Disappearance of the Battlefield 3

Dr Antoine Bousquet has published a new article on the evolution of military conflict and the nature of modern battlefields.

Dr Bousquet writes: “The image of the battlefield is one that exerts a powerful hold on our collective imagination. It immediately evokes in our minds the sight of massed troops clashing furiously with each other, culminating in a decisive outcome that determines the fate of a wider conflict. However, such military confrontations have largely vanished from the contemporary landscape of war.”

The article can be read in full on Aeon.

A copy of the Bill to trigger article 50, in front of the Houses of the Parliament in London.

     (image from nigel AdamsMP  http://www.selbyandainsty.com)

The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act has received Royal Assent, signalling the complete capitulation of Parliament to the government’s claimed authority to set the terms of Brexit, despite the Supreme Court’s best efforts. In passing the government’s Bill unamended, the House of Commons bowed not to the will of the people but to the will of the government to promote a particular approach to implementing the outcome of the referendum. The government has apparently decided on a ‘hard Brexit’. There is surely a majority in the House for a softer version, but MPs proved incapable of organising themselves to set the agenda and vote for that.

It is a puzzle why the government is apparently intent on propelling the UK towards the hardest form of Brexit, and why Conservative Remain MPs have allowed this to happen. The most charitable interpretation is that the government’s position is a bargaining strategy. To have any hope of getting other EU members to agree to a special relationship, the UK has to make it appear credible that it will walk away without an agreement. This, incidentally, makes it vital that Parliament is not allowed to vote on the final deal or non-deal, as it would surely reject a non-deal, and EU partners know this. Whether the bargaining strategy will work or not, we will find out, but there is an uneasy sense that the UK is playing chicken with a juggernaut. It will be very difficult for the other twenty-seven to find the flexibility that the UK demands.

The constitutional issue that this raises concerns the government’s power to negotiate on behalf of the UK without parliamentary constraints. The judgments in the Miller case clarify this power. Even while the judges determinedly stated and restated the principles of parliamentary sovereignty, they all agreed on the existence of executive prerogative in the area of international relations. Prerogative powers, as the majority judgment puts it, relate to ‘important areas of governmental activity which .. are essential to the effective operation of the state’, including foreign affairs: diplomatic relations, the deployment of armed forces abroad, and the making of treaties.

The judgments in Miller turned on the question of whether this prerogative power could be invoked to end the UK’s membership of the EU. The majority held that the government could not invoke its authority over foreign affairs in dealing with the EU, as EU law has become part of domestic law. To treat EU membership as a matter of prerogative would be to assert prerogative powers to change domestic law, and that is untenable. Parliament makes the law, not the executive. But here the legal position comes up against the realpolitik of negotiation, and it is surely this that meant there was no rebellion on the Conservative side, with the lonely exception of Ken Clarke. Conservative MPs with Remain constituencies followed the logic of power that has served their party well for a century: their government is leaving the EU and their task is to ensure that it has the bargaining power to do so on the best possible terms.

The finding that EU law is part of domestic law has important practical effects. A remarkable achievement of the EU is that it has replaced diplomacy and executive discretion in international relations with a system based on law. While this legal system is integrated by the supremacy of the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, it is first and foremost a system based in domestic law, routinely accessible to businesses and citizens. The effect is that a UK-based business which finds itself excluded from trading or operating in another state can challenge the regulatory authority that is obstructing it in the courts of that state. The British government need not get involved; indeed, very often the higher echelons of government in the other state do not get involved either. They can leave the question to the relevant regulatory body, which wins some cases and loses others in its dealings with its own business community and citizens, and has the same relationship with those based abroad (provided they are in the EU).

In its Brexit plans, the government has been forthright in its determination to leave this system. Bringing an end to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice is the main subject of chapter 2 of the Brexit White Paper, ahead of controlling immigration (ch 5) and ensuring free trade (ch 8). In future, aggrieved citizens will have to turn to their consulates. Businesses that find their market access blocked by a regulatory agency will have to ask the UK government to take up their case, instead of being able to seek the protection of EU law in the courts of the country that has blocked them.

A charitable interpretation of the government’s strategy is that it is trying to secure a strong negotiating position; a less charitable interpretation is that senior members of the present government fundamentally reject an international system based on law. They prefer bargaining and diplomacy to the settlement of disputes by independent authorities. One explanation of this preference is that judicial settlement of international disputes has a tendency to spill over into areas of domestic law which have no apparent cross-border aspect. Indeed, it is arguable that the Court of Justice has done little to prevent this spillover, as it has over time given up the self-restraint that confined its decisions to matters with cross-border effects. Still, the hostility of the present government to judicial authority is striking. Courts are, apparently, all tarred with the brush of progressive liberalism. The Court of Justice has blotted its copybook with the British government with decisions upholding the rights of EU migrants to receive social security benefits. This is small beer financially and economically, compared with, say, the same Court’s decision that the City of London must have non-discriminatory access to the euro derivatives market, but the government seems unable to weigh up the gains and losses in a rational way.

Brexit will mean the replacement of law by diplomacy in economic relationships with the EU. Diplomacy is an area of prerogative power; leaving the EU will enlarge the domain of this power. The national sovereignty that is being reclaimed by Brexit is not parliamentary sovereignty: it is executive authority. What is at stake is not parliamentary power, but the balance of power between a judiciary that is part of a supranational legal order on one hand, and the executive (and the legislature it dominates) on the other. The primary impact of leaving the EU will be to reduce the authority of the judiciary and and increase that of the executive.

We will not see international relations widely discussed and debated in Parliament: it is an area where secrecy prevails. The Supreme Court did its best to allow Parliament to have a say on Brexit, unequivocally rejecting the claim that the referendum result could be put into effect directly. Parliament’s capitulation shows us how referendums really work. They permit the expression of a general ‘will of the people’, but the people’s will is susceptible to interpretation, and it is the political executive that has seized the power to interpret. Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law are squeezed between the general will and the strategic executive, between the moment (but only a moment) of democratic expression and the long-drawn-out process of closed door negotiations.

This is a shortened version of a forthcoming Commentary in the journal Political Quarterly. The full text can be found at http://www.pqblog.org.uk/2017/03/parliamentary-sovereignty-and-brexit.html

Ellen Meiksin Wood

Ellen Meiksin Wood

As I walked down Torrington Place towards the Birkbeck College campus in eager anticipation of a very special symposium, I was suddenly struck by the immediacy of the crowds surrounding the Bloomsbury campuses in preparation for that day’s student protest against the attack on the rights to education for all. The current Tory government’s fanatical pursuit of austerity politics – in which the dominant, de-politicised metaphor of the ‘household budget’ – is being challenged head-on by students, a frustrated and angry global citizenry, as well as the recent resurgence of left-wing politics within the Labour Party itself. And it is because of these diverse social forces that the empty rhetoric of austerity economics is being shifted back onto the terrain of political contestation. Continue reading

Wish my boyfriendSomewhere in a book I wrote on International Civil Society there is a comment about folk dancing and basket weaving not really meriting the label ‘social movement’ because such activities only acquire social and political significance as part of a wider collective struggle. Seeing the arpilleras (textile representations of Chilean life under Pinochet, hand-sewn by female relatives of those tortured, murdered and disappeared by the military regime) at the V&A’s Disobedient Objects exhibition made me think again. Of course objects can only be invested with political power by people – ‘every tool is weapon if you hold it right’ as Ani DiFranco raps. But then such things also develop a life of their own, weaving inside their material memories, aspirations, collaborations and disagrements that outlive the specific moment of protest. Once the dictatorship banned public display or ownership of the arpilleras, these seemingly innocent, even infantile textiles acquired the quality of a subversive social movement – they needed to be controlled and  repressed. Continue reading

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

The Social Integration Commission, chaired by Matthew Taylor, Director of the Royal Society of Arts, released its first report on June 30, entitled ‘How integrated is modern Britain?.’ Overall, the report shows Britons are a long way from being well-integrated along lines of age, class and ethnicity. Continue reading


By: monsterspade

Most Politics Departments would struggle to host hundreds of bibulous political authors and journalists, particularly if accompanied by MPs, literary luminaries and academic liggers. Not 10 Gower Street, which last night embraced big tent politics by hosting The Orwell Prize’s 21st birthday awards in its garden marquee.

The prize was established in 1993 by Professor Bernard Crick, a founder of the Department and Orwell’s biographer. Each year a jury honours an author and a journalist whose work best meets Orwell’s ambition “to make political writing into an art”.

Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson’s chipper account of his impoverished West London upbringing, This Boy: Memoir of a Childhoodwon the book prize.  The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad scooped the journalism award for his forensic coverage of Syria’s civil war-see a recent article here. Both winners faced stiff competition from a shortlist that included Not For Turning, Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher and David Goodhart’s British Dream about the history and impact of immigration. The journalists’ shortlist featured lead-writers from the Economist, Financial Times and Telegraph.

The journal Political Quarterly is a prize sponsor, as is Orwell’s son, Richard Blair. Alongside the main awards, the department’s Deborah Mabbett received the best essay prize for her incisive writing on welfare reform.  The evening saw two new awards launched for the coming year: one to reward young political writers, while a prize for the best investigative reporting into social iniquities is being sponsored by the Rowntree Foundation.

Today – amidst EU and local polling – hangovers and political egos are being nursed while print and social media coverage of the awards proliferates and the marquee is dismantled downstairs. Meanwhile, the Department’s long association with both Orwell and distinguished political writing, as exemplified by both Bernard Crick and Ben Pimlott, will continue. The latter’s biographical work is examined in detail by Dermot Hodson in an interview with Orwell Prize chair, Jean Seaton, published here this week.

You can read George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay on writing about politics, ‘Politics and the English Language’, here and a collection of encounters with Orwell’s work here.

David Styan is a Lecturer in Politics


By: Duncan







By Dr Danny Rye, Department of Politics, Birkbeck University of London

On Thursday evening I attended an engaging session organised by my colleague Alex Colas of the Department of Politics at Birkbeck. The occasion was a conversation between Marxist urban theorist Andy Merrifield – discussing his new book The New Urban Question and distinguished geographer and social theorist David Harvey, author of Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism amongst many other works. The following represents my reflections on the evening. It by no means represents all that was said or discussed nor the contents of either book (which I have not yet read), but some points of interest to me and, I hope, others.

In The New Urban Question, Merrifield (following Manuel Castells) argues that cities are for capitalism essential reproductive mechanisms (quite contrary to being generative or productive, they are ‘parasitic’ and extractive, much creative energy being invested in imaginative ways of extracting wealth from things, rather than creating it). Crucial to this are collective consumption items like welfare, transport, infrastructure and so on.

However, in the last thirty or forty years the nature of this collective consumption has undergone dramatic change. Whereas in the last century, the state was primarily responsible for such goods, in modern cities much of these public goods and projects have been privatised (or as good as) through contracting services out, selling them off to the private sector, or the use of ‘public-private partnership’ vehicles like the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). As a result, he argues, a ‘middle manager’ class that has successfully mediated between the ‘rentier class’ and creditors have accumulated a great deal of power and wealth.

Under this kind of structure, he goes on, there is a kind of ‘neo-Haussmannisation’ in progress, by which (amongst other cities) London’s social and political complexion is being altered, just as Paris’ was by Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s renovations under Napoleon III in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is ‘neo’ because the form it takes reflects the structure of ‘collective consumption’ oulined above. Thus, instead of a single ‘grand projet’ it takes many different forms including land grabs, speculative development, rising property prices (the subject of an apparent spat between Coalition Government members just this week) – one might also include benefit reforms, especially limits on housing benefit which are already driving people out of town and which has been likened to a kind of ‘social cleansing’.

As a result, he says, there are a vast number of people who are on the ‘periphery’ of the city (perhaps figuratively as well as literally), displaced by high rents and property prices, unable to find secure or reasonably paid work (who do not just include the poor and traditionally working class, but an increasing number of the middle classes too), but who are disparate, multi-variate and unorganised.

Thus, Merrifield asks, how can these modern ‘sans-culottes’ organise themselves and what will stir them into doing so? Whilst he highlighted a variety of characters that might play a part – from ‘professional organisers‘ to ‘secret agents’, from ‘great escapers’ to ‘great refusers’ – this, sadly, is a question he did not fully answer on the night. Perhaps that was a bit much to expect in a relatively short session, but there are two questions which I think need to be properly addressed if his otherwise engaging analysis is to have useful purpose: the first is the question of how people are to organise themselves. The ever-present danger is that in seeking to organise themselves, the dispossessed merely end up reproducing whatever it is they seek to replace.

David Harvey made a particularly interesting observation in this respect with which I concur: the forms of organisation that are used to oppose capitalism often reflect the structure of capitalism itself. Thus, today, traditional forms of opposition in the form of trade unions and political parties that sought to use the state apparatus have become irrelevant and been replaced by relatively flat ‘networked’ organisation with a concomitant scepticism towards the state apparatus, which precisely reflects the prevailing attitude of the modern neo-liberal ethic and structure of capitalism. There may be a complacency which assumes that the risks of oligarchy in those ‘traditional’ organisations (first highlighted by Robert Michels a century ago) have been negated by more ‘networked’ non-hierarchical organisation. That may be so, but it should not be assumed that this kind of organisation is inherently anti-capitalist. It very clearly is not.

Secondly, what here went unsaid – and often does go unsaid – is that if one believes it is possible to replace capitalism with something else and wishes to do so, then what exactly will it be replaced with? As Harvey pointed out, of crucial importance here is understanding capitalism itself. A lot of those who say they oppose capitalism, he said, do not see the need to understand it, perhaps from fear of becoming mesmerised by it. This – it seems fair to say – is a fatal error if you claim to want to replace it. If you do not understand what you are trying to replace how can you be sure that – given what I have already said about organisation – that you will not merely be replicating it in another guise? The danger, therefore, may be that in seeking to oppose and replace capitalism one succeeds merely in reproducing it.

Danny is a lecturer in Politics. Follow Danny on twitter: @dannyrye

As the winter continues, three members of the department offer some recommendations for political viewing for when its too cold to go out… 

Mr Smith Goes to Washington

One of my favourite films about politics is Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Columbia Pictures, 1939), which tells the story of Jefferson Smith, who is plucked from obscurity to become a United States Senator after the incumbent dies in office. The film is saccharine sweet in places; Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, is all ideals and no interests, which is hard for most political scientist to understand. However, as in Stewart and Capra’s better-known collaboration – It’s a Wonderful Life – such sentimentality is merely a vehicle for exploring the dark side of the American dream. Striking in this regard is the film’s portrayal of machine politics, a practice whereby politicians were beholden to shadowy party bosses who frequently championed business interests and political gain. This practice was at its peak in the United States in the late 19th Century – the heyday of Tammany Hall – but it was still prevalent in the 1930s. Harry Truman, for example, was disparagingly known as ‘The Senator from Pendergast’ after his election in 1934 thanks to his close connections with Missouri political boss Tom Pendergast. Pendergast, indeed, may have served as an inspiration for Jim Taylor, the political boss who sends Jefferson Smith to the Senate, and there are shades of Truman’s everyman persona in Smith. Truman retained a strong sense of loyalty to Pendergast even after the latter’s imprisonment for tax evasion and the former’s promotion to the Vice Presidency.

Jefferson Smith, in contrast, takes on Taylor’s political machine in the press, and in the famous filibuster scene in which he takes to the Senate floor for 24 hours without interruption to rail against graft, greed and lies in the US political system. It is a fine performance from Stewart but Claude Rains – better known for his role as Capt. Louis Renault in Casablanca – steals the show as the corrupt but conflicted senior Senator from Smith’s unnamed State. Mr Smith Goes to Washington rarely makes the list of all-time best films these days, but it continues to inspire contemporary political drama and practice and its disenchantment with, but hope for, politics still resonates.

Dr Dermot Hodson is Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck, where he teaches the postgraduate module Public Policy Interests, Institutions and Ideas.

The Wire

When students starting my course on Space and Power in International Politics ask for background reading, I tell them to watch as much as possible of Season II of The Wire

For those fortunate enough to have a first-time viewing of this US TV show ahead of them, it’s essentially a programme about the life of Baltimore, or indeed any large American metropolis. The second series is set on the city’s docks, now dominated by the ubiquitous Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) – otherwise known as the container .  This steel or aluminium box acts as the protagonist of capitalist globalisation in the series; a cipher for a whole host of local and transnational social relations marked by ethnic, gender and class cleavages.

The world’s pioneering container firm was called Sea-Land Services for a reason: it promised the smooth transit from truck to ship (and vice-versa), thereby shrinking distance and reducing cost. This was, for many, a signal moment in the annihilation of space by time. When Frank Sobotka, the Polish-American working-class hero of the second series and his union comrade Nat attend a corporate seminar on the effects of containerisation in Rotterdam, the pitch is an eminently temporal one: ‘Gentlemen. Ladies. The future is now’ declares the PR suit before handing over to the promotional video: ‘To bring goods to an exploding global economy, and to deliver those goods faster, cheaper and safer, modern robotics do much of the work’.

Container technology, it is intimated, eliminates error, accident and inaccuracy by drastically reducing the number of man-hours employed in processing the cargo. ‘That’s efficiency, Nat’ chips in a fellow audience-member. But the management’s PR man is immune to any irony, intentional or otherwise. His mantra is the universality of standardisation ‘No, no, they work with all kinds of cargo, in all kinds of weather.’

The second series revolves around the fate of illegal commodities transported in the containers –drugs and trafficked women. Against the neo-liberal fantasy of the global economy as a ‘flat’, seamless space , The Wire tells a story of territorialisation and sense of place. The contraband may come from distant shores, controlled by exotic characters like ‘The Greek’ and his Ukrainian and Israeli intermediaries, but it constructs sharp, local ‘on-the-ground’ divisions between the East- and West-side gangs of Baltimore. It also creates characters like Bodie, a young drug runner who is genuinely incredulous about the existence of different radio stations outside his native Baltimore. ‘You ain’t never heard of radio station outside of Baltimore?’ his side-kick Dragon asks. ‘No man, I ain’t never left Baltimore and I wasn’t trying to get no radio […]  Why would anyone want to leave Baltimore man, that’s what I’m asking?’.

In the end, it is the figure of a discarded, anonymous corpse haunting this series that pierces through the shimmering surface appearances of global capitalism. Not simply because it represents the murky depths of a containerised world, but mainly because it reveals in the starkest light the political grounding of our globalised economy. The fallen idol of Series I, Inspector Jimmy McNulty is demoted in the second season to duties with the City’s Marine Unit where he maps the ebb and flow of harbour waters so as to locate the dumping of a dead body beyond the County line into Baltimore Police territory. This eminently political act of delimiting an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ – of manipulating a jurisdiction – is conveyed with magisterial simplicity in The Wire, offering a profound lesson for any student of space and power in international politics today.

Alex Colas is a senior lecturer in International Politics and teaches on the Space and Power in International Politics Module


Le Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)

Recently I finally managed to watch Le Grande Bellaza, a film by Italian director Paulo Sorrentino. It’s about an ageing journalist, caught up in the hectic social life of Rome’s elites in Berlusconi’s Italy. When I first watched I wasn’t really sure what was happening. But for days afterwards the film wouldn’t leave me alone. So, here’s why it should be watched.

First, it has just been nominated for an Oscar and has already won a Golden Globe for best Foreign Film 2014 as well as winning or being nominated for all sorts of other awards.

Second, it looks absolutely amazing (take a look at the trailer here). The film swirls around the new and old Rome from crazy parties to ancient buildings. Visually, it’s a bit like Eyes Wide Shut-without Tom Cruise. Instead you have the Italian actor Tony Servillo, who spends his time looking cynically amused at the madness around him, while half trying to find a way out (Servillo recently played a famous Italian politician in the film Il Divo by the same director).

Third, the film is really about Silvio Berlusconi. He isn’t in it and his name never appears. But the film tries to tell us what Berlusconi, three times Prime Minister of Italy and founder of a new party called ‘Forza Italia’, did to the country. A bit like Thatcher was said to have made Britain greedy in the 1980s, Silvio Berlusconi made Italy in the 2000s selfish, shallow and self-obsessed.

The film is full of rich, idle and selfish people attending parties, seeking all sorts of thrills but unable to really ‘feel’ anything. Tony Servillo’s character once wrote a novel in his youth and now he begins a search for real inspiration (the Great Beauty) to try and recapture the emotions he felt when he was younger.

One warning. Mark Kermode, he who reviews all films, gave it 3 out of 5 stars and said that in the film ‘dialogue is often abandoned in favour of music’. I agree and warn you not to expect a ‘straight’ story or plot (but the music is tremendous-see this five star review).

Ben Worthy is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck.


One of the key tasks of any Parliament is scrutiny. But what is scrutiny? What makes it effective and how does it work?

Jessica Crowe from the Centre for Public Scrutiny gave us an insight as part of our Parliamentary Studies course. Parliament has recently altered its scrutiny powers but what effect has it had? Many things can hold back Parliament from scrutiny from party loyalty to lack of resources or lack of tools. Jessica measured Parliament’s performance against the CFPS’s own key principles of good scrutiny: that it serve as a constructive ‘critical friend’, amplifies the voices and concerns of the public, is led by independent people who take responsibility for their role and that it drives improvement in public services.

In Parliament, scrutiny comes in different forms, from formal arenas to informal pressure. We often see the high profile, attention grabbing scrutiny, such as the recent questioning of the heads of MI5 and GCHQ. This grabs the headlines and can initiate change. Yet it can also be counter-productive. In a highly political and adversarial place like Parliament, such scrutiny may look like, and may be, an attack. The danger is that ‘political theatre’ and point-scoring can replace proper scrutiny that ‘voices concerns’. Moreover, such behaviour can provoke resistance rather than change.

Yet there is more informal, more subtle sorts of scrutiny. This may be picking up on gaps or pointing out mistakes. It is what the Centre calls the ‘critical friend’ approach-questioning but constructive. The legislative change around mobile homes in 2013, calmly pressured for by the Communities Select Committee, was a nice example of a more soft but successful approach. This is also an area where the House of Lords performs well, though it usually gets little attention, as Lord Norton points out here.

The Wright reforms of 2010 have strengthened Parliament’s scrutiny powers in numerous ways, giving backbenchers and Select Committees more power and control. However, problems remain, particularly in the involvement of the public where the new e-petitions site appears to have evoked sound and fury without too much to show. Other Parliaments such as the German Bundestag may offer a model.

Jessica pointed out that, closer to home, one place Parliament could learn from is local government. Since 2000 a series of reforms have sought to make local government scrutiny better (see this report). Local government is typically less partisan, managing to successfully balance voicing concern while remaining a critical friend. As with many areas, local government is also a site of experiments and public involvement. Jessica pointed to the success of Boston, where the controversial local issue of immigration was confronted through a wide ranging local government discussion with residents (see here and other examples here). Perhaps the future of scrutiny is local.

The department would like to thank Jessica for an interesting and thoughtful talk. Thanks also to Dr. Meg Russell for her help and input.  You can see Jessica’s blog and slides here and visit the Centre for Public Scrutiny here.