Sir John Major delivers inaugural John Smith Public Service Lecture

Issued: Wed, 20 Feb 2019 00:00:00 GMT

John Major

The Rt Hon Sir John Major KG CH closed the John Smith Centre's Public Service Conference with the inaugural John Smith Public Service Lecture on 19 February at the University of Glasgow.

Introduced by University of Glasgow Principal, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, the former Prime Minister delivered a rousing speech to 400 guests in the University's Bute Hall on the current state of politics in the UK.

Listen to Sir John Major's speech

Sir John said, "John Smith was a rare talent: the sort of tenacious politician that our country could ill afford to lose. If the fates had allowed, he would have been a Prime Minister of distinction.Some might think it odd that I’m speaking at an event that implicitly honours the legacy of a political opponent. But I am proud to be doing so. Democracy – and concern for our national wellbeing – is not the preserve of any one Party or philosophy. It is our common heritage, fought for by our predecessors. Today, it is the safety valve through which we debate differing views: but debate doesn’t mean we must disagree on everything. Because we don’t – and we shouldn’t. Politics isn’t warfare: it’s about deciding what is in the best interests of the four nations of our United Kingdom. And the idea that politicians should talk only to their own tribe, speaking only for – or to – those who agree with them, explains much that is wrong about modern politics. It’s a bunker attitude that has to change. The public don’t like it – and the public are right."

The John Smith Centre is enormously grateful to Sir John for delivering the first John Smith Public Service Lecture. Read the full text of Sir John's speech here.

The lecture formed part of the John Smith Centre Public Service Conference, which was generously co-funded by the Political Studies Association's Elections, Public Opinion and Parties specialist group. Other events throughout the day included:

Research Launch: The Public Understanding of Public Service

Public Perceptions of Public Service Research Launch - Fraser McMillan

We publicly launched the initial findings of the Centre’s research project, “The Public Understanding of Public Service” to students and academics at the University.

Sir Paul Grice, Clerk and Chief Executive of the Scottish Parliament, was present to offer his thoughts on public service and introduce the session. Very much in line with the Centre’s wider perspective, Sir Paul praised the value of the work done by our public servants and pondered the context in which “public service” is viewed and discussed. He lamented the perceived hardening of healthy public scepticism about politics into corrosive cynicism about public service, but lauded the work of the Centre in striving towards the renewal of ordinary citizens’ attitudes to public life.

The Centre’s Research Associate Fraser McMillan presented an overview of his and Prof. Christopher Carman’s research on the topic since Spring 2018. Fraser talked attendees through the three stages of the project: the literature review, the development of concepts and measures and the population survey of Great Britain designed to answer the project’s research questions.

Fraser discussed how the project began, with a systematic literature review of existing academic understandings of public service, noting the dominance of public administration research, especially on “public service motivation”, in colouring existing understandings of the topic. He moved on to outline the Centre’s tentative working definition of “public service” and presented some early survey findings about the public understanding of the term. He explained that public understandings of public service revolve mostly around the emergency services and other public sector amenities. However, he also noted that citizens do often take civil servants and politicians into consideration, while many also view the idea of self-sacrifice as being central to public service. Fraser also discussed the origins and political impact of citizens’ underlying attitudes to public service before outlining the final steps in the research process, in which analyses will be conducted resulting in final reports and papers for peer review.

Following Fraser’s presentation, Dr. Rich Engstrom of the University of Maryland’s Institute for Governmental Science and Research added an international dimension to proceedings. He presented comparative survey evidence on the attitudes of millennials to politics and democratic institutions. He demonstrated that, although millennials are less likely to exercise their right to vote, they are in many ways more politically engaged than older generations. He recommended that governments think creatively to engage younger voters in the democratic process. Dr. Engstrom’s scholarship connects to the wider disciplinary context in which the Centre’s research is situated, and served as an optimistic way to end the session.

Panel Session: She’s Running! How Women Candidates can Stand and Succeed

She's Running - How Women can Stand and Succeed roundtable

We also hosted a special panel on women and public service titled “She’s Running! How Women Candidates can Stand and Succeed”.

The session brought together public servants, academic experts and activists to discuss not only the challenges and barriers faced by women, but the positive reasons for women of all ages to stand for office at every level of government. Panellists included Lord Provost Eva Bolander, Danielle Rowley MP, Dr. Meryl Kenny of the University of Edinburgh and Women5050, Talat Yaqoob of Engender, Women5050 and Equate Scotland, and British Library PhD student Emmeline Ledgerwood, who has previously interviewed former MPs about their motivations and time in office.

The panel, chaired by award-winning freelance journalist Eve Livingston, rewarded attendees with a highly prescient and enlightening discussion. Panellists tied their normative and legislative preferences for improvements to women’s representation to their personal experiences, resulting in fascinating insights into what it means for women to stand for election and serve the public. Although serious societal matters were discussed, the discussion was at turns shocking, funny and deeply personal, and always carried a hopeful and inspiring message. Everyone in attendance learned something new and came away from the session inspired by the example of the participants.