John Curtice is Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, a Senior Fellow of the ESRC-funded UK in a Changing Europe initiative, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen Social Research and President of the British Polling Council. He has specialised in electoral behaviour, electoral systems, and social and political attitudes in Scotland and the UK.
Why did you pursue an academic career?
Like many people of my generation, education provided access to a far more culturally enriching and rewarding lifestyle than was ever accessible to my parents or grandparents. Continuing to work in that milieu, and the opportunity it afforded for defining and working on my own intellectual agenda, thus seemed by far the most attractive form of employment.
What career achievements are you most proud of?
Inevitably, my first research discovery is the one that is still closest to my heart, not least because it remains an important feature of British electoral politics. This was that by the early 1970s there had been a marked decline in the number of seats that were marginal between Conservative and Labour - and that this change helped explain the failure of the 'first past the post' electoral system to deliver any party an overall majority in the February 1974 general election, and why the system only gave Harold Wilson a very small majority at the rerun election the following October.
Nobody had spotted the change at the time – I picked it up working on my first professional publication after the 1979 election. It took a while for the impact to become apparent once again, but it eventually contributed to the hung parliament created by the 2010 election, and the decidedly small majority enjoyed by the current administration.
What is the most important issue society is facing today?
Non-state sponsored violence stimulated by religious belief. Some of the claims made in the eighties and nineties about the 'end of ideology' and the 'secularisation' of society now seem wide of the mark in light of 9/11 and other similar atrocities. Anyone who has studied, for example, the Crusades or the Reformation, has a horrible sense of déjà vu about recent events.
What do you feel is the most important finding of economics and social science over the past 50 years?
Henri Tajfel and John Turner's work on social identity theory has certainly helped us understand how we all have a tendency to categorise fellow human beings into either members of an 'in-group' or an 'out-group' – and to regard the latter less favourably and as 'other'. The two social psychologists demonstrated that this process was in evidence even if individuals were assigned randomly to different groups. Their finding is a sobering reminder of the potential for social conflict that exists within any society.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ESRC.