Prof. Anand Menon
Director of UK in a changing Europe
Anand Menon is Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King's College London and since 2015 has been Director of the Economic and Social Research Council’s UK in a Changing Europe initiative, providing independent evidence on EU-UK relations in the run up to Brexit. In a highly contentious and fast-moving political environment, he has gained a reputation for unbiased and authoritative advice, and an ability to withstand the most bullish of questioning. For this profile piece he is interviewed by Prof. Mark Reed.
Q: You have one of the most challenging roles in academia, but you always look like you are loving every minute of it. What do you see as your role in the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, and what do you love about it?
A: My role now in a sense is one of a salesman for social sciences. I spend a lot of my time going around meeting politicians, journalists or business people and explaining to them that actually if they want to understand Brexit and what it means for them, they need to be talking to academics who have done the research. That temperamentally fits me because I have always been something of a jack of all trades and master of none, so I need to go and talk to them cogently about what the economic research says even if I don’t really understand it completely. I get to meet loads of interesting people, so my days are infinitely varied, whether it is doing a media interview, writing for the papers or talking at events. The bottom line for the project is that I get to promote social sciences and draw that link between people in academia and people outside academia and so make the case that what we do is relevant to the outside world.
Q: Michael Gove famously said during the Brexit campaign that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, but in your role as director of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, how receptive to evidence from research have you found politicians to be?
A: Let me start by quietly excusing Michael and saying it’s not precisely what he said in the sense that he was talking about experts from places with acronyms like the IMF, WTO and things like that. But if you take what he said at face value, I think he was wrong. Interestingly enough, on the back of those comments we held a debate with Michael and Jonathan Portes [Kings College London] that we called “have we had enough of experts?”. The two of them came very close to consensus, which was interesting. I have found, wherever I have been across the country, people are interested and keen to listen and learn, so I don’t think it is the case at all that people have had enough of experts. I think people are suspicious of what they see as the “establishment”, so they take with a pinch of salt what some of those establishment institutions say. I think the key to having people listen to you is to not be party political. If you make it clear you haven’t got an axe to grind, and are impartial, answering questions on what we know from the research, then people prick up their ears and listen. We have reported research that some on the leave side have found useful and other work that the remain side have found useful. I was on BBC’s Question Time a few weeks ago and people listened because I wasn’t there saying I think we should do this or that. I was simply saying what the research indicates is “x” and to go away and draw your own conclusions.
Q: You made an implicit distinction between trust in certain establishment organisations versus trust in academics from universities, so, in addition to being impartial, is the label of being a university academic important in being listened to?
A: I think so. I always sort of giggle at the way people say “Professor” with such reverence. This happens outside the world of academia, though I never thought of it as being such a big deal. I think if you are an academic and you have got those credentials, it definitely helps.
Q: Last year, academics were giving evidence to a parliamentary committee and they were asked by a pro-Brexit MP how they voted. They all volunteered that they had voted remain, and the MP used this to undermine the credibility of their evidence. Have you ever been asked this by a politician and do you think academics should answer such a question?
Q: I’ve been asked it a lot and no I’ve never answered it because our credibility rests on our reputation for impartiality.
Q: Do you get attacked for not answering that question, and is it a position you find easy to defend?
A: I defend my lack of answer by saying two things: a) it is really none of your business – I don’t have to tell people who I voted for in a secret ballot; and b) I believe that public debate should be carried out on the issues, and you should play the ball not the man. If you have got a problem with the stuff that we publish, tell us why in substantive terms. We are very happy to be corrected but you can’t criticise a piece of work on the basis that you think the author voted a certain way. I don’t think that is legitimate grounds for debate.
Q: One of the academics giving evidence had been caught tweeting about Article 50. He had signed a petition for it to be revoked and the petition had auto-tweeted his response. This was also used to delegitimise his testimony on the basis that he had been acting politically. While this would support your argument for always remaining impartial, I know many academics who are very openly pro-remain, and who are actively campaigning for a people’s vote. Do you think that as academics it is impossible to express political opinion and provide evidence for policy?
A: No it is not impossible. It’s not for me to comment on whether or not people should express opinions. I have a relatively limited remit to run a funded programme that has impartiality built into its terms of reference. There are plenty of academics, as you say, who are openly in favour of one case or another and are actually having an enormous impact on the debate. I think about Michael Duggan, the lawyer at the University of Liverpool who is having an enormous impact in giving evidence to numerous select committees. He is widely respected and listened to, and everyone knows what he thinks about Brexit.
Q: What is the hardest question you have been asked about Brexit and what was your answer?
A: There are two answers to that. The questions that you always dread are the specific ones to which you don’t know the answer. Whether it is immigration numbers from the EU last year or our exact budget contribution, I tend to be rubbish with detailed facts and don’t carry them around in my head. My colleague Jonathan Porter is like an encyclopaedia and I have never seen him wrong-footed on a specific factual question. On the other hand, you also learn the art of dealing with very broad questions that are impossible to answer in a way that the audience will find useful. One of the best ways to do that is to be willing to admit what you don’t know. I was at a meeting in Yorkshire yesterday where one of the questions was “what does it mean for people here when we leave the European Union?”. The honest answer is “I don’t know”. There is no way of knowing because there are so many layers of uncertainty, not just about how and indeed whether we leave the European Union but what government will do once we have left.
You can sketch out parameters and I think that is the interesting thing. If you let people know how we in our profession go about thinking about these things, that in itself is interesting: “these are things you would need to know to answer that question”. When we started off with a small team of academics back in 2015, we were fairly green when we started doing the public and the media thing and we have all got better through practice. You learn the traps, and you learn the linguistic tricks to ensure that as many people as possible are listening.
Q: Can I ask whether on balance you think Brexit will be good or bad for UK research?
A: To go back to my earlier answer, it kind of depends on what form Brexit takes. If there is an impact, it will be a negative one. It will certainly, I think, have a negative impact on a lot of our institutions because I suspect we will end up with fewer EU nationals in the workforce. Above and beyond that, I suppose if we talk about research funding, it depends on what programmes we participate in on what terms with the European Union. If we end up trying to buy into research programmes they are not going to be all that happy with us continuing to take out far more than we put in. I suspect we will take a final hit and have to accept a harder bargain in the future both in terms of staff and research funding.
Q: What achievements are you most proud of in the UK in a Changing Europe initiative?
A: I think we have made a real difference and I think, even if it is only within the restricted field of those politicians, civil servants, journalists, business people and members of the public who are interested in or are working on Brexit, we have helped to shift attitudes towards academics. If I talked to some journalists now, they will say “in the past it would never have crossed my mind to say to myself – oh I know, I’ll check what social sciences have said about this before I write this piece, because there will be something good there”, whereas now they do. I am really proud of the number of people who now, if they are thinking about a Brexit-related question, will think to themselves “let’s see what’s on their website; let’s ring their media office and see if they’ve got something they have done on this”. It is a very small step. Ultimately, the ambition is to change attitudes towards the work we do and make people realise that our work can help inform decisions and debates far more systematically than it has to date.