Charlie Jeffery

Charlie Jeffery is Professor of Politics and Senior Vice-Principal at the University of Edinburgh. He has been Director of the ESRC Devolution and Constitutional Change Programme, Research Co-ordinator for the Future of the UK and Scotland programme, acted as adviser for several policy committees and been a member of the McKay Commission exploring the consequences of devolution. Professor Jeffery became the ESRC Impact Champion 2015.

Why did you pursue an academic career?

Pursuing an academic career was at one level about the prompts I had from a family in which no-one before me had gone to university, but which prized learning and encouraged ambition in learning. At another it was about discovering as a teenager and refining at university an abiding interest in how we govern ourselves, often do so badly, sometimes do so with appalling disregard for our own humanity, but can always find ways of governing ourselves better than we do now.

What career achievements are you most proud of?

Sometimes as an academic you hit on an issue where you see important change happening, but it is not initially noticed more widely because we think too easily in inherited categories. But at some point the change you’ve been going on about becomes apparent. The work I have done with colleagues in Edinburgh and Cardiff on how people in England understand and increasingly show concern about the way they are governed – now being reflected in institutional change in the UK Parliament – is an example. More generally seeing PhD students and early career researchers you’ve worked with develop their talents to seize the opportunities that come their way and thinking you may have had a small part in that is one of the most rewarding things for an academic. Luckily I had a number of colleagues who supported me early in my career – foremost that great German and EU politics expert Willie Paterson – and I hope some of it has rubbed off on me.

What is the most important issue society is facing today?

As a political scientist I want to see more citizens with the self-belief and the commitment to stake a claim in governing themselves. Too few do, and our political systems are diminished as a result. One of the most remarkable things about the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, whatever your views on the referendum question, was the extraordinary civic engagement it generated around the question of how, and with whom, do we want to govern ourselves. The challenge in Scotland is to maintain that civic energy; the challenge elsewhere is to generate some of it.

What do you feel is the most important finding of economics and social science over the past 50 years?

I started out my career working on how European democracies in the interwar years could collapse and usher in repressive and sometimes murderous regimes. Social science has given us a crystal-clear understanding of how we can be complicit in the failure of democracy and the repression that follows. Ian Kershaw's work on Germany is a great example, and though he is known as a historian he has written brilliant social science about the relationship of citizens and the Nazi regime in Germany.

It has also given us brilliant accounts of how other routes are possible, or how democracy can be re-established and embedded. Stein Rokkan is great on the former, Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba's classic on The Civic Culture a great example on the latter. The challenge is constantly to reapply those findings and keep looking for ways of governing ourselves better than we do now.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ESRC.