Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Politics and Policy’

Lifting the visa cap for nurses and doctors is not all the NHS needs to relieve its staff shortages

With the NHS facing rapidly depleting staff numbers, can disaster be avoided? Olivia Bridge explains what is causing this problem and whether the government’s actions so far – in particular the decision to exclude doctors and nurses from Tier 2 Visa caps – are enough to address it.

With the NHS nearing its 70th birthday, many healthcare professionals raised awareness to its latest crisis: rapidly depleting staff numbers. A crisis, they say, that has only been worsened by the government’s ‘hostile environment’ and overtly stringent immigration rules.

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) appealed to the Home Secretary, Sajid David, to demand a change in immigration laws that were responsible for turning away fully-qualified doctors and nurses. The RCGP told the BBC that the ‘hostile environment’ is straining the NHS by making it increasingly difficult to recruit much-needed healthcare professionals from overseas.

The demand for change came just as 1,500 visa applications by international doctors and medical professionals – who had already received their job offers and completed their sponsorship licence application – were denied due to monthly visa caps. In an effort to reduce net migration, the Home Office had refused entry to doctors, nurses, paramedics, and general practitioners at a time when the NHS is doing everything it can to fill staff shortages. NHS officials claimed the visa caps on non-EU doctors were contributing to rota gaps and created delays for patients receiving the care they need.

The concerns were eventually heard. In June 2018, the Home Office announced that they will be exempting doctors and nurses from Tier 2 Visa caps that sit at 20,700 per year. The move looks promising: by excluding doctors and nurses from the cap there will be more visas available for engineers, IT professionals, and those in highly skilled positions. Yet many industry experts remain concerned that the visa cap lift is just a drop in the ocean when addressing staff shortages. Only doctors and nurses are exempt, meaning the NHS still face a skills shortage in its vast array of other medical professions.

Alarming staff shortages too high to be filled

The change is still promising for nurses as up to 3,000 nurses left the NHS than those who joined in 2017, according to the Royal College of Nursing. But the RCGP warn that irrespective of the cap removal, there are ‘significant barriers’ when hiring GPs from overseas. The move is not wholly revolutionary either as the NHS had already permitted to recruit an additional 100 international GPs by the end of March, yet only 85 GPs were in post two years after the scheme was launched. The RCGP argue that lifting the cap will not resolve the staff crisis GPs face overnight, but it is a step in the right direction. Instead, they are urging the Home Office to add GPs to the UK’s Shortage Occupation List which is a resource that advertises jobs that haven’t been filled by UK talent to international and EU workers.

Critics further argue that the visa cap lift is overdue since the NHS currently face a record number of 40,000 vacancies. The government plans to recruit an additional 5,500 healthcare professionals just from Jamaica, and artificial intelligence known as a “bedside robot” has been created to tackle the staff strain in hospital wards. Yet even with the help of an artificial hand, expected applicants still won’t compensate for a lacking medical workforce. The NHS won’t suddenly be flooded with the full support and help it desperate needs.

The impact of Brexit

The UK owes a great debt to its international and European workforce in the NHS. Launched in 1948, the NHS encouraged many nurses and doctors from international waters to come to the UK after the Second World War in order to rebuild the economy. Decades later, these migrants known as the ‘Windrush generation’ have wrongly been subject to threats of deportation as well as losing their homes, jobs, and right to rent due to a Home Office hiccup. Many of these migrants dedicated their whole lives to both the UK and the NHS.

As Brexit has less than a year until the deadline, many European workers are concerned about their immigration status. The UK’s decision to leave the EU has clobbered the industry in one foul swoop: there has been an 89% drop in the number of nurses and midwives coming to work in the UK from Europe, The Guardian reported. In 2016, 9,389 European nurses migrated to the UK. However, only 800 EU nurses came to the UK last year, nowhere near fulfilling the 20,700-visa cap limit. Industry experts are therefore concerned that the vacancy gap could extend beyond repair if EU nurses and doctors feel unwelcome.

Avoiding a ‘cliff edge’

Despite government intervention, the Royal College of Nursing fears that the number of nurses expected to join the NHS – either from graduating in the UK or being recruited from overseas – still won’t account for the number of those leaving. At the same time, prospective British students are disheartened from studying a medical course at university since NHS bursaries were abolished in 2017. Future doctors and nurses now have to pay for their course at the same rate as any other student; instead, they are opting for a degree that incurs less debt, takes less time and effort to complete, as well as guaranteeing a much more rewarding salary for a lot less stress.

Hiring foreign workers is therefore vital to the survival of the NHS. In order to avoid a skills shortage that is disastrous to both the public and private healthcare sectors – the UK needs to encourage international and European talent to apply to positions within the NHS.

Fortunately, the latest information is that there will be a revised immigration system put in place for EU citizens, not dissimilar to free movement. During the implementation period, EU nationals can apply for temporary documentation which allows them to stay in the UK for five years. After five years, they can apply for Settled Status or Indefinite Leave to Remain, allowing nurses and doctors to fulfil a life-long rewarding medical career in the UK.

The Shortage Occupation List

The Shortage Occupation list has always been beneficial to the NHS. It actively advertises to international and European workers, permitting them entry to the UK even if visa caps had already been reached.

Jobs in the UK are normally subject to the Resident Labour Market Test which is a process whereby jobs are advertised to local UK communities for 28 days. Only after the test has run its course can international and overseas candidates apply, so expert professionals that are unwilling to wait for a month are finding another job elsewhere. However, jobs advertised on the shortage occupation list escape this process altogether, making them immediately accessible.

Currently on the list, the UK is in need of:

  • Medical practitioners
  • Medical radiographers
  • Health professionals (such as neurophysiology practitioners and nuclear medicine scientists)
  • Nurses
  • Paramedics

The visa cap lift provides some comfort in the short term, yet the NHS’ future depends upon its international workforce – a workforce that, due to a ‘hostile environment’, are dissuaded from a working life in the UK. In order to recuperate from a scarce medical workforce and avoid a skills shortage in the industry, employers, the Home Office, and even employees working in the healthcare sector should sincerely encourage candidates from abroad to apply.


About the Author

Olivia Bridge is a specialist content writer and political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service and leading Immigration Lawyers UK.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).




Do public opinion and elections affect UK government policy?

Does UK public policy respond to changes in public preferences? If so, is this the result of the government adjusting its agenda, or of unpopular governments being eventually voted out? New research by John Bartle, Sebastian Dellepiane-Avellaneda, and Anthony McGann provides some answers.

Do elections and public opinion make a difference? In a democracy, government policy should depend on what the public wants, at least in broad terms. For example, if the people want better public service rather than lower taxes, then that’s what the government should give them. We chart the relationship between public opinion and the level of government spending and taxes between 1945 and 2015. When the public mood moves to the left, do taxes and spending increase, and vice versa?

We find that the answer to this question is yes, eventually. If the people want (say) lower taxes or more NHS spending, sooner or later they will elect a government that gives them that. However, policy may be out of line with what the public wants for considerable periods of time. If the public thinks the opposition is incompetent, they may repeatedly re-elect the government, even though it keeps moving policy in the opposite direction to what the public wants. As a result, public spending goes up and down in long-run cycles, as each government over-corrects for their predecessor’s policies.

We can explain these patterns of government spending and taxation in terms of public opinion. To do this we have to measure the public’s ‘policy mood’. Fortunately, there are hundreds of survey questions that have been asked over the years that can be used to measure how left- or right-wing the public mood is. People have been surveyed about whether they want more public services (even if it means higher taxes), whether they want more spending on particular programmes, whether they want more redistributive taxes, and many other things. The problem is that the same questions are not asked every year. We use a statistical method developed by James Stimson to take all of these questions and produce a single measure of how “left-wing” the British public is in any given year.

When we look at the policy mood, we see that there are long-run swings to the left and right. Public opinion moved sharply to the right during the economic crisis of the 1970s. However, it moved steadily back to the left under Margaret Thatcher and John Major (contrary to the widespread perception that the electorate became “Thatcherite”), before returning to the centre/right under Blair. Currently the public’s policy mood is moving back to the left.

We find that public mood reacts strongly to the level of government spending. When taxes are high, public mood moves to the right, as people demand lower taxes. However, when taxes and spending are too low, people become dissatisfied with the level of public services and move to the left. Thus the policy mood works a bit like a thermostat, as Wlezien has proposed.

We find that which party is in government matters. Labour governments do indeed increase public spending and taxes, while Conservative governments reduce them. (The only exception to this was the Heath government 1970-4.)

However, governments do not react to changes in public opinion between elections, at least in terms of the overall level of tax and spending. Labour governments keep increasing spending even when public opinion is moving to the right, while Conservative governments keep cutting even after public opinion has gone the other way. If public opinion has an effect on policy, it is through replacing unpopular governments, not through existing governments anticipating what the electorate wants.

Parties deliver the policies we would expect, which means that the public should be able to get what it wants by replacing the government. This, however, is the weak link in the chain of accountability. We find that when the government policy is out of line with public opinion, people are indeed less likely to vote for the government. However, this effect is quite weak, and easily outweighed by perceptions of party competence. If the public thinks the opposition is incompetent, they are stuck with the government. They have little choice but to re-elect it, even though it may be doing the opposite of what they want.

This sets up the cycles of over-correction that we see. Suppose that successive Labour governments raise taxes and spending to a very high level. As a result, public opinion moves to the right, as people object to the high taxes. Eventually, this leads to a Conservative government being elected. This government cuts taxes and spending, which causes public opinion to move back to the centre, and eventually the left. However, because Labour now has a reputation for economic incompetence, the Conservative government is repeatedly re-elected. It continues to cut tax and spending somewhat, even though the public no longer wants any more cuts. This leads to public mood moving even further to the left, as public spending falls far below what the public actually wants. As a result, Labour eventually wins back power, the Conservatives are now discredited for several elections, and the cycle start over again.

This, of course, assumes that politics is primarily about traditional economic issues, such as tax, spending and redistribution. This is a reasonable assumption in the UK for most of the post-war period. However, it is clear that in the 2017 general election that the issue of Brexit was important across the country. In Scotland, things were even more complex, with Scottish independence as the most important issue.

Nevertheless, the traditional view of elections as providing a clear choice between competing ideological visions of society – vote Labour for more spending and redistribution, vote Conservative for lower taxes and less state – is still very relevant. Many political scientists have argued that so-called “valence” issues, such as competence and leadership, are more important in modern elections than ideology and policy positions. There is some truth to this. In the short-term, we agree that valence issues (such as the parties’ economic competence) often determine election results. However, in the long-run, the significance of elections is still that they determine the broad direction of government policy.


Note: the above draws the authors’ published work in the Journal of Public Policy.

About the Authors

John Bartle is a Professor of Government at the University of Essex.



Sebastian Dellepiane-Avellaneda is Senior Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde.



Anthony McGann is Professor of Government and Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde. He is author of The Logic of Democracy (University of Michigan Press 2006) and Gerrymandering in America (Cambridge University Press 2016).



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

Why the Good Friday Agreement is on life support – and why hope still remains

NagleThe central support beams of the Good Friday Agreement — power-sharing and Europeanisation — have become so weakened that its sustainability is now under threat, explains John Nagle. But there is still hope for recovery, and it rests with Northern Ireland’s liberal younger generation.

April 10 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Few would begrudge the Agreement’s central role in ending thirty years of violence that led to 3,700 deaths and approximately 100,000 injuries. Yet any urge to celebrate the GFA is tempered by the realisation that the GFA is currently experiencing a deep crisis. The very moorings on which the GFA rest are loosening. The power-sharing government lies in a state of collapse while Brexit puts into question the future security of the region. The GFA is on life support. It is at this moment of existential crisis that some reflection is required to remind us of its central features and why they have gradually become dangerously untethered.

The central support beams of the Agreement

The first and central support beam of the GFA is power-sharing between nationalists and unionists. The GFA forms an important part of a recent wave of divided societies falling under the influence of power–sharing. Such is the prevailing orthodoxy among the international community regarding power-sharing’s propensity to build peaceful democracy, that it is used or prescribed for Bosnia, Lebanon, Burundi, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.

Northern Ireland’s power-sharing comprised innovative features to deal with the complexity of the conflict. The institutions are liberal – there are no seats or political positions reserved for specific groups, and executive places are distributed among parties based on their electoral performances. To accommodate the dual national character of the conflict, power-sharing initiated cross-border institutions. It further made provisions for the release of paramilitary prisoners, the reform of policing, human rights, victims, and paramilitary weapons decommissioning.

Second, the GFA is shaped by the European Union’s approach to resolving territorial disputes. Conflict management is achieved through two steps. First, security is secured by affirming the territorial status quo, which requires member states to revoke territorial claims over neighbouring states. Second, states are required to recognise and promote the rights of their substate national minorities. In combination, these two aspects made it possible to soften borders to facilitate peaceful crossborder links between minority groups and their homeland. Thus, in the GFA, the Republic of Ireland swapped its constitutional claim over Northern Ireland for the North–South Institutions and the UK agreed to subscribe to minority rights protections.

These two central support beams – power-sharing and Europeanisation – have become unhinged and undermine the peace process as a result. Power-sharing presented the best option for peace but it came with a high risk. Power-sharing governments are notoriously prone to rewarding ethnic hardliners, exacerbating communal divisions and provoking policy paralysis. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing suffered from a combination of these dynamics. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements were deliberately designed to be inclusive by capturing a broad spectrum of moderate and hardline parties. This it did, but the enterprise relied on maintaining the moderate wings of nationalism and unionism at the centre of power-sharing. These moderates would engage in elite level compromise that would eventually erode antagonistic communal divisions.

Why the agreement is under threat: the DUP/Sinn Fein axis

By 2003 a reverse situation came to fruition. The so-called hardline parties – the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein – stood as the leading factions of unionism and nationalism respectively. It is often said that the DUP and Sinn Fein’s electoral dominance represents a triumph of the extremes but not for extremism. This thesis stresses how both parties combine moderation with robust policies defending their community’s interests.

The DUP/Sinn Fein axis provided some welcome stability but such accommodation worked only as long as these parties reaped the benefits from a sectarian carve up of government. But neither parties could not resist being locked into zero-sum rather than collaborative politics. Instead of working together, the DUP and Sinn Fein defined their politics in binary terms as one of implacable opposition to each other. This divisive politics found particular expression in culture wars. Flags, symbols, parades, language rights and even same-sex marriage provided major battlelines for the DUP and Sinn Fein as human rights became war by other means.

The mechanisms of power-sharing did not encourage cooperation and healthy governance. Rather than ‘joined up’ government, the system of allocating government ministerial portfolios allowed ministers to use their offices as party fiefdoms. The mandatory rather than voluntary system of executive coalition meant that government lacked any cohesive opposition bloc. The veto, designed to ensure that the interests of the respective communities would be protected, became a blocking tool that infected the system with policy logjam. Nor did power-sharing facilitate inclusion. Survey data demonstrates a significant gender gap with women less supportive for the power-sharing institutions, a situation that indicates women’s disaffection with a lack of progress towards gender equality in areas such as reproductive choice. Legislation to introduce same-sex marriage was vetoed.

Why the agreement is under threat: Brexit

The Europeanisation of the GFA is jeopardised. In June 2016 the results of the EU referendum represented a victory for the Leave campaign. The voters of Northern Ireland overwhelmingly supported remain by a margin of 55.78% to 44.22%. Only the DUP of the major parties campaigned to leave. The GFA is inextricably entwined with the European project. It is secured via bilateral treaty relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland and North–South institutions, all of which are facilitated by the UK and Ireland both being EU member states. The North–South institutions, in particular, are designed to facilitate relevant EU matters, including the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, which has overseen the distribution of 1.3 billion Euros for peacebuilding projects.

Brexit could result in a £300 million shortfall to Northern Ireland’s budget. Of particular concern for future security, Brexit could see the possible return of a hard border – replete with customs and posts and security checkpoints – between the North and the South thus ending the common travel area between the two jurisdictions. The adverse effects of Brexit, therefore, are most likely to be felt in Northern Ireland. The threat Brexit poses to the GFA and even the peace process requires new and creative forms of political thinking to minimise the potential harm.

Is there hope?

The GFA may be flatlining but there remains optimism for recovery. In the past two decades the North has become an utterly transformed place. The ingrained residue of social and political conservatism running through Northern Ireland is being replaced by a more liberal and progressive younger generation. This cohort demonstrates strong support for LGBT and reproductive rights, for tackling sectarianism and racism, and ending segregation. Northern Ireland is historically seen as a place where leaders lead and followers follow. There now exists a fissure between the political elites and this generation. If the political instincts for survival remain strong among Northern Ireland’s political class, they will need to demonstrate an imaginaire which sees the GFA not as a holding operation but as an instrument for societal transformation.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Parliamentary Affairs.

About the Author

NagleJohn Nagle is Lecturer at the School of Social Science, University of Aberdeen. His latest book is entitled Social Movements in Violently Divided Societies: Constructing Conflict and Peacebuilding.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

Bulgarians in London: a community of strength, but one hidden in the shadows

Many Bulgarians have moved to the UK since the early-2000s but, as Maria Koinova notes, little research has been conducted on their views on life in Britain. Drawing on a new survey of Bulgarians in London, she writes that the Bulgarian community is notably different from the way it has been portrayed in the British media.

On 3 May, researchers associated with a project of the London Bulgarian Association presented at the London municipality a ‘first of its kind’ survey of Bulgarians in the global city. The research was sponsored by a citizens-led initiative of London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, and featured results from a peer-researched (non-representative) survey conducted between March and April 2018. This project aspired to give a clear picture about a little-known community in the UK, which has attracted unfavourable attention in the British media, most notably surrounding the UK referendum on EU membership in 2016 and its aftermath.

Bulgarians started migrating in significant numbers after the end of the Cold War in 1989. Major migration destinations became the US, Canada, Spain, Germany and other countries in Western Europe, with the UK favoured mostly in the new millennium. Data from the 2018 London-based survey illustrates this trend. As the figure below shows, the Bulgarians currently living in London mostly arrived recently, with few arriving before the 2000s.

Figure: Timing of migration of Bulgarians in London

Note: Figure is based on data from a co-authored study with Boyko Boev, Dean Bezlov, and Maria Stoilkova.

Three important policy developments impacted on the migration patterns of Bulgarians arriving in the UK. The first one was a 2001 UK migration policy allowing them a liberalised access to working visas under employment programmes and business projects. Another policy in 2002 established a selective opening of the UK market and created separate conditions for citizens of Bulgaria and Romania. The policy put Bulgarian and Romanian migrants into a distinct category (A2), thereby effectively separating them from other migrants from Eastern Europe (A8) whose countries entered the EU in 2004.

Bulgaria and Romania became EU members three years later. Bulgaria’s 2007 EU accession was followed by another migration wave, particularly in the mid-2010s, coinciding with the global financial crisis. Some Bulgarians previously employed in other countries severely affected by the crisis, such as Greece, Malta, Spain, Italy and France, moved to the UK. In the aftermath of the 2007 EU accession, a third policy lifted visa regime restrictions and regulated access to the UK’s borders, yet retained restrictions on the labour rights of Bulgarians and Romanians under the A2 status until the end of 2013.

These selective immigration policies exerted a significant influence on the image of Bulgarians and Romanians in the British media, motivating exclusivist public views of these communities. The typical media portrayal has been one focused on high crime rates among Bulgarians/Romanians and their exploitation of the benefits system.

The 2018 survey of Bulgarians in London challenges such stereotypes. First, among the sample of 151 people interviewed, only 4 respondents gave their status as unemployed, with half of them being employed full time, some of them – especially those in their 30s – working a second job overtime, and the rest being self-employed or working part-time. A wide range of jobs were reported, including high-skilled jobs such as IT specialists, analysts, programmers, engineers, university lecturers, teachers, marketing and public relations coordinators, accountants, sales representatives, designers, tax specialists, construction managers, photographers, dental practitioners, and students attending London universities, among others. Low-skilled jobs were also present, typically those related to cleaning and housekeeping services and care-provision, mostly among women; as well as car-mechanics, chefs, construction workers and stage workers in the theatre, which were typical jobs for men.

Younger immigrants – especially in their 20s and 30s – have experienced few problems finding a job, especially with regard to their qualifications acquired in Bulgaria or through additional education in the UK. There is an unfortunate trend, however, concerning Bulgarians in their 40s and to a certain degree in their 50s: many have university degrees, but have taken jobs below their qualifications. For those who arrived prior to 2004, it was difficult to get their diplomas and previous job qualifications from Bulgaria recognised in the UK. In line with a trend pervasive for most respondents in this sample, Bulgarians sought to adapt to their new life circumstances, and oftentimes to overcome challenges of emotional separation from family, as well as to learn the English language. Precarious work (working part-time or for several employers on odd jobs simultaneously) was visible especially among those in their 20s and 60s, with people in other age cohorts, who are the most productive in the work force, enjoying more stable employment.

There are other trends in the data. Over 100 respondents declared that they felt happy in London, and in the specific borough in which they live. Some saw criminality as rising and cited violent incidents in their neighbourhoods, but they were a minority among those interviewed. A majority reported that living in London felt secure and had transformed them for the better, making them more tolerant, patient and productive individuals, even if they were more stressed due to the busy life in a global city.

The older respondents were, the more likely it was that they had migrated prior to 2014 and that they did so to join family. They were also more likely to have experienced issues with adaptation, especially with mastering English, to have maintained deeper contact with their neighbours, and to have had more critical messages about London as a busy city. Bulgarians of all age cohorts were unlikely to join associations, but were more likely to visit the gym regularly (up until their 50s), or to enjoy London’s cultural life of cinema, performances, concerts and theatres, especially among the more affluent respondents.

Bulgarians in their 20s were most motivated by a desire to explore the world and study; while those in their 30s were busy implementing their knowledge in the work place. Bulgarians in their 40s were typically seeking to both enhance their professional opportunities, and take care of families; those in their 50s sought to secure their financial future by sometimes seeking to pay off loans, gather funds to start a business or buy a place in Bulgaria; and those in their 60s were most interested in joining or staying together with their families.

The most unexpected results came from how Bulgarians in London reported their experience with Brexit. The majority were not excessively worried about their own prospects. Some stated that they were already British citizens and that Brexit would not affect them significantly. Many others had not been contemplating a change of plans, even if they anticipated that the most important challenges still lay ahead. There is no specific other migration destination on the minds of those who are contemplating leaving: some considered moving to Bulgaria, others to Germany, others back to the places in Southern Europe where they came from previously, and some were also considering Canada and the United States.

Women worried more than men about Brexit, as they saw more clearly the effects of rising prices, increasing inflation, and the discomfort triggered by a heightened sensitivity towards migrants. On the whole, however, people from the entire sample reported a rise in discrimination after Brexit, whether explicit or tacit, as well as awareness that London is not the entire UK, and that the life of migrants associated with Brexit might be more difficult outside the capital.


Note: This article was originally published on LSE Europp and is based on a study by Boyko Boev, Dean Bezlov and Maria Stoilkova.

About the Author

Maria Koinova is a Reader in International Relations at the University of Warwick and Chair of the British International Studies Association Working group on the International Politics of Migration, Refugees and Diasporas.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

Making a 21st century constitution: the rules we have established for democracies are now outdated

Democratic constitutions are unfit for purpose, with governments facing increased pressures from populists and distrust from citizens. The only way to truly solve these problems is through reform, argues Frank Vibert. He draws on his new book on the topic and sets out the ways in which constitutions should be revitalised.

Democracies are struggling in many parts of the world. Explanations of why this is happening often focus on economics. The 2008 international financial crisis shook confidence in market economies. Job markets seem much less secure. In my new book ‘Making a 21st Century Constitution’ I put forward a different explanation. In my view, constitutions are the problem. The frameworks of bodies and rules they have established for democracies are now outdated in fundamental ways. They do not provide the support that democracies need in today’s world.

There is a basic difference between these two types of explanation. If economics is the cause, then democratic discontents should disappear as economic recovery takes hold. If it is constitutions that are the problem, there will be continuing dysfunction. The discontents will not disappear until the framework of rules under which democracies operate are changed. In his last ‘State of the Union’ address, former President Obama stated that we should look critically at flaws in the system rather than at the flawed people it produces for political office. I agree.

There is no generally accepted approach to constitutional analysis. But, since the time of the American Founding Fathers, assumptions about human behaviour and its imperfections have been central. The work of behavioural economists and social psychologists illuminates individual and group behaviour in three areas of great importance for the way in which we think about constitutions in today’s world.

Privacy and the Private realm

The first area relates to privacy. In today’s world we trade and exchange our privacy. We value privacy. At the same time, when we use our mobile phones and the internet we allow our identity to be authenticated and our behaviour to be predicted. We do so because of the sheer convenience we derive from the mobile and its apps.

This world is very different from defining the private in terms of an inviolable physical space, such as an 18th century homestead, or a 20th century home. Yet it is this older conception of the private that underlies the idea of democratic consent to a constitution. According to this old concept we stand in our private space and give our consent to rules that define what is to be public and agree on the powers that are to be transferred to and belong in the public realm.

There are two ways of reacting to this change. The first is to downgrade the importance of consent. The second is to place a new weight on bodies and rules that aim keep the basic importance of consent alive.

Generally speaking, since the second half of the 20th century, both constitutional theory and practice have followed the first of these routes. The idea that we should give our consent has become less important than the idea that we should identify with the content of constitutions. We are invited to identify with their content by statements of aspirations and, above all, by lengthy recitals of rights. In my analysis I conclude by reaffirming the basic importance of consent.

Social Diversity

A second area where assumptions about human behaviour are crucial concerns modern day social diversity. Traditionally, deep social diversity has been seen in terms of minorities that need protection against a prevailing majority and where the minority or minorities could often be defined in territorial terms. However, in modern societies most of us encounter deep social diversity in shared urban settings, shared service provision and in shared work places. The social fabric of London is the prime example.

Some people welcome social diversity and choose to live in cities such as London because of the stimulus they provide and for the innovation they can encourage. But social psychologists also warn about the defensive thinking and behaviour that individuals and groups can adopt when their established ways of viewing the world are challenged. Many of the crucial differences cut across ethnic and religious divides and are, for example, about attitudes towards the appropriate social roles of men and women, or about attitudes to authority.

We expect constitutions to be able to encourage cooperative behaviour and social ‘togetherness’. The contemporary challenge is about how to achieve this in shared settings when all groups, regardless of size, may react defensively to defend their own values. In this context my book discusses how constitutions can support democratic politics in playing a socially adaptive role so that people are prepared to modify their values in order to find an acceptable ‘better there’. I refer to this as a ‘transvaluational ‘role.

Rationality in politics

It would be nice to believe that we are all reasonable people, with well-considered preferences and priorities, open to reasoned arguments and ready to be persuaded to change our views when presented with a well-reasoned argument. But social psychologists suggest that what we consider ‘reasonable’ depends on the context. Politics is about shortcut reasoning reflecting a world of information overload where we do not want to spend too much time on politics. It is associative reasoning. We pay attention to the views of those with whom we connect in our social world, including our social media connections. It is ‘diagnostic’ reasoning. We assume that what is good for our friends and associates is also good for us. We pay attention to the messenger, the person or group who brings me a viewpoint, without spending time on going into the detailed content or implications of what is being said.

The drawbacks are that we pay attention mainly to the views of those we agree with and there is also a gulf established between the more deductive forms of reasoning essential in public policy making. An important task of a modern constitution is therefore to help make people more attentive to wider sources of information and views – the information from the social and natural sciences and the views of those with whom we do not agree.

Institutional economics

There are other features of the contemporary setting where the analysis in my book draws on institutional economics for insights. Two important areas concern the role of intermediaries and the role of benchmarking.

Benchmarking and the role of rights

In our world of information overload, we increasingly resort to benchmarks to guide our decision taking. We may choose schools for our kids based on the grading of inspectors, or a university based on nationally- or internationally-produced ratings, or choose a book on the basis of the awarding of prizes, or download music based on standings in charts we follow.

In the book I analyse this increased reliance on benchmarking by looking at a sector where they have become increasingly pervasive – the financial sector.

Benchmarking in constitutional terms takes the form of an ever-increasing reliance on declarations of rights. They direct our attention to what is most relevant in complex ethical choices. Unfortunately, as with other forms of benchmarking, they are subject to over-production, to the narrowing of claims, to manipulation, and to moral hazard. My book warns against the over-extension of the role of rights beyond mainly procedural rights. Over-reliance disguises the more difficult task of getting institutions correctly specified.

Directness and the role of intermediaries

In today’s world we expect markets to be responsive to our demands in very immediate ways. We are all familiar with the disruption to old forms of delivery in high street retailing, banking and other fields as we all order online. Institutional economics suggests that we need to look behind this directness of the marketplace in order to identify the intermediaries involved – the web service providers, the data collectors, distributers and processors, the payments and delivery systems.

Much the same reliance on new intermediaries is occurring in non- market sectors such as in the provision of government services where specialist bodies are proliferating. However, we do not experience the growth of longer and more dispersed chains of specialist bodies in government in the form of a higher degree of democratic immediacy and responsiveness. On the contrary, each of the key attributes of democratic government – the broad inclusiveness it offers, the scope it gives for voter feedback to those with authority, and voter input into the formation of policy priorities, seem weakened rather than strengthened. Elites and those who know how to deal with the intermediaries seem to have gained advantage.

One way of responding to this situation is to look at constitutions as chains of intermediation themselves. They provide for interventions at the beginning of the chain, where they can re-establish directness of communication, in the middle where they can provide for new types of representation, such as a body that scrutinises inter-generational fairness, and at the end of the chain where they can provide for oversight without being dependent, in the way constitutional courts are, on the referral of individual cases.


Constitutional analysis seems a long way from the real world and a long way too from the noise of day-to-day politics. Yet we should care about constitutional design. Constitutional failure brings a human cost. Design has been following past models from past times. We are now in a different world. We need to rethink.


Note: the above draws on the author’s new book ‘Making a 21st Century Constitution: Playing Fair in Modern Democracies‘, published by Elgar in June 2018.

About the Author

Frank Vibert is Senior Visiting Fellow in the Dept. of Government LSE. He has been a Senior Advisor in the World Bank  and Senior Visiting Fellow at UNU/WIDER in Helsinki. He was Director of the European Policy Forum, an independent Think Tank based in London, before coming to the LSE in 2008.  He is the author of a number of books on regulatory and constitutional topics.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

The City’s pivot to China in a post-Brexit world: a uniquely vulnerable policy

To explain why trading European markets for Chinese is not a simple switch, Jeremy Green examines the City of London Corporation’s role within economic policy-making, as well as the embrace of Chinese finance under the Coalition government.

These are extraordinarily turbulent times for the City of London. Over the past decade, it has faced two major challenges. From 2007-8, it was engulfed by a global financial crisis. Major banks became a target of popular resentment and public scrutiny as massive bailouts and nationalisations were required to save stricken institutions. And since June 2016, the City has been forced to deal with a second major challenge: managing the ongoing difficulties posed by the decision to leave the EU. A decision that has jeopardised its role in offshore euro-transacted business.

We have to look back almost a century, to the successive disruptions caused by WWI in 1914 and the collapse of the inter-war gold standard in 1931, to find a parallel period of City instability. And yet, within this contemporary period of flux, the City has (so far) continued to thrive and prosper. Understanding this requires recognition of a defining feature of the modern City: its adaptability and resilience in the face of domestic and international challenges.

My recent research sheds new light on the institutional mechanisms and political-economic strategies underpinning the City’s adaptability and endurance since the financial crisis. It also offers important clues as to what the emerging post-Brexit landscape might look like. Examining cooperation between the City of London, the Coalition government, the Treasury, and the Bank of England, I show how the ‘City-Bank-Treasury’ nexus within British capitalism was reactivated after the crisis. Responding to the challenge of a changing international economic order, the City of London pivoted towards new business opportunities based upon the internationalisation of China’s currency, the renminbi.

This ‘geo-economic’ rebalancing of the City towards East Asia, rather than Chancellor George Osborne’s professed sectoral and regional rebalancing within the UK economy, was the predominant theme of economic policy under the Coalition government between 2010-2015. Despite all the talk of renewed commitment to industrial rejuvenation of England’s post-industrial periphery, the most concerted effort around economic policy centred on a very traditional commitment to securing the City’s standing as a global financial centre. The UK’s preoccupation with the strategic support of its financial sector has long been the at the heart of its idiosyncratically paradoxical industrial policy. One that serially neglects manufacturing industry while promoting financial services.

But despite the longstanding supremacy of financial services within the UK’s political economy, my research shows that continued commitment to the City of London is neither automatic nor inevitable. While traditional interpretations of the City’s role highlight functional and structural interdependencies, or sociological linkages, between financial institutions and the state, I reveal how the reproduction of the City’s centrality within British capitalism depends on the strategic agency of specific actors. Most importantly, my work highlights the neglected significance of the City of London Corporation, a uniquely powerful and privileged local authority committed to representing the UK’s financial services sector.

The City Corporation is a local authority with distinctly global interests. It is part local authority and part international lobbyist. And because the City of London, as a financial centre, is truly global, this means that the City Corporation has a vast geographical range of interests. This range is reflected in its web of international offices, spanning from Brussels, to Mumbai, Shanghai and Beijing. The City Corporation’s global reach positioned it effectively to respond to a significant development in the post-crisis international financial order: the internationalisation of China’s currency.

From 2009, Chinese elites expressed public concerns over the desirability and viability of an international monetary order based on the dollar. Worried by their own dependency on the dollar, having built up huge dollar reserves during the boom years, they gradually opened up the renminbi to wider international usage. These measures involved bilateral currency swap arrangements, encouraging renminbi trade settlement with partners like Brazil and Russia, and the opening up of renminbi assets to foreigners through greater access to renminbi denominated bond markets (‘Dim Sum’ bonds) in Hong Kong. As part of this internationalisation strategy, Chinese elites targeted London as a partner for promoting offshore renminbi business within Western financial markets. In the City of London Corporation, they found a willing associate.

Capitalising on renminbi internationalisation was, though, a feat that the Corporation could not achieve alone. It required systematic support from the highest levels of the UK government and powerful institutions within the British state: the Treasury and the Bank of England. It was the Cameron-Osborne partnership that initially endorsed a much closer economic relationship between the UK and China, opening political space for the Corporation to manoeuvre within. Once bilateral UK-China economic dialogue had secured commitment to deepening economic ties between the two countries, the Treasury tasked the Corporation with supporting renminbi business in the UK. The Corporation duly obliged. In April 2012 it launched its ‘Renminbi initiative’, intended to develop practical measures to support London’s development as an offshore centre for renminbi. This involved the provision of leadership to financial markets in relation to the technical, infrastructural, and regulatory challenges associated with the development of an offshore renminbi market in London. Continuing support from the Treasury and the Bank of England helped drive forward these efforts.

Additionally, the Corporation worked with a network of transnational banks, particularly HSBC and Standard Chartered, who could leverage their long-standing ties to the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong markets to build bridges and cultivate business networks. This ability to act as a go-between for private and public institutions is a unique feature of the City Corporation. It enables it to reproduce the City of London’s position as a major global financial centre by forging new strategic partnerships between private and public actors, connecting top-level political will to the practical challenge of making new markets on the ground.

What does the City’s geo-economic pivot to China tell us about the second major contemporary challenge that it faces, Brexit?  Firstly, it shows us that the City of London continues to be characterised by its adaptability, responding proactively to changing domestic and international conditions. This should place it well to respond to the challenges posed by Brexit, not least because in turning its geographical focus towards rising East Asian markets after the crisis, the City has already begun to reduce its dependence on traditional Western markets. But secondly, the case of the City’s pivot to Chinese finance also reveals the importance of concerted agency in reproducing the City’s standing as a global financial centre, building transnational strategic partnerships that draw together a diverse range of private and public institutions. Here, the leadership of the Corporation has been crucial, but it has only been possible because of government support put in place by Cameron and Osborne and continued under May and Hammond. The importance of this strategic agency is connected to the final clue for understanding the City after Brexit, which is that despites the structural predominance of the City of London within the UK’s political economy, its future status remains deeply contingent. Governmental support is crucial. So too is the support from its international partners, in this case Chinese elites.

The contingency of the City’s status speaks to something else: its increasing vulnerability. Much of its fate post-Brexit will be shaped by the level of British and foreign government support for its activities. This dependency on political goodwill, at a time when the structural foundations of the City’s international standing (its dominant role in offshore euro business) are facing grave challenges, highlights the profound vulnerability of the City.

Trading European markets for Chinese is not a simple switch. China is a very different partner for the City. It is a geopolitical rival of the US – Britain’s key NATO ally – and lacks the dense cooperative issue-linkages over wider policy areas that Britain has shared with the EU. Renminbi internationalisation has been gradual and halting, with offshore renminbi business only a tiny fraction of international euro business. The City has long mastered vulnerability through adaptation, but not all strategies of adaptation are equally secure. The City’s pivot to China is a uniquely vulnerable policy in a time of unique vulnerability.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in the Journal of British Politics and International Relations.

About the Author

Jeremy Green is Lecturer at Jesus College, University of Cambridge.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

The EU Withdrawal Bill raises questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the legislative process

The EU Withdrawal Bill’s return to the Commons saw SNP MPs protest about their voices having been excluded from the debate. Louise Thompson explains how parliamentary procedures can indeed restrict debate for smaller opposition parties, and considers whether something ought to be done about it.

Following the first session of the EU Withdrawal Bill’s return to the Commons, most newspaper headlines focused of the battle between Teresa May and the group of backbench Conservative rebels seeking concessions from the government about parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal. The front page of The National instead highlighted the lack of debate on the devolution clauses within the bill, which was limited to just 15 minutes, as well as the fact that only one SNP MP was able to speak. Just a few hours later, every single SNP MP walked out of the Commons chamber during PMQs in protest about this issue – and the Speaker’s refusal to allow a vote that the House sit in private to discuss it. It’s not unknown for the SNP to deploy tactics like this in the chamber and it raises interesting questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the Commons.

The parliamentary position of small “o” opposition parties

When it comes to opposition in the House of Commons, it’s easy to focus attention solely on the “Official” Opposition. But there are four (or five, or six) other opposition parties, depending on where you position the DUP and Sinn Fein. Just as parliamentary architecture in the Commons privileges a two-party system (with the green benches facing each other in adversarial style, the despatch boxes for the government and official opposition party only), parliamentary procedures also help to underpin a system which seems to prioritise the “Official Opposition”. Hence, the guarantee of questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time.

The SNP have some third party rights (thanks to the Liberal Democrats who for a long time battled with these same constraints), entitling them to two select committee chairs, two questions at every PMQs, and a guaranteed frontbench speech during the debate of motions, statements and bills. This guarantees them one speech on high-profile occasions, but nothing more (hence The National headline). When choosing other MPs to speak in debates, the Commons Speaker must bear in mind the balance of the parties in the House and, as such, most of the debate naturally moves between Labour and Conservative MPs. The SNP and other opposition parties must wait their turn, often only coming in at the very end of a long debate. Smaller opposition parties receive no guarantees of making a contribution.

If we consider parliamentary resources here too, the environment becomes even more challenging. The lack of numbers within these parties makes it difficult (and in most cases impossible) to assign a different party MP to cover each policy area. As such they are unable to ‘shadow’ government departments and ministers in the same way as the Official Opposition and one individual may need to master a whole series of policy briefs. Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards, for instance, covers four different briefs.

Short Money funding for parliamentary support is calculated on the number of seats and votes won in a General Election, with an extra pot of money available to support the Leader of the (Official) Opposition’s office.The SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru therefore receive a much smaller amount of funding – often pooling their resources in order to maintain some parliamentary support to enable them to carry out proper scrutiny. After the 2017 General Election, Green MP Caroline Lucas resorted to a crowdfunding campaign to try to maintain her parliamentary support following a fall in her party’s Short Money allocation. She wrote about how she needed to raise funds for her “amazing team” who “work behind the scenes to skewer Ministers with Parliamentary Questions … [and] scour Government files looking for wrongdoing”.

Trying to carry out an opposition role in the Commons – and to make a visible impact on scrutiny or holding government to account can be difficult. This explains why the SNP behaviour in the Commons can sometimes seem extreme. As a smaller opposition party they get much further by being very cohesive and by selecting very carefully the precise areas of legislation or government policy which they wish to target. For the EU Withdrawal Bill, this was quite naturally the clauses relating to the devolved regions. The SNP tabled a number of amendments and there was a high turnout of its MPs to debate them. By working together to walk out of PMQs as a party, they helped to highlight these issues relating to Scotland much more visibly than would have been the case had Ian Blackford left the chamber alone.

MPs aren’t equal when it comes to legislative scrutiny

The events of the last two days also highlight concerns about the position of MPs when it comes to scrutinising legislation. Concern about the time available for the scrutiny of legislation in the Commons is not new. Report stage is notoriously squashed, with hundreds of amendments often considered in a very short space of time. Just recently Lord Lisvane told the House of Lords Constitution Committee that there is often time for talk of policy vision (usually in the front bench speeches) but no time to actual discuss amendments to legislation. The consideration of Lords amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill was no different.

But once again, parliamentary procedures privilege the Official Opposition party and can hide the voices of smaller parties. The SNP frontbench spokesperson will have the opportunity to speak at the very start of the second reading debate on a bill, but beyond that there are no guaranteed speeches for smaller opposition parties. This pattern continues at committee stage. The SNP will have a couple of MPs appointed to a bill committee (depending on the committee size), but there is no guaranteed representation for small parties beyond this (see the committee stage of the Data Protection Bill for example).

Where a bill is receiving its committee stage on the floor of the Commons, things can become even more challenging. When the Article 50 bill had its committee stage debate in February 2017, the SNP’s frustration with their lack of voice in the debate (despite tabling a large number of amendments) led to a heated exchange between Alex Salmond, Joanna Cherry and Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle. When MPs came back for the second day of debate, the SNP’s Patrick Grady allowed a large number of his colleagues to intervene. Although this became quite comical, with SNP MPs not always being aware that they were about to be called to speak by their colleague, it enabled the party to get its point across very clearly. The minister even congratulated them on how well they had made their voice heard. And so it becomes understandable why the SNP (and other small parties) feel that they lack a voice when it comes to the scrutiny of Brexit.

Do we need a solution?

These are all tricky issues, particularly when we consider whether or not this is actually a problem. It’s not feasible to give every MP a say on all pieces of legislation. There simply isn’t enough time available. As Peter Grant said, if MPs were all given an equal say in the debates taking place on the Brexit legislation this week, “every MP would speak for about 10 seconds”. Nor is it in line with the nature of our parliamentary system, where great care is taken to ensure that rights and positions are distributed according to party balance. Where two parties dominate in terms of the number of seats held, the resulting rights can seem more extreme and unfair. But it becomes more complicated where MPs feel that they are representing not just their own constituents, but a much larger group of people, or indeed a nation. This is exactly where the SNP’s complaint about time comes in. As party leader, Ian Blackford said upon his withdrawal from the Commons at lunchtime “Scotland’s voice has not been heard’.

This is clearly an issue for the SNP, but it is not limited to them. Caroline Lucas, for instance, may represent the people of Brighton Pavilion, but as the only Green MP her voice can be seen to represent the half a million people who voted for the Greens in the General Election. She indicated as much in her maiden speech to the Commons in 2010, describing it as an ‘additional responsibility’. It’s an issue which we may see coming up again and again as Parliament navigates its way through the process of Brexit.


About the Author

Louise Thompson (@LouiseVThompson) is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Surrey. She currently holds an ESRC New Investigator Grant researching small parties in the UK’s parliaments (grant ref: ES/R005915/1).



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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