With Euro 2016 now underway, a European competition of a different sort is approaching the final whistle. There is now less than a week to go before the UK votes on whether to remain a member of the EU and, while we have heard from politicians aplenty, voices from beyond the political arena have been more difficult to discern. This is a problem for both Leave and Remain as politicians in this country are trusted to tell the truth even less than estate agents. Continue reading

This post was contributed by Dr Barbara Zollner, lecturer in Middle East Politics, Department of Politics. Here Dr Zollner offers an insight into issues to be discussed at a public colloquium at Birkbeck (“Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?”) on Friday 10 June. The colloquium is run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research

‘There is no freedom when you are in fear’; so goes the title strip of the song Akher Okhneya (Last Song) by the Egyptian music-group Cairokee. The rap, which is shot on a deserted railway-line in Cairo, echoes the feelings of many young Egyptians. The mass-movement against authoritarianism in Middle Eastern countries, commonly known as the Arab Spring, gave hope to their call for political and personal freedom.

Thousands joined the protest, but subsequently many saw themselves excluded from democracy-building. Fewer continue to dream of revolution today. The view of these shabab (literally, young people, but usually refers to the Tahrir movement) is that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood ‘hijacked’ the prospect of political change. This led them to side with the Tamarrod movement against President Mursi, which in turn opened the door for al-Sisi’s military coup.

Now, five years after their Arab Spring, Egypt faces another authoritarian military regime under President al-Sisi that uses nationalist overtones to crush any social movement, any contentious politics, any dissent.

‘The beneficiary is the one who controls you, the one who’s making you passive, who’s dictating you where to go, the one who’s predominating you. They imprisoned you inside your mind, the bars are your fear. You are afraid to think free, because you are afraid they might catch you.’ Cairokee, Akher Oghniya


The future of democracy looks bleak

Egypt, although an obvious case, is not the only example that the hopes associated with the Arab Spring are crushed by new authoritarianism, civil war, ethnic and sectarian strife. All over the Middle East, whether in Gulf oil-monarchies, eastern-Mediterranean and north-African republics (with perhaps Tunisia as a remarkable exception) and even in constitutional monarchies, the future of democracy looks rather bleak.

Within this turmoil, social movements (SM) are severely restrained in their activities, yet they continue to shout HURIYYA – FREEDOM. It is these movements, that continue a struggle for political reform across the Middle East, that are the focal point for a one day colloquium at Birkbeck.

Despite considerable interest in the current regional crisis, there is surprisingly little systematic research on the responsibility of SMs in successful or indeed failed democratic transitions. The short period of the Arab Spring provides rich material to explore this theme. It allows us to analyse, compare and theorise on specific empirical cases, including Islamist and secular movements that depart from the mainstream focus.

Questions arise such as whether and, if so, to what extent, SMs are responsible for the failure of democratic transition in the Middle East. Moreover, what happened to SMs and SMOs five years after the Arab Spring? Did they simply implode or did they reconfigure their political activism, potentially even turning towards violence?

The one-day colloquium intends to explore these issues. It seeks to bring together Middle East experts with an interest in contentious politics to study how these relate to processes of fundamental political change such as democratic transition, civil war, the rise of extremist movements and counter-revolutions.

“5 years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?” – a one day Colloquium, run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, will be held at Birkbeck on Friday 10 June.

Book on to the colloquium and view the full programme here

In 2013 (the latest year for which the data used in this post were available) the UK economy was growing, with gross domestic product (GDP) at 2.2%, compared with the EU as a whole, at 0.2%. All was well with the UK economy then, right? Wrong.

The problem starts with GDP itself as a measure of economic performance. In basic terms, it is the aggregate value of all goods and services produced, minus the value of all goods and services used in the process of production. But its use in analysing economic performance is limited precisely because of its broad scope.

If we compare EU GDP in 2013 to individual EU countries’ GDP, the measure is staggeringly useless even in reflecting GDP across the continent, never mind economic performance more specifically.The 0.2% growth cited above suggests that although performance across the EU was poor, there was at least some growth – not all doom and gloom then. But further interrogation reveals that 11 of the 28 EU countries (39%) were actually in recession in 2013; 12 if you include Belgium, with 0% growth. What’s more, 14 of the 28 (50%) were growing at a rate above 1%.

Combining the two, the EU’s GDP growth rate in 2013 failed to usefully reflect 89% of the countries that it apparently stood for. It beggars the question, why pay attention to GDP at all? But that continent-wide failure is also apparent on a nationwide basis.

Returning to the UK, GDP disguises more than it reveals. Specifically, the regional disparities in gross disposable household income (GDHI), or take-home pay, unveil a serious structural imbalance.


English regions’ GDHI per head compared with UK average (=100), 1997-2013

Source: Office for National Statistics (ONS)


Broadly speaking, southern regions performed well above the UK average GDHI and northern regions performed well below, and did so for at least the past a decade and a half (1997-2013). Furthermore, when the countries within the UK were measured, only England was above the UK average, with Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales well below.

Taking a closer look in an EU-wide context, UK GDHI in 2013 (€22,154) was roughly equivalent to that of the Netherlands (€22,355) and Belgium (€22,911) – two of the richer countries within the region – although still below France and Germany. However, if London, the South East and the East of England are stripped out, UK GDHI drops to €19,893; roughly equivalent to the likes of Iceland and Cyprus. If the northern regions (the North East, the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber) are taken together as a separate measure, GDHI falls even further, to €19,148 – 13.5% below the UK average.

To put that in context, London alone had a GDHI of €28,370 (higher than any country in the EU) and the South East had take-home pay of €26,721 (equivalent to Norway and Germany). Interestingly, London and the South East were also the regions with the greatest internal variation in take-home income, suggesting that a similar distortion took place within those regions, as well as compared with other regions. If we want to locate any of these disparities, GDP is pretty useless in analysing the UK economy, but it isn’t designed to locate them.

As with most countries, the UK economy is actually comprised of several economies with very different components. Applying an aggregate figure to the whole country irons out variations between regions and skews our understanding of just how different and unequal the economy actually is. Ultimately, GDP leads us to underestimate the wealth and performance in the richer regions, and to overestimate it in the poorer regions, disguising the true extent of our economic problems. Indeed, healthy GDP can make it seem like there are few problems at all.

But if it is so misleading, why does GDP continue to predominate debates, discussions and reports about how well economies are doing? A significant part of the answer is that it is a politically useful measure. The majority of the electorate is not, understandably, going to dig into the numbers, so a one-stop figure is a handy reference, and governments exploit it (when it suits them). Apparently, (any) growth = good, contraction = bad. But this isn’t the case.

This kind of reductive economics leads to the short-term policymaking that so undermines the UK economy currently, manifesting in poor relative productivity, structural imbalances (see GDP by output categories in hyperlink) and uneven unemployment.As Jennifer Blake, the chief economist at the World Economic Forum (and many others) recently pointed out, GDP is not a useful metric for measuring the welfare of citizens, which surely is the ultimate aim of economic and social policy.

The tail has been wagging the dog. GDP should be a consequence of balanced, sustainable and nationwide economic performance, not an end in itself.

Matthew Bevington studies on the (MRes) Global Politics at Birkeck



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

Crisis is a term that has come to define, almost exclusively, how we think and talk about the European Union (EU). It is hard to remember a time when European integration was not seen to be in crisis, from the turmoil over the European Defence Community in the 1950s to the political fallout over the failed European Constitution in the 2000s. The EU’s crises are, on occasion, constructed, by policy-makers who use the last chance saloon of EU summits to talk up the costs of failure and bring attention to their own starring role in brokering a solution. This does not mean that the perceived crises facing the EU aren’t also very real in some cases. EU policy-makers’ capacity to deal with policy problems can have profound implications for people’s livelihoods and their levels of trust in the European project. Nowhere more so than in the case of two of the most important challenges facing the EU at present: Grexit and Brexit. Continue reading

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The Department of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London ranked 12th in Britain in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) for 4* research – considered ‘world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour – just beneath University of Cambridge. This places it within the top quarter of research-active Politics departments, higher if we include the many institutions that did not enter the REF. It also ranks 12th overall in 4* outputs, 17th overall for Grade Point Average. This confirms Birkbeck’s status as a top tier Politics department within the UK, and the world.

We’ll be posting and tweeting some of our research highlights over the next few days…

Pop politics – political writing for a general readership – has never been more widely read. In the United States, George W. Bush’s biography of his father leads the New York Times best sellers list. In the UK, Russell Brand’s diatribe against the political establishment, Revolution, is selling almost as well as Roy Keane’s latest kick and tell. Books of this sort are a mixed blessing for students of politics. At worst, they are premised on a dangerous simplification about the processes and power behind political events. At best, they offer unexpected insights that more scholarly tomes might overlook and, even if not, they can be a lot more enjoyable to read. If nothing else, this new wave of writing shows that the public is interested in politics even though it is disenchanted with today’s political leaders. In this post, members of the Department of Politics at Birkbeck write about works of pop politics old and new that have grabbed their attention this year. Continue reading

By: s58y

Taking a picture of someone is, as David Levi Strauss writes in Between the Eyes, an act of negotiation. As such, photography, and in particular social documentary photography, is never far from the political realm. From John Thomson’s depictions of the working poor in Street Life in London (1877) to Dorethea Lange’s iconic image of the Great Depression, Migrant Mother (1936), social documentary photographers encourage us not only to look at the world but also to see how it could be better. Even today, when social documentarians lack the support of mass circulation photo magazines that were once the mainstay of their profession, photographers such as Sebastião Salgado have the power to shape our understanding of globalisation and its harsh consequences for some. Part of this tradition too is Birkbeck’s own Carlos Reyes-Manzo, whose photographs of famine in Ethiopia, Christian communities in Iraq and poverty in London is united by a common concern for human rights. Continue reading

Prof. Ben Pimlott

Prof. Ben Pimlott

Earlier this year, the Department of Politics at Birkbeck launched the Ben Pimlott Writer in Residence Programme. This programme allows writers to spend up to a year at Birkbeck working on a book or series of articles on a political theme aimed at a broad readership. It is named in honour of the late Ben Pimlott, who joined the Department of Politics as a lecturer in 1981 before becoming Professor of Politics and Contemporary History in 1987. In the two decades that he spent at Birkbeck, Ben earned a reputation as a first-rate teacher, a fine scholar and a brilliant writer. He is best remembered for his books on Hugh Dalton, Harold Wilson and Queen Elizabeth II, writings which resonated well beyond the ivory tower and encouraged readers to think again about British politics and the art of political biography.

Political writing, like all serious writing, is a peculiar mix of the solitary and the social. It requires long hours spent alone but such solitariness makes little sense without family, friends and readers. Jean Seaton played all three roles during her twenty-seven year marriage to Ben Pimlott. Ben made no secret of the fact that he wrote with and for Jean, who is Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster, official historian of the BBC and Director of the Orwell Prize for political writing. Ben not only dedicated The Queen to Jean and their three sons, he also acknowledged the day-to-day importance of her thinking on the monarchy for his work. Testament to such thinking is Jean’s afterword to the Diamond Jubilee edition of the book, which provides a fascinating insight into how the monarchy came through the crisis of legitimacy that engulfed it in the 1990s and, in so doing, confirmed Ben’s central argument. To mark the launch of the Ben Pimlott Writer in Residence Programme and the 2014 Orwell Prize Ceremony, which will be held at Birkbeck, I met Jean at her home in Islington to talk about political writing. Continue reading

A striking feature of world politics since the 1960s is the emergence of transnational advocacy groups that bring together actors with disparate interests but shared beliefs to champion particular causes. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) social movements have been among the most prolific of these groups and they have achieved significant success of late, as evidenced by the laws passed on same-sex marriage in France, Denmark and New Zealand among other countries. Ireland is planning a referendum on this issue next year and debate there has taken an interesting turn in recent weeks.

One trigger for this debate was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to boycott the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade after its organisers refused, once again, to allow LGBT groups to march. The mayor’s decision was hard to ignore in Ireland, as senior members of the government typically travel to Boston, New York and Washington DC for St. Patrick’s Day to march in parades and meet with the country’s political elite. After much soul searching, Taoiseach Enda Kenny will march in the New York parade, but his Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton will not. Heineken, a somewhat unlikely sponsor for the event, has also decided to pull its funding.

A second trigger for recent controversy was an interview given in January by Panti Bliss, a well-known drag queen and gay rights activist otherwise known as Rory O’Neill, on the state broadcaster, RTE. In this interview, Panti Bliss accused a number of individuals – including some associated with the Iona Institute – of being homophobic. Iona is an advocacy group that is dedicated to preserving the place of marriage and religion in society. This group has campaigned against same-sex marriage in the past but some of its members took exception to Panti Bliss’s charge of homophobia and threatened legal action. RTE rapidly issued an apology and reached a €85,000 settlement with the Iona Institute and others named in the interview.

Panti Bliss’s reaction was altogether more impressive. The performer took to the stage of the Abbey Theatre last month to deliver an impromptu speech on the culture of homophobia in Ireland, a video of which attracted worldwide attention. That this speech took place in the Abbey was particularly poignant; the theatre played a major part in forging Ireland’s sense of national identity and it has a reputation for defending free speech since William Butler Yeats took to the stage in 1907 to defend The Playboy of the Western World against morally outraged rioters. Panti Bliss faced an easier crowd but her speech was no less memorable for its eloquence and for its honesty about homophobic hatred and self-censorship in a country where social conservatism has been slow to shift.

What is fascinating about this debate from a political science perspective is to see two advocacy groups battling it out not only over opposing beliefs but also over the more fundamental question of what their beliefs truly are. Students of advocacy coalitions generally assume that activists self-identify with particular beliefs, be it environmentalism, social justice or human rights. To impose beliefs on political actors is fraught with difficulties, not least because, as Paul Sabatier, Susan Hunter and Susan McLaughlin observe, we tend to demonise the views of those with whom we do not agree. Seen in these terms, Iona member Breda O’Brien is within her rights to challenge accusations that she holds beliefs that she says she abhors, whatever our own beliefs may be about her advocacy efforts.

Two points must be borne in mind here, however. Firstly, actors in the political process are not always best placed to understand how their beliefs are formed and to where they might lead. Margaret Thatcher, for example, denied that her economic policy was influenced by Monetarist ideas in spite of fairly convincing evidence to the contrary. Secondly, policy actors are generally not motivated by a single belief but by a complex conceptual web that links some ideas to others and which can, and frequently does, spin off into self-contradiction. The public is willing to tolerate a degree of cognitive dissonance from politicians; Thatcher, for example, was not unduly punished by the electorate for allowing government expenditure to rise in real terms in spite of her promises of fiscal rectitude. Fundamental contradictions can prove fatal, however, as the Iron Lady learned when the ill conceived poll tax destroyed her reputation for sound economic management and her premiership in the process.

As the debate on same-sex marriage in Ireland intensifies, those who are actively campaigning against the status quo should not be tarred with beliefs that they do not hold. They should, however, be held to account for why they believe that some rights should be extended to LGBT people while denying them others and how such discrimination can be justified in the law. Over the last few weeks, such campaigners have singularly failed to sustain such contradictions, leaving the stage to Panti Bliss, Bill de Blasio and friends.

Dermot Hodson is Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at Birkbeck. The views expressed in this article are strictly personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Birkbeck College.