Interview with a Think Tank Director

Anand Menon is Director of the UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London. He has written widely on many aspects of EU politics and policy and on UK-EU relations. He is a frequent contributor to the media on matters relating to British relations with the EU.

What is your job title?

Director of the UK in a Changing Europe is one of my job titles but I’m odd, because I’ve also got an academic job title – but our funders pay my salary.

Where do you work?

We’re based in King’s but everything about us is a bit more complicated than that. Officially, we’re a centre that is based in King’s, but not a King’s College Centre. We’re funded by the National Research Council so our team of academics are based all the way around the country as we are meant to be a centre for the whole country.

What do you do?

I manage a small team that does an awful lot and at the moment, because we’re just navigating the move from one funding stream to another, we’re having to hire new people and things like that. So there’s that. I try and write and actually do think tank stuff, but I’m doing less and less of that at the moment, because there’s more and more management. I do a lot of representing the organisation. We are here essentially to promote social science. What I mean by that is that we tell people who aren’t in universities, why they should be paying attention to social science, and help them pay attention to social science by producing it in an accessible way. I therefore spend a lot of my time meeting people and trying to persuade them that actually we’re worth taking seriously. A lot of my time is therefore meeting with MPs, meeting with civil servants, talking to journalists. I feel like I’m a sort of traveling salesman for the social sciences.

What was your route to getting here?

It’s a very simple history, in a sense, as I was an academic. I got my first academic job in 1992 and taught International Relations and Politics. Then in 2014, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) advertised a weird little gig where they were after someone to spend a day a week considering the state of our knowledge about UK-EU relations because they thought there might be a referendum and it would be nice to sort of take stock. I applied for it and got it but, by the time I’d actually had my first meeting with them, the ESRC decided they needed to be far more ambitious. So I actually fell into this far bigger role without really knowing what it was.

We therefore started in 2014 and (due to events) we grew quite quickly. You had the 2015 General Election result, which took many people by surprise, then you had the referendum pledge and then the 2016 referendum. So things took off quite quickly and it’s been absolutely manic!

People now ask ‘so what do you do now that Brexit is over?’ but Brexit is still everywhere. Not just when negotiating with the EU over the NI Protocol, but also how Brexit is still impacting on devolution, the economy and our politics in all sorts of ways.

Why public policy?

It’s not just been public policy. We’ve been through different phases. Initially, it was pre referendum and then the referendum. Then it was about informing the public about what the choices were and some of the choices around Brexit were about public policy, but not all of them. Some of them were about autonomy. You couldn’t really ‘do’ Brexit without talking about economics or immigration etc. but actually, a lot of our stuff is more about structures, processes and politics like the devolution work we do.

I do enjoy doing the policy work. I adore my job because it’s just sort of unceasingly fascinating. Partly, because I get to meet really interesting people and get paid for it. It’s great! On any given day, I might be meeting a bunch of really interesting MPs or civil servants or foreign diplomats. I also have the attention span of a gnat and so this job suits me down to the ground because every half hour, you’re doing something fundamentally different. In retrospect, I’m amazed I spent so long being an academic, because it’s abundantly clear to me now that I just don’t have the temperament for that.

What is rewarding about your sector?

In academia, loads of really good work is done but academics tend to be quite bad at making people aware of it. So what is rewarding about my job is that we’re helping a load of people who do really useful work, make contact with the people who will find it useful. To take one specific example, a couple of years ago, Question Time had started inviting some of us on every now and then and I like to think that one of the impacts we’ve had is we’ve convinced that programme and its producers and their viewers, that experts aren’t just dull, they are actually useful people to have on a panel, because they provide a perspective that is quite often lacking otherwise. Little things like that I really treasure because I think that’s quite an achievement.

What is success for you?

What greater success can you have than loving your job? You know, it’s taken me 50 odd years to find the right job and I’ve found it now. There are very few days when I don’t wake up and just think, God, this is fine. But I mean, that’s success. I’m getting paid to do something I love.

What are the challenges facing policy and think tanks?

Well, there are too many to count almost, which is both a challenge and an opportunity. If you take Brexit, if you take COVID, if you take the war in Ukraine, there are such massive pressures on public policy on the public finances, on government time, on our ability to think things through. Brexit and COVID have challenged everything from our health infrastructure to the sort of structures of devolution. But for us, it’s an opportunity when, as social scientists, we’re living through a series of natural experiments. What happens if you stop freedom of movement? What happens if you leave a single market and the Customs Union? They’re all things that we theorised about for years and we get to live it in real time. So it’s just the most interesting period. I mean, my God, could you imagine a more interesting time to be studying British politics?

What has been your worst job experience?

A humiliating job experience was a holiday job in an awful off-licence. This was West Yorkshire in the 1980s and my first Christmas holidays back from university, I got a job at Victoria Wines. The manager said to me, “could you wait outside with the door lock” because even in Wakefield on Christmas Eve there were gangs and drugs. And so I did, and I was standing out there, terrified, because it was quite violent. Then after about 20 minutes, I turned around and the key had gone from the door and I thought, Christ almighty and sort of slumped back in to tell the manager I’d lost it. He and the other people in the shop were standing by the till in fits of laughter and he said, “Oh, the butcher next door just came in with the key saying ‘There’s some P*** out there about to rob you”. And they sacked me. On Christmas Eve. That was my worst job experience but in academia, I’ve been quite lucky.

I’ve had bosses I didn’t really get on with and I moved jobs. I hate academic management. I just don’t see the point, so I’ve avoided it.

What has been your best job experience?

Just so many in the last four or five years. I’m a bit of a show off, so the first time I did Question Time I was on a high for about 48 hours. You get so nervous and you’re really, really tense but if it goes, well, it’s incredible.

People being nice about what we’ve achieved here is always nice, you know? I tweeted last night that we just got an extension to our funding and we’ve had so many nice comments and actually, those things make me feel really good. I also love it when our staff go on to really good jobs.

What would you tell those wanting to work in the sector?

Generally, what I’d say is that you probably need to get a Masters or you probably need to get very lucky getting your foot in the door somewhere. There are loads of people trying to get into this area so you have to send out loads of letters and hope for the best. But the faster you make your name in an area, the better so write stuff, publish stuff, submit stuff and choose an area where people are thinking, ‘oh, there was that person who wrote a couple of things on that’.

I think it’s still harder for women than for men to be treated seriously as experts. The sad thing is, I think, is that for women there’s probably more point getting a doctorate than men because then you’re a Doctor. I still think that makes a difference, which is dreadful, but I think true.

What do you look for when hiring?

Obviously, you look for expertise in the field, but also you look for people who are energetic, because we’re tiny. In the office next door, there are five people. That’s our team so you’ve got to be able to walk in, be good at being part of a team and be flexible because if you’re a researcher, you’ll sometimes be doing comms.

You’ve got to get on with people and be able to do things at high speed.

If you had one sentence of advice what would it be?

Persevere. It’s such a competitive world.



First job after graduation? Masters in International Relations, then a PhD.

Degree subject? History and French

Morning luck or night owl? Both, which is why I’m always knackered!

Summer or Winter? Summer. Absolutely no choice. I hate the cold.

Worst paid job? Holiday jobs, obviously. But there’s a lot of sort of exploitation in academia. My first academic job was in 1992 as a college lecturer, which is a specific sort of job that doesn’t give you full rights and privileges and the salary was just about 10 grand. Even in real terms, that wasn’t an awful lot.

Favourite policy area? I am intrigued by housing policy but it’s not an area I write about or know anything about. But I love reading people who do know what they’re talking about. From the areas I worked on it would be foreign and security policy. Very popular now.

Reports or events? Reports

What are you reading right now?There is nothing for you here’ by Fiona Hill

When you’re not working what are you doing? I like cycling, running, exercising or watching football, or cricket, or tennis, or eating.

What are you most excited about in 2022? We’ve just got three more years of funding approved,  so we have to remake the team and rethink our priorities and relaunch. That’s always quite exciting. And the issues, whether constitutional or economic, political or social, the spill overs of Brexit and COVID are so fascinating. It’s just a really good time to be doing what we do.

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