I went from Bishopshalt to Oxford University where I graduated with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. I thought vaguely of becoming a barrister but my first job was as a financial journalist for The Economist, something I did not enjoy and was no good at. I was, however, lucky in being able to secure an academic post at Oxford, where I eventually became Professor of Government.
I had some wonderful students at Oxford, including David Cameron, the future Prime Minister, who, contrary to the media stereotype, is both very intelligent and very nice, Robin Janvrin, now Lord Janvrin, a life peer, who became Private Secretary to the Queen, and Kate Allen, now Director of Amnesty International.
Government was a subject that I had not studied at Bishopshalt, but it did require knowledge of history, something I had been taught at school by A.H.Holland, nicknamed for obvious reasons as `Dutchy’. He remains the most remarkable teacher I have ever come across with a real gift for making history come alive. I can still remember two of his mantras, `Essays should be short, terse, concise and succinct’, and `Science is about taps, geography is about maps, but history is about chaps’ – a sexist remark that he would not get away with today.
My academic work has been concerned primarily with the history and structure of the British Constitution, but I have also written on the government and politics of other democracies – the United States, the countries of Western Europe and also the European Union.
I have published books on devolution, on electoral systems, on referendums and on the monarchy. In my book The New British Constitution, published in 2009, I discussed the consequences of constitutional reform in Britain, and in 2011 I published a book on the coalition government called The Coalition and the Constitution. Some of my earlier essays were collected in 1996 in a volume entitled Politics and the Constitution. My most recent work has been connected with Brexit. In early 2019, I published a book called Beyond Brexit, which analysed the consequences of Brexit for British government and the constitution. Next year, lectures I gave at Yale university in America will be published as Britain and Europe in Troubled Times. These lectures analyse the geopolitical consequences of Brexit. I am currently engaged in writing a four volume constitutional and political history of Britain in the 20th century.
I was fortunate enough to be elected to a Fellowship of the British Academy in 1997, and the same year became an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, even though I have no legal qualification of any kind. In 2004, I was elected to the Gresham Chair in Law. This involved giving six lectures a year for three years on the British Constitution. I became perhaps the oldest unqualified lawyer in the country! After the three years came to an end in 2007, the College generously invited me to lecture on political and historical subjects for another 11 years! I lectured on such subjects as the American presidency from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush, British 20th century history, the British party system, British elections since 1945, and the relationship between Britain and Europe. All these lectures are available on the Gresham College website and some of the more recent ones were shown on the BBC Parliament Channel.
In 1998, I was awarded a CBE in virtue of my work in constitutional history; and in 2008, the Political Studies Association awarded me its Sir Isaiah Berlin Award for Lifetime Contribution to Political Studies. In 2009, I was awarded the Legion d’Honneur by President Sarkozy for work on French government and the constitution. In the same year I was elected to the Academy of the Social Sciences; and in 2010 I was made an Honorary Bencher at the Middle Temple, and awarded an Honorary D. Litt. by the University of Kent. 2010 was also the year of my leaving Oxford and becoming a Research Professor at King’s College, London, my current post.
I have played a modest part in public affairs. Between 1981 and 1998, I was a member of the Council of the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government. After the fall of Communism, I advised various governments, including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia on their constitutions and electoral systems. Since 1988, I have advised the Israeli government on constitutional reform. In 2006, I helped prepare a constitution for Kosovo.
I have done a great deal of journalism and broadcasting. I am a frequent contributor to the press, and, since the 1990s, I have often been on television and have also spoken on the radio, finding this both exciting and a stimulus to new thinking. I appeared as a commentator on the BBC’s all night election programme in 2010 and on the BBC’s Brexit referendum programme in 2016. I remember as a sixth former seeing the 1959 general election on television, and finding it remarkable that David Butler, the founder of electoral studies in Britain, was able to predict the outcome after just a few results were in. I did not then understand the concept of `swing’! It never occurred to me that I might be able to follow in David’s footsteps. At Oxford, I got to know him well – he is still going strong at the age of 95! I ran seminars with him on elections, and have also co-edited a book on electoral systems with him. I was lucky to have fallen under the influence of a pioneer of election studies.
I was an adviser in 2013 to Peter Morgan for his play The Audience, dealing with the relationship between the Queen and her various Prime Ministers, and was lucky enough to meet Helen Mirren who played the Queen. I was also an adviser in 2017 for the film on Churchill as Prime Minister in 1940, Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas, both of whom I met. But that is the nearest I ever got to Hollywood!
My main hobby is music. In my youth, I was an enthusiastic but ungifted amateur pianist, and in 2004, I began once again to take lessons. I have a most distinguished teacher, Annie Frankl, who was herself a professional pianist. In 2007, I was invited to participate in 2007 on the Radio 3 programme, Private Passions, with Michael Berkeley. I remember vividly music lessons at Bishopshalt under Myfanwy Butler – Madame B as we called her.
I consider myself fortunate to have spent my life doing what I enjoy and would willingly have done even if I had not been paid for it. I believe that Sigmund Freud once said that if one enjoyed what one was doing, one need never do a day’s work in one’s life!
Vernon Bogdanor, December 2019.