cameron worried

As a newly elected Prime Minister, you wait around for one European problem then two come along at once. While David Cameron is trying to deal with his EU referendum promise, another ‘European’ problem has reared its head in the Queen’s Speech. The Conservatives promised to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British Bill of Rights-see this full fact analysis for background. The Conservative manifesto stated that:

The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights

The Conservatives would draw up a new Bill of Rights that ended the controversial link with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, treating their rulings as advisory and giving power back to the UK’s Supreme Court. But it looks like the commitment has at least been slowed down-to a promise to consult rather than, as was suggested, to have proposals ready in the first 100 days.

What’s caused the re-think?

The Human Rights Act is surrounded by layers of myths and half-truths. The claim is that the Act creates a set of new rights (it doesn’t, it just adds them to UK law), that it allows judges, and particularly judges from the European Court of Human Rights, to challenge and change British law (it doesn’t really, just lets them declare it ‘incompatible’) and undermines Parliament’s power (which is actually preserves)-see this famous speech by Lord Bingham. This guide to the Act concluded ‘the Government also acknowledged that a series of damaging myths about the Act had taken root in the popular imagination’.

However, the Human Rights Act has become a symbol of ‘European’ interference in ‘our’ politics and abuse of laws designed to protect us. So David Cameron is trying to change something because of what people think it is doing rather than what it is.

So why has Cameron slowed down?

Like any good politician, Cameron has looked across the battlefield and foreseen what could happen. Let’s run a little thought experiment and imagine that he and Michael Gove can draw up a new Bill of British Rights and Responsibilities, one that better reflects British values (putting aside whether it breaks any treaty obligations etc). They can send it, at least in a draft form, to Parliament and repeal the Human Rights Act. At this point, the fun would begin.

In the House of Commons, his own party is deeply divided-and even invoking the classic ‘what would Winston Churchill say’ line hasn’t helped. Some Conservatives oppose any ‘reduction’ in human rights, with one ‘senior’ politician this weekend rumoured to be considering resigning and a group of influential conservative MPs ready to oppose anything they see as a ‘weakening’ of rights.

On the other side, his Eurosceptic [or Euroexit] MPs are keen for something very different that ‘breaks’ the ‘formal link’ with the ECHR and reflects UK values. So the new Bill would have to be a masterpiece that balances these two viewpoints – different from the old Act but not giving less protection.

The truce is fragile

Cameron’s party, for the moment, is holding off rebellions but the truce is fragile and one issue they do like rebelling about is Europe. Just to make things more tricky for a Prime Minister with a small majority, opposite his own party the new block of 56 SNP MPs, 8 Lib-Dems and the whole of the Labour party are all firmly against scrapping the Act.

Then we get to the House of Lords. Technically the House of Lords cannot block anything promised in a manifesto-but in this case it isn’t so clear cut. The government can’t rush them to any decisions and the Lords can block legislation for some time and even ‘filibuster’ (talk until legislation is dropped).

More importantly for Cameron, the Conservatives do not have a majority and there’s a big healthy dollop of Labour and angry Lib-Dems (there’s only 8 Lib Dem MPs but 104 highly engaged Lib-Dem Peers). Added to this, it’s full of lawyers and experts who see themselves as protectors of civil liberties. The second chamber has already issued warnings that any repeal or new bill won’t get through.

Cameron’s headache may become a migraine

So, piloting this through the House of Lords and House of Commons is very tricky. It’s at this point that Cameron’s Human Rights headache may become a migraine. The Human Rights Act 1998 is deeply tied up in the devolution settlement to Scotland, Wales and, especially, Northern Ireland, where it is embedded in the peace process.

Legally, as Mark Elliot points out, it seems Westminster can just about push a new Bill of Rights across the UK. But politically it will be extremely difficult and it’s possible that Scotland may refuse to co-operate. The ultimate danger is that, as pointed out here, a British Bill, opposed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, could become an English Bill.

So what could Cameron do? Playing for time seems a good idea. How about a referendum?

A special piece of analysis from Birkbeck Politics Department’s Russia expert Edwin Bacon

Perspectives for Russia’s Future: The Case for Narrative Analysis

Image by Y Nakanishi

This article is an excerpt from E-IR’s Edited Collection, Ukraine and Russia.
View all of E-IR’s Publications 
here.

Any observer looking at Russian politics at the end of 2014 cannot fail to be struck by the magnitude of change over the course of that year. 2014 saw Russia expand its territory by the absorption of Crimea, taking to itself the land of a neighbouring state against the wishes of that state’s government. It saw Russians fighting in a conflict against the Ukrainian armed forces on the territory of Ukraine. It saw Russia’s relatively stable, albeit fractious, relationship with the western powers dramatically worsen, with sanctions imposed by the US and the EU on many of those close to President Putin. It saw economic decline, as the rouble and oil prices fell dramatically and official Russian forecasts posited recession in 2015.

Few, if any, analysts predicted these developments. A year earlier, in December 2013, the headlines from Russia were different. An official amnesty in December 2013 mandated the release of the highest profile prisoners in Russia – oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina – all of whom had been the subjects of sustained campaigns for their freedom in the West. A few months earlier, in September 2013, leading opposition figure Aleksei Navalny performed strongly in Moscow’s mayoral election, as other opposition candidates across the country gained a handful of seats and mayoralities, including that of Russia’s fourth largest city, Yekaterinburg. Even in early 2014, Russia’s global image was burnished by a successful Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.

The ominous turn of events in 2014 reveals the complexities of forecasting Russia’s path of development. A tendency to polarisation and preconception can lead to insufficient attention to nuance and competing voices within Russia. My recent research has focused on two particular approaches to assessing political developments within Russia, namely, political narratives and political forecasting (Bacon, 2012a; Bacon, 2012b). This article sets out how narrative analysis helps us to discern Russia’s key interests from the perspective of the ruling regime, and then draws on these findings to consider the complexities of scenario building as Russia moves into the second half of this century’s second decade.

The Russian Narrative

In terms of public political narratives, at the methodological centre of narrative analysis lies the normative assertion that in order to better understand a political system, we should take seriously – and therefore pay close attention to – the stories that its political actors tell about themselves and their system. This is not a Russo-specific assertion. To understand the United States, we need to be cognisant of narratives representing the US as the leader of the free world and promoter of democracy. To understand the EU, we must acknowledge its developing story of ever-closer union. These narratives are repeated, believed, and enacted. They highlight factors that matter within a political system. They reveal self-conceptualisations that play into policy development. US Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the ubiquity of systemic narratives after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in March 2014, noting that they ‘talked for a good six hours and … really dug into all of Russia’s perceptions, their narrative, our narrative, our perceptions, and the differences between us’ (Kerry, 2014).

To assert that narratives matter and that we should take seriously what political actors say about themselves and their systems is not of course to accept the content of these narratives as true and right. Public political narratives are artificial constructs, making selective use of different elements to create a desirable account. In analysis of public political narratives, these elements – or ‘narrative parts’ – are identified and interrogated. Choices made in terms of inclusions and omissions serve to reveal the central concerns of political actor-narrators. The narrative parts include temporalities and agents, symbols and motifs, plots and sub-plots. Analysis of narrative parts highlights the choices made in terms of when stories begin and end, who are the heroes and villains, what are the most significant themes, and how the story might develop. Applying the narrative analysis approach to Russia’s stance on Ukraine in 2014 facilitates clarification of those elements which particularly motivate Russian action. I have developed such an analysis in detail elsewhere (Bacon, 2015), and summarise it here before turning to the application of that analysis in developing future scenarios.

Official Russia has built a narrative around events in Ukraine, which, in terms of temporalities, looks back further than the narrative of the Putin regime has habitually done. This is not just a matter of the narrative’s unexpected emphasis on the pre-modern period – as exemplified by President Putin’s dwelling on the 10th century baptism of Grand Prince Vladimir in his annual address to parliament in December 2014 (Putin, 2014c) – but of the temporal pivot around which Russia’s national narrative now revolves, namely the end of the Cold War. For most of the Putin era (from 2000 onwards), his regime defined itself and its actions as post-Yeltsin, with the turn of the millennium being the decisive moment. The symbols of the Putin narrative (for example, the introduction of the National Unity Day holiday, and the establishment of the United Russia party) developed the story of President Putin bringing unity and stability to a country riven with political, socio-economic and ethno-national fissures during the ‘time of troubles’ of the 1990s. From early in Putin’s third term, and particularly in 2014, the narrative’s temporality has decisively shifted. The key moment now is the Soviet collapse, after which – so Russia’s narrative now relentlessly reminds us – Russia ‘found itself in such a difficult situation that realistically it was simply incapable of protecting its interests’. But today, that narrative asserts, the time has come ‘to refute the rhetoric of the Cold War’ since a strong and independent Russia with national interests which demand respect is back on the scene (Putin, 2014a). In 2014 this insistence on respect for national interests was, according to President Putin, a key factor which led to the absorption of Crimea and Sevastopol into the Russian Federation.

Analysing narrative parts facilitates our awareness of where the Kremlin believes the events of 2014 in Ukraine stem from in temporal terms. The narrative analysis approach also enhances awareness of whom Russia perceives as ally or opponent. In the story told by President Putin – most notably in his speech on the acceptance of Crimea and Sevastopol into the Federation in March 2014 – two particular nuances stand out. First, the view widely held in the West of Russia and Ukraine as enemies does not match that held by Vladimir Putin. In his narrative, the ‘fraternal Ukrainian people’ are part of the ‘we’ on whose behalf Russia is standing against potential western encroachment. Second, there remains a small degree of ambiguity in the way the West, and particularly the United States, is portrayed in the Putin narrative. Although the Russian narrative repeatedly portrays ‘the United States or its allies’ as the villains of the piece who use any excuse to contain Russia (Putin, 2014c), Russia’s president also insists on using the words ‘partners’ and ‘friends’ in relation to them, as exemplified both in the Crimea Speech of March 2014 and in his address to parliament in December 2014. When questioned as to his use of the phrase ‘our American friends’ in a television interview in November 2014, President Putin responded ‘of course, they are all our friends’ (Putin, 2014b).

The ambiguity in Putin’s references to Western friends and partners reflects the important final aspect of narrative analysis in relation to Russia and Ukraine which this short article covers, that is, the existence of plot and sub-plot. It is perhaps beyond cliché to note the historical ambiguity and conflict within Russia in terms of relations with the West and whether Russia’s path is as a unique civilisational exemplum or, as Putin himself once put it, part of the ‘mainstream of civilisation’ (Putin, 1999). The contemporary version of this debate spans questions of democratic development versus increased authoritarianism, and decisions over whether Russia’s path in terms of economic, security, and diplomatic priorities should be predominantly internationalist or nationalist, European or Eurasian, ideological or interest-based. Narrative analysis distinguishes between plots and sub-plots in political narratives, with the latter providing flexibility and alternative policy options. The sub-plot within a political narrative does not represent an opposing view, since the narrative of opposition forces differs from that of the ruling regime, but rather a sub-plot presents another course of action within the overarching story. For most of the Putin years, since 2000, the regime’s narrative plot has – whatever its relationship to reality – posited Russia as a reliable international partner, modernising and democratising in peaceable and non-ideological pragmatism within the framework of international law. The alternative path of nationalism, military power, and Great Power hegemony existed only as a sub-plot, to be hinted at as a potential turn to be taken, but for the most part serving as background. Events in Ukraine in 2014 saw the sub-plot become the main plot in Russia’s political narrative. The pronouncements of Russia’s political élite have followed this new line with ubiquitous ease and notable rapidity, as talk of historical vocation, military glory, and western malfeasance dominate where more sober, restrained, and diplomatic language had previously been the norm.

The changing influence of think tanks close to the regime illustrates well this shift. During the Medvedev presidency (2008-2012) the think tank closest to the regime was the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), whose board of trustees is chaired by Medvedev and whose reports habitually sought to push policy in a more liberal and reformist direction. In the autumn of 2012, apparently with tacit government encouragement (Khamraev, Savenko et al., 2012), a new ultra-conservative think tank, the Izborskii Club, was formed, bringing together the leading names in anti-western and Eurasianist thinking, such as Aleksandr Dugin, Aleksandr Prokhanov, and President Putin’s advisor on Eurasian integration, Sergei Glazyev. Their early reports seemed somewhat fantastical and detached from the real world, being replete with vague notions of Orthodox ‘spirituality’, militarism, and nostalgia for a non-existent Red-White amalgam of the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia (Delyagin, Glazyev et al., 2012; Izborskii Club, 2012; Dugin, 2013). As noted in this article’s opening paragraph, the changes, which 2014 wrought in official Russia’s narrative, are such that these ideas now appear close to the official line. When the United States imposed its first round of sanctions on named Russian individuals, Sergei Glazyev was on its list. If INSOR seeks to push Russia in a more reformist direction, the Izborskii Club pushes for further steps along a reactionary path. The extent to which the discourse of official Russia has travelled along this path may perhaps be judged by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reported assertion that President Putin has ‘lost contact with reality’ and is ‘living in another world’ (Baker, 2014). The world of Russian ultra-conservatism is a far cry from the norms of western diplomatic engagement.

Analysing the development of Russia’s political narrative in 2014 brings to light the central concerns of the Putin regime in relation to events in Ukraine, revealing a nationalist revanchism which draws on notions of Russian power and destiny and sees the West as an undesirable and hostile other. At the same time, however, the notion of sub-plot has significance as it keeps alive alternative approaches. President Putin still insists on referring to Western partners and American friends. Prime Minister Medvedev remains chair of the INSOR board of trustees. The current sub-plot of international law and Russia as a state willing ‘to have as many equal partners as possible, both in the West and in the East’ (Putin, 2014c) remains in play as a potential future scenario, albeit one that seems unlikely to come to the fore again in the short term.

Building Future Scenarios

When it comes to developing future scenarios for Russia following on from the tumultuous events of 2014, the place of narrative is pertinent. Since the end of the Cold War the dominant methodology employed by analysts and academics seeking to anticipate potential futures for states and regions has been the scenario approach. The scenario methodology identifies key drivers and elaborates their effect in a series of divergent scenarios, for example, best case, worst case, and continuity (Bacon, 2012c). Narratives play a central role in scenario development, as they are used to draw disparate drivers into a coherent and feasible story of the future. In the case of Russia’s post-2014 future, there has – at the time of writing – been no systematic scenario development process conducted and published in the light of the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine. On the Russian side, the Kremlin’s narrative has been notably lacking in terms of future vision. Whereas the political narrative of Putin and Medvedev in previous years presented a clear picture of a modern, law-based, and more democratic Russia to come at some undefined yet not too distant future point, in 2014 there was little focus on future vision. On the Western side, in contrast, there has been no shortage of forecasts, though these have tended to come from media and policy analysts, rather than academics, and have correspondingly lacked something in terms of methodological rigour.

The most common western forecast at the end of 2014 is that, faced with declining oil prices, a collapsing rouble, and western sanctions, Russia’s economic difficulties will worsen to such an extent that political pressure on President Putin will see him removed from office (Bacon, 2014). The political scientist stands no more equipped than any knowledgeable Russia-watcher when it comes to certainty over whether such a scenario will come to pass or not. That said, the study of forecasting does provide the tools for a short and concluding critical analysis of this scenario based around two common hazards of forecasting, namely, the temptation to shape forecasts around the forecaster’s own preferences and prejudices, and the danger of positing an outcome without a preceding process.

In a paper at the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies Convention 2014, David Fogleson analysed portrayals of and predictions about the Putin regime in the New York Times. He noted the preponderance of negative articles about Russia in the past decade and drew particular attention to the persistent image of Russia as ‘an unstable nation headed for a popular revolt against the Putin regime’ (Fogleson, 2014). Critically analysing the repeated appearance of this forecast since 2005, Fogleson concludes that, given Putin’s survival in power, the ‘correspondents would be disappointed. But disappointments have not led The Times’ editors to rein in prophets of Putin’s demise in the last year … One could go on citing examples of how wishful thinking on The Times’ editorial pages ran counter to the rising Russian patriotic support for Putin, whose approval rating climbed to over 80% according to public opinion surveys’ (Fogleson, 2014). Shearer and Stark go so far as to argue that the ‘predilection among reporters for looking at events through the prism of their own expectations and beliefs’ is ‘especially noticeable among Moscow correspondents’ (Shearer and Starr, 1996, p.37).

The phenomenon of wishful forecasting has a strong tradition in relation to Russia. Although it is widely accepted that remarkably few analysts in the 1980s predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union (Seliktar, 2004), such was not the case almost two decades before the Soviet collapse when Dziewanowski was able to assert that ‘predicting the downfall of the Soviet regime has been a favourite academic pastime in the West for well over half a century. Probably no other regime has ever survived so many prophecies of inevitable catastrophe’ (Dziewanowski, 1972, p.367). Dziewanowski’s prophets were in the end correct, since the Soviet Union collapsed, but few would see the repeated and temporally inaccurate prediction of that collapse as effective scenario development.

The same might be said about constant assertions of the coming collapse of the Putin regime. The notion that such a collapse might come about through economic pressure appears at first glance to provide a certain explanatory rigour to the scenario. However, what is lacking here is process. The jump is made from the likely behaviour of a key driver – Russia’s economy – to a single political outcome. More rigorous scenario development would explore a range of potential political responses to economic decline, from regime collapse to regime strengthening enhanced by factors such as anti-western feeling or a more authoritarian turn by a defensive élite. Furthermore, the need for process to proceed outcome in scenario development insists too on providing an account of how Putin’s removal from power might come about. Absent revolution, there are a limited number of ways in which a Russian president can leave office, and those who assert Putin’s coming downfall need to consider the process by which economic difficulty might lead to a change of the entrenched political leader or regime, particularly given that that there are numerous examples of severe economic problems in Russia without such a change. As I have noted elsewhere (Bacon, 2014), the scenario of authoritarian stability and global power alongside economic decline and consumer dissatisfaction ought at least to be considered, given that it kept the Brezhnev regime in power for decades. After all, the purpose of scenario development is not to predict, but to anticipate possible futures.

References:

Bacon, E. (2012a) ‘Public Political Narratives: Developing a Neglected Source through the Exploratory Case of Russia in the Putin-Medvedev Era,’ Political Studies, 60(4), pp. 768-786.

Bacon, E. (2012b) ‘Writing Russia’s Future: Paradigms, Drivers, and Scenarios,’ Europe Asia Studies, 64(7), pp. 1165-1189.

Bacon, E. (2012c) ‘Comparing Political Futures: The Rise and Use of Scenarios in Future-Oriented Analysis,’ Contemporary Politics, 18(3), pp. 270–285.

Bacon, E. (2014) ‘Russia’s Ominous 2014, and What Comes Next,’ 10 Gower Street: The Birkbeck Politics Department Blog. Available at: http://10-gower-street.com/2014/10/28/russias-ominous-2014-and-what-comes-next/ (Accessed 17 December 2014).

Bacon, E. (2015 forthcoming) ‘Putin’s Crimea Speech, 18th March 2014,’ Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, 1(1).

Baker, P. (2014) ‘Pressure Rising as Obama Works to Rein In Russia,’ New York Times, 3 March.

Delyagin, M., Glaz’ev S., et al. (2012) ‘Strategiya ‘Bol’shogo ryvka,’ Izborskii klub: russkie strategii, 1(1), pp. 46-73.

Dugin, A. (2013) ‘Aleksandr Dugin: Russkii otvet na vyzov zapada,’ Izborskii klub: russkie strategii, 1(1), pp. 74-79.

Dziewanowski, M. K. (1972) ‘Death of the Soviet Regime: A Study in American Sovietology by a Historian,’ Studies in Soviet Thought, 12(4), pp. 367-379.

Fogleson, D. (2014) ‘Dark Pictures are Easy to Paint: Journalists and American Images of post-Soviet Russia in Historical Perspective,’ Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies Convention, San Antonio, Texas.

Izborskii Club (2012) ‘Rozhdenie Izborskogo Kluba,’ Izborskii klub: russkie strategii, 1(1), pp. 2-11.

Kerry, J. (2014) ‘Remarks by Secretary Kerry: March 2014,’ Available at: http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2014/03/223523.htm (Accessed 17 December 2014).

Khamraev, V., Savenko A., et al. (10 September 2012) ‘Antivaldai’skaia vozvyshennost,’ Kommersant.

Putin, V. (1999) ‘Rossiya na rubezhe tysyacheletiy (Russia at the turn of the millennium),’ Nezavisimaya gazeta, 30 December.

Putin, V. (2014a) ‘Obrashchenie prezidenta Rossiiskoi Federatsii,’ Rossiiskaya gazeta, 19 March.

Putin, V. (2014b). ‘Intervyu informatsionnomu agentstvu TASS,’ Available at: http://kremlin.ru/news/47054 (Accessed 17 December 2014).

Putin, V. (2014c) ‘Poslanie Prezidenta Federal’nomu Sobraniyu,’ Available at: http://news.kremlin.ru/transcripts/47173 (Accessed 17 December 2014).

Seliktar, O. (2004) Politics, paradigms, and intelligence failures : why so few predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe.

Shearer, E. and Starr, F. (1996) ‘Through a Prism Darkly,’ American Journalism Review, 18(7), pp. 36-40

On Friday 15 May, the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group and the Political Leadership Specialist Group – supported by Birkbeck and Canterbury Christ Church University – co-hosted a workshop on ‘Women, Gender and Political Leadership’. The increasing prominence of female leadership and recruitment, ranging from the UK General Election debates to the US Presidential race, has given the study of gender and political leadership a new urgency and importance. This one-day event – organised by Dr. Mark Bennister (Canterbury Christ Church), Dr. Meryl Kenny (Leicester), and Dr. Ben Worthy (Birkbeck) – brought together 40 participants to explore this under-researched area, examining in detail the challenges for women in office and the means by which they can attain it.

Women Gender Political Leadership Workshop

Academic research exploring gender and political leadership both within and beyond the UK was presented at the workshop, beginning with an opening panel focused on comparative selection and leadership performance. Papers in this session explored the relationship between political leadership and performance feedback; differing logics of access to legislative and executive office; and the question of whether women leaders were more like to promote women ministers. The second panel of the day focused on the UK context, with papers on women and political leadership in Scotland; gender and PMQs; the impact of Margaret Thatcher; and gendered conceptions of the ‘good’ prime minister. The final session of the day moved beyond Europe to look at the gendered tensions of ‘First Ladyship’; women’s political leadership in Zambia; and the political oratory of Hillary Clinton.

The event also featured a plenary roundtable with Professor Tim Bale (QMUL), Dr. Rainbow Murray (QMUL) and Dr. Rosie Campbell (Birkbeck), reflecting on the 2015 General Election. This roundtable is available as a podcast: http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/05/women-gender-and-political-leadership/ Plans are underway to follow up the workshop with further events and panels, as well as academic outputs.

 


There may be trouble ahead… EPA/Andy Rain

David Cameron’s 2015 election victory is all the more powerful for being almost completely unexpected. But as the euphoria dissipates, the obstacles in his path are coming into focus. Above all, he faces two tricky and complex problems: the promised EU referendum and future arrangements with Scotland (and by extension, the other parts of the UK).

The EU referendum was in large part a gamble to see off UKIP and settle his party, but now he looks likely to do it as soon as possible, perhaps even in 2016, banking on a status quo bias to keep us in. And on Scotland, he has committed to implement further devolution and push through the jointly agreed Smith Commission proposals. In both cases, the devil’s in the detail.

On the EU, lots of the specifics are unclear. We don’t yet know what the question on the referendum ballot might be, or what “reforms” to the EU will convince us to stay – and the coming struggles over them promises to be vicious.

On Scotland, it is about giving the new SNP stronghold “the strongest devolved government in the world” – but there will be a need, as Nicola Sturgeon put it, to discuss these issues in more detail (and ditto for Wales). Devolution may also flow back into the Europe debate – Cameron has already refused a separate EU referendum for Scotland but could he hold that line?

On both these pressing matters, Cameron is up against assorted bodies and people who could make his life harder. They can all be dealt with separately, but if they join forces, they could drain Cameron’s political energy and time – the two things a prime minster can least afford to lose.

Houses divided

Cameron’s majority is 12 (or actually eight or 16, as Colin Talbot points out. This is far better than most expected, but it depends on the solidarity of an increasingly rebellious party.

The trouble for Cameron is that parliamentary rebellion is habit-forming: the more you rebel more likely you are to do it again in the future. And the last parliament was the most rebellious since 1945 (here are its top seven rebellions against him).

This bad news gets worse: the two biggest issues that Conservatives rebelled over were constitutional matters and Europe – the two most urgent problems for the next five years. Party management and discipline will be crucial, but even that may not stave off problems if Cameron’s majority is whittled away over time. Just ask John Major, whose 22-seat advantage in 1992 withered to zero by the end of 1996.

The new block of 56 SNP MPs has limited practical power in the Commons, but its members can still use their electoral dominance and high media profile to keep Scotland high up the agenda. And in the event of a Tory rebellion, or a vanishing majority, the opposition parties’ ability to co-ordinate could determine Cameron’s room for manoeuvre.

Don’t forget the House of Lords

The House of Lords is often overlooked, but its potential power to delay and disrupt a government agenda is great – and growing. As Meg Russell demonstrated, since 1999 the Lords has clearly started to feel more legitimate and more prepared to defeat the government: its members did so 11 times in 2014-2015 and 14 times in 2013-14.

The Conservatives are now heavily outgunned in the House of Lords, with 224 peers facing off against 214 Labour ones, and 101 (presumably livid) Liberal Democrats and 174 cross-benchers-as Meg Russell explains here.


Dark times. Robert Pittman/Flickr, CC BY-ND

The Lords will be duty-bound to pass an EU referendum bill due to the Salisbury Convention, which means the Lords have to pass manifesto policies. However, there are plenty of other venues for lawmakers to vent their anger or disrupt the government’s timetable for other parts of its reform programme. Select committees in both the Lords and Commons expressed concerns at the lack of consultation on the Smith proposals, boding ill for the constitutional arguments ahead. Concern in one house triggers worries in the other, so wherever it crops up, Cameron will need to take it seriously.

Outside parliament, it remains to be seen whether the eurosceptic right-wing media will be satisfied with any concessions or reforms Cameron gets from Brussels. It may prefer to give the oxygen of publicity to the SNP (particularly the very media-savvy Salmond) and treat us to a long and fascinating Cameron-vs-Sturgeon battle royale.

Cameron also invoked English nationalism in the election campaign, going so far as to launch an England-only manifesto, but it remains to be seen if he can channel and control the mounting pro-English clamour in the right-wing press over the coming months while simultaneously making concessions to Europe or Scotland.

Finally, of course, are his rivals. Behind Cameron are a number of senior Conservatives with at least semi-public leadership ambitions. He’ll have to manage them with precision. In the almost certain event of an EU referendum, he would have to make a very tough choice: whether to ask all ministers to all support staying in, or as Harold Wilson did in the 1975 referendum, to let everyone temporarily agree to disagree.

Equally, there’s no knowing how Cameron’s discontents and potential rivals might react to new devolution settlements. Perhaps the future leadership contenders are already plotting to court English nationalism for party and media favour.

Cameron’s leadership capital is high for the time being, but with so little room for division, his promise to step down by the 2020 election may come back to haunt him. As he seeks to deal with the “Scottish lion” and slay the EU dragon – or at least negotiate with it – everything could get complicated and intensely political very quickly.

Originally published on the Conversation.

Rising Damp 1980

We asked the four panellists at this roundtable to summarise their reflections on the exhibition for the 10 Gower Street Blog.  The discussion forms part of the Politics Department series on London’s Housing Crisis ,organised in collaboration with the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life and the Birkbeck Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies.We are very grateful to Carlos Reyes-Manzo for permission to reproduce his photograph on this blog.

Diana Coole

Carlos’s wonderful black and white photographs, taken over several decades across various continents, invite us to reflect on themes of shelter, housing and dwelling.

The exhibition is introduced through reference to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But in what sense can housing be considered a right? Is it a basic entitlement as a condition of survival or is it – like other socio-economic rights – merely aspirational? In which case, what is added by thinking about it as a right? The Article relates provision to an adequate standard of living adequate for health and well-being. This suggests something more than sustaining bare life (to borrow Agamben’s term), with its connotation of mere existence: a standard commensurate with the norms of one’s society and with human dignity. Carlos’s pictures show just how variable this standard might be and how fragile its achievement remains.

What is housing/to be housed? Within a biophysical survival kit that includes food and clothing, shelter is classified among humans’ basic bodily needs. Carlos’s photographs remind us how precarious sheltering – protection against the elements, security – may be for those who live among society’s detritus, vulnerable to poverty and predators. Relatedly, housing is associated with everyday activities that reproduce human flesh on a daily and intergenerational basis. The architecture of our homes reflects gendered notions of private versus public space; a sexual division of labour in which the home may equally become a stifling, violent domestic enclosure or a place of family and friendship. Do life’s functions need to be satisfied within the home? A striking photograph captures Bedouin riding their tented camels; it is resonant of nomadic lives at-home in the desert. But what of houses transformed from use- to exchange-values: buildings to be traded for profit? Or homes that become vehicles of our identities: artefacts we design and decorate to express ourselves and impress others? A distinction running through these possibilities suggests that a house is not the same as a home, as a space of belonging where we are at-home.

This is the theme of Heidegger’s 1951 essay `Building Dwelling Thinking’.  Written in the context of Germany’s post-war housing crisis, Heidegger maintains that however `hard and bitter’, modernity’s plight is irreducible to this lack because building as engineering and construction do not guarantee being at-home: an existential condition of dwelling as a mode of being-in-the-world. Having forgotten how to dwell, we may find ourselves homeless even when we secure lodgings.  Contrary to houses as shelters for bare life, temporary constructs for migrant drifters or tradable investments, he speaks evocatively of the fourfold: the oneness of earth, sky, divinities, mortals. He illustrates it by the peasant cottage: sheltered from the wind and close to the spring, its sloping roof yielding protection from storms; inside, the altar corner, the childbed, the coffin. Today we might parse this as a sustainable home suited to its ecological surroundings, resilient to the elements, embedded in generations that have lived and died there, still present in memories and rituals. This is not bare life but a dwelling, its inhabitants at-home with their mortality, on the earth, under the sky.

Esther Leslie

In his influential, yet unfinished, study, The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin quotes one commentator, who observes how, in the modern era, the streets become a dwelling for many: In 1857, Adolf Stahr’s survey of the Second Empire Nach Fünf Jahren illustrated in a vignette the Parisian technique of inhabiting the streets. Men are repairing the pavement and laying a pipeline. An area in the middle of the street is blocked off, but covered with stones.

On the spot street vendors had immediately installed themselves, and five or six were selling writing implements and notebooks, cutlery, lampshades, garters, embroidered collars, and all sorts of trinkets. Even a dealer in second-hand goods had opened a branch office here and was displaying on the stones his bric-a-brac of old sups, plates, glasses, and so forth, so that business was profiting, instead of suffering, from the brief disturbance.

We see here how trade thrives in city disorder. Spaces of commerce and intercourse open up in the turmoil of the streets, and temporary sites of transaction emerge alongside the latest dazzling rows of shops with plate glass windows, vitrines, mirrors and artificial lighting (which allowed shops to open late into the night). This is the business of the city.

In a related, but differently angled move, Benjamin is keen to pinpoint nineteenth-century accounts of Parisian life which reference the street as interior, where glossy enamelled shop signs function as wall decoration, newspaper stands as libraries, mailboxes as bronze busts, café terraces as balconies and the sections of the railway tracks where rail workers hang up their jackets as vestibules. This is an exploded interior, for it is not an isolated shelter for privatised domestic bliss. The flâneur is the tenant most at home in this city as house, a world turned inside-out, where privacy is sneered at in favour of the life in the mêlée:

 The street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur; he is as much at home among the façades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls. To him the shiny, enamelled signs of businesses are at least as good a wall ornament as an oil painting is to the bourgeois in his salon. The walls are the desk against which he presses his notebooks; news-stands are his libraries and the terraces of cafés are the balconies from which he looks down on his household after his work is done.

Our houses form us and we form our houses. Our dreams, the ghosts of our past, and our things are stored in us and in our houses. This process is not simply an individual one, but a collective act, and it is subject to historical pressures. The pressures of the present drown out the individual. The German word Bildung means formation, education. It was the special possession of the liberal progressive bourgeoisie. The sound of the word echoes the English ‘building’. In fact, of both it is claimed that they have a common origin in the proto-Indo-European verb ‘to be’, ‘to exist’ or ‘grow’. Across languages, inner worlds and houses intermingle, but the lesson of modernity is that city environments cut across this relation. The street cuts through the self and its houses.

Imbali Township, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa 1994

 

David Styan

Dwelling: to lead astray, hinder, delay (Old English); to tarry, remain in a place (Middle English). Oxford English Dictionary.

Perhaps we can use Carlos’s photos to ask broader questions about the changing nature of photography; has the digital onslaught of recent decades changed the impact of images of inhabitants from far-off places?

Put simply, my argument is that Carlos’ images here represent an “old” way of seeing the world. Our own imaginings of peoples elsewhere in the world, and those in poverty around us, were largely premised on images such as these. Can we schematically use these photos to contrast now with ‘then’, by which I mean an essentially celluloid, analogue world of static and powerful photographic imagery which shaped our late 20th century?

In the 1970s and 80s we knew that the images in our newspapers were – literally – a very partial snapshot of somewhere else, be it Cambodia, Palestine or Namibia. To understand and engage with those portrayed you had two choices; either travel to meet people (as there was no other way to hear or see them), or simply give money and support to those presenting the images.

While most of the images here are not news or press images per se, they do I feel provide a particularly evocative representation of the principal way that people in metropolitan centres perceived those in Asia and Africa before the end of the Cold War; via high-quality, carefully selected and edited still photography.  Such images were reproduced in mass by quality print publications; in the UK above all in the innovative colour supplements of Sunday newspapers, a genre epitomised by war and domestic reportage photography of those such as Don McCullin

Such imagery also came to be the stock in trade of charities and NGOs, including those involved in diverse forms of solidarity; agencies such as Action Aid, Oxfam, or the Catholic Institute of International Relations commissioned images such as those we see here from Carlos. If you were involved in solidarity campaigns in the 1980s – one went to a Press Agency, laboriously ordered photos from contact sheets replete with typed-labels. There were relatively few images, and they framed a fairly carefully constructed solidarity story.

Can that  “then”- of the analogue, static images of the late 20th century – be contrasted with “now”? All of us are now surrounded by a hyper-profusion of digital imagery; both still and moving, replete with sound. Most is produced not by professional photographers, commissioned as Carlos was, to bring us the world. Rather everyone, tourists, migrants, kids in their own dwellings; anyone who has a mobile phone can stream images instantly and incessantly.

What does this new imagery mean for understanding, empathy and solidarities with those portrayed? How … if at all … does constant digital imagery lead to new forms of collective political action? Do more images, in colour with sound, produced by everybody, generate greater understandings, empathy and solidarity?

The evidence suggests otherwise; look now at Syria – live feeds of real-time attacks by all sides, the churning of lives; over 200,000 dead and 11 m displaced… The multiplicity of imagery leads to less, not more understanding, engagement and solidarities. What we see is distortion and dis-empowerment, diluted in a deluge of celebrity and instant, pixilated stimuli.

Here I’m talking about what used to be known as the “third world”. Yet the same questions and juxtapositions can be applied to poverty and homelessness in the UK. The “old” way of looking was illustrated poignantly by a photographic exhibition which closed recently at the Science Museum presented by homeless charity Shelter, who’s chief executive; Campbell Robb, spoke in Birkbeck at an earlier event in this series. Shelter marked its 50th anniversary with an exhibition of photos. Make Life Worth Living: Nick Hedges’ Photographs for Shelter, 1968-72.

In 1972 Shelter commissioned Nick Hedges to document Britain’s slum housing conditions. Looking back on his work, he said: ‘Although these photographs have become historical documents, they serve to remind us that secure and adequate housing is the basis of a civilised urban society. The failure of successive governments to provide for it is a sad mark of society’s inaction. Campbell Robb, Shelter’s chief executive, said:

‘Nick’s pictures were crucial to the early days of Shelter’s campaigning, capturing a stark reality that many people in Britain couldn’t even imagine, let alone believe was happening in their community. Many of the scenes that Nick captured are from places that have long since been regenerated, but conditions not a million miles from these exist in our communities even now, with poor housing, sky-high house prices, rogue landlords and a housing safety net that’s being cut to shreds leading three million people to turn to Shelter each year’.

While several of Carlos’ exhibited images here are also of homelessness and poverty in the UK, his work as a whole speaks to a broader shift in attitudes towards photography and other peoples’ lives.

Carlos Reyes-Manzo

The exhibition is framed within the context of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights where housing is intimately connected to work, education, health care and welfare protection. I examine dwellings as housing and a social space from a national and global perspective. The relationship between classes and social spaces is important in society, as human beings we are part of a complex political and economic circle. The hegemonic classes determine the social hierarchy and the residence of people in the social ladder.

Class, profession, housing, education, determine whether one will have access to those exclusive circles where the elites dwell. Jobs with the minimum salary, zero hour contracts or unemployment will condemn a person or family to the vicious circle of poverty.

This elusive space we call home when we cross the threshold of a house or apartment has complex human and social meanings. It is a table with a bouquet of flowers when we return home after work. For the majority of people worldwide a room in a shanty town is a home, for others it is the corner of a dark street or a cardboard box.

The control of capital by multinational corporations and the managers of the neoliberal ideology is key for sustaining the new global class division. The philosophical concept of dwelling crosses the physical borders of the home as a collective or individual space, a home is a social boundary, it could be a refugee camp or no man’s land.

My role as a social documentary photographer is to challenge the political and economic establishment over social injustices. By establishment I mean international institutions, multinational corporations, and democratically elected governments who use the power of the state to set up economic policies to oppress or to protect the people who elected them.

Aesthetics and politics in social documentary photography has been much discussed. All art is political and ideological, the ideology of the photographer is embedded in the image. The ideology of the image is transformed at other stages, by commissioning editors and curators, by NGOs who use images for fundraising or informing, and by the audience who view an image through their own ideology. A social documentary photograph needs to provoke questions and cannot be the answer to solve social inequalities. The western media plays a role in silencing social injustices and disempowering marginalized people. In the context of representation in the discourse of Orientalism people are ‘otherized’ when western ideology is in control of their representation.

The juxtaposition of the image of a jug of water and bowl in Afghanistan with the photograph of Fatema and Shabana who both lost limbs in landmine explosions on their way to collect water for their families emphasises the interconnection between dwellings, gender discrimination, lack of water and sanitation, and security.

Dwelling in a philosophical sense is encapsulated in the landscape of the Atacama desert with Lincancabur volcano in the distance where people from Antofagasta and Calama were killed and disappeared by the Caravan of Death after the 1973 military coup in Chile.

 

 

 


voting

This General Election is the most unpredictable in decades. From the SNP in Scotland to UKIP’s assault and the Green insurgency, this election is full of uncertainties. We tried to make sense of a contest even pollsters are seeing as too close to call.

Last night Birkbeck staff from the Politics Department each gave a five-minute pitch and bite size assessment on a different aspect of the election, chaired by Professor Tony Wright. Did we piece together who could win?

Listen to the talk as a podcast here to find out http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/04/who-will-win-in-2015/ (the pitches and Q and A are separate)

We discussed a whole range if issues:

  • Who is voting for who, and how has it changed? Rosie Campbell made the point that fewer and fewer people are voting for the main two parties and women voters (who make up, remember, 52% of the electorate) will be crucial.
  • Jason Edwards looked at what’s happening in Scotland and argued that, whether there will be a clean sweep of all 59 seats for Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP or not, the UK will be profoundly disrupted.
  • What will be the UKIP effect? Eric Kaufman argued that their influence in marginals, despite their supposed fall, will be crucial, and they may kick start a new English nationalism.
  • Diana Coole pitched for the Greens, fresh from by far the best and funniest election video (see the Boyband here), who are attracting votes and attention, especially from younger parts of the electorate. Even if we are unlikely to see a Green Prime Minister, could they capture another seat?
  • How did social media influence things? From Milifans to Brand, social media has disrupted, upset and entertained, showing it is a new media force, if a very unpredictable one. But who is so keen on getting our data?

The discussion then covered English nationalism, who stays technically in Downing Street, how you get to be a government (Tony Wright advised us to read the Cabinet Manual-it’s all written there) and whether the election may be more like 1945 (in a certain way) than 1992. Most importantly, as Tony Wright pointed out, voters are now getting used to voting for the party they want not who will be in government. This means more and more governments will be made through bargaining after elections.

So what did we predict for 2015? A Labour Minority? A Left Rainbow Coalition? Or a sneaking in of the Tories, powered by ‘shy’ Conservative voters?

All of the above, and we changed our minds.

To help you try and make more sense of this election, below are some helpful links:

  • Poll of Polls explaining the actual position of the parties (updated daily)
  • The Polling observatory’s election forecast
  • Polling wizard Nate Silver, who successfully predicted the last two US Presidential elections, predicts UK 2015
  • For the more historically minded-all the UK’s General Elections since 1945 in 12 graphs
  • Find out about your constituency at democratic dashboard and your candidates at Yournextmp
  • Finally, a guide to what will happen post-election (and what the rules and myths are about it) looking at the Queen’s Speech and how the Fixed Term Parliament Act changes it-the trick is to survive the Queen’s Speech…