The Jim Gallagher affair is an unhappy one for him, of course. You can see how he would have enjoyed being a visiting professor while a civil servant, helping academics with his perspectives on the civil service. Then, when the visiting professorship came up for renewal after his retirement, switching the justification to his ‘academic’ work at Oxford. A friend there may have put a slightly ill-considered word in which exaggerated Mr Gallagher’s role there; that may have been enough for Glasgow. And when the media found out he could be labelled a ‘professor’ and was, unlike real professors, prepared to be presented as whatever the story needed – economist, law professor, politics professor – then he was seduced by the profile this brought him. He’s culpable, of course, but that’s not the main lesson to be drawn from his downfall.
There are plenty of people who make the transition to academia late in their careers – our universities are increasingly full of professors who have done so. But for Mr Gallagher to have done that for real, he would needed to have spent more time writing worthy research papers which only handful of people might ever read. Acquiring the research skills and a decent publications record. Instead of doing that over the last few years, he’s been doing something many clever folk find more interesting and relevant. He’s been in the land of think-tanks and campaigns. He’s been writing stuff, and campaigning for things, which backs up the conservative and unionist worldview to which he’s committed. This means that he hasn’t done the dry academic legwork to become a real professor, and it also means he’s a campaigner – far from an impartial authority.
Maybe Glasgow University has a few questions to answer. Is that institution really so unconcerned about whether a person is a visiting professor or a tenured one? Did the appointment renewals committee do its job properly? And given that every media reference to the university is carefully watched internally, did no-one think to mention to Mr Gallagher that being portrayed as everything from an ’eminent economist’ to a ‘politics professor’, taking ‘law professor’ in on the way, wasn’t very smart? Was Gallagher used by them a bit too much to for news inches and ‘relevance’? Did they not feel they, as experienced professionals, had a duty of care?
But perhaps the most important lesson to come out of this affair is that people in a position to mediate the Scottish national dialogue over independence, whether they’re actually in the media or whether they’re in other positions of influence, need to reflect much more on the anti-independence prejudice which is so deeply ingrained in the Scottish establishment.
For example, why was it OK for the TV companies and newspapers to continually deploy Mr Gallagher, anti-independence campaigner, as an impartial ‘academic’? Was it because he apparently had ‘Oxford’ credibility? Why do universities make the same annual hoo-ha about the GERS figures yet fail to say much, for example, about the assumptions which underpin present Treasury advice that ‘hard Brexit’ will cost Scottish taxpayers in lost revenue a figure which alone dwarfs the accumulation of deficit? Is it because the people who produce these reports are essentially comfortable with the patina and assumptions of unionism?
The larger answers to these questions, and so many others, will not simply revolve around personal error or partiality. Instead, they will speak of an establishment bias where a retired career civil servant talking of the way it has always been done, and projecting a future for Scots based on his own long-held and conservative values and assumptions, can be regarded as a man with only benevolent words of wisdom for us.
As we start the long run-in to a second independence referendum, Scotland institutions need to take a good hard look at themselves. You might say that at least conscious bias is a matter of human agency. Unconscious bias just betrays everyone.