Sam Blaxland
Sam Blaxland at Hay Festival

Sam Blaxland

I am a Post-doctoral Fellow in the History Department at Swansea University, where I have just written a book to mark our institution’s centenary. It is a social history of Britain since 1945, and of its youth culture. It also explores the changing nature of the relations universities have had with the communities they are part of. Swansea University: Campus and Community in a Post-War World will be published this summer. Alongside my research, I also teach on various undergraduate and post-graduate courses. Topics I cover include various aspects of Britain since 1945, including its relations with what has become the European Union; grass-roots political culture; the history of the Conservative Party; Welsh history; and the politics of nineteenth century Britain. I also teach classes on the theory of oral history and writing biographical histories.

Between 2013-2016, I wrote a PhD on the Conservative Party in Wales since the Second World War. This almost always elicits one of a few reactions, including shock or a disbelief that such a thing ever existed! In fact, the Tories have long been Wales’ second political party, but they are often marginalised from the historical narrative in Wales. My thesis sought to rebalance this a little. Both my current project, and this PhD work, involved a great deal of oral history, and I interviewed well over 100 people over both projects. The work on the Conservatives in Wales has resulted in writing various other pieces for academic journals and newspapers, and it also spurred on a side-career as a media pundit and political commentator. Since 2017, I have appeared regularly on various television and radio shows to talk about politics, and current affairs more broadly, including on BBC Breakfast, Radio 5 Live, BBC News at 6, and on many BBC Radio Wales shows. I was an overnight studio pundit during the 2019 general election, and I have appeared a dozen times on Sunday Politics Wales.

I was born and raised in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. Since then, I have studied, worked or lived in Cardiff, Oxford, London and Swansea. Outside of work, I am a keen runner, old-fashioned reader of newspapers, cook and drinker of wine – but not all at the same time.

I was delighted to be asked to host Exploring Global Problems, not least because in academia there is a tendency to retreat into your own research bubble, and do a lot of work on a relatively small (and fascinating) aspect of your chosen topic. This podcast series could not have been more different and I genuinely feel like I’ve broadened my mind by listening to so many of my colleagues talk about things I previously had no idea about.

I took my role seriously and tried to prepare for each episode by reading the guest’s briefing notes, looking at their online profiles or personal websites, and doing a bit of background reading around their topic. I didn’t want to go into the interviews blind, but I was also aware that not being a specialist has its advantages: it meant that if I was confused about something they were saying, then most of our listeners might be too. I certainly had a list of questions written down at the beginning of each episode (which the guests never saw) but the majority of the questions I ended up asking were ones that came into my head as we went along. Whilst there’s value in not being an expert on a topic, I think my presenting was better when I had done a significant amount of my own reading – which wasn’t easy when I was also trying to write my own book at the same time!

As a big listener to Radio 4, I didn’t intend to channel any inner John Humphrys that might have been lurking in there somewhere: I often push back gently against our interviewees, but only with the purpose of putting an alternative perspective to them, because that’s what academia should be about. The tone was never anything other than friendly and conversational, and, far from being aggressive, I largely tried to sit back and let our guests do the talking. It was, after all, their podcast and not mine. I sometimes disagreed with what they were arguing, but I tried to never let that show.

The production value of the podcasts really is superb. That’s nothing to do with me, and all to do with the technical wizardry of Stephen Cleary, who was our producer. Not only did he make the recordings sound brilliant, he was also a huge support to me in my role, helping to refine questions and set the tone for the whole series. I hope our work has resulted in something that people around the world will find relevant and interesting.