Glyn Davies’ caricature of academics living privileged and cloistered lives, with ‘no experience of the real world’, is one with which I have been familiar throughout my working life. Two things stand out from my experience over a period of nearly 60 years, first at the Home Office and then as an associate at the Centre for Criminology.
In subjects like criminology (and many others) academics have through their research and analysis gained a special and sometimes unique insight into what actually happens during the criminal justice process and its effects (or lack of them) on those who work in the system or are affected by it – ‘real’ people in the ‘real’ world. Their experience has sometimes been different from the assumptions and expectations of politicians, judges, administrators and practitioners whose perspectives are shaped by the cultural and institutional settings in which they have to operate, and from those of the media and the general public. Explaining the difference has sometimes been difficult, but and lessons drawn from academics’ experience have had an important influence on policing, the management of prisons, sentencing, and the treatment of minorities, victims and witnesses, to give only some examples, and their work has enriched public debate and improved the quality of government and public administration more generally. The Centre has made a major contribution which it celebrated during the Centre’s 50th anniversary earlier this year. It is not a criticism of academics to admit that their work has sometimes been dismissed for reasons of politics or affordability, or that it may have taken several years to have an effect.
Moreover, academics who have spent their careers working in areas such as criminal justice have often gained a historical memory, and a sense of continuity and of the relationships between situations and events, which ministers can never achieve and governments can only achieve with difficulty, especially at a time when such memories are likely to be seen politically as resistance to change and supposed obstruction to government policies. While at the Home Office I especially appreciated the formal and informal contacts that I was able to establish with scholars who included Andrew Ashworth, Roger Hood, Tony Bottoms, David Downes and several others. It is a matter of regret that there should not be more dialogue between academics and government departments, to enable new ideas to be more freely explored, and past mistakes to be recognised and understood, and to be avoided in future.
It is ironic that while Glyn Davies dismisses academics as having ‘no experience of the real world’, others are saying the same thing about career politicians, and about the ‘metropolitan’ or ‘international’ elites who occupy positions of power across the western world. To do that is an easy way to avoid a difficult argument, to dismiss evidence and other forms of experience and expertise in favour of political conviction or popular opinion. To do that became especially prevalent during the referendum campaign, with results which may become more evident over time. Its prevalence is especially troubling at this moment in the country’s development – for the negotiations for leaving the European Union, their consequences for the country and not least for its universities, for good government, and for the future of representative democracy.