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Prof David McCrone's retiral reception 14 September 2011

A Personal Appreciation by Prof Frank Bechhofer

In honour of David having done classics at school, let’s start there.  ‘Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres’.  All academic life too, like Gaul, is divided into three parts – teaching, research and administration, and David McCrone (to give him his formal and Sunday name for the last time here) has done his fair share of all three, although I’m prepared to bet that the one he misses least in retirement is the third of them. He has been known to express his irritation forcefully with what he referred to in his speech at his retiral party as ‘dysfunctionalities and reorganizations, and downright idiocies perpetrated on hard-working people who are doing their best under very trying circumstances’. His close colleagues and friends will recognise here his endearing tendency, which has strengthened over the years, to fulminate from time to time about statements, events, and people, sometimes with just cause and there again sometimes not. 

However, this is the Institute of Governance web site so perhaps one should start there, and anyway its success reflects a lot more than his administrative skills. As he put it in that same speech, he founded with Alice Brown ‘the Institute of Governance, out of the Governance of Scotland Forum, out of Unit for the Study of Government in Scotland.’ He also said that he has tried to live by two motifs, one of which is ‘Tom Burns’s maxim that: it is the business of sociologists to conduct a critical debate with the public about the equipment of its social institutions’. That fits well with the Institute in its many aspects. Dave has led the team which has built it up into a distinguished and valuable institution, and if it didn’t exist he would have to (re)invent it. That, I very much hope, will not be necessary.

The Institute and its connections with policy and the Scottish Parliament are all of a piece with what I regard as undoubtedly Dave’s greatest achievement. His biggest, and unique contribution, well recognised in his Fellowship of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, has been his virtually single handed creation of a modern sociology of Scotland. Nowadays there is a large and thriving sociology of Scotland. It was not always so. Dave realised that a proper and not piecemeal sociology of Scotland simply had to be created. Pursuing that goal became his life’s work. The path breaking Understanding Scotland : The Sociology of a Stateless Nation appeared in 1992; the second edition in 2001 is even better than the first. 

Dave also served his time as Head of the Department of Sociology, Head of the Planning Unit, was involved in Schools Liaison, and in the probably rather more pleasant tasks of administering various research projects including co-coordinating the Leverhulme programme on ‘Constitutional Change and Identity’ to which I shall return. He said that his other key motif has been that ‘working with other people is the key; teaching and research are best done together’. His administrative style was also collaborative, something which sprang from the ethos engendered in the sociology department by its founder, Tom Burns.

He has always believed that there is a symbiotic relationship between teaching and research and has over the years taught across the board in sociology, founded the Sociology of Scotland course, taught Scottish Politics and in more recent times the interns in the Institute of Governance. I am sure that there are a great many people who as a result of his enthusiasm and knowledge left the University of Edinburgh better informed and with an enduring interest in their homeland or adopted land of Scotland. I know for certain that his former graduate students are to be found carrying forward his mission to ensure that the history and sociology of Scotland takes its proper place in institutions of higher education.

David’s contributions to research formed the substance of the event to mark his retiral. Anyone familiar with the history, politics and sociology of Scotland will recognise the names including Steve Reicher, a social psychologist among the political and sociological wolves who spoke warmly about Dave’s work and his role in co-ordinating the Constitutional Change and Identity Programme, and Michael Keating who said how much he had benefited from reading his work and from discussions with him. Michael Anderson spoke of a forthcoming contribution to Scottish historical demography, and he and Lynn Jamieson recalled the work on household strategies with which we were all involved and referred to his ability to put his finger on what lay behind the oral testimony of respondents. John Curtice and Alice Brown discussed Dave’s work in Scottish politics especially the election studies and of course the Consultative Steering Group. Lindsay Paterson spoke of his contributions across the field of Scottish social structure including his own specialty of education. A few years ago, Lindsay took the lead and joined forces with Dave and myself to write Living in Scotland which perfectly suited Dave’s breadth of knowledge and collaborative enthusiasms.

I’m now going to focus on my own close working relationship with Dave both because this is a personal account and because much of the later part is central to the work of the Institute, and relates to what I see as his continuing quest to answer sociological questions about modern Scotland. It was most unfortunate that Brian Elliott was unwell and at the last moment unable to attend the retiral event because Brian and I, in the late sixties, were in at the beginning of this remarkable and productive career and the three of us worked closely together as friends and colleagues till Brian went to Canada, after which Dave and I continued and are continuing to ask questions and sometimes answer them together. As a result it fell to Dave himself to refer to those early days which I think laid down patterns and styles of work which shaped much of what followed. His research career started as an interviewer on the study which Brian and I did of Small Shopkeepers as exemplars of the petite bourgeoisie.  The central part of the work was an interviewer survey of considerable size for those early days before the desk top computer, when survey methodology involved a lot of hands-on labour. Social survey agencies in Britain were in their infancy. Academics who did surveys tended to organize them themselves, employ the interviewers, supervise the field work and the coding of the data, and carry out the subsequent analysis by laborious techniques. We learned a lot as we went along and in almost subconscious ways it has affected our ways of thinking and working ever since. 

Brian and Dave went on to do a survey of landlords and I cannot do better than quote an anecdote from Dave himself.

Brian and I had even more fun: we interviewed one of our landlords, Dora Noyce, in a brothel in Danube Street. Dora, who was a kirk-going Tory, did the interview in her bed surrounded by her cats; Brian and I sat warily at the end clutching our clipboards (as you do in the clipjoint, of course). You don’t get that kind of experience doing social theory (or do you?).

The three of us then shifted from survey to qualitative methodology and ever since have employed both in our work. Shopkeepers and landlords as (generally) self-employed persons led us on to look at their organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses and thus to the study of middle class movements and the rise of the New Right in the 1970s. This was, as Dave neatly put it: ‘much to the suspicion of some sociologists that we were somehow sympathetic to the cause, presumably on the weird grounds that one should only study those to whom you are sympathetic’.

Since then Dave and I have worked mainly on Scotland. For several years from 1980, with the invaluable assistance of Steve Kendrick, we carried out an analysis of Scottish Social Structure largely using official sources, followed this by looking at Social Change and the 1981 Census, and then a look at age structure. We then joined forces with Michael Anderson, Stephen Kendrick, Brian Main, and Bob Morris to examine 'Family, Work and Labour: Social Change in Kirkcaldy', as part of the Social Change and Economic Life Initiative; and Dave, Mike and I did a subsequent follow up in the late nineties looking at people we had interviewed a decade earlier.

Over the last twenty years, however, Dave and I have collaborated on the study of national identity and it has I think for both of us become almost an obsession! Dave’s interest in Scottish national identity goes back to his work writing Understanding Scotland, to his comprehensive grasp of the historical sociology of Scotland which is one of his greatest intellectual strengths, and his active involvement in the long struggle for Scottish devolution. It was certainly Dave who first got me intrigued by the concepts of state and national identity. I cannot recall what first triggered our decision to do an empirical study of Scottish national identity apart from the obvious  - it’s important, not a lot had been done, constitutional change was on the agenda and we’re empirical animals. Because we are both colleagues and friends (by no means always the same thing), we talked about what interested us including why Scottish (and English and British) national identity mattered. So it came to pass that in 1993 we got an ESRC grant to study ‘Ethnicity, Identity and Locality: landed and arts elites in Scotland’, and it’s been downhill ever since!

In retrospect, it’s interesting to see that some of the ideas we, together with our research officers Richard Keily, Robert Stewart and, briefly before he moved on to greater things, Gary West developed in that first study run through a lot of our subsequent work: that national identity is not fixed or given; the importance of context; the concepts of markers and rules of national identity; and the making and reception of claims  We went on to study identity in Berwick upon Tweed, Eyemouth, Alnwick, and some villages along the Scottish border, and then we saw an advertisement calling for applications to the Leverhulme Trust for a programme of research on Nation and Regions. It was pretty clear that Leverhulme really had something quite other in mind but being chancers, we decided that we could twist the theme to suit our purpose, and redefine it as Nations and Regions: Constitutional Change and Identity. There was over a million pounds on the table, and it was a wonderful opportunity. Our skills have always been complementary and somehow, between us and with a lot of help from colleagues we assembled a team, the application got written, revised and rewritten more often than I care to remember, and Edinburgh finally got a grant. Our own slice of the action, in conjunction with a team at Lancaster, carried forward our ideas about identity in context by looking at nationals and migrants, people born in Scotland or England and resident in one or the other country. 

Dave drew the short straw and took on the job of co-ordinating the work of this large team of disparate people spread across a number of institutions and, it must be said, not always the easiest of souls to work with. I’ve been there and have the scars because I co-ordinated the Edinburgh team on that earlier programme as part of the ESRC Social Change and Economic Life Initiative. aving seen what went on, Dave ought to have had more sense because that was problematic enough, but this Leverhulme lark was far worse. Of course he rose to the occasion and did a grand job. His enthusiasm was infectious and he provided real intellectual leadership. The programme was wide ranging, productive and seems to have made an impact. He managed to bring it in on budget, was helpful and flexible when dealing with the various different projects but could put his foot down when needed, and he formed a close relationship with Leverhulme, and gained their trust. Those excellent relations had a major spin-off. I still find it rather shocking, but Leverhulme’s director came back to Dave and said, what could you do with another million quid? Now that doesn’t happen with ESRC. We thought about it and came up more or less independently with the idea of bringing survey data to bear on the ideas about identity processes which we had developed. And that’s what we’ve been up to ever since - designing, inserting and subsequently analysing modules on national identity in the British and Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys.  

Reflecting on the meaning of our work to-day. I’m tempted to borrow a phrase and say it’s too early to tell. I do believe that our considerable body of work together is relevant and important if you want to understand better where Scotland and the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom stand, and the by no means always self-evident connections, and sometimes lack of connections between the sense of national identity which people have and constitutional change, past and present. In an as yet unpublished paper we conclude:

As political events unfold over the next few years, notably a referendum on Scottish independence during the lifetime of the present Scottish government, we are likely to hear much more than hitherto about what it means to be British, as well as Scottish, and even English. Whatever their stance on constitutional change, politicians would be well advised to take account of what scholarship has discovered about these issues rather than what they may believe to be the case.

Dave’s achievements are enormous and continuing. We’ve been close colleagues and friends for a hell of a long time. He is a very generous collaborator, we recognise that we have different strengths and weaknesses, and I don’t think we’ve ever had a hassle about who got credit for what, if indeed we knew. He regularly drives me up the wall. His single minded determination to get things finished now occasionally clashes with my tendency to tinker with things too much, and more often and less creditably in his eyes, to spend too much time engaged on fascinating non-academic activities. But then unlike me he’s always had workaholic tendencies, happily somewhat relieved in more recent times by acquiring a family, refurbishing a house, tending his vegetables, and, perhaps his most redeeming feature, looking after the cats. He has been a superb and supportive research collaborator, a good friend and we’ve had a lot of fun. If doing research hadn’t been fun I’d have stopped years ago. Dave has also been very generous in another way, carrying an increasing burden as I slow down.

There’s still a lot of mileage in the data we have collected and one tranche still to come, and there is much to be done, but Dave ever enthusiastic and energetic is embarking on a new venture with Jan Webb as part of her project on ‘Heat and the City’, a return to his planning and urban sociology roots. ‘And thus the whirligig of time brings in his
revenges’ to quote from my other major obsession, the theatre. Dave is ten years younger than me so I expect you’re going to have to put up with him for at least another decade. We all wish him a long, happy and productive retirement. 

Frank Bechhofer                                                               

6th October, 2011

Some pictures from the leaving reception: 

 FriendsD McCrone at retiral reception

 D McCrone and friends

sociology