Fair questions?

SNP sports minister Shona Robison has complained to Dundee University that Professor Chris Whatley’s fitness to lead the “Five Million Questions” project has been made doubtful by his association with the Better Together campaign.

She implies it is improper for scholars opposed to independence to be involved in academic projects designed to foster public deliberation about the matter.

Her intervention raises two important questions: one about academic integrity, the other about freedom of speech.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

First, it is absurd to claim that only those who declare no view on independence can be trusted to treat the data and arguments honestly. On most moral and political issues most of us have commitments – and rightly so, since such things are often too important for the luxury of fence-sitting. The challenge is to achieve, not neutrality, but fairness to our opponents. Far better, therefore, that we know what someone’s views are, for then we can test how even-handed they are being. The greater threat to fair dealing is posed by covert sympathies.

Second, and more worrying, Ms Robison is not just a citizen; she is a minister in a Scottish Government passionately committed to promoting Scottish independence. Like all governments, the Scottish one has powers of patronage, and it is perceived to be using those powers to reward supporters of independence at the expense of opponents. Whether true or not, the perception alone is sufficient to muffle dissent among those whose institutions depend on public funding – not only academics, but others too. So, if the Scottish Government wishes to avoid justifiable charges of the partisan abuse of its public powers, it should instruct its ministers to be scrupulous in upholding the freedom of academics and others to express their political opinions.

Nigel Biggar Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology,

University of Oxford

Gavin Bowd

Senior lecturer in French, St Andrews University

David FergussoN

Professor of Divinity,

University of Edinburgh

Jim Gallagher

Visiting Professor of Government, Glasgow University, Gwilym Gibbon Research Fellow,

Nuffield College, Oxford

Tom Gallagher

Professor Emeritus of Politics,

University of Bradford

Walter Humes

Visiting Professor of Education,

University of Stirling

Diarmaid MacCulloch

Professor, University of Oxford

James MacMillan

Visiting Fellow Department of Music, University of Aberdeen

Tariq Modood Professor of Sociology, Politics, & Public Policy, University of Bristol

Andrew O’Hagan

Professor, King’s College London

Susan Shaw

Emeritus Professor, University of Strathclyde

Hew Strachan

Chichele Professor, University of Oxford