. Member for Rochdale has made this point—and at least three other men named in documents as visitors to the Elm guest house were later convicted of multiple sexual offences against children. It is impossible to believe there was not a cover up. This is not sloppiness; there has to be more to it than that.
I was quite surprised when I watched the broadcast of this debate in November to hear these claims, which are thought to be tenuous by many campaigners, presented in Parliament. Questions have been rightly asked about Goldsmith’s source for the claims – the Mail journalist Guy Adams suggests it was like to be either Chris Fay or Mike Broad (Fay has e-mailed me to indicate that he has never met nor had any contact with Goldsmith). Furthermore, Goldsmith participated in an Australian documentary Spies, Lords and Predators, broadcast in July this year and heavily influenced by the reporting of Exaro, which has come under severe criticism.
5. The Conservative MP and HASC member Tim Loughton, who has in the last few days started charging Watson with setting himself up as ‘judge, jury, and executioner’ over individual cases, himself threatened in July 2014 to use what he called the ‘nuclear option’ to name suspected paedophiles in Parliament. He also called for action from the inquiry in November 2014 following allegations from Exaro about MPs throwing sex parties involving the abuse of children, murder, and more.
Many of these are stronger claims or threats than anything by Tom Watson, who in a November 2014 interview with Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead said just that at least one politician had abused children.
HASC needs to speak to Mann, Danczuk, Hood, Goldsmith, and Loughton.
Allegations of a Westminster paedophile ring
It is often claimed that Tom Watson has alleged the existence of a Westminster paedophile ring. This would be truer of Danczuk (I am not absolutely sure if he has specifically used the term, but will check); Watson’s question to the Prime Minister on October 24th, 2012 contained the following words:
The evidence file used to convict paedophile Peter Righton, if it still exists, contains clear intelligence of a widespread paedophile ring. One of its members boasts of his links to a senior aide of a former Prime Minister, who says he could smuggle indecent images of children from abroad. The leads were not followed up, but if the file still exists I want to ensure that the Metropolitan police secure the evidence, re-examine it and investigate clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No. 10.
A network which is linked to Parliament and No. 10 is not the same thing as a Westminster paedophile ring. There is no doubt that a network existed around Righton, at the very least featuring other committee members of the Paedophile Information Exchange, such as Charles Napier, convicted and sentenced last December to 13 years for hundreds of sexual assaults upon young boys, or Righton’s partner Richard Alston, jailed in September for 21 months for child abuse charges, in a trial at which claims emerged of sessions involving Alston, Righton and Napier together.
The link to Parliament and No. 10 rests upon claims made in a document about which I am not at liberty to write now. Tom Watson’s source for his original PMQ was retired child protection worker Peter McKelvie, who last week resigned from the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel to the inquiry.
Scapegoats are being made of McKelvie and Watson in a bid to stop further investigation of a wide range of claims about politicians of which both are aware. It is vital that HASC also summon McKelvie and ask him about this specific claim mentioned by Watson in 2012.
If HASC will deal seriously with these claims, they will be carrying out their proper role, and not serving simply as a front for political point-scoring. The issue of high-level child abuse is far too serious for this, and it would be a tragedy if the cross-party consensus which was previously built on this were now to be abandoned.
Peter Morrison – the child abuser protected by MI5, the Cabinet Secretary, and Margaret Thatcher – updated July 2015Posted: July 26, 2015
[With great thanks to @Snowfaked and @MySweetLandlord on Twitter for finding some extra pieces of information, especially relating to Morrison and Islay, and the picture of Thatcher, Morrison and Brittan]
In Edwina Currie’s diary entry for July 24th, 1990, she wrote the following:
One appointment in the recent reshuffle has attracted a lot of gossip and could be very dangerous: Peter Morrison has become the PM’s PPS. Now he’s what they call ‘a noted pederast’, with a liking for young boys; he admitted as much to Norman Tebbit when he became deputy chairman of the party, but added, ‘However, I’m very discreet’ – and he must be! She either knows and is taking a chance, or doesn’t; either way it is a really dumb move. Teresa Gorman told me this evening (in a taxi coming back from a drinks party at the BBC) that she inherited Morrison’s (woman) agent, who claimed to have been offered money to keep quiet about his activities. It scares me, as all the press know, and as we get closer to the election someone is going to make trouble, very close to her indeed. (Edwina Currie, Diaries 1987-1992 (London: Little, Brown, 2002), p. 195)
The agent in question was Frances Mowatt. A 192 search reveals that there is now a Frances Mowatt, aged 65+, living in Billericay in Essex, Teresa Gorman’s old constituency. She may be the same person who is a Local Authority Governor for St Peter’s Catholic Primary School in Billericay.
In 1982, a boy who would then have been around 14 (the same age as I was at the time) has given a vivid account of his experiences at the hands of Morrison (Bill Gardner, ‘Westminster paedophile ring: ‘I allowed my son to go with him. You trusted people more in those days”, Daily Telegraph, January 3rd, 2015). This boy encountered Morrison, dressed in a pin-striped suit in the village of Harting, West Sussex; Morrison told him his car had broken down, offered him money to help him start it, then invited the boy to his ‘nice big house in London for the weekend’. The boy said he couldn’t come, but gave Morrison his phone number when he asked, and then received repeated phone calls imploring him to come, eventually saying yes after refusing repeatedly. Morrison came down to Sussex with a driver, told the boy and his father he had homes in Chester and London, but not that he was an MP (he said he was a barrister). To the boy’s father’s great regret, he let him go; almost immediately on the journey, Morrison began to sexually assault the boy, who said:
He’d leave me alone for a little bit, and then he’d come at me again. . . . Before long, he had my trousers off. At one point we stopped for petrol, and I thought about running out of the car, but I realised the doors had some sort of child lock and I couldn’t get out. I was so frightened.
Matters got worse: Morrison gave beer and wine to the boy and then took him to a house, which the boy (now a man in his mid-40s) thinks was Elm Guest House. There were seven or eight men around the house, and Morrison took him upstairs, stripped him, and raped him for at least an hour; the man says ‘It was the most horrendous experience of my life.’ Morrison then told him they would be going to the sauna together, visiting a ‘party’, and he would be sleeping in Morrison’s bed later. The boy managed to sneak out of the house unseen, get back on a train to Harting, and tell his father what had happened. A local policeman was called, and the boy was taken to a police doctor, with medics telling the father afterwards that his son had ‘certainly been sexually abused’. Two detectives from Scotland Yard took a full statement from the boy, who soon afterwards received calls at home from various men in London asking where he was, which he attributed to Morrison panicking after he had disappeared. Nothing more happened until two Scotland Yard officers arrived on the family’s doorstep a year later, with the boy’s clothes in a bag, saying that the man in question had been convicted in a Chelsea court, had been imprisoned for two years, and nothing else was to worry about. Only years later did the victim recognise Morrison as a prominent MP in the Thatcher government. Operation Fairbank continue to investigate this story (Bill Gardner, ‘Thatcher confidant raped boy and police covered crime up’, Daily Telegraph, January 5th, 2015). The man now says that:
I believe that Morrison was a high-profile guy so he got away with it. Either the police were paid off or they hushed it up because he was an MP.
“I was never the same after what happened – he ruined my life really. I left school soon afterwards because I lost all my confidence. I couldn’t handle what had happened to me.
Scotland Yard, in January 2015, were unable to confirm whether Morrison had been investigated at the time (Rebecca Camber, ‘Tory MP who was Thatcher’s confidant ‘raped my 14-year-old son at paedophile guest house’, Daily Mail, January 4th, 2015). More ominously, it was revealed that the body of the murdered Vishal Mehortra was found in woodland in Rogate, less than two miles from Harting (‘Thatcher aide could be linked to body found in Rogate’, Midhurst and Petworth Observer, January 10th, 2015).
However, since then reports have alleged that Morrison was arrested twice for picking up men at the toilets at Piccadilly tube, taken to West End Central police station in Savile Row and let off with a caution each time (a second caution is very unusual); the Met are trying to track down officers who were involved with the arrests. There are also rumours of Morrison’s having been caught making similar approaches at toilets in Crew railway station in Cheshire. These have all led to a probe into police corruption and high-level cover-up (Nick Dorman, ‘Probe over claims Margaret Thatcher aide escaped prosecution because of Establishment links’, Sunday People, July 18th, 2015; Martin Beckford, ‘Met launch probe into Maggie aide and its own cover up’, Mail on Sunday, July 19th, 2015). A later report made clear that one of the offences for which Morrison was arrested involved a 15-year old boy (Matt Chorley, ‘Senior Westminster figures from 1970s and 1980s including former Home Secretary Leon Brittan named in government child abuse files’, Daily Mail, July 22nd, 2015).
The following are the recollections of Grahame Nicholls, who ran the Chester Trades Council (Morrison was the MP for Chester from 1974 to 1992), who wrote:
After the 1987 general election, around 1990, I attended a meeting of Chester Labour party where we were informed by the agent, Christine Russell, that Peter Morrison would not be standing in 1992. He had been caught in the toilets at Crewe station with a 15-year-old boy. A deal was struck between Labour, the local Tories, the local press and the police that if he stood down at the next election the matter would go no further. Chester finished up with Gyles Brandreth and Morrison walked away scot-free. I thought you might be interested. (cited in ‘Simon Hoggart’s week’, The Guardian, November 16th, 2012).
Former MP for Chester (1997-2010), Christine Russell
This week, it has emerged that previously undiscovered files exist on Morrison (and Leon Brittan, former Wokingham MP Sir William van Straubenzee, and others including a figure named only as ‘Vanessa the Undresser’) which are thought to relate to abuse, and were not seen by Peter Wanless and Richard Whittam QC when preparing their earlier report (a supplement has been published here) (Tom Parmenter, ‘Key Westminster Figures in Child Abuse Papers’, Sky News, July 23rd, 2015). A report in The Times has named Morrison as an MP about whom communications took place in November 1986 between the late Sir Antony Duff (1920-2000), then head of MI5, and Sir Robert Armstrong, then cabinet secretary. Two sources had approached senior officials with reports that Morrison had ‘a penchant for small boys’. He was questioned about these but the security services accepted his claims that the allegations were false (Daniel Martin, ‘Secret files ‘show MI5 let abuse claim MP off hook’: Security chief said the case would ’embarrass the Government”, Daily Mail, July 22nd, 2015). Duff concluded ‘The risks of political embarrassment to the Government is rather greater than the security danger’ (clearly the interests of the victims did not even filter into Duff and Armstrong’s calculations, as has been commented upon by many, including Wanless and a spokesperson for NSPCC) (Sean O’Neill and Gabriella Swerling, ‘Child abuse suspect was Thatcher aide’, The Times, July 24th, 2015 [see below]; Daniel Martin, ‘Secret files ‘show MI5 let abuse claim MP off the hook’: Security chief said the case would ’embarrass the Government’, Daily Mail, July 22nd, 2015; ‘Child abuse: PM Tells Police – No Limits’, Sky News, July 23rd, 2015; Joseph Watts, ”Child abuse’ files must give justice to victims, says NSPCC chief’, Evening Standard, July 23rd, 2015). Approached a few days ago by The Times, Armstrong had the following to say:
My official business was the protection of national security. I have to stress that there was nothing like evidence in this case. There was just a shadow of a rumour. It’s impossible to take investigative action on shadows of rumours. . . If there is some reason to think a crime has been committed, then people like the cabinet secretary are not to start poking their noses into it. It’s for the police to do that.
To the Mail, Armstrong (who would not name Morrison to them), said:
I thought MI5’s actions were correct at the time. I think they were right to report the rumour, they were right to make what inquiries they could and they were right to come to the conclusion they did. I think if there was evidence it would have been properly examined at the time. I don’t think this is a matter of important people being protected. You can’t pursue inquiries unless you have evidence on which you can base the enquiry. A shadow of a rumour is not enough.
He went on to say ‘I think he [Morrison] was interview but he denied it. It is not my position to name him’, and did not know if Thatcher was made aware of the MI5 decision, which drew a furious response from Rochdale MP and long-term campaigner against child abuse Simon Danczuk (Vanessa Allen, Claire Ellicott and Daniel Martin, ‘I won’t name child abuse MP; Fury as Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet chief defends failure to act over senior Tory’, Daily Mail, July 24th, 2015). See also Armstrong’s non-committal response to questions sent to him by investigative journalist Tim Tate, and Tate’s own blog on this.
Armstrong, who once became notorious for using the phrase ‘economical with the truth’ when involved in trying to prevent the publication of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher (Sue Reid, ‘Mandarin who can’t help being economical with truth: Lord Armstrong at centre of accusations of child abuse cover-up’, Daily Mail, July 24th, 2015), also has past form in terms of his dismissive responses to the entreaties by pianist and whistleblower Martin Roscoe for the Royal Northern College of Music, of which Armstrong was the chair of the board of governors in 2002, not to employ violinist Malcolm Layfield as their Head of Strings, after his record of sexually exploiting girls at Chetham’s School (see Charlotte Higgins, ‘After Michael Brewer: the RNCM teacher’s story’, The Guardian, February 13th, 2013; ‘Correspondence over appointment of Malcolm Layfield at Royal Northern College of Music’, The Guardian, February 8th, 2013).
On top of everything else, the Labour MP John Mann published a series of important tweets: ‘In 1984 Geoffrey Dickens gave Leon Brittan as Home Secretary a further list of alleged paedophiles linked directly to Peter Morrison’; ‘What happened to the list of Peter Morrison linked paedophiles given to Home Secretary in 1984? And why was no action taken?’; ‘I have just met person who gave list of Peter Morrison linked paedophiles to Geoffrey Dickens. Astonishing developments and cover ups’; ‘The new list of Dickens names was entirely different to first. It was given to him precisely because of publicity about his initial action’ all of which suggests new dimensions to the files supplied by Dickens to then Home Secretary Leon Brittan.
Sir Peter Morrison (1944-1995) was known, according to an obituary by Patrick Cosgrove, as a right winger who disliked immigration, supported the return of capital punishment, and wished to introduce vouchers for education. He was from a privileged political family; his father, born John Morrison, became Lord Margadale, the squire of Fonthill, led the campaign to ensure Alec Douglas-Home became Prime Minister in 1963, and predicted Thatcher’s ultimate accession to the leadership (Sue Reid, ‘Did Maggie know her closest aide was preying on under-age boys?’, Daily Mail, July 12th, 2014, updated July 16th). The young Peter attended Eton College, then Keble College, Oxford. Entering the House of Commons in 1974 at the age of 29, during the first Thatcher government he occupied a series of non-cabinet ministerial positions, then became Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party in 1986, replacing Jeffrey Archer after his resignation, and working under Chairman Norman Tebbit. His sister, Dame Mary Morrison, became a lady-in-waiting to the Queen (Gyles Brandreth, ”I was abused by my choir master’: In a brave and haunting account, TV star and ex MP Gyles Brandreth reveals the years of abuse he endured at prep school’, Daily Mail, September 12th, 2014).
Morrison was close to Thatcher from when he entered Parliament (see Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (London: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 837), working for her 1975 leadership campaign and, after she became Prime Minister, putting her and Denis up for holiday in the 73 000 acre estate owned by his father in Islay, where games of charades were played (Jonathan Aitken, Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 158-160, 279-281); Thatcher stayed there after her 1979 election victory, together with Morrison and also Leon Brittan (see the image below of the three of them, from Tom Shields, ‘Mrs T weathers rainy day blues’; Glasgow Herald, August 17th, 1979; see also Michael White’s his obituary of Brittan on how he helped to ‘keep her entertained during her reluctantly taken holidays’; Michael White, ‘Leon Brittan: Thatcher’s protege turned scapegoat’, The Guardian, January 22nd, 2015) Lord Margadale had previously entertained Princess Alexandra, Harold Macmillan and Ted Heath there. Morrison himself said in 1979 that Thatcher likely knew the people of Islay better than any others, except for in her constituency of Finchley (Tom Shields, ‘Not even on Islay can Mrs Thatcher get away from it all’, Glasgow Herald, August 16th, 1979; Tom Shields, ‘Islay estate sacks half its workers’, Glasgow Herald, August 2nd, 1982).
After being appointed as Thatcher’s Parliamentary Private Secretary in 1990, Morrison ran what is generally believed to have been a complacent and lacklustre leadership campaign for her when she was challenged by Michael Heseltine; as is well-known, she did not gain enough votes to prevent a second ballot, and then resigned soon afterwards. Morrison was known to some others as ‘a toff’s toff’, who ‘made it very clear from the outset that he did not intend spending time talking to the plebs’ on the backbenches (Stephen Norris, Changing Trains: An Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1996), p. 149).
Jonathan Aitken, a close friend of Morrison’s, would later write the following about him:
I knew Peter Morrison as well as anyone in the House. We had been school friends. He was the best man at my wedding in St Margaret’s, Westminster. We shared many private and political confidences. So I knew the immense pressures he was facing at the time when he was suddenly overwhelmed with the greatest new burden imaginable – running the Prime Minister’s election campaign.
Sixteen years in the House of Commons had treated Peter badly. His health had deteriorated. He had an alcohol problem that made him ill, overweight and prone to take long afternoon naps. In the autumn of 1990 he became embroiled in a police investigation into aspects of his personal life. The allegations against him were never substantiated, and the inquiry was subsequently dropped. But at the time of the leadership election, Peter was worried, distracted and unable to concentrate. (Aitken, Margaret Thatcher, pp. 625-626).
An important article by Nick Davies published in The Guardian in April 1998, also made the following claim:
Fleet Street routinely nurtures a crop of untold stories about powerful abusers who have evaded justice. One such is Peter Morrison, formerly the MP for Chester and the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. Ten years ago, Chris House, the veteran crime reporter for the Sunday Mirror, twice received tip-offs from police officers who said that Morrison had been caught cottaging in public toilets with underaged boys and had been released with a caution. A less powerful man, the officers complained, would have been charged with gross indecency or an offence against children.
At the time, Chris House confronted Morrison, who used libel laws to block publication of the story. Now, Morrison is dead and cannot sue. Police last week confirmed that he had been picked up twice and never brought to trial. They added that there appeared to be no trace of either incident in any of the official records. (Nick Davies, ‘The sheer scale of child sexual abuse in Britain’, The Guardian, April 1998).
Recently, the former editor of the Sunday Mirror, Paul Connew, has revealed how he was told in 1994 by House of the stories concerning Morrison. Connew has revealed that it was a police officer who was the source, dismayed by the lack of action after Morrison had been arrested for sexually molesting under-age boys; the officer revealed how Morrison had attempted to ‘pull rank’ by demanding to see the most senior officer, and announcing proudly who he was. All the paperwork relating to the arrest simply ‘disappeared’. Connew sent a reporter to confront Morrison at his Chester home, but Morrison dismissed the story and made legal threats, which the paper was not able to counter without naming their police source, which was impossible. The story ultimately died, though Connew was able to establish that in the senior echelons of Scotland Yard, Morrison’s arrest and proclivities were no secret; he had been arrested on multiple occasions in both Chester and London, always hushed up (Paul Connew, ‘Commentary: how paedophile Peter Morrison escaped exposure’, Exaro News, September 26th, 2014).
In an article in the Daily Mail published in October 2012, former Conservative MP and leader of the Welsh Tories Rod Richards claimed that Morrison (and another Tory grandee who has not been named) was connected to the terrible abuse scandals in Bryn Estyn and Bryn Alyn children’s homes, in the Wrexham area of North Wales, having seen documents which identified both politicians as frequent, unexplained visitors. Richards also claimed that William Hague, who was Secretary of State for Wales from 1995 to 1997, and who set up the North Wales Child Abuse inquiry, would have seen the files on Morrison, but sources close to Hague denied that he had seen any such material. A former resident of the Bryn Estyn care home testified to Channel 4 News, testified to seeing Morrison arrive there on five occasions, and may have driven off with a boy in his car (‘Exclusive: Eyewitness ‘saw Thatcher aide take boys to abuse”, Channel 4 News, November 6th, 2012; see also Reid, ‘Did Maggie know her closest aide was preying on under-age boys?’).
The owner of Bryn Alyn and other homes, John Allen, was sentenced to life in December 2014 for sexual abuse of 18 boys and one girl there (‘Children’s home boss John Allen jailed for life for campaign of sex abuse’, Daily Telegraph, December 1st, 2014), and was revealed to be a friend of Michael John Carroll, who was abusing children in homes in the London borough of Lambeth (Tom Pettifor and Elwyn Roberts, ‘Two notorious paedophiles at centre of nationwide network of abusers including Tory and Labour politicians, Daily Mirror, December 1st, 2014). The implications – that Morrison was connected not just to abuse in North Wales but also to a wider ring of abusers – are almost too horrifying to contemplate, but must be considered (see also my collection of reports on abuse in Lambeth, which I will update soon).
More stories and allegations have emerged about a Wrexham paedophile ring operative in the 1970s and 1980s, and trials are ongoing, so I will just link to a few articles about these (James Tozer, ‘Police probe into historic paedophile ring reveals 140 victims allege abuse by 84 people at 18 care homes across North Wales’, Daily Mail, April 29th, 2013; David Holmes, ‘Chester man alleges his child abuse claims were ignored for more than a decade’, The Chester Chronicle, December 3rd, 2014; Steven Morris, ‘Wrexham paedophile ring preyed on boys in north Wales, court told’, The Guardian, April 21st, 2015; ”Predatory’ paedophiles abused boys in Wrexham in the 1980s’, BBC News, April 21st, 2015; ‘Historic Predatory Paedophile Ring In Wrexham Convicted’, Wrexham.com, July 2nd, 2015; Steven Morris, ‘Five men found guilty of being members of ‘predatory paedophile ring”, The Guardian, July 3rd, 2015). As far as those who have been convicted is concerned, it is a matter of paramount importance to establish whether Morrison was acquainted with any of them. The 2000 Waterhouse Inquiry Report concluded that there was a paedophile ring operative in Chester and Wrexham (‘Waterhouse Inquiry: recommendations and conclusions’, The Telegraph, November 6th, 2012), thus linking North Wales abuse to Morrison’s own constituency.
Morrison’s successor as MP for Chester, Gyles Brandreth, told the press that he and his wife Michelle had been told on the doorstep repeatedly and emphatically that the MP was ‘a disgusting pervert’ (David Holmes, ‘Former Chester MP Peter Morrison implicated in child abuse inquiry’, Chester Chronicle, November 8th, 2012). This appeared in Brandreth’s book, Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries (London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999), p. 54, in the entry for September 12th, 1991 (taken from the entry ‘Brandreth on the child abuser Peter Morrison MP’, cathyfox blog, July 26th, 2015):
In a build-up to the launch of a new edition of Brandreth’s book (London: Biteback Publishing, 2014), which suggested major new revelations but delivered little, Brandreth merely added that when canvassing in 1991 ‘we were told that Morrison was a monster who interfered with children’, and added:
At the time, I don’t think I believed it. People do say terrible things without justification. Beyond the fact that his drinking made Morrison appear unprepossessing — central casting’s idea of what a toff paedophile might look like — no one was offering anything to substantiate their slurs.
At the time, I never heard anything untoward about Morrison from the police or from the local journalists — and I gossiped a good deal with them. Four years after stepping down, Peter Morrison was dead of a heart attack.
What did Mrs Thatcher know of his alleged dark side? When I talked to her about him, I felt she had the measure of the man. She knew he was homosexual, and she knew he was a drinker. She was fond of him, clearly, but told me that he had ruined himself through ‘self-indulgence’ — much as Reginald Maudling had done a generation earlier. (Brandreth, ”I was abused by my choir master’)
Brandreth did however crucially mention that William Hague had told him in 1996 that Morrison’s name might feature in connection with the inquiry into child abuse in North Wales, specifically in connection to Bryn Estyn, thus corroborating Rod Richard’s account, though Brandreth also pointed out that the Waterhouse report made no mention of Morrison (Brandreth, ”I was abused by my choir master’).
At present, William Hague (who retired from the Cabinet and Parliament quite suddenly, stepping down at the 2015 election, in circumstances which have never been fully explained) is expected to be heavily criticised in a forthcoming report on the North Wales abuse scandal, from the Macur inquiry, to which Rod Richards gave evidence (Glen Owen and Brendan Carlin, ‘Hague faces cover-up row over Thatcher ally’s link to care home abuse scandal: Former foreign secretary said to have been made aware of Sir Peter Morrison’s connections while working as Welsh secretary, Mail on Sunday, May 31st, 2015).
On top of all of this, Morrison’s name has surfaced in connection with another murder inquiry (as well as that of Vishal Mehortra), of Martin Allen, who disappeared on Bonfire Night 1979, and has never been found. Morrison was amongst those (together with Peter Hayman and Leon Brittan) who visited the cottage in Kensington of Allen’s father, who was chief chauffeur at the Australian High Commission (Don Hale, ‘Witness comes forward in Martin Allen case linked to Westminster paedophile ring’, Daily Star, April 12th, 2015).
The journalist Simon Heffer has also said that rumours about Morrison were circulating in Tory top ranks as early as 1988, whilst Tebbit has admitted hearing rumours ‘through unusual channels’, then confronting Morrison about them, which he denied (Reid, ‘Did Maggie know her closest aide was preying on under-age boys?’); Tebbit, who has suggested that a cover-up of high-level abuse by politicians is likely, now concedes that he had been ‘naive’ in believing Morrison, and rejected Currie’s account of Morrison having admitted his offences to him (James Lyons, ‘Norman Tebbit admits he heard rumours top Tory was paedophile a decade before truth revealed’, Daily Mirror, July 8th, 2014). In a recent interview, Tebbit has given a slightly different rendition of things, claiming that he had ‘heard stories that Peter had an unhealthy interest in young men but not that it was with underage children. I confronted him about this, he denied it flat’ (Marie Woolf, ‘Tebbit quizzed MP on sex claims’, The Sunday Times, July 26th, 2015). He also refused to say who had told him about Morrison, saying somewhat cryptically:
There was no official contact. I choose my words carefully. I will just say that I was made aware. I was not sent a file.
Furthermore, Tebbit claimed he had had ‘no reason to believe Downing Street was aware of the allegation’, and had not contacted Thatcher about it, nor pursued the matter with the police, as he assumed they had no evidence and would not press charges (which raises the question of whether it was the police who told him).
Other Tory politicians recall John Wakeham, Chief Whip from June 1983 to January 1987 (see Wakeham’s profile at parliament.uk) telling them, after coming to him with reports of Morrison’s cottaging skirmishes, ‘If someone brings me some evidence I can do something about it, if required’. Another Tory said ‘It never got out, but people said ‘they’ll never be able to do that for Peter again’ (Michael White, ‘Politicians regret complacency over alleged establishment child abuse’, The Guardian, March 17th, 2015).
The novelist Frederick Forsyth, on the other hand, described Morrison as someone ‘who should have been exposed many years ago’, as well as being a politically incompetent alcoholic; however, as far as his sexual offences were concerned, Forsyth claimed Thatcher ‘suspected nothing’ (Frederick Forsyth, ‘Debauched and dissolute fool’, The Express, July 18th, 2014). Later he called Morrison an ‘awful slut’ who was ‘now exposed at last as a ruthless boy-molester’ (Frederic Forsyth, ‘Mrs Thatcher should have chosen better’, Sunday Express, January 9th, 2015).
Recently, Thatcher’s bodyguard Barry Strevens has come forward to claim that he told Thatcher directly about allegations of Morrison holding sex parties at his house with underage boys (one aged 15), when told about this by a senior Cheshire Police Officer. (see Lynn Davidson, ‘Exclusive: Thatcher’s Bodyguard on Abuse Claims’, The Sun on Sunday, July 27th, 2014 (article reproduced in comments below); and Matt Chorley, ‘Barry Strevens says he told Iron Lady about rumours about Peter Morrison’, Mail on Sunday, July 27th, 2014; see also Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith, ‘Thatcher ‘was warned of Tory child sex party claims’’, The Independent, July 27th, 2014). Strevens claimed to have had a meeting with the PM and her PPS Archie Hamilton (now Baron Hamilton of Epsom), which he had requested immediately. Strevens had claimed this was right after the Jeffrey Archer scandal; Archer resigned in October 1986, whilst Hamilton was Thatcher’s PPS from 1987 to 1988. Strevens recalls Thatcher simply thanking him and that was the last he heard of it. He said:
I wouldn’t say she (Lady Thatcher) was naive but I would say she would not have thought people around her would be like that.
I am sure he would have given her assurances about the rumours as otherwise she wouldn’t have given him the job.
Strevens spoke again to the press in May 2015, to clarify further his account given in July 2014: he said that he had been told by a senior officer in Chester of rumours of under-aged boys attending sex parties at a home owned by Morrison. According to Strevens, Archie Hamilton ‘took notes and they thanked me’ (Hamilton recalls the officer being at Downing Street, but no mention of under-age boys), listened to him, and left it at that. Four years later, Thatcher recommended Morrison for a knighthood, which he received (Jonathan Corke, ‘Margaret Thatcher knew paedophile Tory’s sick secret but STILL secured him a knighthood; The former PM also recommended alleged abuser Leon Brittan and is claimed to have been aware of allegations about fellow knights Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith’, Sunday People, May 9th, 2015)
Strevens with Thatcher
Danczuk, who says that he met someone who alleges that Morrison raped him, made clear that in his view ‘There is little doubt in my mind that Margaret Thatcher turned a blind eye to known paedophiles from Peter Morrison to Cyril Smith and the rest.’ (James Lyons and James Gillespie, ‘Thatcher ignored Smith Abuse’, The Sunday Times, March 8th, 2015).
The accounts by Nicholls and Strevens make clear that the allegations – concerning in one case a 15-year old boy – are more serious than said in a later rendition by Currie, which said merely that Morrison ‘had sex with 16-year-old boys when the age of consent was 21’ (cited in Andrew Sparrow, ‘Politics Live’, The Guardian, October 24th, 2012). A further allegation was made by Peter McKelvie, who led the investigation in 1992 into Peter Righton in an open letter to Peter Mandelson. A British Aerospace Trade Union Convenor had said one member had alleged that Morrison raped him, and he took this to the union’s National HQ, who put it to the Labour front bench. A Labour minister reported back to say that the Tory Front Bench had been approached. This was confirmed, according to McKelvie, by second and third sources, and also alleged that the conversations first took place at a 1993-94 Xmas Party hosted by the Welsh Parliamentary Labour Party. Mandelson has not yet replied.
In the 1997 election, Christine Russell herself displaced Brandreth and she served as Labour MP until 2010, when she was unseated by Conservative MP Stephen Mosely (see entry for ‘Christine Russell’ at politics.co.uk).
In 2013, following the publication of Hoggart’s article citing Nicholls, an online petition was put together calling for an inquiry, and submittted to then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State Christopher Grayling. Russell denounced the ‘shoddy journalism’ of the Guardian piece, recalled rumours of Morrison’s preferences, but said there was no hint of illegal acts; she did not however rule out an agreement that Morrison should stand down (‘Campaigners ask for inquiry over ex-Chester MP’, Chester Chronicle, January 3rd, 2013).
Morrison is now widely believed to have been a central character in a network of high-level VIP abusers (see Keir Mudie, ‘VIP paedophile files: The sick web of high-powered and well-connected child abusers’, Sunday People, March 21st, 2015).
Further questions now need to be asked of Lord Tebbit, Teresa Gorman, Edwina Currie, William Hague and other senior Tories, and crucially of Frances Mowatt, not to mention Christine Russell and others in Chester Labour Party, of what was known and apparently covered-up about Morrison. Frances Maude (now Baron Maude of Horsham), the Minister of State for Trade and Investment, was PPS to Morrison from 1984-85 (see Maude’s biography at politics.co.uk), a crucial period, and also needs to be questioned on what he knew about his former boss’s activities. In March of this year, Maude, then Cabinet Minister, refused to make details of newly-found files public (Tom Parmenter, ‘Family Demands Names Of New Child Abuse Files’, Sky News, March 7th, 2015); it appears now that one of these files referred to his old boss Morrison. If money was involved in at least offers to Mowatt, as Currie alleges was told to her by Gorman, then the seriousness of the allegations is grave. In October 2014, Currie arrogantly and haughtily declared on Twitter:
@MaraudingWinger @DrTeckKhong @MailOnline I’ve been nicer than many deserve! But I take the consequences, & I do not hide behind anonymity.
@jackaranian @Sunnyclaribel @woodmouse1 I heard only tiny bits of gossip. The guy is dead, go pursue living perps. You’ll do more good
@woodmouse1 @jackaranian @Sunnyclaribel The present has its own demands. We learn from the past, we don’t get obsessive about it. Get real.
@ian_pace @woodmouse1 @jackaranian @Sunnyclaribel And there are abusers in action right now, while you chase famous dead men.
@ian_pace @woodmouse1 @jackaranian @Sunnyclaribel I’d rather police time be spent now on today’s criminals – detect, stop and jail them
@jackaranian @Sunnyclaribel @woodmouse1 Flattered that you think I know so much. Sorry but that’s not so. If you do, go to police
@ian_pace @woodmouse1 @jackaranian @Sunnyclaribel They want current crimes to be dealt with by police, too. And they may need other help.
@ian_pace @woodmouse1 @jackaranian @Sunnyclaribel Of course. But right now, youngsters are being hurt and abused. That matters.
Considering Currie also rubber-stamped the appointment of Jimmy Savile at Broadmoor (Rowena Mason, ‘Edwina Currie voices regrets over Jimmy Savile after inquiry criticism’, The Guardian, Thursday June 26th, 2014) and clearly knew information about Morrison, including claims of bribery of a political agent, known to at least one other MP (Gorman) as well as herself, it should not be surprising that she would want claims of abuse involving dead figures to be sidelined.
This story relates to political corruption at the highest level, with a senior politician near the top of his party involved in the abuse of children, and clear evidence that various others knew about this, but did nothing, and strong suggestions that politicians and police officers conspired to keep this covered up, even using hush money, in such a way which ensured that Morrison was free to keep abusing others until his death. This story must not be allowed to die this time round. The actions of Duff and Armstrong (and Thatcher) may have sealed the fate of further boys who Morrison went onto abuse. That is the highest dereliction of duty imaginable.
The Times, July 24th, 2015
Sean O’Neill and Gabriella Swerling, ‘Child abuse suspect was Thatcher aide’
A Whitehall investigation was carried out in the mid-1980s after two sources approached senior officials with reports that Morrison had “a penchant for small boys”.
MI5 officers questioned Morrison, the MP for Chester and deputy chairman of the party, and accepted his denials. It is understood that the allegations were not reported to police. Four years later, in July 1990, he was appointed Thatcher’s parliamentary private secretary (PPS).
Files recently uncovered at the Cabinet Office revealed a note about the incident sent in November 1986 by Sir Antony Duff, head of the Security Service, to Sir Robert Armstrong, the cabinet secretary. It said there was no threat to national security but the claims did carry “the risk of political embarrassment to the government”.
Sir Robert, 88 – now Lord Armstrong of Ilminster – said last night: “My official business was the protection of national security. I have to stress that there was nothing like evidence in this case. There was just a shadow of a rumour. It’s impossible to take investigative action on shadows of rumours.”
He added: “If there is some reason to think a crime has been committed, then people like the cabinet secretary are not to start poking their noses into it. It’s for the police to do that.”
Morrison, who died in 1995, had been a whip and a junior minister before he was made Thatcher’s PPS. His Times obituary said that he “had clearly reached his ministerial ceiling [in 1990] and it was an act of kindness on the prime minister’s part to appoint him as her new PPS”.
He held the job for four months until November 1990, when he mismanaged the party leadership contest that led to Thatcher’s resignation.
The documents referring to Morrison are in four miscellaneous files discovered by a Cabinet Office team this year.
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, who led a review into lost Whitehall documents on abuse scandals, said that the Duff memo revealed that “child safety came a poor second to preserving reputations of individuals or government departments”.
Writing in The Times today, he says: “It is plainly obvious . . . those at the highest level who once strode the corridors of power were putting their fear of political embarrassment above the risks to children.”
The documents have been sent to the Goddard inquiry into child sexual abuse which formally opened this month.
Call for All Political Leaders and Leadership Candidates to Pledge Full Co-operation with Abuse InquiryPosted: July 9, 2015
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is now underway. Despite two previous chairs rightly standing down due to some of their connections, and unpleasant politics between some other panel members and other individuals, resulting in the loss of several very good people, nonetheless what is now in place is strong, focused, and has real powers. I am very pleased at the access to intelligence files and also the pledge that no-one who comes forward will face prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. And personally, I am especially pleased that the Terms of Reference make clear that music tuition will be an area of investigation, for which I have campaigned qnd lobbied for several years. The website is at:
Some survivors and campaigners have unfortunately expressed grave reservations about the inquiry. I would implore them to at least try engaging with it, difficult though this might be, in full recognition of the fact that they have more reason than anyone to be distrustful of any such venture. But I believe the chair and panel do wish to get to the bottom of this terrible factor afflicting our society for so long, and help to build a better society in its place.
In an interview I gave earlier today for Sky News:
I called for the leaders of all the major political parties to pledge full co-operation with this inquiry (and make all relevant documentation available) and want to repeat this now, and hope others will help with urging publicly not only current leaders, but also leadership and deputy leadership candidates, to do so. Much evidence has come to light suggesting that abuse by senior politicians in many parties was either ignored or actively covered up, and that other politicians had connections to paedophile organisations. It is paramount that this is fully investigated in order to understand better how high-level abuse could go on for so long with apparent impunity.
So I ask people, journalists, campaigners, bloggers, tweeters and others to help keep the pressure on the following politicians in England and Wales to give such a pledge, and if not, explain not.
Leader: David Cameron
Future Leadership Candidates: Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Theresa May
Leader: Nick Clegg
Leadership Candidates: Tim Farron, Norman Lamb
Leader: Harriet Harman
Leadership Candidates: Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn
Deputy Leadership Candidates: Tom Watson, Stella Creasey, Ben Bradshaw, Angela Eagle, Caroline Flint
Leader: Nigel Farage
Leader: Natalie Bennett
Leader: Leanne Wood
The loss of all but one Labour seat in Scotland to the SNP appears to have sent shockwaves down the political establishment, as if Scotland were a much larger part of the United Kingdom – in terms of population and seats – than it actually is. It’s time for some perspective in terms of figures:
There are currently 650 seats in the whole of the United Kingdom. 18 of these are in Northern Ireland and are generally uncontested by the major parties in the mainland. This leaves 632 for England, Scotland and Wales. Of these, 533 are in England, 59 are in Scotland, 40-in Wales. England has nine times the number of seats of the next largest region.
In 2015, the breakdown of seats in the three constituent parts of the mainland were as follows:
Total: Conservatives 330, Labour 232, SNP 56, Lib Dems 8, UKIP 1, Green 1, Speaker 1
England: Conservatives 318, Labour 206, Lib Dems 6, UKIP 1, Green 1, Speaker 1
Scotland: SNP 56, Labour 1, Conservatives 1, Lib Dems 1
Wales: Labour 25, Conservatives 11, Plaid Cymru 3, Lib Dems 1
Labour continue to have a clear commanding lead in Wales; there is not at present any sign of Plaid Cymru making major advances comparable to the SNP, though of course this situation may change. The Conservatives, however, have an overall majority in England of 107 seats. Were Labour to recapture 20 seats in Scotland (which would now be a significant gain), say, they would still be a long way from denting the Conservatives majority in England.
But Labour have achieved this before. Consider these results in England alone:
1945: Labour 331, Conservatives 159, Liberals 5, Labour Independent 1, Independent Conservative 1, Common Wealth 1, Communist 1, Independent 3
1950: Labour 251, Conservatives 242, Liberals 2, National Liberals and Conservatives 4, Conservatives and Liberals 2, Conservatives and Natural Liberals 2, Liberals and Conservatives 1, National Liberals 1,
1951: Conservatives 259, Labour 233, Liberals 2, Conservatives and Liberals 2, Conservatives and National Liberals 2, Liberals and Conservatives 3, National Liberals and Conservatives 5
1955: Conservatives 279, Labour 216, Liberals 2, Conservatives and Liberals 2, Conservatives and National Liberals, Liberals and Conservatives 3, National Liberals and Conservatives 5
1959: Conservatives 302, Labour 193, Liberals 3, Conservatives and Liberals 2, Conservatives and National Liberals 6, Liberals and Conservatives 2, National Liberals and Conservatives 3
1964: Conservatives 255, Labour 245, Liberals 3, Conservatives and National Liberals 4, National Liberals and Conservatives 2, Speaker 1
1966: Labour 285, Conservatives 216, Liberals 6, Conservatives and National Liberals 2, National Liberals and Conservatives 1, Speaker 1
1970: Conservatives 292, Labour 216, Liberals 2, Speaker 1
February 1974: Conservatives 267, Labour 237, Liberals 9, Independent Labour 1, Social Democrat 1, Speaker 1
October 1974: Labour 255, Conservatives 252, Liberals 8, Speaker 1
1979: Conservatives 306, Labour 203, Liberals 7
1983: Conservatives 362, Labour 148, Liberals 10, SDP 3
1987: Conservatives 357, Labour 155, Liberals 7, SDP 3, Speaker 1
1992: Conservatives 319, Labour 195, Lib Dems 10
1997: Labour 329, Conservatives 165, Lib Dems 34, Independent 1
2001: Labour 323, Conservatives 165, Lib Dems 40, Independent 1
2005: Labour 286, Conservatives 194, Lib Dems 47, Respect 1, Independent 1
2010: Conservatives 297, Labour 191, Lib Dems 43, Green 1, Speaker 1
2015: Conservatives 318, Labour 206, Lib Dems 6, UKIP 1, Green 1, Speaker 1
In five of the eight elections since 1945 in which Labour won a majority nationwide, they also won an overall majority in England. The exceptions are 1950, when the Conservatives together with associated conservative parties had a total of 252 to Labour’s 251 in England, and Labour’s overall majority in the country was just 6 seats; 1964, when Labour had a nationwide majority of only 5, excluding the Speaker; and October 1974, when Labour had a nationwide majority of only 4. Attlee in 1945 and Blair in 1997 and 2001 won commanding three figure overall majorities in England alone; Wilson in 1966 had a respectable majority of 59, and Blair in 2005 also had a perfectly serviceable majority of 45.
Furthermore, in 1945, 1997 and 2001 Labour had an overall majority in the whole of the country on the basis of its English seats alone; in 1966 it would have scraped one from its seats in England and Wales (317 out of 630). 2005 was different, however; then the total of seats in England and Wales was 315, which would still have made it the largest party by a comfortable margin, but not able to command an overall majority in the UK if the SNP had performed like they did in 2015.
Labour can win, and win decisively in England; being able to do so is key to their winning a comfortable overall majority in the country again.
My predictions from January for the election results turned out to be significantly out; but then so did almost everyone else’s, including those of Iain Dale and Peter Kellner which I cite in the above link. One small consolation, in predictive terms, is having forecast a bigger collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote than many others did; it always appeared to me that with the loss of the major tactical vote which had doubled the Liberal Democrat representation in Parliament in 1997 from what it had previously been, the party would fall away to less than 20 seats, though it is still shocking to see them fall to 8.
But in the midst of an emotional aftermath and a large amount of disappointment and disillusionment for many on the left following the unexpected result, have a look at the actual results in terms of votes and percentages, compared to 2010:
Conservatives: 10,806,015, 36.4% in 2010; 11,334,920, 36.8% in 2015.
Labour: 8,609,527, 29.0% in 2010; 9,344,328, 30.4% in 2015.
Liberal Democrats: 6,836,824, 23.0% in 2010; 2,415,888, 7.9% in 2015.
UKIP: 919,471, 3.1% in 2010; 3,881,129, 12.6% in 2015.
SNP: 491,386, 1.7% in 2010; 1,454,436, 4.7% in 2015.
Greens: 265,243, 0.9% in 2010; 1,154,562, 3.8% in 2015.
Plaid Cymru: 165,394, 0.4% in 2010; 181,694, 0.6% in 2015.
Turnout: 29,687,604, 65.1% in 2010; 30,691,680, 66.1% in 2015.
So in 2015 there was a very small increase in both Conservative and Labour votes. UKIP and the Greens had the biggest success in votes terms, both quadrupling their numbers (though UKIP started out from a much bigger base and are a very much more significant force); the SNP trebled theirs. The Liberal Democrats had by far the worst result of the above, falling to almost one-third of what they had before. Plaid Cymru achieved a very small increase.
But then look at the results in Scotland:
Conservatives: 412,655, 16.7% in 2010; 434,097, 14.9% in 2015.
Labour: 1,035,526, 42.0% in 2010; 707,147, 24.3% in 2015.
Liberal Democrats: 465,471, 18.9% in 2010; 219,675, 7.5% in 2015.
SNP: 491,386, 19.9% in 2010; 1,454,436, 50.0% in 2015.
UKIP: 17,223, 0.7% in 2010; 47,078, 1.6% in 2015.
Greens (Scottish Greens): 16,827, 0.7% in 2010, 39,205, 1.3% in 2015.
Turnout: 2,465,722, 63.8% in 2010; 2,910,465, 71.1% in 2015.
The Conservatives slightly upped their number of votes, but fell in terms of proportions by about one-eighth; Labour fell drastically, to almost half of their percentage votes, and the Liberal Democrats even more so. The SNP had a massive rise to two-and-a-half times the percentage their received in 2010, and interestingly the Greens doubled their vote, and UKIP did even better (doing better than the Greens by all measures in Scotland).
So if we therefore look at the votes for the five major national parties in England and Wales alone, we get the following figures:
Conservatives: 10,393,360, 38.2% in 2010; 10,900,823, 39.2% in 2015.
Labour: 7,574,001, 27.8% in 2010; 8,637,181, 31.1% in 2015.
Liberal Democrats: 6,371,353, 23,4% in 2010; 2,196,213, 7.9% in 2015.
UKIP: 902,248, 3.3% in 2010; 3,834,051, 13.8% in 2015.
Greens: 248,416, 0.9% in 2010; 1,115,357, 4.0% in 2015.
Turnout: 27,221,882, 65.2% in 2010; 27,781,215, 65.6% in 2015.
So here the patterns are similar to those for the UK as a whole, except for the fact that Labour gained 3.3% in England and Wales (compared to just 1.4% in the whole UK) and the Conservatives 1% (0.4% in the UK). UKIP and the Greens’ increases were both larger in England and Wales compared to the UK as a whole.
In terms of seats, in 2015 Labour gained 10 seats from the Conservatives, but the Conservatives in turn gained 8 from them, a net gain for Labour of just 2. Labour won 12 from the Liberal Democrats, but the Conservatives won 27 (their net gain in the election of seats from any other parties was 29). The Liberal Democrats had previously had a strong presence in Scotland with 11 seats; with all but one of these falling away.
Without the loss of 40 seats in Scotland, Labour would have a total of 272, 16 more than in 2010; without the huge gains from the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives would have had 304, just 2 more than in 2010. Labour fell because its gains from the Liberal Democrats (12 seats) and Conservatives (2 net) were too modest to match their losses to the SNP (40 seats). The Conservatives lost no seats to the SNP at all and scraped a majority primarily through winning seats from the Liberal Democrats.
So the pattern appears as follows: in England and Wales Labour upped its vote by 3.3%, respectable but nothing like enough to make a real difference, largely through the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, but this benefited the Tories much more, either through directly taking votes or the collapse of an anti-Tory tactical vote. Labour were thrown back immensely above all by their drastic fall in Scotland. The Conservatives are very far from having won over a decisive section of the UK population; they have around 8% more than Labour in England and Wales, but have not hit 40% of those who vote. They are in a similar position to Harold Wilson after the October 1974 election, and a worse one than John Major after the 1992 election.
But for Labour, consider the percentages of the vote they have received in elections since 1964:
After the massive losses in 1983, Neil Kinnock was able to get the party almost to their 1979 levels by 1992. Ed Miliband has achieved considerably less than this. Tony Blair did not achieve the share of the vote of Harold Wilson in the 1960s (or even when Labour lost to the Conservatives in 1970) but benefited from a Conservative Party which had moved considerably to the right and lost a significant vote to the Liberal Democrats, who were also prepared to help Labour defeat the Conservatives through tactical voting. These factors have now changed; few would now appear to vote Liberal Democrat tactically against the Conservatives, and David Cameron has just about managed to convince wavering voters that the party is less toxic than it was during the Blair years.
Labour have not lost their key base of around 30% of the vote which translates into somewhere between 200 and 250 seats – though inevitable boundary changes will hurt the number of seats they can gain with the same votes. To win again, they need to regain a significant amount of their seats in Scotland (which may be the biggest challenge) and also make some inroads into that Conservative 8% lead in England and Wales. The apparent difficulty seems to lie in the fact that these aims seem mutually incompatible. However, I do not believe that the Scottish vote represents a significant move to the left and would ask how many would have voted for the SNP if they had the same programme except for the demand for independence, or any other rhetoric about being ‘Scottish’ or ‘national’; their performance might then be more comparable to that of the Greens. A situation of full financial autonomy, and its economic consequences (let alone those of full independence) might change the view of a great many Scottish people towards nationalism, though either such move would be very difficult to undo. Personally I find it extremely sinister when 50% of the people of an area unite under a flag, and find ludicrous suggestions that Labour would surge forth to victory if they became more like the SNP; they might find themselves closer to the position of the Greens.
Without the charismatic figure of Farage at the helm, the UKIP vote may wither away, but the consequences of this remain to be unseen. It will take a great deal for the Liberal Democrats to rebuild themselves; their decline may be terminal. Nick Clegg has returned them to their situation under Clement Davies in the 1950s, and completely undone the efforts of Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy to make them into a major third party force (see this post for a wider analysis of the results for the Liberal Democrats in historical perspective). But this just might offer an opportunity for Labour to reclaim some of the previous centre ground, but this would take a major cultural shift in the party such as they have only taken previously under Blair (and would have done under Gaitskell had he survived) in times of desperation following successive defeats. I will always resent deeply much of Blair’s foreign policy, but still acknowledge that New Labour did make possible some genuinely progressive social policies on the home front (as much because of others around him as Blair himself) and made the UK into a more internationally-minded and European country than that to which it has slipped back since. To achieve what Labour achieved under Blair, at least in the first term, may be as much as Labour could hope for now. This would still be a good deal better than what we have now.