Photo of Michael Keating

An interview with Michael Keating

Published: 1 October 2020

On 30th September, Professor Michael Keating stepped down as our Director. To mark the occasion, our Communications Officer spoke to Michael about his career, the creation of the Centre and what's next. 

Why are you stepping down now, especially now among all the constitutional change we're seeing at the moment?  

Well, I've been a full time academic for about 45 years now. I'm well past the retirement age, so there comes a time when you want to do other things and create plans to do other things, but don't worry, I'm not going away. There's too much going on at the moment so I shall still take an active interest in this and continue to be part of the Centre. 

How will you continue to be involved? 

I'll contribute time. I've still got a couple of book projects, I'm doing some writing. We've got an active programme of online events now. In fact, we've got more events than we've ever had because it's so easy to do them online and get huge audiences. And I really look forward to getting out again because one of the most enjoyable things I've done over the last few years is getting out and about around Scotland beyond talking to people about these constitutional issues. Since Brexit is not going to go away; the independence issue is not going to go away, there will be plenty of opportunities to get stuck into these debates and to try and bring some dispassionate analysis so these very complicated questions. 

Can you tell us how the idea of the Centre came about? What was your ambition for this? 

I've been following Scottish politics since I started my PhD, which is in the early 1970s when Scottish politics was very much a backwater and I always keep on coming back to it. I’ll go away and I'll do comparative European politics. I worked in France, Spain, Italy. I worked in the United States and Canada, but I kept on coming back to Scotland because this small country really captures in a microcosm many of the big issues about modern day politics about globalization about the changing economy, about the welfare state. Big issues about sovereignty and self-government and I never thought we'd get to position of a referendum on Scottish independence, but eventually that happened and I supposed, in retrospect, that was almost inevitable because Scotland has been developing as a political community enormously since I started looking at it all those years ago, so it was too big an opportunity to miss the independence referendum. When the agreement was signed in 2012, and then we were fortunate that the Economic and Social Research Council started a big programme on this which we managed to win so it was an opportunity to follow this and not only to do some really interesting academic research about those big questions on democracy and sovereignty, and what independence means in a global world and where are we going in the future, but also to do some other things that we've developed.  

One was to engage with people who make policy. I'm talking about civil servants, ministers, political advisors, getting into the policy process is something that's always interested in me, which I've always done to some degree. But this really opened up those opportunities. During the independence referendum we were working with both governments working with both sides trying to apply some analysis to their proposals, exchanging ideas with them. Similar thing happened during the Brexit referendum, because, of course, that came hot on the heels of the Scottish independence referendum. 

The idea that academics and practitioners can talk to each other is an old idea, but it's extremely difficult to do and I think over the years we've developed a common language, we developed a common way of thinking. We have different perspectives, of course, and I think it enriches us to be able to talk to policymakers, and I think it helps them to clarify their ideas. This has an impact well beyond our project and well beyond Scotland.  

The other thing we were able to do is engage with the public in a big way. And again, we're already being told as academics to get out of your ivory tower, talk to the people, try and inform the public, and we are very committed to the idea of making social science relevant to the electors, to the citizens, and this is something that we really have a duty and obligation to do. It's not easy because we tend to think in rather rarified concepts. We use a lot of jargon, but the electors really want to know what the issues are. They want some analysis, some understanding. Again, we did a lot of that.  

In both referendums we had meetings the length and breadth of Scotland. In Europe and across North America as well, trying to bring these issues to the public and inform the citizens.  

The third thing we did was to work with the media. Again. It's not easy because the media these days look for sound bites. They want to simplify things, but it's very important to be able to explain in layperson's terms what these things mean and communicate those to the media. We were very successful in doing that with the Scottish media, the UK media and the international media. The Scottish referendum attracted a huge amount of international support, you could walk through Edinburgh and see television crews from countries you never heard of wanting to know what was happening in Scotland because it was such an exciting event. Such an important event not just for Scotland, but for the whole world.  

We’ve not just done a research project, but added something to show what social scientists and what academics can do, to help people understand real world problems. 

What has been your most memorable moment as Director?  

Oh, I have a number of memorable moments! Turning up to crowded meetings! There was one just outside Glasgow where they put 20 seats out another 20 and another 20 until eventually we got 200 people. Other meetings where there were hardly anybody at all, but there is one I dine out on. During the Scottish referendum, myself and my colleague were doing an interview on Spanish television and they had this very rickety structure for the media centre that was only half built and so we went to do a Spanish interview and the lights went out and everything collapsed and we had to climb down the scaffolding, and find our way to the studio. Eventually we managed to do it - that's that's dedication for you!  

There were many incidents where we've really been gratified by the interest people have taken in these issues and the level of public engagement at a time when people are disillusioned with politics. The level of engagement and the desire of citizens to know something more about this and for us not to tell them the answers, but to help them work their way with us through these complicated issues. That was always very gratifying. It was really a pleasure to do that. 

What difference do you think the Centre, and similar initiatives, have made to how we study, understand, and engage with the politics of constitutional change? 

Well, we hope that we make some advances in the level of social science theory. Thinking about issues of sovereignty and self government, we were able to match the constitutional debate, which can become a bit abstract in our eyes, to real issues about jobs, about economic growth, about social welfare because that's what it really is about. It's about the wellbeing of citizens. We were able to do. 

I think the long term legacy will really be to show how social science can help people understand the predicaments in which they live. There is no easy access. We don't have any answers to the constitutional question, and we don't want to, but we've engaged in a debate in a way which I think is very constructive and we're very pleased that after our meetings, people consistently said yes, it was helpful not because we were telling them what to think, because in our meetings we always had somebody from civil society, business people, trade unionists, social activism, so in a way that they were able to insert ourselves into the debate. I think this shows what good social science can do. 

How have the last seven years compared with those before? 

I could have retired a few years ago, but I I didn't! I'm really glad because very few people get the opportunity to do something like this. And all of us that have been involved in the Centre, in the project, from old timers myself, to the young postdoctoral Fellows, undertaking their first job working on this project. It enables us to look at new issues and enables us to bring new perspectives on all questions. 

We won't go back to the way we were in the past. We may have another independence referendum without the same excitement, and we will engage again. And of course the Brexit process is still ongoing so we're still doing this. We're still talking regularly to parliamentary committees. We're talking to the media. I wouldn't say we know exactly how to reach all sections of the population. We have sections of the population that are still outside the debate. There are people who feel marginalized by politics, so we've not done enough to engage all the communities. But I think we have shown that it is not impossible to engage people in debate and the people will take an interest in politics if they show that they're going to get something out of it. It's showing that this is issues of thing that can be subjected to reasonable debate in reasonable analysis, which is the way politics have been going these days.  

You've had a long career, Michael. You've worked with many academics at different stages of their careers. If you give one piece of advice to early career researchers, what would it be? 

Don't follow the fashion. Don't do something because you think that's what you're supposed to do, and I thought it all those years ago during my thesis on Scottish politics. Nobody would have advised me to do that. They said it's a backward step. It turned out to be an opening not just to Scottish politics, but instead to nationalism and independence movements - all kinds of things. So, don’t follow the orthodoxies. Have your own ideas and don't be afraid to think up your own. Think of new approaches to old problems. There's still plenty to be done there. We've only scratched the surface trying to understand the complexities. So carve out your little bit of it. Then don't be afraid to have your own ideas.  


This was transcribed from interview between our Communications Officer and Michael Keating. You can watch the full interview on our YouTube channel