Many Britons went to bed last night thinking that their country’s membership of the EU was secure. They awoke this morning to hear UKIP leader Nigel Farage declare ‘independence day’ after 52% of voters chose to leave the EU.

Shock seems to be the prevailing mood among politicos, but the referendum result is not entirely unexpected. Opinion polls were too close to call in advance of yesterday’s vote even after, what appeared to be, a late surge for the Remain side. Bookies were even more optimistic about the chances of a vote for Remain but they have now joined the ranks of discredited elites in this country.

EU referendums are always difficult to win, as evidenced by ‘no’ votes against the Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon Treaties and the European Constitution. Winning an EU referendum in Britain was never going to be easy given the country’s fractious form on Europe. Asking a high-stakes question about membership rather than the ratification of a treaty made little difference in the end.

Prime Minister David Cameron knew these risks when he committed himself to a referendum in January 2013 but he judged the rewards to be worth it. With Conservative backbenchers spoiling for a fight on Europe and UKIP surging in the polls, the referendum pledge bought Cameron time and, so it seemed until he resigned earlier today, a second full term in Number 10.

A dynamic campaign in support of Remain might have helped to mitigate these risks but it failed to materialise. Although EU supporters won the economic argument, they failed to address people’s legitimate concerns about how the EU was governed. This left room for Leave’s rallying cry to ‘take back control’ from Brussels, a powerful political slogan that trumped dire economic predictions about the consequences of Brexit.

The UK’s fragmented political parties were another complicating factor in the referendum campaign. That the Conservatives would implode over Europe was always a possibility. Implode they did when Michael Gove and Boris Johnson joined the Leave campaign, allowing the less politically palatable Nigel Farage to stay behind the scenes.

None in 2013 would have predicted that Labour would move to the left and elect Jeremy Corbyn, a leader with little love for Europe. Labour MPs Alan Johnson and Chuka Umunna, among others, made a strong case for EU membership. However, their efforts were undermined by a leader who, when asked to put his passion for Europe on a scale of 1 to 10, replied: ‘seven, or seven and a half’.

Whatever the reasons for the referendum result, and it will take time for the evidence to emerge, Europe has entered a period of profound political uncertainty. All eyes are now on next week’s European Council to see how EU heads of state or government manage the political process set in motion by UK voters. Expect this process to play out over years rather than weeks or months.

The UK will be central to this process but not the sole focus. EU leaders will be concerned too about member states, such as the Netherlands, which are weighing up referendums of their own. Greece too will be closely watched for signs that Brexit might renew risks of Grexit. The euro crisis has demonstrated EU leaders’ ability to do deals during moments of high political drama. Such diplomatic skills are now needed more than ever.

The EU has been deeply damaged by the UK referendum, but crises are endemic to a political project as experimental as European integration. While no member state has ever left the EU, the Union has encountered a succession of constitutional crises since the 1950s. The EU has not always handled these crises well but it has developed a standard operating procedure in such situations based on intensive intergovernmental diplomacy between heads of state or government. This deliberative intergovernmentalism now faces a major new challenge.

The UK faces constitutional turmoil of its own – after a majority in Northern Ireland, London and Scotland voted to stay in the EU – but it lacks comparable operating procedures. Within minutes of the referendum result, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness called for a referendum on Irish unification, confirming that fears about Brexit and the peace process were not devised by ‘project fear’. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon soon followed with a statement that a second referendum on Scottish independence is now ‘highly likely’.

Intergovernmentalism within the UK is considerably less developed than it is in the EU. David Cameron promised to include the leaders of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in Brexit negotiations but he said little about how this might work. There is quite simply no template to tackle deep regional divisions in a political system that, in spite of devolution, remains highly centralized.

Dr Dermot Hodson is Reader in Political Economy at Birkbeck.

One argument by the Leave campaign that has resonated more than any other in the EU referendum debate is that the UK should take back control. The EU is undemocratic, this argument goes, and its powers should be restored to British MPs, who can be held to account by voters. A rousing argument to be sure but how reasonable is it? Continue reading

Prince had many talents but a firm grasp of politics was, perhaps, not among them. In an interview, the late singer recalled his rage when he learned that there were ‘eight presidents before George Washington’. Prince’s teachers had not, as he implied, lied to him as part of some vast political conspiracy. He was simply confused about the early history of the United States, which saw a loose confederation of colonies led by one type of president replaced by a republic led by another. Continue reading

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