Five years ago, popular protests across the Arab world seemed to show Twitter’s power as a democratising force, as young people in Egypt and beyond used social media to take on their rulers. Many of these with newfound freedom were living under repressive Sunni regimes.

Twitter has long championed free speech, even the unpalatable, but realises the concept has gone feral. The company says it’s closed 125,000 accounts since mid-2015 for threatening or promoting terrorism. The shutdowns primarily relate to support for Islamic State – the militant group seeking to create a Sunni caliphate within the region. Continue reading

poster,220x200,ffffff-pad,220x200,ffffff.u7

On Sunday evening, Boris Johnson, with the zeal of a convert or the scheming of a Machiavellian, has decided to join the ‘Outers’. Here’s 3 reasons why it doesn’t matter:

Reason 1: Boris isn’t that popular. Remember, Heineken isn’t that strong. I’m intrigued by the poll in the Evening Standard that claimed ‘he could be a game-changer in the historic vote’ as ‘one in three people regard him as “important” to deciding whether they vote In or Out’. Putting aside exactly what ‘important’ means, the statistics are revealing. 32 % of those asked said Boris could be ‘important’ but a full 28 % said Theresa May’s and George Osborne’s views were important-only 4 % points behind Boris (and 23 %, by the way, identified Stuart Rose as ‘important’ too). So if, as the report claimed, Boris could ‘partly’ cancel out Cameron’s influence, presumably May and Osbourne could do the same to Johnson? Boris’ position as ‘the most popular politician’ is often cited though his reach to UKIP voters is probably rather unnecessary– and it looks like Nicola Sturgeon pipped Boris in the popularity stakes at least once.

Reason 2: Boris doesn’t do arguments. As Janan Ganesh argues in the FT ‘voters like Mr Johnson. But they like Judi Dench too. Liking someone and deferring to their judgment on a serious question are different things’. As a number of people have argued, what the Leave campaign needs, above all, is a serious alternative vision, equivalent to the Scottish YES campaign’s positive, mobilising narrative. Boris hangs hilariously from aerial slides but he doesn’t really do ideas or arguments, just quips and ‘mishaps’. Cameron’s speech last night in Parliament was perhaps a taste of the gravitas, clarity and seriousness the Remain campaign will deploy. Judging by his question in Parliament, Boris’ re-joiner will be about ‘soveregnity’ a word not even constitutional lawyers agree on. And there is no nuance or wriggle room in a vote to leave.

Reason 3: Boris doesn’t do teams and messages. Being the Mayor of London is (or was) the perfect job for Boris, where he can be a maverick, a loose cannon and is able to rail against everyone and everything. His record when part of an organised group e.g. in the shadow cabinet, is much less glittering given his tendency to be rather egocentric or, as one unkind review put it, a gold medal egomaniac. How will he fare as part of an organised group with a message and a ‘line to take’?

Boris cites his great hero Winston Churchill. However, for most of the 1930s Churchill, a similarly gold medal level egotist, entangled himself in a series of failed and doomed campaigns, from the cross-party ‘arms and the covenant’ rearmament initiative (which he almost wrecked), to supporting Edward the VIII and a bizarre solo effort to stop Indian independence. Churchill was very much, and very often, on the wrong side of history, and only his later struggle against appeasement saved him.

Randolph_Churchill

Last night, Michael Crick quoted an unhappy MP who spoke of another Churchill, Winston Churchill’s dad, Randolph (above). He was also a famous politician, gifted, witty and talked about as a future Prime Minister in the 1880s and 1890s. Randolph had, as Winston wrote of his father, ‘the showman’s knack of drawing public attention to everything he said or did’. Why did his career end? Boris take note-he gambled and took sides against his own party and leader on a fundamental debate in British politics. And lost, never to return.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts during the Annual Conservative Party Conference, at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham.

By Eric Kaufmann

Former Labour MP and Birkbeck Politics Professorial Fellow Tony Wright hosted a memorable evening with former Tory MP David Willetts on 11 February in the cozy confines of the Keynes Library. Willetts, known as ‘two brains’ for his intellectualism and (current) tally of ten authored books, served as Universities Minister in the Cameron government until 2015. He also served under Margaret Thatcher at her Policy Unit. Among his more influential works is his recent book on problems of intergenerational equity entitled The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back.

There were few empty chairs as Wright and the audience questioned Willetts about the ideas that have animated his career: the meaning of Conservatism, the role of government, and policy issues from housing and apprenticeships to industrial policy and the living wage.

Wright set the tone by revisiting one of Willetts’ first books, Modern Conservatism, penned in 1992. A classic statement of 1980s Thatcherism, it extolled the virtues of the unfettered market and suggested the state had little role to play in a modern society. Pressed on this by Wright, Willetts admitted the book was a creature of its time, and that he had subsequently altered his views on inequality. Willetts related that his political consciousness was forged in the battles against the trade unions and nationalisation in the 1970s when governments felt they should be in the business of running everything including travel agencies and airlines while restricting individuals’ right to purchase foreign currency. We now accept a more liberalised world, but are confronted by new challenges, including excess and inequality. In the 1990s, he therefore took the neoclassical economists’ view that so long as the lot of the poor improved in absolute terms, relative inequality between top and bottom was a non-issue.

Since then, remarked Willetts, the work of Michael Marmot, and of evolutionary psychology, had brought home to him the damaging psychological effects of positional inequality, hence he agreed this needed to be curbed. Willetts, however, spoke for a Burkean, community-oriented check on the market rather than statism. Accordingly, he argued for a focus on inter-generational equity rather than radical redistribution. This meant improving access to higher education, housing and pensions for young people while removing the barriers to housing construction erected by NIMBYist Baby Boomers. Willetts was encouraged by the growing shift in public opinion in favour of housebuilding as well as governments’ increasing willingness to use the machinery of state to release land and build homes. He accepted the need for governments to tax the wealthy, and corporations, but stopped short of endorsing a hike in inheritance tax, suggesting that peoples’ desire to provide for the children’s future was a laudable aim. For him, the welfare state was important, but more as a collective insurance policy for the poor and infirm in which rights are balanced by obligations – a pool into which all who can are expected to contribute.

Questioned about the challenge of diversity to a solidaristic model of society, Willetts replied that his book, The Pinch, envisions a fragmented society renewing its obligations to future generations, thereby providing a common bond which an unite Britons across faultlines of ethnicity and religion. He also greatly championed university education, suggesting that apprenticeships were often tied to seasonal or sunset industries and hence the government would be hard-pressed to meet its 3 million target. He claimed that the view that universities taught impractical skills, or were a luxury good, were wrongheaded. A great deal of vocational training takes place at universities, so children should be encouraged to attend: he wanted to see an increasing share go to university. He added that his government’s tuition fee hike was progressive in this regard since there were no upfront fees and those who failed to earn above the threshold were not obligated to repay their loans.

Reflecting on how decisions are made in government, Willetts said that evidence, especially academic evidence, doesn’t easily filter down to decision makers. For instance, Willetts related that when he asked for 30 minutes of George Osborne’s time, he was told that he could catch him on the way to the lift. Willetts had to talk at Osborne as he went in, and received a response he used to make policy as the doors were closing.

For Willetts, the expenses scandal, while offering greater transparency, has led to a situation where allowable expenses have become so restricted that only the wealthy or those without normal family lives can afford not to take expenses. Serving coffee to constituents at a constituency surgery, for example, adds up, yet cannot be charged.

The enjoyable evening thus ended on a rare note of agreement between Wright and Willetts: that most politicians enter politics to serve and should be accorded more credit for this by the media and the public.

poster_complain.jpg

 

In the past year British politics has got (even more) interesting, uncertain and unpredictable. On Wednesday 17th February staff from the Birkbeck Politics Department Joni Lovenduski, Tony Wright, Rosie Campbell and Jason Edwards joined together to discuss the state and health of British democracy in 2016. Should we congratulate ourselves or be concerned?

The talk ranged from where Britain stood in the world league table of democracy (good but could do better) to the growth of inequality and the rise of populism, both good and bad. The audience questions then ranged across celebrity politics, the EU referendum, local government and the quality of the UK’s political debate and discussion.

If you want to hear more about all these issue, and find out what gardening tells us about politics and how John Redwood can change your life, listen to the podcast below.

One of the most important events in the Politics Department’s calendar is the annual Paul Hirst Memorial Lecture, which was delivered this year by Professor Anne Phillips. The Lecture is an opportunity for recent students to meet alumni who faithfully turn up each year to share fond memories with those of our colleagues fortunate enough to have worked with Paul during his long career in the Department. It is also an occasion to renew an enduring friendship with his widow, Penny Woolley. Public intellectual, polymath and always larger than life, Paul Hirst was first appointed to Birkbeck at the tender age of 23 and remained here until his untimely death in 2003, having been promoted to Professor of Social Theory in 1985. Paul’s legacy lives on in the Department’s commitment to a critically engaged approach to politics and in his protean and prescient work on a vast range of topics. Continue reading

Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) was the most important figure in modern British theatre, though you may never have heard of him. He left school at 14, became a professional actor, and gravitated to the pioneering theatre clubs of the late nineteenth-century theatre.

These theatre clubs had various functions, including the circumvention of censorship, since plays performed for a private club did not require a license from the Lord Chamberlain. Some of them, such as J.T. Grein’s Independent Theatre Society (1891-97) were concerned to stage new plays that wouldn’t get a license because of their subject matter (Grein put on, e.g, Ibsen’s Ghosts, which deals with hereditary syphilis, and Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses). Others sought to air non-commercial approaches to drama. William Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Society, for instance, was devoted to performing Shakespeare in productions that stripped away nineteenth-century pictorial and historicist realism in order to get back to Shakespeare’s fluid, relatively simple staging. Barker played Richard II for Poel, and in 1899 he was a founder member the Stage Society, the successor to Grein’s Independent Theatre. Continue reading

 

Parliament has always been part of English drama. Intriguingly, the N-Town Plays – a collection of mystery plays performed in the second half of the 15th century – include The Parliament in Heaven and The Parliament in Hell. The parliaments in question are celestial fora in which allegorical figures such as Truth, Justice and Mercy debate the fate of humankind.

The idea of Parliament as a corporeal political institution is discernible in William Shakespeare’s History Plays (1590s) but only partly so. Perhaps the most parliamentary of these plays is Henry VI, Part 2 (1591), which includes references to the 21 parliaments summoned during this monarch’s reign. Although Shakespeare is sometimes seen as anti-democratic, there is a curious tension in this play between Parliament’s role as an institution of government and its potential as a voice for the people. ‘Away, burn all the records of the realm: my mouth shall be the parliament of England’, says Jack Cade, the leader of an unsuccessful peasants’ revolt (Act IV.iii). Continue reading