Posted by: Administrator | 22/10/2009

Tony Gardiner: Things it is hard to ignore

As Kevin Buzzard and others have intimated, LMS members really do face important choices.

Life is often turbulent; and the wisest stance is usually to hold on tight to what seemed stable yesterday and to proceed *as if* all were well. However, at some point this strategy is no longer appropriate.

In the matter of the LMS, things may have passed this “tipping point” some time back – even if the precise details are still hard to make out.

Norman Biggs (who was Council General Secretary during the key period 2002-2006) has provided some of the background (on this site). This helps put things in a larger context. However, he eschews close-ups which try to make sense of recent events, and wisely sticks to a salutary “long lens”. He writes: “One of the reasons why I was prepared, over a period of thirty years, to give my time and energy to the LMS was because it was, in many respects, a model of how a learned society should conduct itself. Of course, there were many disagreements, but there were very few occasions when the line was crossed, and fortunately they did not impinge on the core purposes of the Society. The Society´s affairs were run smoothly, by people who respected each other even if they did not always like each other. Latterly there was significant progress towards more open procedures, although the mysterious routine for the choice of President has survived.”

There are evident dangers in trespassing on matters which Norman wisely chose to leave unspoken. Much remains unclear; but there are unmistakeable shadows – even if one cannot be sure which are innocent and which are significant (or in what way).

So what follows is simply a collection of “things it is hard to ignore”.

  • Elsewhere on this site, the President-elect declares – without apparent rancour – that “strenuous efforts were made to de-select” him. Niall McKay naturally asks “Why?”. But so far noone feels able to explain.
  • This is just one of many obvious questions that have been asked – both openly and privately. All seem to be met either with silence, or with “answers” that raise yet more questions.
  • As Tim Gowers and Kevin Buzzard have noted, English institutions often need to be “encouraged” to accommodate open debate. A recent non-partisan mailing designed purely to encourage members to vote (in whatever way they chose) led the powers that be to issue a “clarification”. Who it was that originated this move remains unclear. What is clear is that the vehicle they used – Chair of Nominating Committee – looked like a convenient “shield”. (The Chair of Nominating Committee does not seem to have any relevant constitutional function: I am certainly ignorant of recent practice, but as far as I can tell his/her function is to Chair a group who provide specified nominations each year and to report the result to the Executive Secretary by a given date – a task completed admirably this year in difficult circumstances.)
  • This is but one of a number of instances which have left the naturally curious somewhat puzzled. For some of us the first clear sign that the unification debate was not quite what it seemed crystallised at the first Special General Meeting back in April. There the Chair had gone to the unusual lengths of seeking a legal ruling (the day before?) to justify his desire to rule “Out of Order” any possible adjournment motion; and this despite LMS Statute 22 which appears to make it is clear that any General Meeting may be adjourned: “The Chairman may, with the consent of the meeting, adjourn any business from time to time and from place to place, but no business shall be transacted at any adjourned Meeting other than the business left unfinished at the Meeting at which the adjournment took place.” One was left with the uncomfortable impression that someone already knew the result of the vote (from counting proxies and postal votes) and was determined to “cash it in and plough ahead” at any cost.
  • The ensuing weeks proved increasingly messy, and it would be wrong to attempt an inevitably inaccurate blow-by-blow account. My impression is that a small group on Council – who may at some stage have been broadly in favour of a merger, and who had been previously content to allow things to move ahead – became alarmed at a number of instances ranging from the cavalier to blatantly dubious. They began to ask perfectly reasonable questions, and were surprised to find that the responses only heightened their concern. Collective responsibility sometimes has its place; but I cannot have been alone in my astonishment at attempts to muzzle the one member of Council who expressed his gently reasoned misgivings in the second of the Special General Meetings.
  • To those of us on the outside, the denouement arrived on 26 August when LMS members were informed that: “Council confirmed its decision that Professor Angus Macintyre, FRS, be President-Designate wth respect to the coming elections in November. However, as a consequence of this it received with regret the resignations with immediate effect of the Vice-President, Professor Alice Rogers, and the General Secretary, Professor Charles Goldie.” Life occasionally gives rise to such turmoil; and the decent response is to report it as dispassionately as possible and move on. I never imagined I would ever read such an announcement that deliberately inserted such utterly inapproriate words as “as a consequence of this”: these words not only identify the opposing camps, but even appear to declare which side the drafter of the announcement was on! The President-elect may have “been confirmed”; but his position was clearly exceedingly precarious.
  • When one of the those who resigned promptly nominated the other for re-election, ordinary members might be excused for being confused. What are we to make of all this? (If the General Secretary resigned because – after “strenuous efforts” to de-select him – the President- elect had been re-confirmed, how could one interpret his re- nomination other than as a blatant attempt to undermine his Presidency? If so, then the wording of the 26th August e-mail leaves one with the impression that he would not be operating alone.)
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