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Students in a Birkbeck Politics undergraduate class, Parliamentary Studies, have given evidence to an inquiry by the Commons education select committee on value for money in higher education.

The evidence has been published on the House of Commons website.

The committee has invited written submissions on a range of issues in higher education, including graduate outcomes, social justice and teaching quality, and has also launched an online survey for current students.

Parliamentary Studies is an option module in the Department of Politics that aims to give students a better understanding of how legislatures work and their role within modern political systems.

Birkbeck is one of only a small number of universities able to teach the module, which is delivered by Birkbeck lecturers as well as parliamentary officials.

The Parliamentary Studies module is available as an option module to students on our BA Politics, BA Global Politics and International Relations and BA Politics, Philosophy and History programmes.

In 2017 the module is taught by Dr Ben Worthy and Professor Sarah Childs.

More information:

On St Patrick’s Day 1995, Bill Clinton courted controversy by shaking hands with Irish Republican leader Gerry Adams. A politician accused of past involvement in the Irish Republican Army, Adams was a key player in the Northern Irish peace process. As such, Clinton’s willingness to extend his hand was correct if no less controversial because of it. This year, it is the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny, who faces criticism for his St Patrick’s Day meeting with Donald Trump. There is no better sign of the topsy-turvy times in which we live. Continue reading

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May’s Prime Ministership will be forever defined by Brexit. It is now her fate, destiny and the task that will be her legacy: and it will send her to the top or the bottom of the Prime Minister rankings.

On 20th December, just before Christmas, we got perhaps the most information yet when the Prime Minister made her first appearance before the House of Commons Liaison Committee-read it here and see it here. Overall, the session seemed to veer between ambiguity, wait-and-see and vagueness with immigration the site of a very tense encounter with Yvette Cooper (see Q48-56). So what did we learn? There will be speech in January and a plan published at some point soon but what did the appearance itself tell us?

  1. May still thinks secrecy is the best policy

Despite all that has happened since July, the government will still seek to keep their plans, priorities and intentions secret, or at least preserve as much secrecy time as possible. May’s answers were studded with phrases such as ‘I look forward to going into more detail about those early in the New Year’ and ‘when we feel that it is appropriate to give any indications of those details, we will do so’ and the wonderfully uninformative ‘you will see what we publish when we publish it, if I may put it like that’ and ‘negotiations are negotiations’. May’s secrecy could be habit or style or, as commentators such as David Allen Green have argued, is less about concealing positions from the EU 27 and more about managing domestic expectations and papering over deep divisions within her Cabinet.

  1. May wants government in charge

Again, despite all that has happened (and what could happen next) May seemed determined to make sure government was in charge-parliament can discuss but not decide. She announced that ‘it is my intention to ensure that Parliament has ample opportunity to comment on and discuss the aspects of the arrangements that we are putting in place’. This exchange showed the limits of what Westminster would be allowed to do:

Chair: Is it your intention that Parliament should vote on a final deal once it has been negotiated? This was a question put to you earlier.

Mrs May: It was a question put to me earlier, and what I have said is that it is my intention that Parliament should have every opportunity to consider these matters. What I am also clear about is ensuring that we actually deliver on the vote of the British people, which was a vote to leave the European Union.

Chair: Okay. Again, was that a yes or a no?

Mrs May: I gave the answer I gave, Chairman.

  1. Is May making some wiggle room?

The discussion was studded with ambiguities. There was mention of ‘practical changes’, ‘practical aspects’, ‘there may very well be practical issues that have to be addressed’ or ‘it’s a matter of practicality that we need to discuss with the European Union’ and the classic ‘these are matters of detail that would need to be looked into’.

  1. Is May a master of the detail?

Perhaps the point that should cause most concern is that May is not fully in charge of the detail. Towards the end of the session the Chair corrected what appeared to be an erroneous interpretation of article 50 by the Prime Minister.

Chair: But you didn’t completely rule out completing the negotiations within the negotiating period but applying an implementation date at some point after 2019. That is specifically provided for in the treaty—that is article 50(3)—and that is what I am seeking clarity on.

Mrs May: Article 50(3) is not about an implementation phase. It is about an extension of the period of negotiation.

Q97 Chair: Well, I think that is a matter of interpretation. Let’s just read it out. “The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement”, so that date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement can be after 2019. Indeed, it is generally understood to be capable of that interpretation by most people who have looked at it. That is why I have been asking you this question. I just want clarity about that question.

Mrs May: Sorry, Chairman; in that case, I misunderstood the question you were asking me earlier, because I thought you were asking me about the reference at the end to the European Council agreeing with the member state that the period be extended.

Q98 Chair: That’s the negotiating period.

Mrs May: That’s the negotiating period, yes.

Q99 Chair: You did give a very clear answer to that question. I am asking you a different question, Prime Minister.

Mrs May: I would expect us, as I hope I tried to answer in the first place, to be able to negotiate a deal within the two-year period that is set out.

Chair: We are all agreed on that.

Mrs May: But it may be the case that there are some practical aspects which require a period of implementation thereafter. That is what we will need, not just for us but for businesses on the continent and others, but that has to be part of the negotiation that is taking place.

Q100 Chair: I quite understand, and that is what you said earlier. Just to clarify, you may therefore seek to use the discretion provided by article 50(3) to negotiate an implementation date after the end of the completion of the negotiations, even if the negotiating period is within the two-year framework.

Mrs May: We will discuss whether we need an implementation phase. The point at which the treaties cease to apply may be a different issue from whether or not you have got an implementation phase.

Perhaps the confusion was due to nerves, poor briefing or misunderstanding. This is the most charitable interpretation, though even that is rather worrying given that the Liaison committee is nothing as to the sort of pressure she will face behind closed doors and in the glare of the media as Brexit gets under way.

The fact that the Prime Minister appeared to look again at article 50 in her folder, after having misunderstood it, could tell us of a deeper problem. Remember Theresa May was to be the ‘introverted master of detail’ whose forensic skills would see us through, yet she appeared not to know off by heart the 261 words that will dominate Britain’s future-and misinterpreted them and ducked when challenged. This may be a blip or could be the shape of things to come.

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There are more or less two routes to becoming Prime Minister. You can either (i) win a General Election (ii) win a party leadership election to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see here. Theresa May is a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by (ii) rather than (i).

The table below shows the takeover PMs for the last 100 years, with the previous position, whether they won or lost the election, time in office, how they left office and their ranking as Prime Minister according to Professor Kevin Theakston’s 2004 expert survey.

Takeover Prime Ministers 1916-2016

Prime Minister[1] Previous Position Won or Lost Time in power How left office Ranking (out of 20)[2]
Gordon Brown 2007 Chancellor Lost 2010 (narrow loss?) 3 years Defeated n/a (PM after survey)
John Major 1990 Chancellor Won 1992 (narrow win) 7 years Defeated 15
James Callaghan 1976 Foreign Secretary Lost 1979 (medium loss) 3 years Defeated 12
Alec Douglas-Home 1963 Foreign Secretary Lost 1964 (narrow loss) 1 year Defeated 19
Harold Macmillan 1957 Chancellor Won 1959 (increased majority) 6 years Resigned 5
Anthony Eden 1955 Foreign Secretary Won 1955 (increased majority) 2 years Resigned 20
Winston Churchill

1940

First Lord of the Admiralty Lost 1945 5 years Defeated 2
Neville Chamberlain 1937 Chancellor n/a 3 years Resigned 17
Stanley Baldwin 1923 then 1935 Lord President of the Council Lost   1923

Won 1935

 

-1 year

2 years

 

Defeated

Resigned

8
Andrew Bonar Law        ? n/a 1 year Resigned 16
David Lloyd George Chancellor Won 1918 6 years Resigned 3

 So what can we tell our new Prime Minister from this?

One notable point is that takeover has been a very common route to the top. Of the 19 Prime Ministers from Lloyd George to David Cameron 12 have been, in some form and at some point, takeover PMs (counting twice Stanley ‘double takeover’ Baldwin).

May’s exact route, however, is rather unusual. Much has been made of May’s experience as the longest serving Home Secretary since Attlee’s James Chute Ede (thanks to the IFG’s Gavin Freeguard for putting everyone right). Interestingly, none of the other takeover Prime Ministers ever came to Downing Street directly from the Home Office, though two of them, Churchill and Callaghan, had been Home Secretaries in the past.

In terms of exit, Prime Minister May appears to have exactly even chances of leaving office by election or resignation. Over the 12 takeovers 6 have resigned and 6 were defeated. The premiership of takeovers are relatively brief-their average time in office is a rather small 3.3 years.

The big question is how such Prime Ministers are judged to have performed. Using Kevin Theakston’s rankings and Peter Hennessy’s ‘taxonomy’ of performance most takeovers don’t do well, and are in the lower reaches of the ranking. Only two of them, Lloyd George and Churchill, are truly ‘top flight’ or ‘weather-making’ leaders, though Macmillan comes close.

1950 - Confirm your confidence in Churchill (Conservative poster)

More worrying for Prime Minister May, the bottom 5 of the rankings are all takeovers. The nether reaches of Theakston’s table are full of names such Anthony Eden or Neville Chamberlain, both ‘catastrophic failures’ in crisis partly of their own making, and ‘overwhelmed’ leaders like John Major, who was famously told he was in ‘office but not in power’ (Arthur Balfour, not included here, also replaced Robert Cecil, his uncle, in 1902-hence the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’).

As the Financial Times said a new prime minister — now comes the hard part. Brexit, a divided country and the breaking up of Britain are huge challenges for any leader. Being Prime Minister is about the personality of the holder and much has been made of May’s competence and clarity. However, May’s habits of mulling over details is rather Brown-esque while her tactic of blaming others when things go wrong (just about) worked in the Home Office but is unlikely to do so in Downing Street.

Moreover, May has a slender majority in the House of Commons of 12 MPs and is inheritor of a rebellious party that has rebelled most over Europe and fears UKIP. Other recent takeovers like Callaghan, Major and Brown who headed similarly divided parties and faced deep crises became what Roy Jenkin’s called ‘suffix’ Prime Ministers, acting as kind of historical codas to an era. We shall soon see if May joins the ‘weather-makers’ or the greatness of her office finds her out.

[1] Pre 1965 Conservative party leaders were ‘chosen’ rather than elected

[2] Not included here is Birkbeck’s own Ramsay MacDonald. He took over as Prime Minister in 1931 in charge of a national coalition government but, rather confusingly and controversially, took over from himself as Labour Prime Minister in the previous administration. He was ranked 14 in the survey.

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

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

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Nigel Farage speaks at CPAC, 2015. Photo: Gage Skidmore via a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence

Having lost the economic argument, the Leave campaign is now trying to shift the debate towards immigration. This element of the EU referendum debate is as closely linked to the issue of sovereignty as is the management of the economy.

There are two arguments that the Leave side tend to emphasise in relation to immigration. The first relates to security.  The most extreme version of this argument takes the form of the false claim that the UK cannot veto Turkey’s accession to the EU and – as a consequence – the arrival of millions of Turks on this island is virtually unavoidable.  A less extreme version of the same argument relates to the impact of migration from other EU member states on public services at the local level, including schools, hospitals etc., and ignores the contribution that these people make to the exchequer (and beyond).  More recently, however, another argument has been made. Aware of the deleterious nature of the association of Brexit with anti-immigration rhetoric, Brexit supporters have argued that

“Brexit refers only to an exit from the EU and there are no specific policies of any kind tied to Brexit. What happens afterwards and how the UK chooses to manage its affairs in the light of an exit is up to the British government, which is ultimately answerable to its electorate. […] [T]he fact remains that Brexit is compatible with both open and closed borders. Which it will be depends on decisions made by an elected government. […] [W]e should use an exit from the EU as an opportunity to have a proper debate for the first time about whether we want the UK to be open to migration or not, and then base our laws on the outcome of that.” (Chris Bickerton)

Leaving aside the fact that the debate on immigration has been going on for many years in the UK, their central point is one that all souverainistes like to make: through an exit from the EU, the British people will reassert their sovereignty and that is what matters above all other considerations.  The precise way in which it will be handled is a separate issue. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

For all its major faults (including the unedifying image of government ministers who lie live on TV), the referendum-related debate has highlighted the fact that membership of the EU involves a whole array of trade-offs, including those that relate to immigration. But this is precisely what the souverainistes see as a problem since sovereignty is, for them, a zero-sum game.   You either have it, or you do not.

So to achieve their main objective – Brexit – they appear to imply there will be no need for such trade-offs in the post-Brexit future.  This is unrealistic to say the least, since – even if we ignore the cultural benefits of immigration – demographic conditions, the state of the economy, the domestic economy’s relationship with its main partner, i.e. the rest of the European Union, will still need to be managed.

They also conveniently ignore two points that are directly linked to each other and show that the balance of forces is likely to be conducive to a particular immigration policy if Brexit occurs.  The first is the fact that historically this country is normally governed by the Conservative party, and the second relates to the domestic balance of power in the aftermath of Brexit.

Specifically, if Brexit begins to materialise on 24 June, it will not be on liberal terms. Rather, it will be on the terms used by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express – that is to say, immigration-phobia.  In other words, it will be done in a way that will make openness not more but less likely.  Even a cursory look at the statements made by Nigel Farage and his de facto allies within the Conservative party and beyond shows their overwhelming emphasis on numbers, not the need for a more liberal immigration regime. The use of the term “burdens” is indicative in that respect. In the event of Brexit, David Cameron’s successor will almost inevitably come from the Brexit-supporting side of the Conservative party and they will have virtually no room for manoeuvre on this issue, even if one naively assumed they would actually want to wiggle away from the extreme statements made in the run up to the referendum.

The haste to dissociate Brexit from the toxicity of many Brexit supporters’ anti-immigration rhetoric is understandable for another reason: academic research shows that ‘the effects of demographic change fade over time, probably because local white residents become accustomed to minority residents, have positive contact with them, or come to perceive minorities as legitimately belonging in the area.’ In that sense, those – like Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform – who rightly claim that EU membership is a way to preserve the UK’s openness and increasingly cosmopolitan nature have the wind in their sails.

Dionyssis G Dimitrakopoulos is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London

This post was originally part of the BREXIT debate at LSE

Tonight Birkbeck hosts its own EU referendum debate

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

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