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Presidential Address by David Cannadine, 2018

Address by the President, Sir David Cannadine, to the Annual General Meeting of the British Academy, 19 July 2018.

• David Cannadine

Having almost completed my first year as President, I am very conscious of just how much I owe to so many people, among the staff and the Fellows, for all the work they do to further the Academy’s mission and help realise its objectives, and for all the assistance and support they have been giving me. In that regard, I am especially grateful to the three Vice-Presidents who complete their terms this year, Mary Morgan, John Baines and Alan Bowman; and I am equally grateful to my Presidential predecessors, particularly Keith Thomas, Adam Roberts, Onora O’Neill and Nick Stern, for their unfailing supplies of abundant wisdom and good advice and unrivalled experience, and it is a great pleasure to see Keith and Adam and Onora here this afternoon.

The speech I delivered to the AGM last year, as the incoming President, was perforce largely aspirational and programmatic. By contrast, the report that I make today comes in two somewhat contrasted halves: the first part, concerning the general state of current affairs, as they affect and may affect the Academy, and which are, I think it is right to say, not wholly propitious; and the second part, concerning the particular circumstances of the Academy itself, where there is more cause for optimism, but not, I am anxious to stress, for complacency. Let me begin by looking at the broader context, before turning to the Academy itself.


As I mentioned a year ago, it seems highly likely that, during the course of my Presidency, some form Brexit is going to happen, and Whitehall is preoccupied with the subject. As a result, I spend a great deal of my time going around the corridors of power at which various negotiating strategies are discussed concerning, for example, our future relationship with the European Research Council, a funding body which I’m sure many of you know disproportionally supports research in this country compared to any other member of the EU, and more to the point which disproportionally supports research in our subjects, the humanities and the social sciences.

Yet it is far from clear what sort of relationship, if any, it will be possible for the United Kingdom to maintain with the ERC in the event of Brexit, and this is a serious concern. There is also great anxiety that, in the event of Brexit, academics from elsewhere in Europe will find it more difficult to work in this country, just as academics from this country may find it more difficult to work elsewhere in Europe. There is, then, a real danger that our scholarly life in the United Kingdom may become less cosmopolitan and less outward-looking, and that is, to say the least, not a cheering prospect.

Nor is that my only concern as I go around the corridors of power, ably supported by our chief executive Alun Evans, who, I’m sure you will have heard, was very properly awarded the CBE in the birthday honours list. Time and again, Alun and I seek to make the case to government for the importance of the arts, the humanities and the social sciences – as major fields of endeavour for human creativity and intellectual brilliance, as essential components of the national culture and the global republic of letters, and as vital resources for helping us to understand so many of the problems that vex our tortured present and challenge our uncertain future.

But, I have to report, many parts of Whitehall are preoccupied, to the virtual exclusion of all else, with STEM subjects as evidenced by the Prime Minister’s recent speech at Jodrell Bank, where she re-iterated the Government’s commitment to supporting and indeed increasing finance for research. But her definition of research was wholly confined to science, technology, engineering and medicine, and she did not mention the arts, the humanities or the social sciences once. I have offered to write a companion speech, making the case for the subjects the Academy represents, and there are some mild indications that the Prime Minister may be interested, although I wouldn’t put it more strongly than that.

I should add that, by this time next year, the Academy will also be in the midst of negotiations concerning the next spending round which, as the Chancellor made plain in his budget speech, has been brought forward by a year. Last time, Nick Stern and Alun Evans negotiated a very good deal for the Academy, and we shall be hoping and working for a similarly successful outcome this time around. But with Brexit looming, with a generally uncertain and unstable political climate, with renewed and unrelenting pressure on the public finances, and with the national and the global economies far from being robust, I have to warn you, there is no guarantee, despite what will be our best efforts, that we will succeed and prevail.

Such is the broader context in which the Academy has been working and operating this last year, and for the reasons that I have given, it is far from being a wholly cheerful or optimistic one. Meanwhile, the xenophobia, the populism and the cult of fake news are if anything even more prevalent than they were when I deplored them twelve months ago, which makes what we stand for and what we do ever and even more important.


Nevertheless, even amidst such worrying and challenging circumstances, this has been in many ways an exceptionally good, productive and creative year for the Academy itself. Having given you the bad news, let me give some good news. I begin with the Fellowship, for it is the Fellows who make the Academy so special and what it is, And we have been working hard this year to involve and engage the Fellowship more than ever. We have held the first ever Fellows’ survey, to which the response was far above the normal turnout for filling out such questionnaires, and we shall be working to act on many of the suggestions and recommendations contained within the helpful feedback we received. The Vice-Presidents and I have sent out regular and, I hope, informative e-mails about what we have been doing. We have improved the Academy Handbook and are upgrading our website. We are doing more to welcome and initiate new Fellows, and we are holding more events than ever outside London, engaging more of our Fellows who live beyond the golden triangle.

There have also been some conspicuous fund-raising successes. In particular, we have obtained a one-off grant of £14 million from BEIS, our sponsoring government department, which has enabled us to extend the lease on 10 and 11 Carlton House Terrace from thirty years to one hundred and twenty-five years. This means that even the youngest and most precocious of our staff and our Fellows will not find themselves turned out on to the streets before their time is come; it also gives us sufficient security of tenure to contemplate some truly transformative refurbishments to our buildings, and there may be further news on that subject in the not too distant future.

We have also been improving and upscaling our contacts with the media; we have enhanced and consolidated our presence at literary festivals, including Oxford, Hay and Buxton; and I shall be hosting a reception for our Scottish Fellows and academic colleagues after I perform at the Literary Festival in Edinburgh next month. Our first ever Summer Showcase brought 1700 people through our doors, including sixth formers, opinion formers, many Fellows and Honorary Fellows, and many members of the great and the good. The result was a buzz, a vivacity and an excitement which I don’t think has ever quite happened on our part of Carlton House Terrace before.

In terms of the Academy’s internal structure and administration, we have sought to ensure that the separate divisions are more joined up, and to further that end we have recently appointed to a new post, that of Director of Policy. Relations between the Standing Committee of Council and Council itself seem more settled and better connected, and there have been increased opportunities for Council to discuss big issues, as a result of which it has (for example) been agreed we need to set up a new group to examine the challenges and issues of diversity in all its diverse forms.


We are, of course, the British Academy, but in terms of the reputations of our Fellows, and our own range and reach, we are also very much a global organization. Our relations with our international research institutes, called the BIRIs, are much improved, and they will, I hope, be further consolidated. The BIRIs are greatly valued, for the work they do, and for the connections they bring us, in the Mediterranean, in the Middle East and in sub-Saharan Africa. We are seriously improving our engagement with them, holding regular meetings and forums, and we look forward to working closely with them on the pending spending review.

Across the Atlantic, we were significantly represented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston held last autumn, as we shall be again this year, and we recently held a dinner here for the President and some of his colleagues where we continued a conversation about subjects on which we might be able to work together. There have been some more specific collaborations and conversations between our Academy, the American Academy and the American Philosophical Society. We are also seeking to consolidate our connections with our Corresponding Fellows especially in North America where the largest concentrations of them are to be found, and we have taken the first steps to establish a 501(c) (3) organization to assist our fund-raising there.

At the same time, we have been working closely with our colleagues in many European academies, all of whom, I think it is fair to say, regard Britain’s impending Brexit with a mixture of dismay and incredulity. We have hosted a dinner for colleagues from several such academies, and we were well represented at a recent gathering of many European academies in Budapest. We are encouraging our continental colleagues to urge Brussels to be sympathetic to our wish to remain closely associated with the European Research Council. And as a visitor to Scandinavia this year, I have sought to consolidate links with the two foremost Swedish academies, neither of which, I am relieved to say, and anxious to reassure you, are responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature.

We have also been increasingly active further afield. For the first time, we have established a serious presence at the Jaipur Literary Festival; our engagement with China will significantly increase with the inauguration of our Newton Fund programme there; we are also developing and deepening links with our partners in India, and have hopes that we will be able to open our Newton Fund programme there as well. I myself paid a visit to Japan, where I met representatives of its three foremost academies, and I hope to return there before too long to consolidate those links still further.


Let me give some final examples which vividly attest to the Academy’s current vigour and vitality. During the course of this last year, the project on the Future of the Corporation has gone from strength to strength; we have obtained more money from BEIS for additional funding for our flagship Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme and for a new programme of global professorships; thanks to the untiring efforts of the Development Office, we have raised more money this last year than ever before; and I hope that, when we come that item on our agenda, we shall this afternoon elect more Fellows than ever before. And our relations with many of the great cultural institutions of the country, from the Arts Council to the British Museum to the BBC have rarely been in better order, one indication of which is that our guest speaker this evening will be Tristram Hunt, the Director of the V&A.


It has, then, been in many ways a very busy and productive year here at the Academy, and our energetic and successful endeavours are a welcome and determined contrast to the generally gloomy environment in which we find ourselves. But that worrying broader context is one reason why, as I mentioned at the outset, the last thing we can afford to be is complacent. And while we have accomplished much this year, there is still a great deal more to do and that needs doing. We need to make the case better in Westminster and Whitehall that the humanities and the social sciences matter and are not just for recreation or are an optional extra, and we need to get others to make that case on our behalf. We need to work harder at raising our public profile, and the profile of the subjects we represent and champion, and we shall make our Festival of Ideas better than ever. And we remain far too dependent on money from government, so we must redouble our fund-raising efforts next year.

There is, then, still much to do, but I hope this account of our recent efforts provides ample reassurance that we are working hard, and that we are fully seized of the urgency and importance of our task. All of us here remain deeply grateful to Fellows for their helpful comments and constructive criticisms, and for their engagement and encouragement and support. And for me personally, it has been both a joy and a delight, as it is also both a privilege and an honour, to preside, if only for a short time, over such a distinguished body of women and of men.

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