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Willie Paterson at 80

By Prof Charlie Jeffery, University of York

Willie Paterson, a legendary figure in political science and European studies in the UK, turned 80 a little while back. I’ve known Willie for the last 34 of those 80 years and worked with him very closely for ten of them. I have to say no-one else has had such a profound impact on my career. And one of the most remarkable things about Willie is just how many people could say the same thing – that no-one else has had such a profound impact on their careers.

And that’s because of the kind of academic Willie is. Let me propose four maxims that define Willie’s approach. Two of them mark Willie out as the living antithesis of the ivory tower, the other two his generosity of spirit.


So maxim #1: Don’t let theory get in the way of explanation. Willie has always worked with theoretical rigour, but never drifted into the theoretical navel-gazing that befalls some academics. I look at some of his landmark contributions – on the West German model of political economy with Gordon Smith, government-industry relations with Wyn Grant, or the relationship of Germany and Europe with Simon Bulmer – and they all rest on deep theoretical insight, but they wear it lightly. Their message, their power is all the clearer for that – and then often turbo-charged by brilliant imagery: West Germany as Swift’s Gulliver in Lilliput, beset by a ‘leadership-avoidance reflex’, and then after Germany unity with Gulliver unbound, a ‘reluctant hegemon’.

Lightness of touch and insightful imagery are a precondition for maxim #2: Don’t satisfy yourself just with rigorous explanation, do something with it in the real world. We now call it impact and co-production, but Willie was doing that long before anyone coined the term, engaging and enlarging his knowledge, insight and impact by working closely with those involved in managing the complex relationships between Germany, the UK and the EU. More on that below.

Maxim #3 is: Collaborate – work with others whose expertise can combine with yours, because that way you extend your capacity to explain and the reach of your impact. This is where Willie’s generosity of spirit comes in. Scholarship for him has generally been a shared exercise; he calls his instinct for collaboration a vocation, a calling initially sparked by the prompt of his then colleague Martin Kolinsky when Willie was at a low point following the death of his first wife Jackie, and since then an essential part of his MO.

Willie has given many others that same prompt, but his most enduring collaboration has been with Simon Bulmer in a series of books and articles on Germany and Europe that began in 1987 and has punctuated the period since. How delightful it is that Willie’s latest book with Simon on Germany and Europe was recognised by UACES as 2020’s best book on European integration.

Of course Willie was a founder member of UACES back in 1967, as he was of the Association for the Study of German Politics in 1974, then a small group of UK-based academics, now a genuinely international association which later absorbed its US counterpart and now has a growing membership in Germany. As Willie knew, academic networks are crucibles of collaboration, and these now powerful international networks are another outcome of his vocation …

… as are all the connections Willie made with think tanks in the UK, Germany and Brussels, British-German networks of various kinds, officials and policy advisers in the Foreign Office, the European Commission, the Auswaertiges Amt, all of which became channels for himself and others to ensure their academic insight had real world impact. As David Marsh put it in an FT piece in 1994, Willie is ‘Britain’s No 1 Academic Collaborator.’

Through that collaborative vocation we come to maxim #4: Pass on the baton, bring on the next generation.

I have never met anyone in academic life who takes the pleasure that Willie does in the achievements of others – those he has worked with, supported, given an opportunity, supervised through a PhD. He is the most generous mentor, and of course that means his influence, his impact will extend for decades to come.

So, there we have the four Paterson maxims: rigour, impact, collaboration and mentorship. How did all that shape his career?

I can say less about his earlier career at Aberdeen and Warwick, although it is characteristic that friendships struck then in the 60s, 70s and 80s still flourish. But I get a sense that Aberdeen and Warwick were in part a formative period in which Willie was honing his method for what we might call the period of ‘high Paterson’ at the Europa Institute in the Law School at Edinburgh and the Institute for German Studies in Birmingham.

Willie went to Edinburgh in 1989. Well I say ‘went’ – in fact he exploded into Edinburgh in an extraordinary burst of verve and energy which, it may be said, disconcerted some in the Law School whose view of academic endeavour was a little more sedate than Willie’s.

There was a twin backdrop: the first stirrings of the Euroscepticism in the Conservative Party that ultimately drove Brexit; and German unification. Margaret Thatcher was at the heart of both, with her Bruges speech in 1988 which outrageously compared the EU with the Soviet Union, and her mistrust and vindictiveness towards Germany as the unification process unfolded in 1989-90.

Against that backdrop Willie came out fighting. There was an Honorary Doctorate for Helmut Kohl in 1991, one for Jacques Delors in 1992. Gorbachev came to give a lecture. So did Ted Heath. Willie’s eulogy for Kohl included a veiled attack on Mrs Thatcher which, to his delight, was published in the Bulletin of the German Federal Government. Also to Willie’s delight, Kohl took Thatcher’s Scottish Secretary, Ian Lang, to task for his distaste for haggis (of which Kohl of course had two portions, relishing its family resemblance to the fabled Germany delicacy of Saumagen). And Ted Heath made a significant donation to the Europa Institute with the proviso that ‘I am confident you will use it only for purposes of which Mrs Thatcher would disapprove’.

And then there was the Edinburgh EU Summit of 1992 at which Willie threw the kitchen sink of collaborative method to celebrate the twin developments of German unity and closer European integration, including the Delors degree and a long series of conferences, publications, dinners and receptions. His then colleagues at the Europa Institute still looks back at that period with a sense of awe, exhilaration and, I think, exhaustion.

And then to the Institute for German Studies, the IGS, in Birmingham in 2004, where I joined Willie.

I know what those Europa Institute colleagues felt. With incredible support from the University, and the generous funding of the most impressive academic exchange organisation in the world, the DAAD, the IGS went from 0-60 in seconds. We worked with brilliant academics here and in Germany, partnered with all the key organisations that connected the UK and Germany, and won big grants from all the main funders in the UK as well as the Volkswagen-Stiftung in Germany.

But above all we had brilliant cohorts of doctoral students. What an experience they had. Willie entrusted and guided them just to go for it, to tackle big issues, to connect and collaborate, be bold and ambitious – essentially to ignore the bureaucracy universities were then putting around PhD training and act, more or less from day one as fully functioning academics, analysts, advisers. Willie basically hothoused them, and my goodness they responded. It is no exaggeration to say that even in their first year of PhD study many of our students were already outperforming well-established academics, and it is no surprise that many of have gone onto outstanding careers in academia, in public service, in the private sector.

All this was facilitated by the myriad connections Willie had to Germany and those who studied it. This arch collaborator was never more than a degree of separation away from any academic who had written something significant about Germany, or any major political figure in Germany since WW2 (and others before including, remarkably, both Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin!). All of that Willie put at the Institute’s disposal, with his characteristic generosity of spirit and his characteristic thirst for others’ success.

The outcome was the high point of the Paterson method of rigour, impact, collaboration and mentorship, made manifest in what became a unique mix of high-powered research centre, influential think tank, and informal diplomatic community.

There was a different political context for all this of course. Blair’s victory in 1997 and Gerhard Schroeder’s in 1998 aligned centre-left politics and pro-EU attitudes. The outcome was a period of especially close relationships between the UK and Germany. But the IGS itself – with all that energy, that commitment, the brilliant creative force of our PhD students – was without doubt also one of the reasons why UK-German relations were so good.

I know Willie is, and certainly should be, proud of this, even if the political rupture of Brexit has since challenged the Institute’s legacy. But there is so much in that legacy – in particular that next generation Willie nurtured – that lives on and will continue to underpin the relationship between the UK and Germany in myriad ways.

With that Willie has achieved far more, and done so with far greater passion, commitment and generosity of spirit, than most academics can dream of.


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