How academics are helping to shape our political future

CONSIDERABLE stress has been placed recently on the role of universities in promoting technological innovation and economic development. But universities are equally important in the cultural, literary and political life of nations.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent history of Scotland, in which members of the professoriat have played significant roles in the growth of nationalism, the development of devolution and the celebration of the Union.

Nationalist movements have always had intellectual champions who articulate and shape the loyalties and prejudices of much of the general population.

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Contemporary Scottish sociologists, such as David McCrone and Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University, have encouraged the idea of Scottish autonomy by stressing how inherited traditions, existing spaces and potential futures can provide new and authentic Scottish intellectual perspectives and practical policies, free of the alleged tyranny of influences from south of the Border. Notably, too, Tom Nairn has provided, over a number of years, a commentary on the purported break-up of Britain.

Devolution was helped into existence by academics who shared many sentiments as part of the Scottish reaction to Thatcherism. They sought to restore greater political autonomy and a new form of participatory and feminine-friendly politics for Scotland. Chief among them were two political scientists – Joan Stringer, now principal of Napier University in Edinburgh, and Alice Brown, subsequently the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

The piloting of the devolution legislation through the House of Lords fell to John Sewel, an Aberdeen University political scientist appointed to the Lords by devolution architect Donald Dewar. Elements of the legislation included allowing the Scottish Parliament to assent to measures technically within its competence but included within UK legislation. Consequently, what are known as "Sewel motions" regularly go through the Scottish Parliament, to the chagrin of many of its members.

Devolution has provided considerable new material for the psephologists, notably Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, who has greatly enhanced his status as a media pundit on electoral and constitutional issues. Arthur Midwinter, of the same university, has also become an adviser on budgetary matters to the Scottish Parliament and some of its leading members.

More recently, after the 2007 elections, the inability of the Scottish Parliament to agree possible revisions to the arrangements for devolution has to led the appointment of a commission under Professor Kenneth Calman, chancellor of Glasgow University, to suggest ways of enhancing devolution and securing the unity of the UK. Calman has been asked to come up with fundamental changes to the UK constitution within a few months.

Academics are central to this process. Professor David Edward, a retired judge at the European Court, is a member. After advice from John Curtice and Charlie Jeffrey, of Edinburgh University, the commission has had to convene an "impartial and independent" international sub-committee of experts to advise it on constitutional and financial issues. It is chaired by Professor Anton Muscatelli, principal of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and eight of its nine members are academics.

In offering more reasoned and informed contributions to the public debates over devolution, the Union and Scottish separatism, academics provide important information for ordinary citizens as they try to decide how they wish to exercise their rights on issues of profound importance to the future of their country.

There could be no more significant a contribution to be made than this, and it is a major criticism of the Scottish Parliament that it has been unable to shape its own future without handing over the major issues to academics and non-elected commission members.

• Professor Norman Bonney is visiting fellow at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.