Annual Review 2014/15

Providing a forum for thought

Edinburgh experts played a crucial role in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum, and have continued to do so as Britain faces new constitutional choices.

Professor Nicola McEwen (left) with Professor Laura Cram, in a committee room within the Scottish Parliament.
Professor Nicola McEwen (left) with Professor Laura Cram, in a committee room within the Scottish Parliament.

On 18 September 2014, the people of Scotland were asked a question: should Scotland be an independent country? Behind this deceptively simple formulation lay arguably the most important proposition put to a country of the United Kingdom in centuries. 

Amid a tangibly heightened atmosphere sweeping Scotland, the University carefully carved out an important arena where the issues around independence could be discussed and evaluated freely. 

“Political parties and the media couldn’t do that,” says the University’s Senior Vice-Principal and Professor of Politics, Charlie Jeffery. “They were all seen by the public as being on one side of the debate.” 

To that end, in the year leading up to the referendum on Scottish independence, Professor Jeffery led the Future of the UK and Scotland project. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and involving academics from several other Scottish universities, the project was tasked with unpicking some of the knotty issues around independence. Academic rigour from the University’s Schools of Law, Education, Business and Social & Political Science was brought into areas previously dominated by political spin. 

Public and political engagement

The project’s results were communicated in a number of ways. The Future of the UK and Scotland website featured regular blogs analysing breaking news around the referendum in short bursts of accessible non-academic language. A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about the vote was established. Public events were held. An e-book explaining the issues was published in conjunction with the David Hume Institute and the Hunter Foundation. 

Crucially these activities were valued equally by both sets of campaigners, as well as the public. Both campaigns expressed gratitude for the work. The blog built up an audience of hundreds of thousands. Nearly 10,000 people took part in the MOOC. The e-book was downloaded more than 100,000 times. 

The media were strategically engaged by the University, which became the destination of choice for more than 700 journalists looking for expertise and authoritative comment in the months preceding the referendum. Academics from Schools and departments as varied as Divinity, History and English Literature were sought out. 

There is a role for academic institutions here, and a real opportunity to reach beyond the policy debate and become a useful platform for public engagement.

Professor Charlie Jeffery

Via outlets ranging from the New York Times to Al Jazeera, the University provided insight to tens of millions of people, giving the University’s activities “the widest global reach for any social science initiative in the world”, according to Professor Jeffery. 

Following the 2014 referendum the University’s vital role in examining public policy continues. 

“The independence referendum didn’t end the constitutional debate; it kick-started a new one about reforming the UK,” says Professor Nicola McEwen, Associate Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University. Located in the School of Social & Political Science, the Centre is continuing the work begun by the Future of the UK and Scotland project. It is examining such issues as English Votes for English Laws, the Smith Commission and the resultant Scotland Bill, further devolution for Wales, and how a federal UK might operate. Given the speed at which these constitutional issues have arisen, the Centre provides a crucial space for consideration and debate. 

“The academic community is playing a vital role in saying ‘hang on’,” says Professor McEwen. “We need to ask what all this means in practice. It is really important that there is a centre and group of people that are given the time to reflect upon these things and disseminate that message beyond party politics.” 

Professor McEwen sees the Centre’s role as one of a broker. It is providing experts to give evidence at influential committees in Holyrood, Westminster, and Brussels, as well as helping civil society and the public understand the issues at hand. 

Europe-wide forum

Another impending constitutional issue is the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. An initiative called European Futures is the University’s response. Led by Professor Laura Cram, the European Futures blog provides a forum for Europe-wide discussion. 

“For many academics this is the moment when all their years of research suddenly becomes very important,” says Professor Cram. “There is a huge wealth of really exciting research that has already tackled some of the major issues. European Futures is a real opportunity to inform people. We want to make them feel confident as they vote on this issue.” 

Like the Future of the UK and Scotland, the European Futures project will commission research on specific topics related to the EU referendum. It will also use special software to track how the debate is unfolding on social media. Whatever the result, the University will continue to facilitate discussions about the major political forces that shape our lives for the benefit of both policymakers and the public. 

“We face major political challenges, some of which are beset by hard positions that don’t necessarily provide the ordinary citizen a way of judging between them,” says Professor Jeffery. “But there is a role for academic institutions here, and a real opportunity to reach beyond the policy debate and become a useful platform for public engagement.”