2007 - 2021

The Long Lingering Death of the Scottish Democratic Intellect: The Destruction of the Scottish University

This article argues that neoliberalism, the culmination of a continuous totalising assault since the Treaty of Union, has all but destroyed Scotland’s democratic intellect in our universities. Through convergence with, and assimilation of, a foreign, alien tradition, what we had is all but lost. Highlighting current examples of neoliberal capture and catastrophic ideologically-driven plans for future depredations, this article traces a trajectory towards the final destruction of our most distinctive academic legacy – a signifier of what it is to be Scots.

I draw on George Davie’s masterwork [see Murdo MacDonald ‘George Davie: Life and significance’ here], and other sources, to examine the egalitarian educational legacy of John Knox and the Scottish Enlightenment, that together made Scotland’s population the best-educated in the world, whilst simultaneously building the fertile soil in which advances in knowledge, from mathematics to the humanities, from science and engineering to economics, the arts and medicine – all based on a firm grounding in philosophy and letters – could occur. This is what made Scotland the intellectual powerhouse it became – now fading fast.

Knowledge and a hunger for learning were transmitted to all the airts through a public school system fed by our ancient universities that was – quite literary – centuries ahead of its European neighbours – particularly our closest neighbour – creating and sustaining a society imbued with a democratic, egalitarian vigour, and a fine enquiring, justly thrawn, and judiciously sceptical, but generous temper. Its people were taught how to think, not what to think.

The Union attempted to change all this, gradually at first with limited success, by initiating an unrelenting and accelerating drive towards assimilation and usurpation that both undermined our native educational ethos, and paved the way for the capture of academe by business and capital, ending a uniquely humane, enlightened, civilised, civilising and effective means of sustaining civic, and industrial society, that also enriched its culture, whilst driving innovation and inventiveness in all fields of endeavour.

I describe here the events and processes that accelerated convergence with England in the eighteenth century; the economic, social and political developments of the twentieth century that, I argue, have driven Scotland’s democratic intellect – in our universities at least – to the verge of extinction – though there may still be hope in our schools. The Curriculum for Excellence introduced by Mike Russell as secretary of state for Education, claims to introduce “a deep and broad system of learning that’s designed for the modern world, that is designed to make sure that our young people are fully fit for the modern world, and that they understand not just what they learn, but why they learn it”. I have limited knowledge of schools, but this sentiment is certainly consistent with the Democratic Intellect. Time will tell.
This is a long, complicated and detailed article, but I ask readers’ indulgence – for I believe what happens next will make or break our efforts to save our intellectual soul as we move to recover our national freedom.


I have lived my whole professional life in the neoliberal period, most of it involved with research in the NHS and universities –mainly in Scotland – a country which has made distinguished contributions to cultural, scientific and intellectual life, and which has very a very firm native grasp of the role, purpose and value of knowledge and education. Since his masterwork was published in 1961, Scotland has increasingly understood its academic inheritance in the terms described by the Edinburgh philosopher, George Elder Davie: The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century (1). Scotland has always had a clear idea of the social and moral purpose of education, but Davie’s work crystallised and explained it to us in a way no-one had achieved hitherto – or subsequently.

As an undergraduate in the nineteen seventies, I am probably among the last generation to experience an education in an institution that retained any remnant of Davie’s idea of the Scottish university: Glasgow (founded 1451) – one of Scotland’s great ancient universities – and throughout most of its history an exemplar of the Democratic Intellect at work. My homeland has its own peculiar higher education history, but one increasingly – and probably fatally convergent with that of the rest of the UK – and its globalising clones.

Neoliberalism and Scottish Higher Education

I have written previously in Bella (‘Tunnelling Out’) about the neoliberal engine that is the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), slavishly following the blueprint of its progenitor Jarratt Report, about which I have written at length elsewhere. Beneath its dull prolix prose, Jarrett lays out the entire plan for the capture and subjugation of UK academia for the use and purposes of global Capital.

I have shown how the SFC has channelled public funds to the notorious US war and torture machine, the RAND Corporation; how under SNP Education Secretary Mike Russell, SFC made giving away free Intellectual Property paid for by the public to private companies, often foreign owned, a condition of Grant to Scottish universities – a policy more neoliberal than any other part of the UK. It is difficult to determine how (other than fees– admittedly important) Scotland is any longer distinctive in its supposedly devolved approach to Higher Education.

I argue here that in most respects the Scottish HE system now shares identical aims and policies with the rest of the UK; that after nearly ten SNP Government years, Scotland’s democratic intellect is more deeply imperilled than ever. Indeed, its recent proposals over the future of SFC, integrating it more closely with Scottish Enterprise, is utterly antithetical to Scottish educational history and tradition, suggesting a profound lack of understanding of Scotland’s universities’ distinctive contribution to our national intellectual inheritance.

This comes at a time where UK Minister for Universities, Science Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson (brother of Boris), is introducing the Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) that will “make it easier” for “alternative providers” in England to open new ‘universities’ offering ‘degree’ courses, accessing public funds, whilst adding further draconian controls over real universities. HERB is set to become a cowboy’s charter aping the USA where a Trump ‘University’ could charge students huge fees for bogus ‘degrees’.

The Neoliberal Road to Perdition

In 2009 the UK (New Labour) government published a White Paper stating universities would need to make a “bigger contribution to economic recovery, and future growth and be central to the country’s economic performance in the twenty-first century” (2). This “Impact” agenda – was the latest of many UK government intervention enjoining universities to “serve the needs of national life” defined as the economic interests of UK ruling elites. This nominally ‘Labour’ government Department for Business, demonstrated that there was no doubt what the role of a university was: New Labour was the biggest cheerleaders for business and Capital; a university’s role was almost exclusively economic – and on that alone it would be judged.

This latest neoliberal reform of higher education made frank and irreversible the Thatcher ‘kulturkampf’ of the Eighties. Thatcher’s UK chapter of the global neoliberal revolution was continued under Prime Ministers Major, Blair, Brown Cameron and May. Education across the UK – including Scotland – would be commodified for business.

Scotland’s Democratic Intellect and the Union

Scotland has long been a place where education – including higher education – was a natural right for those who could benefit from it; where education meant the existence of the educated, knowledgeable, thoughtful society indispensible to a functioning democracy. It was also a necessity for such a poor country, especially after the Union:

“The established system of Schooling was popularly cherished as the chief asset of a poor country whose wealth to an unusual extent was dependent on the export of educated men; and there was fear that that…bringing Scottish education into line into line with English would have the effect of abolishing the one great economic advantage of the smaller country.” – Davie p4

Three hundred years later some of our brightest and best have still have to leave us because we are unable to employ them in their own land.

But economics was not the main reason for Scotland’s cherished regard of education:

“…the pride of the Scots …was interwoven with their peculiar academic arrangements as constituting the great evidence and effect of their former nationhood ..the Scots had an almost religious attachment to their inherited ideal of a culture in which the general should take precedence over the particular, the whole over the parts even if (the opposite) should prove profitable to themselves as individuals (involving) a regrettable declension from the highest norms” -Davie p4

Supreme of these “highest norms” was that in return for an education, the recipient was expected to repay with some service to the community. Many did this by becoming school teachers – the Scottish Dominie; the flower of the nation – responsible for the best educated population in the world for over three centuries. Education was generally free – public schools (and universities) in Scotland were and are public – fee-paying came with the “Englishing” of the system. Bursaries were provided for poorer students.

Writing on the acceleration of this process by the1830 (Education Reform) Commission, Davie writes:

“The policy here recommended obviously involved a ruthless Anglicisation. Pressure was exerted to force all schools to the pattern of Edinburgh academy” (Davie p58) – consciously founded by Henry Cockburn and Leonard Horner specifically to compete with England’s ‘public’ (private) schools.

It continues yet: Sadly, no post-devolution Scottish Government has made the slightest attempt to restrict the unfair advantages purchased by the wealthy through the state-subsidised private education that so disfigures Scotland and deprives children from poorer backgrounds of life chances – most recently, we learn, that significant numbers in ‘independent’ schools “gain more time for exams” compared to state school students.

The old system – supposedly guaranteed under the Treaty of Union, was being thrust aside: “It is (therefore) not surprising that, under the impact of nineteenth century politico-economic developments, the highly distinctive and indeed semi-Continental character of Scottish education was considered by many to be incompatible with the emerging pattern of a unified ‘British way of life’”. (Davie p3).

Contamination by egalitarian Presbyterian principles (Chapter 1 of the Democratic Intellect is entitled “The Presbyterian Inheritance”) – still less ‘Continental’ influences – would not be tolerated by Westminster. Plus ça Brexit change!

Destroying the peculiar in Scottish education became an increasingly urgent project for Scotland’s new masters – especially in Universities. It continues still –indeed has accelerated since IndyRef and now Brexit – for two related reasons: Despite its nominal devolved status, higher education in Scotland takes its lead from England (SFC is obliged to follow the Higher Education Funding Council for England – HEFCE slavishly); and thirled to the neoliberal dogma of education’s true and only (economic) purpose, Scottish politicians of all parties, sadly including – some might say “especially” the SNP – either do not understand what is happening, or if they do, are complicit in it.

Convergence, Enclosure and Capture by Capital

Continual convergence with English systems undermining Scottish concepts is important, not just because it has compromised a proud educational tradition serving well its social, cultural and political life, but also because it forms part of the homogenising administrative mechanism by which the UK academy was enclosed and captured by British – and increasingly – Global Capital.

Until neoliberalism the Scottish universities remained clear inheritors and protagonists of the Scottish Enlightenment. Their shared values were of free enquiry, rational analysis, open discourse, respect for evidence, and support for their members in these pursuits. Unlike their English counterparts, whose social elitism and narrow academic obscurantism, rendered them the preserve of an effete class-based minority of ecclesiastical mausoleum curators, the intellectually vigorous Scottish universities embodied what Davie referred to as a “sagacious combination of practicability and of principles which stood in silent but emphatic contrast to the corresponding usages of the South”.

This resulted in a “reaffirmation of the genuinely democratic character of the universities: every opportunity was made to develop the traditional Scottish machinery designed to neutralise the inequalities of scholastic and family backgrounds”. Technically ‘private’, Scottish universities have always been viewed as a community asset and a public good. The essential paradox of university expansion in the latter half of last century, ostensibly to extend access, in service to a modern economy, has been the progressive abandonment of traditional Scottish usages and principles, along with large swathes of the Scottish population, particularly those from less-privileged backgrounds, to the so-called ‘vocational’ neophytes, while its ancient universities are increasingly populated by southern social elites – staff and students.

In 1939 there were only 21 universities in the UK including the ancients and English ‘red-bricks’; pre-Robbins six new ‘plate-glass’ institutions were created in England (3). No new university was founded on the UK mainland between 1969 and 1992, whereupon, following Jarrett, the binary divide between polytechnics (for vocational training) and universities was abolished, and literally dozens of new ‘universities’ were created in the following years.

An astonishing 70 new ‘universities’ have been established in England since 1986 – nine in the last three years alone. In the eighties and nineties Tory governments expanded student numbers, without adequate resource, and governance structures were made to resemble a “business school conception of a well run company”(2).

This is no accident: Despite the diversity of type and ‘mission’ of institutions now calling themselves ‘universities’, or offering ‘degrees’ (including companies licensed by the Cameron governments, and the unelected May regime), all have frameworks of governance and funding crafted to bring about control of their intellectual product for economic rent extraction. The ultimate source of these rents is academic labour; value is sequestered by changing the nature of the institutions in which they work and the ownership of their ideas.

Jarrett was the precursor of a skein of eponymous reviews of the same genre: Dearing, Lambert, Alexander, Browne, and most recently the (supposedly) Independent Review of University Research Funding by Lord Nicholas Stern.

All of a similar purpose; to dismantle piece by piece the universities as independent, free associations of scholars and professionals, replacing them with a Post-Fordist apparatus of accountants, managers and bureaucrats. And although the Robbins report (3) twenty two years earlier had continued the assimilation of the Scottish universities into the UK model, it was nevertheless a more subtle, humanist – indeed, ‘intellectual’ document than those that followed it, even to the extent that it recognised the distinctive nature and contribution of the Scottish system.

It would be wrong to assume that capitalism had not been active in co-opting universities prior to that time. For although the capitalist influence on universities, including on the research they performed and subjects they taught – particularly economics and social sciences – bore the indelible mark of ruling class interests in operation, in the UK it was Jarrett that began, and provided the neoliberal blueprint for, the systematic managerial takeover of the academy, and its removal from academic and democratic control.

Changing the Role of Education for Profit

Universities have always been inextricably intertwined with power structures. This could hardly be otherwise, given that they were spaces where, abstracted from the world of mere subsistence, time and resources allowed the pursuit of matters that had no immediate or necessary bearing on the wider economic environment.
This does not mean that higher education and research have no socially useful role or economic purpose – since the Enlightenment they have done so increasingly (and should continue to do so for the benefit of all – not just the rich). But this cannot occur if universities lose sight of their essential nature: “Universities cannot be, and should not attempt to be, knowledge factories and/or training schools – though they are centres of knowledge and of the sort of education that makes high-level training possible.” – Terry Brotherstone (4).

Brotherstone reiterates the Scottish approach whereby: “ .. universities welcomed students early and ..put (them) through a four year course of general education culminating in compulsory philosophy (and thereafter).. (they) were expected to take up their specialist or professional training” (Davy p4-5).

That external environment nevertheless had to provide the economic surplus for these pursuits to take place –a substantial collective sacrifice for a poor country. But surplus has always been in the hands of ruling elites, and at their disposal. Indeed this fact, and the meanness of the aristocracy, obstructed the ambitious educational aims expounded in Knox’s First Book of Discipline (7). As monopoly capitalism has progressed through the current existential crisis of accumulation and financialisation, it is progressively driven to extract all available rents from all possible sources, and hence simply cannot ignore universities as engines of profit, as well as providers of validating discourses for the self-serving belief systems of the ruling elites, and the propaganda model that promotes these.

If marauding finance capital is not halted, its rake’s progress will inevitably contribute to the destruction of both: Of academia whose utility resides in being allowed to explore and follow its own pursuits of truth and innovation, without the deadening interference of intellectually limited politicians, civil servants and businessmen; and of Capital whose rent-seeking devours the sources of consumption upon which it relies whilst smothering sources of innovation – academic research – and the teaching upon which society relies for skilled workers and informed citizens.

The Scottish University Tradition

Universities have always had to bear some relevance, and to have a relationship with, the societies and economies that sustain them. Throughout time particular attention, if not outright obeisance, has had to be paid to the wishes and interests of the ruling elites in societies, whether of church, crown, industry, commerce and finance (5).

Thus European medieval pre-Enlightenment universities were ecclesiastical, entirely male institutions that confined academic debate and teaching to questions of religious orthodoxy, and hence they did not support free enquiry. Universities were places for training the clergy and elite men (not women) in the other classical professions –doctors, lawyers and schoolmasters. There were therefore substantial variations across Europe – and indeed within the British Isles, particularly between England and Scotland, where it can be argued that Enlightenment values permeated her five ancient Scottish universities (6) earlier and more rapidly (1,7) with England retaining the ecclesiastical obscurantist model in its meagre two ancient institutions right into the eighteenth century.

Meanwhile in Scotland medicine, science and (classical) economics flourished – and even engineering gained a substantial foothold – although practical training was left to Mechanics’ Institutes such as The School of Arts of Edinburgh (founded 1821 – which became Heriot Watt University) and Anderson’s Institute, founded as a ‘place of useful knowledge’ (1796) by John Anderson, Professor of Natural Philosophy (Physics) at Glasgow –becoming the Royal College and subsequently the University of Strathclyde (1964).

As Andrew Lockhart Walker wrote (7):

“…the ancient universities of Scotland and those of England were as the poles opposed. In almost every respect the former were superior to the latter throughout the eighteenth century when they produced the geniuses of the Scottish Enlightenment, and when the latter, as Gibbon put it, were sunk in sloth and port.”

This was to be a last great flourishing of Scottish intellectualism in the Universities, drawing upon Scotland’s medieval traditions and European inheritance, principally from Bologna and Paris (7).

Simply stated the Tradition was this: Scottish universities existed to train people for the professions, having first provided them with an all- round education in what the better American Universities (resulting from their own Scottish inheritance) refer to as the Liberal Arts. What gave the Scottish flavour and it’s democratic character to a broader European inheritance, derives largely from the influence of the (Presbyterian) First Book of Discipline (John Knox,1560, on the Geneva Model), with its inherent distrust of power hierarchies (7):

“The chapter on schools and universities must be one of the greatest manifestoes on education ever written. It proposed that there should be:

1. Elementary schools open to all children from 5 or 6 to 8 years of age;
2. In ‘towns of any repute’ grammar schools where town children would learn the rudiments, then together with the country children, Latin grammar from 8-12;
3. In important towns high schools where selected pupils of 12 to 16 would learn other classical languages, logic and rhetoric.

The best scholars would then advance to university to study for eight years – 3 years general arts, including mathematics, moral and natural philosophy (Physics) then 5 years of professional study in the Law, Medicine or Theology. They would receive a bursary, for there was to be a bursary for the ‘clever poor’; 72 for St Andrews; 48 each for Glasgow and Aberdeen” – Walker p30

For its time this was truly revolutionary – few countries, least of all England, offered education for the ‘poor’ – ‘clever’ or not.

“It was a continuation of Bologna and Paris and was to continue right down to the twentieth Century” – Walker p31.

The Epilogue to the First Book of Discipline expresses the Scottish sentiment towards education most clearly:

“If God shall grant quietness and give your Wisdoms grace to set forward letters in the sort prescribed, ye shall leave wisdom and learning to your posterity, a treasure more to be esteemed than any earthly treasures ye are able to provide for them; which without wisdom, are more able to be their ruin than help or comfort.”

To this Walker adds: “These words have a powerful resonance today as we look around at our greedy consumerist societies, the starvation and destitution in the Third World and our incredible despoliation of the biosphere”.

In his sentiments Knox is surely echoing (consciously or not) the words in the Papal Bull of Pope Nicholas V in 1451 (who was a graduate of Bologna), founding Glasgow University on the Bologna model, as a place of knowledge, wisdom and learning, as a means of improving the lives of individuals, and the city and country of its foundation (9):

“Amongst other blessings which mortal man is able in this transient life by the gift of God to obtain, it is to be reckoned not among the least, that by assiduous study he may win the pearl of knowledge, which shows him the way to live well and happily, and by the preciousness thereof makes the man of learning far to surpass the unlearned, and opens the door for him clearly to understand the mysteries of the Universe, helps the ignorant, and raises to distinction those that were born in the lowest place….. the simple instructed, equity in judgment upheld, reason flourish, the minds of men illuminated, and their understandings enlightened.” – Bull of Pope Nicholas V, 1451

Compare the soaring ideals of Knox and Nocholas to the grubby little response of Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson to the recent Stern Report:

“The report recognises the advantage that our world class research brings to the UK and the key role that our universities play in delivering high quality teaching and excellent research driving productivity and economic growth.”

In Scotland an all-round education, not a narrow technocratic training, was part of the distinctively democratic approach, emphasising that people were more than atomised individuals in their professional or working lives; they were members of a cooperative society, with responsibilities to their fellows.

As Herbert Grierson, professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh explained shortly after the end of the First World War:

“Men and women are not only…expert (or inexpert) lawyers, doctors, merchants, manufacturers, bankers, clerks and artisans; they are also citizens of the world and the state. Regarded in its simplest and most practical way, they are voters on whose understanding and temper the security of society, and its callings and institutions depends. It is in the immediate and insistent interests of every profession and industry that the education of its members and servants should include elements of a liberal education which do not belong to the school stage – philosophy, history, economics, literature, art – and that as so far as is practicable, they should be encouraged to pursue such studies even after they have begun their professional training… and it is the duty of the state and the universities to provide the necessary means… The university will have to enter in a more generous spirit than in the past into the humanist education…of all classes and conditions of society” (my emphasis)
Herbert Grierson, cited, AL Walker,1994 p.175

The emphasis was in educating all who wished it, were capable of it, and could benefit themselves – and crucially, wider society from it, irrespective of wealth and class. And this was the Scottish position for three centuries before Robbins.

The contrast with England was stark. Unlike their wealthy southern counterparts, Scottish universities took practical steps to ensure that education was valued for its content and emphatically not for its social cachet, and this was reflected in those who attended its classes – of all social classes and with a range of abilities:

“What was wrong with the Scottish system was that the examinations followed the lectures too closely, “Partly from the inability of most students to obtain an adequate supply of books. Many were too poor to buy, and shrank from the deposit required for the library… But what left the greatest impact on him (Grierson) – greater than that of any teacher- was the class itself:

“There is nothing anywhere.. where the systems of options as now in Scotland prevails and where there is no honours degree (the specialist single subject honours degree was an import from England) – quite like a Scottish university class as it then was (the late nineteenth century). It was a heterogeneous but united body from first to last… (including) students of all degrees and variety of capacity..”. .., “so that the class contained the strongest and the weakest in classics, mathematics, philosophy and science…In none of the subjects were the attainments yet high but the capacity was there; and a professor who passed from Aberdeen to Cambridge has confessed to me that there was nothing he missed so much as addressing an audience which included such a range of ability and interest.” (AL Walker, p.174)

“The Scottish universities were the true inheritors of the medieval tradition, whereas:
Oxford and Cambridge were the very pinnacle of elitism and fashionable snobbery, both in their social life and in their colleges.” (AL Walker, ibid)

Thus, two centuries before Robbins, Scotland was far ahead of England in terms of access to higher education:

“Between 1740 and 1839 13% of students at Glasgow University came from families of the nobility and landed gentry…with 35% at Cambridge between 1752 and 1849…whereas there were virtually no working class children at Cambridge, at Glasgow one third – 33% came from labouring families (Walker, p.174).” (8)

Would that we could do as well now – for all our access courses, comprehensive education and enlargement of the sector. Social class remains the greatest predictor of success and failure; of health and illness; longevity or early death.

The major point of discontinuity for the Scottish Academy, as with other aspects of the country’s social relations, followed the Treaty of Union – although as Davy himself points out, in the immediate aftermath of Union, Scottish Education for at least 100 years diverged significantly from the English model until the nineteenth century (Davy, P.3) and the increasing thrust towards conformity with the norms and usages of the larger partner.

In the Democratic Intellect, Davie traces the increasing assimilation into the British (in reality English) forms, of Scottish political and economic life during the eighteenth century. Despite the erosion of distinctly Scottish institutions and practices throughout the post-Union experiment, what continued to distinguish Scots in the main from others in the Union was that they “stuck to a policy” of “apartness in social ethics” that continued to rest upon what the author called “the distinctive life of the country…in the mutual interaction of religion, law and education”. Davy, pp. xviii –xxvii)

Published in 1961, Davie’s aim in writing the Democratic Intellect was to reveal the way in which the values of the Scottish intellectual tradition had been largely eroded during that century, and that its Universities, having been a last bastion of Scottish democratic and social ethics had been under sustained attack from the South. Social, political and professional ethics in Scotland were underpinned by an education that was simultaneously philosophical, whilst remaining scientific, humanistic and democratic. These values were rapidly decaying under continued attack by homogenising, centralising UK forces throughout the twentieth century, and by mid-century were approaching extinction.

the-democratic-intellectThe Death of the Scottish Democratic Intellect

Davy witnessed (he died in aged 95 in 2007) these dire effects on both Scotland and her universities: The restriction of academic independence by remorseless centralisation; state-fostered pseudo-competition between universities for students (now re-cast as customers) and funding (deliberately restricted as the sector was remorselessly enlarged); for pseudo ‘prestige’ – national and international, and the creation of futile and false tensions between research and teaching (with the latter demoted in a most un-Scottish way) along with the diminution of respect for ‘mere’ (non-utilitarian) scholarship.

We may yet pay a huge price for the abandonment of academic and moral discourse and for uncritical claims of scientific advance; the wisdom of the old Scottish system would not have permitted the economic utility of novel science-based technologies to trump considerations of the ethical consequences of their expolitation (including social and environmental ethics). This naturally makes the Scottish approach deeply unattractive to neoliberal concepts of economic ‘freedom’ and the unhindered pursuit of profit, but is indispensible for the development of science in the service of humanity.

Such fragmentation and pseudo-competition are both deeply destructive of academic endeavour, as well as being profoundly un-Scottish, as Scottish historian Robert Anderson (10) has pointed out:

“There is no doubt that the whole tradition of the democratic intellect and the lad o’ pairts, which can be seen in its classic form in Scotland in the 19th and early 20th centuries, belongs to Rothblatt’s (11) model of liberal democracy. … In the twentieth century that ideology did help to shape a broader egalitarianism, and arguably the Scottish idea that no talented person should be denied an education because of poverty fed into the era of the welfare state and Robbins.”

This egalitarian philosophy – even if limited by the social mores of the time – would inevitably and necessarily fall foul of the incipient neoliberal revolution. Whilst no enemy of economic elitism, neoliberals would need access to expertise, and a trained workforce, as well as the intellectual property generated by universities, which would therefore need to become less intellectually – and in selected cases – less socially elitist, and open to a far larger proportion of the population than was the case hitherto. Enlargement and dumbing down would be mutual handmaidens.

The Robbins report recommended immediate expansion of the university system. This was acceptable to neoliberal thinking insofar as it provided intellectual and human ‘resources’ for expanding capital. More problematic was its recommendation (3) that university places:

“Should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment” (the Robbins principle) and that such institutions should have four main “objectives essential to any properly balanced system: instruction in skills; the promotion of the general powers of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women; to maintain research in balance with teaching, since teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth; and to transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship”.

There can be no doubt that the Robbins Committee (1961-63) drew on The Democratic Intellect – and indeed that influence has been long recognized (12).
The virtues of “an education that encourages a free interplay between special knowledge and general understanding” displayed by Davie were hailed in a review of the book by the Times Higher Education Supplement (12). But such identifiably ‘Scottish’ sentiments were both socially dangerous for elite interests, and unduly expensive. These and other ‘less acceptable’ elements of Robbins would never be fully implemented.

The enlargement of the sector would have to be paid for, and at first this was accomplished from the Exchequer – with generous grants to students from less affluent backgrounds. I was a beneficiary of this, and so this Lanarkshire steelworker’s son went to a real Scottish university whilst it was recognizable as such. This was always too egalitarian and ‘welfare state’ for the neoliberals. As for producing cultivated men and women, with highly developed general powers of the mind, geared to culture and citizenship – not to mention the ability to think, question and challenge their betters – now that really was taking things too far. Robbins could not be where this matter was left. Nor was it.

The neoliberal revolution ushered in by Thatcher, planned by Jarrett, and implemented by all succeding UK and Scottish governments, including sadly the SNP, has all but destroyed the Scottish University and its destinctive humanist ideals.

I am now in my early sixties and retired; most of those left running universities in Scotland, being either too young or educated narrowly and elswhere, have little or no knowledge or experience of what constitutes a Scottish University. The patient lingers on – but death cannot be far away.



1. Davie, G.E., 1961, The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh Classic Editions (2013) Edinburgh University Press
2. Collini, S 2012, What are Universities for?, Penguin, London,
3. REPORT of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins 1961-63 Presented to Parliament by the Prime Minister by Command of Her Majesty October 1963 LONDON, HMSO. It advised university expansion but retained a level of respect for academic standards and democracy.
4. Intellect and Democracy, 2010: A report submitted to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning by the University and College Union Scotland as a contribution to the 2010 Green Paper Consultation.
5. Nedeva, M., 2007, New Tricks and Old Dogs? The ‘Third Mission’ and the Reproduction of the University, in Epstein, D. et al. (eds), World Yearbook of Education 2008: Geographies of Knowledge/Geometries of Power: Framing the Future of Higher Education, NY: Routledge.
6. Marischal College (1593) and Kings College (1495) merged to form the University of Aberdeen only in 1835.
7. Walker, A.L, 1994, The Revival of the Democratic Intellect, Polygon, Edinburgh
8. Boden R and Epstein, D, A flat earth society? Imagining academic freedom The Sociological Review, 59:3 (2011), 446-495
9. Pope Nicholas V, (1451) Papal Bull, Founding Document of Glasgow University, Rome.
10. Anderson, Robert, 2010, In: Intellect and Democracy: A report submitted to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Ibid
11. Rothblatt, E. , 2008, Education’s Abiding Moral Dilemma: Merit and Worth in the Cross-Atlantic Democracies, 1800-2006, Symposium Books, Didcott.
12. MacDonald, M and Gunn, R, 2013, Introduction to The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh Classic Editions, Edinburgh University Press, p. xi


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  1. john young says:

    There are more ways to skin a cat than you can shake a stick at,I totally agree with the above,we now have a large body of our population that have no inkling of our country or what it is to be Scots,the have a British/English take on most if not all matters.I am reading “Sikunder Burnes” just now a cousin of Rabbie Burns a lot of the leading figures are of Scots/Scots Ulster birth but you wouldn,t know it is all about England,England this or England that,this scenario is repeated throughout almost all walks of life we are marginalised/maligned at every turn,we are one of the very few countries in the world with no pride in our country.

  2. Ray Bell says:

    My feeling is that Scottish universities have been a mixed bag. A lot of them have suffered from class snobbery, political manipulation etc.

    They have been good with the sciences, incl. medicine and engineering, but have failed to bolster Scottish culture properly. Theology and Scots law too, i.e. anything not politically threatening. There are courses on Scottish literature, Celtic etc, but they are fairly peripheral and almost begrudging. Even within the sciences there have been issues. I know one doctor who was told he could go a lot further if he dropped his support for Scottish independence. Of course, that was years ago, and it was a quiet word in the ear – proof perhaps that universities have unofficial, unwritten systems – but it would be harder to get away from that now.

  3. Alastair McIntosh says:

    As this deep article suggests in its link to his work, Murdo Macdonald, the professor of Scottish art history at Dundee is the contemporary authority on Davie and the democratic intellect. From what I remember of his writings back in the days when he edited the Edinburgh Review, Murdo mainly defines the democratic intellect in terms of specialist knowledge being tested in the generalist context of the community – the community both of knowledge, and of the wider body politic (or body of the kirk) of the people. As such, both the blind spots of specialist knowledge and the inevitable elitism of knowledge get rubbed off by being held in a wider framework of accountability.

    My sense is that the term is used today in ways that have helpfully expanded those original goalposts. If you listen to how people use the term in the pub (yes, it still happens here in Scotland), there is a sense of the intellect being democratic primarily in its duty to SERVE the community. In other words, the imperative is ethical, and not just epistemological. This ties in very deeply with the function of knowledge in the past, and coming out of the bardic tradition in particular. In the village, the lad (as would be then) would be sent off to “varsity” with a sack of oatmeal, the assumption being that this would be for the wider good of the village. It was knowledge not for self-serving elitism, but as a service to the people. Such is why ministers, doctors and teachers were always held in such esteem in Scottish village life to the point that when my Scottish father circa 1947 went down to Doncaster to get a job after graduating in medicine, he was taken aback to find that doctors were despised, because the pit workers saw them as being on the side of the bosses and not the community. Who knowledge and the educated serve, and how, remains a critical but oft-overlooked question today.

    J.S. Blackie, the professor of Greek who was pivotal in founding the chair in Celtic at Edinburgh University as well as championing the cause of the crofters in the wake of the Clearances put it perfectly in his tract, “On the Advancement of Learning in Scotland” (p. 10, 1855).

    “We demand a scholarship with a large human soul, and a pregnant social significance.”

    May that remain our vision for an authentic Scottish education.

    1. c rober says:

      I often ask if we could sue such things productively via councils , say in apportioning the training of needed personel like Doctors and nurses , teachers – kind of like a national service in return for payment of Education via a contractual set of handcuffs?

      I was talking to my dentist the other day , Swede btw , and he said as much also – having been educated at the cost of National service.

      Would this not also bring back the “professionals” in our own communities , from our own communities of old also?

    2. Richard Foggo says:

      Alastair – in the Epilogue to Crisis of the Democratic Intellect, Davie offers a very succinct summary of “the middle way”, which traces a path back to the Greeks:

      “The words “democratic intellect” offer a twentieth-century formulation of an old problem. Does the control of a group (of whatever kind) belong, as of right, to the few (the experts) exclusively, and not at all to the ignorant many? Or are the many entitled to share the control, because the limited knowledge of the many, when it is pooled and critically restated through mutual discussion, provides a lay consensus capable of revealing certain of the limitations of interest in the experts’ point of view? Or thirdly it may be held that this consensus knowledge of the many entitles them to have full control, excluding the experts. The middle way of the three is, of course, Walter Elliot’s “democratic intellectualism”.”

      1. Alastair McIntosh says:

        That is very helpful, Richard. I will re-read the epilogue. I’m also wondering whether this ties in at all with some of Plato’s comments. Plato would have had much to say about Trump via-a-via the Soohists, though maybe of limited help in today’s world given Popper’s take, albeit harsh, on his views.

  4. Richard MacKinnon says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but what your saying is “Here’s Tae Us Wha’s Like Us. Damn Few And They’re Aw Deid”.
    I always thought that was slightly inappropriate.

    1. John O'Dowd says:


      Your comment shows your customary erudition and depth of thought. It is no less than we expect from you.

      1. Richard MacKinnon says:

        Thanks John.

    2. Graeme Purves says:

      You are entirely wrong, Richard. That comment is simply banal. I refer you to the works of George Elder Davie.

      1. John O'Dowd says:

        Precisely Graeme,

        It is banal and absurd and shows absolutely no evidence either of any reading, let alone comprehension. That is why I noted that it showed his CUSTOMARY erudition and depth of thought.

        It’s called trolling.

  5. Crubag says:

    I think this would be a better article if it was shorter and concentrated on one point. It’s interesting, but it seems to telescope at least three separate periods of university history together, without considering what the context was for these different manifestations of tertiary education.

    In the 20th century, the state got involved in funding universities, and in return expected an obvious social purpose – hence initiatives like merging the governance of the university funding council with the economic development agency.

    But I suppose there is a small gleam (of light?) in that the idea of the general questioning the particular is now widespread – Gove’s “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts… from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

    Linked to this, and the move away from the liberal arts syllabus, is the specialisation of knowledge itself. Academia itself is now very deep, but as a consequence very narrow and fragmented. Specialist subjects demand single-minded pursuit, whose practitioners can then struggle to engage with specialists outside their discipline or the wider public. The age of single writers of encyclopedias is past, this is the age of the Wikipedia.

  6. Agatha Cat says:

    As an undergraduate of an ancient university in the 1970s, and like the writer from a working class background, I currently work in a university (non-ancient) and can confirm that the experience of the students is very different from mine. I would say “inferior”, but that might just be age-related rose-tinted spectacles at work.

    Where I work is called a university. It isn’t.

    1. John O'Dowd says:

      We have much in common Agatha. For a time I was a senior lecturer in biochemistry in one of our then newly created ‘universities’.

      My abiding memory of that time (apart from the relentless bullying by so-called managers) was the destruction of any pretence at academic standards as we moved from CNAA validated degrees (where academic standards were rigorously imposed and adhered to) to one where we were forced to ‘modularised’ away as much difficult course content as possible (so as not to risk the loss of fees that failing students would represent) – to the extent that Mickey Mouse would have been humiliated to receive such an award.

      The same institution is currently squandering ££millions of public money (its been in all the papers) in the apparent delusion that the savvy citizens of New York City will queue up to receive its ersatz qualifications whilst paying a fortune for its Trump University style courses.

      Happily I got (pushed) out – from frying pan to fire as it turned out – on the way discovering that the true role of these ‘universities’ was to drive down costs and standards in our (at that time) real universities – all now run by accountants. My article above is part of my resulting study as to what has been going on – and why. But what is written above is part of a more detailed analysis.

      “Where I work is called a university. It isn’t.”

      You can call a pig a greyhound – but it won’t win ant races – and no-one sane would bet on it.

      As many of the other commentators here (my thanks to Alf Baird, Red Gauntlet, Alastair McIntosh) have noted that fact is well understood.

      1. Jo says:

        “My abiding memory of that time (apart from the relentless bullying by so-called managers) was the destruction of any pretence at academic standards as we moved from CNAA validated degrees (where academic standards were rigorously imposed and adhered to) to one where we were forced to ‘modularised’ away as much difficult course content as possible (so as not to risk the loss of fees that failing students would represent) – to the extent that Mickey Mouse would have been humiliated to receive such an award.”

        OOFT! Well said.

        One of the saddest things today is to hear politicians insist that everyone is somehow entitled to a university education when, in fact, such an entitlement never existed in the past. It is thoroughly depressing that successive (Westminster) governments used Further Education as a place to herd young people leaving schools when there were no jobs awaiting them. Unfortunately the Scottish Government has followed that same route and, to me, it’s a bad one.

        Worse, we have seen formal statements from various Universities, including the ancients, that they are willing to lower entry requirements in order to ensure people from “deprived” areas can get in (out of the way of the buses presumably)? This is madness. The drop-out rate must be pretty high if so many require entry standards to be lowered in order to get in! At what cost to all parties I would ask, including the public purse? How frustrating must it be for tutors to be saddled with people who simply should not be at university? How much does this cost in terms of time?

        Once upon a time there were jobs to go into for young people. Good jobs. And, for the brightest, I repeat, for the brightest, there was university. (That was the case even for students from poorer areas.) We now hear, almost daily, the ridiculous notion that everyone is entitled to go to Uni. We have as you say, via your reference to Mickey Mouse, some qualifications masquerading as degrees that are utterly meaningless. Nevertheless, people arrive with these “degrees” in workplaces where the biggest shock is surely experienced by employers who are confronted, often, by “graduates” who can neither form a sentence or count to save themselves.

        We’ve seen, in the Civil Service, new software having to be introduced because it was discovered that even the simple things, like letter-writing, could not be left to some of these people. (Previously, incidentally, those tasks were ably completed by people who had left school with a higher in English during the 70s. Once upon a time a higher in English actually meant the person who had gained that qualification could actually read, write, spell and understand grammar!) Now they require templates for letters. They’re permitted to insert “Dear Mr Smith” and little else as anything further is just too risky!

        Young people, more than anything, need jobs. In failing utterly to address this desperate need the state has abused our education system abominably and reduced it to a truly dreadful state. I do not know how it will ever recover when there seems no end in sight to the ludicrous notion that universities are for everyone.

        1. John O'Dowd says:

          Thanks Jo, I agree with much of what you write. There are two important words in Democratic Intellect. The second is often forgotten.

          By the time I had left primary school – PRIMARY school – I could parse a sentence and carry out a general and particular analysis of same. Would any eleven year old now know how to recognise an adverbial clause?

  7. Alf Baird says:

    Illuminating article, especially for those involved in the sector.

    “Three hundred years later some of our brightest and best have still have to leave us because we are unable to employ them in their own land.” “ancient universities are increasingly populated by southern social elites – staff and students”

    This is primarily because, for most of the past century and more, Scotland has advertised all its top jobs down south, and with down south having 92% of the population, we end up with mostly folk from down south running our institutions, including Scottish universities. We do not advertise our cleaning and labouring jobs down south – i.e. Scots are ok to undertake these tasks. And many of Scotland’s brightest are, at ’10:1 against’ candidates for selection, pushed away elsewhere. I often think of Denmark and Germany as a comparator in this regard, and wonder whether Danes might be content to have all their key public institutions run by Germans?

    ““especially” the SNP – either do not understand what is happening, or if they do, are complicit in it.”

    Maistlyke thair a bit o baith – i.e. thick and complicit, juist lyke maist career politeecians. An ongoing problem for the SNP is that many if not most of their elected members today are relatively recent unionist ‘transfers’, and from the ‘neoliberal school’ of thought. For them, even nationhood is pushed further down their list of neoliberal priorities. Equality for everyone else is fine, though equality for Scots in thair ain laund is not to be seen on the pc neoliberal agenda; e.g. a Scots Language Act anybody?

    Arguably we need a new university model, one unencumbered by the entrenched stench of class, snobbery, elitism, and discrimination (much of it levelled against Scots), control by vested interests, and our nation being haud doon by an alien educational philosophy. I would suggest a single National University for Scotland – and over time to dissolve all existing universities, or sell them off (they are already self-regulating businesses and corporate fiefdoms masquerading as charities) and start again. A national university might focus primarily on educating Scots and even getting some of them to become academics (now there’s a thought!); it could start by doing something really radical, like appointing a Scottish principal.

    1. Crubag says:

      If the Germans had to learn Danish, then I imagine that would limit applications. A better comparison would be with universities who had English as their working language.

      The decline and marginalisation of Scots happened during the very time that the author is holding up as a Scottish golden age, e.g. Hume’s remark “Is it not strange that, at a time when we have lost our Princes, our Parliaments, our independent Government […] are unhappy, in our Accent and Pronunciation, speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue we make use of; is it not strange, I say, that in these Circumstances, we shou’d really be the People most distinguish’d?”

      But the current fashion (and I think fault) is for centralisation and the state to take over. I think we lose something if we lose the independence of universities.

      1. Alf Baird says:

        In many senior positions advertised in other nations throughout Europe and elsewhere, a condition of appointment is the ability to communicate in an indigenous language AND in English. If Scots had any sense we would insist that those in public appointments should have the ability to do likewise (i.e. so that they might be able to communicate properly with the local people). In ither wuirds, thay heid bummers wirkin in Scotlan shuid aw hae Scots (or Gaelic) langage as weel as English. What this also tells us is that possibly the most distinguishing and differentiating feature of Scotland and of Scottish culture is our twa indigenous languages. Yet, whilst we applaud our awfu guid ‘English’, and laud them wha hae the Gaelic, we (or raither oor awfu Anglicised heid bummers) aye haud doon the Scots langage, oor mither tongue tae.

      2. John O'Dowd says:

        “I think we lose something if we lose the independence of universities.” Too late I fear Crubag.

        That is long gone. Funding Councils now dictate what is taught (and at what price) – and what is not supported.

        Research Councils have been captured by business and commerce who now dictate the direction and content of research in support of their (small-minded and narrowly self-serving) business interests.

        Governments north and south of the border relentlessly interfere in University policy through control of the purse-strings and the imposition of business-style governing bodies packed with ‘captains of industry’ (of the Captain Queeg variety) and half-witted accountants, local rotary club blazers (graduates of the University of Life) , bankers (yes bankers) and shopkeepers (sorry retail tycoons) – all with a Trump-like self-regard, an unshakable belief in their unique capabilities, an invincible ignorance and philistinism – and all doing to our universities what Trump is currently doing to the USA.

        As you say, (Scottish) Independence will not be enough – if nothing else changes and we keep doing more of the same.

    2. Willie says:

      The ” Degree Mill ” may indeed be a succinct shorthand for what our universities, or more specifically, what some of the courses have become. But commercial is now at the heart of what we do now, and concomitantly, education has become much more compartmentalised into sub blocks. Think three stars for flipping burgers in McDonalds for an extreme but very real example. Or call centres too.

  8. john young says:

    Alf until we are represented by elected people of bespoke achievement/character/ethos we will struggle,all if not most political parties/politicians have a narrow self seeking take on life,the SNP are from the same cloth,we need strong forthright people not afraid of the battle,for starters take the “utilities” back into public ownership whereby we can set reasonable tariffs for the people/business alike,the ordinary punter is hammered in every financial sense of the word from cradle to grave they are over burdened,this can be changed,this must to be changed.

    1. c rober says:

      Its that the same utilities like Electric – where Holyrood have gave edf carte blanche to dispose of “UK” nuclear waste at Hunterston , as well as via North Ayrshire council promoting as the area for a new EDF powerstation and disposal site?

      One has to keep the ball on the SNP as purveyors of indy , especially if they sound like Kezia in contrary decisions.

      Hunterstons new goal , drive , remit , is a powerhouse generator not for Scotland but for North England – as long as the SNP and Holyrood are not preventative of this , and are promoters of it , then dont think for one second a change in the status qou will happen towards nationalisation.

      Many will have to take a long hard look then at the SNP for any indy II – and a valid reason why education matters as the subjective of the article.But unfortunately its the wrong kind of education , political and legal education should be in todays High Schools removing the likes of Higher Languages…. for these are the areas that impact us personally over the longer term and perhaps allow us to ask why instead of being told why.

    2. Graeme Purves says:

      Tarring all politicians with the same brush is just ridiculous, and gets us nowhere. There are good and bad politicians in every party. We are lucky in Scotland that some of our politicians are very good indeed.

      1. Jo says:

        @ Graeme

        Very true Graeme but, unfortunately, they all seem to be going the way of “Everyone is entitled to a place at Uni” route and that isn’t good at all, or reasonable. Everyone simply cannot go to Uni, nor should they. Universities were always for the brightest people, rich or poor, not for everyone. Attempting to push everyone in and, in particular, the rush to drop entry standards in order to bring that about is, at best, reckless and, at worst, insane.

        The big problem is finding jobs for young people and that should be the priority. Education is very important and the fact is that schools are no longer meeting the same standards they did when many of us were pupils, even at primary schools, as John has pointed out. Many of us knew at least the basics in literacy and numeracy at primary school. We also got support at home when it came to learning. I read a report recently which showed that many toddlers arriving at nursery now don’t even have a vocabulary. No-one is speaking to them so they can’t engage with others. The very idea of three year olds unable to hold a conversation seemed ludicrous. Yet I’m sure it isn’t their fault. The fault lies with the adults in their lives who don’t talk to them. Perhaps they’re too busy on their mobiles, or texting, or on Facebook to bother engaging with their children and teaching them to communicate. Talking to youngsters is part of the learning process and it doesn’t seem to be happening for too many. That is truly tragic. Then they get to nursery or to school and we expect teachers to perform miracles! And, further down the line, we expect our Universities to lower entry standards and the value of our degrees so that they “pass”. It is madness.

  9. Redgauntlet says:

    Good article by John O’Dowd on a matter which could not be more important.

    I recall from my reading of “The Democratic Intellect” the old joke that there were as many universities in Abredeen as the whole of England back in the 18th century, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge grumbling that the educated Scot “was more like a German in his thinking than and an Englishman”. This seems to me to come to the heart of the post Brexit situation in an SNP run Scotland.

    It is not good enough of the SNP to simply argue the economic case for being in the single market. Scotland’s distinctive education system and Europeanism are intimately related as John O’Dowd makes all too clear in his article. The Scottish identity is – at least was – inherently European. I’m really not so sure it is these days.

    The SNP do not seem either to have the will, the capacity or the imagination and cultural knowledge perhaps to implement distinctive policy in Scotland which would lead to changes in Scottish culture and society which would be conducive to bringing about a groundswell for independence. Their culture policy, their education policy, are highly deleterious to the case of Scottish independence which, if it comes, will be by default more or less. There must be more arts administrators today in Scotland than there are artists…

    And if independence does come, we need this broad, humanist and socially engaged manner of thinking about education and culture to change society. If Scotland more or less stays as it is after independence, we will have failed….

    A timely piece, John O’Dowd.

    1. John O'Dowd says:

      Thanks Red. Appreciated. Couldn’t disagree with any of your helpful further analysis.

  10. Alan says:

    Interesting. I wish you’d written more about neoliberalism and how you are using the term in the context of the university as it tends to be a word that’s thrown out there with various meanings. At worst it’s just a swear word that hides as much is it reveals. Will Davies’ book, which is discussed in Renewal, is well worth reading as it gets to the genesis of what you refer to as “state-fostered pseudo-competition”, i.e. the Gary Becker / Chicago School version of neoliberalism and the way ‘the market’ becomes totalising through technocratic and bureaucratic means. From the discussion in Renewal:

    Whilst its public rhetoric might have suggested otherwise, neo-liberalism has not shrunk or rolled back the state in order to free the market. Instead, it has used the power of the state to reshape social institutions and to insinuate market relations into spheres where previously they were absent. Neo-liberalism, in short, has delivered not a small state but a market state. To adapt a distinction made by Jamie Peck (2010), neo-liberalism, particularly in its Anglo-American variants, has been as much about ‘roll-out’ (the enforcement of ‘competitiveness’ through audit and other forms of bureaucratic oversight, the growth of sprawling ‘parastatal’ mega-firms which exist only because the public sector buys services from them) as it has been about ‘roll-back’ (privatisation, deregulation and the rest).

    It’s amusing that Hayek’s attack on socialist state planning ends up being a vicious form of totalitarian state planning of the sort that would make a Soviet era communist blush.
    For a bitter account of what this amounts to in the university context see Terry Eagleton’s The Slow Death of the University, although I’m note sure his account of what Oxford used to be is to be recommended either (it sounds rather like the Oxford University Adam Smith experienced and detested.)

    1. John O'Dowd says:

      Alan, I have written more about neoliberalism – it has a chapter to itself in the book of which the above forms a chapter. Your account of it above is entirely consistent with my understanding.

      in 1971 US Judge Lewis Powell (soon to be elevated to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon) wrote an infamous memo to the American Chamber of Commerce urging it to mount a collective campaign to demonstrate that “what was good for business was good for America”. Powell warned that survival of the free enterprise system depended on “careful long-range planning and implementation” of a well-financed response to threats from the left. He identified the universities as hotbeds of anti- business – they had to be neutralised.

      This call was answered by a sustained right-wing offensive, coordinated by think tanks and funded expensively by business-family foundations including those of Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford. The myths generated by these outfits placed emphasis on market freedom, social and monetary discipline and a tightly concentrated state with limited functions.

      Hence the rhetoric that in a highly competitive global economy there needed to be a “culture of change” throughout business and the public sector, without which it would be impossible to meet the “competitive challenge” required to ensure that the “economy becomes lean, healthy and strong again” .

      The real aim was the restoration of class power. The means would be to dismantle industrial jobs (largely by off-shoring to China and other low-wage countries, with poor or absent regulation), and hence destroying the trade-unions, the establishment of ‘fiscal discipline’ that meant rationing state funding of public goods, and finally an ideological assault upon the media and educational institutions .

      There would have to be economic cover for the catastrophe that was about to be inflicted on home societies, hence the neoliberal narrative makes extensive use of neoclassical economics as a validating intellectual framework for its self-serving actions. These then assume the character of immutable laws of nature against which there is no conceivable argument. Hence emerged the rhetoric of the Thatcher/Reagan culture wars of the eighties. Resistance is futile ; “there is no alternative.”

      The underlying totalising principle of the paradigm governing neoliberal economic remedies is the assumption in neoclassical economics that all economic players are equal; that none is able to unduly influence, never mind manipulate, the omniscient ‘market’; that markets are in any case magically self-regulating; that all participants, consumers, financiers, transnational corporations, small businesses, have equal information and influence, and that the market itself is benignly self-correcting.

      Whilst social democracy was able to combat the perennial class war between employers and workers, it has been completely ineffectual in (and indeed in the UK co-opted by) the financial coup d’état against both industry and labour. Industry itself has been financialised.

      Neoliberal propaganda depicts Government regulation as the “road to serfdom” and a shift toward central planning, whereas, in reality, it is the financial sector that has become the thief of hope and the killer of livelihoods. In all of this there is indeed central planning – not in the seats of government, subject to democratic control. Rather, planning is centralized in Wall Street, Frankfurt and the City of London, steering national and international economies down the road towards debt peonage.

      Naturally, this was not how this was presented by the neoliberal propaganda machine that spun the myth that economic failure, whether national or in specific sectors, occurred because public institutions were not competitive enough, and that only neoliberal reform could save them. Increased social inequality was required: “to encourage entrepreneurial risk and innovation, and these, in turn, conferred competitive advantage and stimulated growth” .

      Thus, universities were failing because they were old-fashioned, cumbersome, slow-moving, inert, wedded to the past, and not sufficiently lean, mean and responsive. Nor were they contributing sufficiently to the national economy, they were too expensive to run, and the expansion of student numbers required to kick-start the ‘knowledge economy’ meant that alternative modes of funding and governance would be required.

      In any case, academics were lazy and worked ridiculously low hours, for only part of the year, and the vast investment in university estates was therefore scandalously under-utilised.

      David Harvey has brought substantial insights to the neoliberal project by identifying dispossession and accumulation as the main effects of neoliberalism which has been ‘redistributive rather than generative’, expending its efforts to find means of transferring assets and channelling wealth and income “either from the mass of the population toward the upper classes or from vulnerable to richer countries :

      These include:
      (1) the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations (as in Mexico and India in recent times);
      (2) conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusively private property rights;
      (3) suppression of rights to the commons;
      (4) commodification of labor power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption;
      (5) colonial, neocolonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources);
      (6) monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of
      (7) the slave trade (which continues, );

      (8) usury, the national debt, and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system
      as radical means of primitive accumulation.

      The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in backing and promoting these processes. To this list of mechanisms, we may now add a raft of additional techniques, such as the extraction of rents from patents and intellectual property rights and the diminution or erasure of various forms of communal property rights—such as state pensions, paid vacations, access to education, and health care—won through a generation or more of social democratic struggles.

      All of this is the background to my overall thesis – The Scottish Democratic Intellect is yet another victim of this totalising strategy on behalf of the Global 0.001%

      1. Alan says:

        Ah, I missed the earlier bit or that this was part of a larger project.

        My take on neoliberalism, which we appear to be agreed on, is a form of totalitarianism, and not a form of liberalism at all, is that it is riven by numerous contradictions (see, for example, comment on state planning above). As these become more apparent, not least the intervention of the state to save the market during the financial crisis, the whole project loses credibility and popular legitimacy. As a consequence, its continuation in supposedly democratic societies increasingly depends on violence. We are now in the phase where the unscrupulous opportunists, Trump, May and company, harness the anger and misdirect it at various scapegoats. It’s a very dangerous time. We need a strong academy to articulate a genuine liberal, social democratic alternative in opposition to the increasing authoritarianism that’s taking hold.

        1. John O'Dowd says:


  11. Paddy says:

    You write superbly John. If you are free come along to the Cumbernauld theatre night of R Burns songs this Saturday from 7.30 pm and we can have a blether once the songs are done?

    1. John O'Dowd says:


      Thanks for your (over) kind words and the invitation. I love the songs of Burns – as long as their not those of the BBC Scotland’s (sic) ‘Birns’ – and not for ‘Old Lang Zyne’ . I’ll need to check my diary.

      Do we have a mutual friend in a very fine physician – and an even better man – and the co-author of probably the most important book on the Second World War yet written?

      1. John O'Dowd says:

        Sorry – for “second world war” please read “First”. apologies

      2. P says:

        Aye John. We do. Jim is a rare gem, great writer (with Gerry) and the ae best heart and heid in a’ Scotia’s realm ay hammering the keys of thought. The establishment of times past ay sought to suppress the breath of democratic intellect that existed and at times flourished, but you are right that we now face the sleekit manipulation of financial elites who wish to crush or control all thought or dissent. Superb article just like your last knee which inpriased under a pen name!

        1. John O'Dowd says:

          Couldn’t have put it better. Jim is a truly great man – and his work with Gerry is beyond comparison. I’ll try to get over to Cumbernauld on Saturday.

  12. SleepingDog says:

    I wonder how the author rates the effectiveness of Scottish universities when they were apparently more driven by enlightenment than corporatism? We seem not to have had any social revolutions from their output, and contributions to key social issues like slavery, women and children’s rights, democracy, anti-colonialism and so forth are perhaps less impressive than they could have been. Some productions have been egalitarian; some, like Thomas Carlyle’s promotion of the great man theory of history have been resoundingly elitist.

    I think there may be a conservative aspect to Scottish higher education that limits its revolutionary potential, that I will illustrate with a real-life example.

    While studying politics at a Scottish university many years ago, I was set an essay on Plato’s ideal state from his Republic. The critics on the reading list were from the modern liberal democratic tradition (as I labelled it; call it MLD). My tutor failed my first essay, which although critical of aspects of Plato’s ideas (slavery, fantasy of gold-silver-bronze souls) was also critical of MLD, for having elements of oligarchy (a ruling elite based on wealth and privilege), timocracy (military rule), tyranny, deluding the people with propaganda, “or at least obstruct, confuse or pervert the course of justice”. I mentioned Plato’s criticisms of Athenian democracy (amateurism, power-seeking).

    I had a meeting with my tutor, and was happy to expound in greater depth and detail my thoughts sketchily presented in my essay, taking on board his criticisms. He said he was satisfied with my extended explanations, and I agreed to rewrite the essay.

    I submitted a second draft, including further criticisms of Plato (elitism, sexism, racism) and MLD (popular leaders seizing more powers in a crisis, which also happened in Plato’s time). My tutor failed me on that one too.

    It reminds me of something Noam Chomsky said about television news sometimes giving the same time allocation to orthodox and unorthodox views: there was just no way that the speaker could mount a cogent attack on orthodoxy while providing substantive examples and alternate frameworks in the time that a defender of orthodoxy could simply reiterate known platitudes. And these essays have a word limit.

    Reading through my (admittedly slightly lazy and occasionally irreverent) essays, I feel they have stood the test of time and new data reasonably well. And I wasn’t really so bothered about failing them, although someone else, perhaps with a career or further study in mind, might. But if this was in any way typical of politics tuition in Scottish universities, I would not be surprised if we wait a long time for revolutionary social change to be driven from that quarter.

    1. Redgauntlet says:

      Surely you tutor must have been exasperated to the point of near violence by your criticism of Plato on such entirely anachronistic grounds? It is a sterile business to critique somebody like Plato for elitism, racism and sexism, when such notions did not exist at the time he was writing….

    2. John O'Dowd says:

      Sleeping Dog,

      You have clearly been traumatised by your experience. A cogent response is to complex for a glib reply. I would however draw your attention to my comments above:

      It would be wrong to assume that capitalism had not been active in co-opting universities prior to that time. For although the capitalist influence on universities, including on the research they performed and subjects they taught – particularly economics and social sciences – bore the indelible mark of ruling class interests in operation, in the UK it was Jarrett that began, and provided the neoliberal blueprint for, the systematic managerial takeover of the academy, and its removal from academic and democratic control.

      There are serious epistemological problems with the social sciences especially economics, sociology and politics. We have an ‘economics’ that doesn’t account for the role of money, debt and power; sociology that attempts to study the social order independent of history, philosophy, politics and economics devoid of an understanding of the totality of social relations; and a politics that is concerned only within bourgeois parliamentary confines.

      Part of my overall thesis is that the academy itself, and especially the social sciences have been captured – and in some cases invented – to provide a justifying discourse for the status quo serving ruling economic elites.

      This is beyond the scope of this essay – which is part of a larger project.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @John O’Dowd, I did not mean to misrepresent my experience with this one example. In other courses like North–South Relations we covered very strong criticisms of the current neo-colonial powers, and in British politics critiqued the secret surveillance state. So while I was a little shocked at the time, I was not traumatised (I hope).

        I accept that the broad argument you make is highly plausible, and the points you make about the epistemological problems with social sciences ring true. When I used the word “revolution” I was thinking partly of T S Kuhn’s paradigm shifts (revolutions in science), where the frameworks of thought and practice within a discipline are overturned and renewed, from touchstone values through practical methodologies and acceptable lines of enquiry to the major theories.

    3. Redgauntlet says:

      To talk of racism, sexism and elitism with regard Plato…. you are lucky you escaped a good thrashing in my opinion, Sleeping Dog. These notions did not exist in Plato’s time.

      Human history exists for 100,000 years approximately with almost no account or record of events, no civilization. Then the Babylonians, and then this miracle a few centuries later, the Greeks. But they come out of timeless darkness… there is barely even a notion of what we call the individual. There are no notions of rights of any sort, anywhere, at least no record of them….and then Socrates appears on the scene, and of course Plato is his scribe. Socrates changes the whole course of human history. To accuse him of “racism, sexism and elitism” is just pointless…

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Redgauntlet, those notions clearly did exist in Plato’s time because he explicitly argued for them. To clarify racism, I meant that he argued that non-Greeks could be slaves, but Greeks should not be. Plato became increasingly misogynistic in his writings in a time where sexual power relations were openly discussed in plays like Aristophane’s Lysistrata. And elitism was a very live concern in ancient Athens, where some philosophers praised the constitutional model exemplified by Solon the Lawgiver over the democratic experiment in restricting the basis of authoritarian rule.

        1. Redgauntlet says:

          OK, Sleeping Dog fair enough.

          I am familiar with Plato, more or less, I have read most of the dialogues, but surely you can see that to cast 21st century eyes on such matters, without any spirit of understanding, without making allowances for the 22 centuries which have elapsed since Plato wrote and we write, is a sterile affair and a question of sowing seeds on barren ground. There is no point to it.

          Plato wrote wrote with 1 billionth of our knowledge of the world. He didn’t even know the geography of the planet we live on. To even philosophize on the question of slavery – which was the norm until 180 years ago more or less – is an act of enlightenment and a foundational stone of civilization. To ask the question is already an act of intellectual boldness, nonpareil for his time.

          My question of boldness has been asked by plenty of folk, but one cannot repeat it enough: how long can we take neo-liberal capitalism before it literally kills us?

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Redgauntlet, we have very limited information on the views of the ordinary person in Plato’s world. This is partly due to a bias in that the views of the elite may be recorded, even preserved down the ages; but those of labouring classes, particularly if they were illiterate, only rarely. Even Socrates did not leave a written record, apparently, and appears as Plato’s mouthpiece at times.

            So I am not sure how you can imply that slavery was accepted until 180 years ago. Was it accepted by slaves? If not, why do their opinions not count?

            I fear that (and this is where my comment is intended to veer back on topic) your sketch of the history of anti-slavery falls into a historical narrative created by (largely) British historians of the abolitionist movement, where certain approved actors (like Wilberforce) get the lion’s share of credit, with those from lower social orders and women, and especially enslaved people themselves, get little or no credit. Slave revolts not only threatened to bring about the end to slavery in locales by violent means (ultimately succeeding in Haiti/St Domingue) but demonstrated clearly that slavery was not acceptable to enslaved people (contrary to some pro-slavery propaganda).

            In ancient Rome, you have slave revolts like the Spartacus rebellion, and in ancient Greece you have Helot revolts in Sparta. By no means was historical slavery a stable, generally accepted and essential custom.

            Whether you agree with this view or not, I think it might be useful to consider whether one is falling into the trap of seeing history through a fake narrative of the sort that perhaps John O’Dowd is warning us about.

            One critique of the historical narratives which uses the Haitian slave revolt as a case study is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Another work that looks at the way British abolitionists evolved their arguments on Caribbean slave revolts is Gelien Matthews’ Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement. And although I have not finished reading it yet, David Olusoga’s work Black and British: A Forgotten History is also concerned with uncovering these silencings.

            I cannot answer your question on neo-liberal capitalism, but I would guess that propagandists are at work right now trying to make modern forms of slavery and bondage more acceptable, normal or invisible.

  13. Jason Kennedy says:

    “that was – quite literary – centuries ahead of its European neighbours…”

    Now that raised a smile.

  14. Redgauntlet says:

    SleeepingDog, of course I am not suggesting that slaves of the past were in agreement about their being slaves, I am saying that it was something which was widespread and common until the day before yesterday, so to speak.

    Take, for example, the case of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote, considered the first novel, and a contemporary of William Shakespeare. In fact Shakespeare and Cervantes died on almost the same day: the 23rd of April 1616…

    As a young man, Cervantes was a Spanish soldier who fought at Lepanto against the Turks and lost his arm in combat. Following his recuperation, on his way back to Spain, the ship he was sailing on was taken by Arab corsairs and he was captured and taken to the then thriving slave market of Algiers, where he was sold.

    He lived in slavery for around five years, along with his brother, and after unsuccessfully trying to escape on three occasions – Cervantes’s bravery is beyond any dispute according to the historical record – money was finally raised in Spain to secure his release. Though Cervantes was literally sitting on a boat which was about to take him in slavery to Turkey for ever more when the ransom money arrived in the nick of time…

    As for the Haitan slave revolt, I recommend the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier and his novel “The Kingdom of this World” and indeed, “Los Pasos Perdidos” too.

    Alejo Caprentier is a novelist of outstanding quality, better than Garcia Marquez in my opinion…

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Redgauntlet, I may have been too subtle in making my point. I thought about a reply then read this passage in Ethics: A Very Short History by Simon Blackburn, page 24:

      “It is a question of cooperating with the oppressed and supporting their emancipation…”
      “After all, it is typically only the oppressors who are spokespersons for *their* culture or *their* ways of doing it. It is not slaves who value slavery, or the women who value the fact that they may not take employment, or the young girls who value disfigurement. It is the brahmins, mullahs, priests and elders who hold themselves to be spokesmen for *their* culture. What the rest think about it all too often goes unrecorded. Just as victors write the history, so it is those on top who write their justification for the top being where it is. Those on the bottom don’t get to say anything.”

      So in my view you could as easily have said that anti-slavery feeling was the norm throughout history, if took the position of the oppressed rather than the oppressors. Or perhaps more accurately that slavery is one form of oppression and indicates social conflict rather than a social norm.

      An alternate view is that the Enlightenment rather underperformed when it came to anti-slavery, with more significant contributions by people from oppressed sections of society: women like Elizabeth Heyrick, people with personal experience of slavery like Frederick Douglass, Quakers (who had historically faced persecution).

  15. George Gunn says:

    I have just got around to reading this brilliant essay. It breaks my heart to agree with John, but my experience in a so-called university, especially the bullying and the sheer chronic barbarism, concords. One aspect of our university decline is the effect it is having on Scottish literature, which is now a suburb of this dystopia, the result being a generation of cultureless, career ambitious chancers, who pass themselves off as poets, playwrights and the like. The creative stream is being narrowed into a muddy, polluted canal. I look forward to reading your book, John.

    1. John O'Dowd says:

      George, Just seen this on a revisit to the site.

      I am deeply grateful for your kind words – particularly since they are YOUR words. I am a great admirer of your writing, and love your Epistles from the Province of the Cat.

      To receive such comments from one of Scotland’s great contemporary writers, is deeply affecting.

      As you well understand, imperialism has many forms and means – and the cultural dissolution of the Scottish University is such an act of imperialism.

      A nations collective memory can be expunged in one or two generations – only fragments now remain in our universities – with unrelenting attacks on the humanities in general, and Scottish studies (language, literature, history and culture) in particular.

      I can demonstrate clearly that none of this is accidental and hope to do so in a book which is slowly and painfully taking shape.

      Thanks again George.

      Best wishes.

  16. Iain Fraser Grigor says:

    George Gunn on this thread (is that the term?) calls this a “brilliant essay”; and that is exactly what it is. My old friend O’ Dowd is as good with the pen as he was with the mouth, heckling idiots at GU’s QM union back in the ‘seventies.

    But there is a wider problem. In the “old days of newspapers” a decent editor (eg. Arnold Kemp, etc.) would have detailed a news-reporter or two to stick with the issues raised in this essay. But Bella doesn’t, I suppose, have these resources. That is to say; it has erudite and combative essayists, but it doesn’t have reporters, or even a reportage channel (if that is the correct terminology in our post-print age).

    Does anyone have a solution?

    1. Solution: give us loads of money.

    2. Iain – my first answer wasn’t very helpful. I think its a mistake to think that a magazine like Bella can or should replace newspapers. We do comment, analysis and opinion, with reviews and film and audio part of the mix. Occasionally when we can we break news stories.

      I’m not one to celebrate the death of newspapers but the role of news gathering, local news and investigative journalism is vital to a functioning democracy. The previous media models are broken or trying to evolve. Mainstream newspapers websites are either full of clickbait or riddled with advertising (or both). People want their media for free, and free media comes at a price.

      We rely solely on our readers support to be able to function. Support us here.

    3. John O'Dowd says:

      Just picked up on this. Thanks for the kind words Iain – with George Gunn and Alastair McIntosh on this thread, another of Scotland’s great contemporary writers and authors.

      It’s been a while.

      Great days in GU – I remember you well – and fondly. (Although, I hope I did a bit more than heckle at QM (and GUU) debates and political events!)

      We need a bit more than Highland Resistance! We need it across this land.

      Good to hear from you.

      Keep up the struggle.

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