Posts Tagged ‘Featured’

In aid and development, Britain’s long-accumulated expertise is valuable to the EU

sebastian steingassBritain has historically been a leader in development and humanitarian aid, with the EU amplifying the value of its links with the Commonwealth and its global influence. The fall in the value of the pound has already shrunk its budgets. Brexit will sever some of the links British aid experts have spent decades cultivating, writes Sebastian Steingass (University of Cambridge). But it will make sense for the EU to bring the UK into decision-making, though collaboration is bound to be more ad hoc.

In development and humanitarian aid, the EU is the world’s leading donor. The size of Britain’s own sector – but also its accumulated skills – have given it a strong voice in shaping the direction of the EU’s development policies. Britons have had influential positions in the Brussels machinery – from the European Parliament to the European Investment Bank, the EU’s diplomatic service, and civil society. This includes, for instance, the chair of the European Parliament’s committee on development, Linda McAvan, MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, but also a series of less well-known figures in management positions. Britain’s civil society sector has been the second largest beneficiary of EU funding – after France – through grants and commercial contracts. As a result, Britons have been at the heart of discussions on development policies in Brussels. EU development cooperation has long improved against the measures set by subsequent UK governments and maintained a focus on poverty eradication.

eu aid worker ukraine

An EU aid worker in Ukraine, October 2017. Photo: European Union/ECHO/Oleksandr Ratushniak via a CC-BY-ND 2.0 licence

All this is now at stake. We will no longer benefit from the combined efforts of the EU, and collaboration will be reduced to ad hoc arrangements. Given the risk of a funding gap, British civil society was among the first to consider the consequences of Brexit for the UK development and humanitarian sector. The plunge in the pound’s value instantly shrunk the aid budgets of UK-based organisations. Further cuts are on the horizon: Oxfam’s Haiti scandal will have done little to alleviate them. Referring to a leaked EU document from December 2017, the Guardian reports that UK applicants will cease to receive funding in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. In any case, while Brexit may not be the end for UK-European civil society collaboration, receiving EU funding through grants and commercial contracts will become more difficult for UK-based firms and NGOs, and they will have less influence on EU policy-making and practice.

In contrast to civil society, the British government has largely remained silent. A long-awaited review of the performance of multilateral aid organisations to which Britain contributes financially was first delayed, and then largely circumvented the thorny issue of the relationship with the EU. Yet Britain’s public development sector also stands to lose from Brexit. Unlike other sectors, Britain’s development and humanitarian aid sector has eagerly and closely cooperated with its counterparts in Europe, and thereby pursued its global ambitions through the EU. Before the referendum, Linda McAvan had already expressed concerns about the UK’s ability to resolve international development challenges post-Brexit. Observers fear that the referendum result could signal a more inward-looking UK agenda, leading to aid cuts and buttressing trends in British development cooperation, such as spending aid outside the responsible department for international development.

Pro-Brexit commentators rightly insist that Britain will still be able to influence international development. Its know-how and global ties (including with the Commonwealth) and its strong representation in international organisations, as well as extensive public aid spending, are exceptional (the UK is the only major donor to have consistently achieved the globally-agreed aid-spending target of 0.7% of GNI). Moreover, the EU risks losing global influence too; after all, Britain’s departure risks the bloc’s position as the world’s leading aid donor. As a study for the European Parliament finds, EU aid may decrease by up to 3% and it could lose between 10% and 13% of its global aid share.

Yet EU development cooperation is more than the sum of its parts. It benefits from the special relationships its member states enjoy. For instance, the EU’s ties to the Commonwealth have become strong; the EU’s aid to Commonwealth countries has scaled up the UK’s own contribution significantly. Despite criticism and some setbacks, the EU has also learnt a lot in using coordination and its collective weight in international negotiations, exemplified during the negotiations towards a new global agenda for sustainable development. Because it is so much better coordinated than it used to be, the EU will remain an important player in international debates relevant for sustainable development, human rights and especially trade.

At the same time, the EU does risk becoming more inward-looking. Continued cooperation between the EU and the UK may help to prevent this. Avenues for policy coordination exist but they may be more ad hoc and depend on the goodwill of both sides. Britain’s financial commitments will continue after the day its membership ends. This also applies to aid, which is set for multiple years in advance. As a result, continued contributions to EU aid after Brexit, and potentially even after 2020, are likely. This  may come with limited say about how the money is spent. So it makes sense to involve Britain in policy coordination, especially on the ground. The EU has developed its own tools for the coordination of aid donors, which have long been lacking. While an EU member, Britain has actively advocated to keep EU coordination open to non-EU members.

The details of future cooperation have still to be settled: at the same time, the EU is working on a major overhaul of its development cooperation for the years after 2020. But stubbornness will not make it easier for those British professionals who have eagerly and closely collaborated with their European counterparts to continue their close engagement. Neither will barring the British development and humanitarian aid sector improve the EU’s development cooperation.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Sebastian Steingass is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Cambridge, researching Europe’s contribution to international development effectiveness.

Ground control to Theresa May – have we lost the signal?

Brexit means that Britain will lose access to two vital EU satellite programmes. They deliver key communications technologies to power Theresa May’s vision for a 4th industrial revolution. The loss of British participation in Galileo and Copernicus will undoubtedly affect British industry, including the satellite and communications sector, whose engineers have been leaders in the field for many years. It’s a failure to join the policy dots.  Monica Horten (LSE Media) asks whether the government has lost the signal?

Galileo and the Copernicus are leading edge programmes that deliver the benefit of satellite technology to industries and consumers on the ground. However, Britain risks losing access to both of them from March next year. Galileo provides satellite navigation services. Its applications are used to support all forms of transport – road, rail, sea and air, as well as precision agriculture. It is the only satellite navigation service that is civilian-controlled and not in the hands of a military organisation. Copernicus provides satellite-based monitoring services of the atmosphere, land, water and forests to help environmental research. Its services can be applied by policy-makers for planning purposes, as well as development of  applications to help with agriculture.

Between them Galileo and Copernicus include projects designed to benefit a range of industries including farming, aviation and maritime. Mobile phone users can get advanced location-based services. Safety on train services  and  responses by the emergency services can be improved. Moreover, security monitoring, including border control, can be augmented. Both are European Union projects. Galileo is managed by the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) Agency.  The Agency was first established in 2004 and was set up in its current form under  European Union law in 2010. The Copernicus project is managed by the European Commission. The space segment of the programme is operated by the European Space Agency and the ground segment by the European Environment Agency and the Member States.

Galileo arrival at Jupiter. Image by NASA (Public Domain)

As an EU Member, Britain has been able to participate in both of these high tech satellite programmes, but Brexit means it will have to leave them. Under the proposed Brexit transition arrangements,  Britain may not participate in any EU programmes, or take a lead role in any EU-funded organisation. In particular, the EU will no longer trust the UK with sensitive facilities. This will take effect from 29 March 2019. As a consequence, a key facility near Southampton is moving to Spain. This is the Galileo back-up site which the UK currently hosts. The decision to move the facility was taken by the Council of Ministers last July, and the move to Spain announced in January this year.

The interesting question is what this will mean for Britain’s proposed post-Brexit industrial policy. Theresa May said in her speech in Davos on 25 January this year  (as reported by Politico): “Imagine a world in which self-driving cars radically reduce the number of deaths on our roads. Imagine a world where remote monitoring and inspection of critical infrastructure makes dangerous jobs safer. Imagine a world where we can predict and prevent the spread of diseases around the globe,” adding  “These are the kinds of advances that we could see and that we should want to see.

Well, it’s difficult to imagine such a world without high tech satellite services that provide the very data needed to develop this vision. To take a couple of examples, Galileo provides more accurate location-based services for use in narrow streets and so-called ‘urban canyons’  Copernicus monitors solar radiation and provides health-related data on air quality.

The loss of British participation in Galileo and Copernicus means that British industry loses access to this type of new development. And it will be especially felt by Britain’s satellite and communications industries, whose engineers have been leaders in the field for many years. It would indeed seem that Mrs May and her advisers are out of signal.

This article also appeared on Iptegrity and it gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics. 

Dr Monica Horten is a trainer & consultant on Internet governance policy, published author and Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics & Political Science.

How can politicians build a case for action on climate change, when British voters aren’t interested?

Voters are simply not asking their representatives to act on climate. Rebecca Willis draws on interviews with MPs to find whether MPs can still construct a ‘representative claim’ and justify action on climate change. She identifies four different types of claims and explains why it is not straightforward for a politician to argue that action is in the interests of their electorate.

Scientists are clear that urgent action is needed on climate. At the Paris Summit, world leaders agreed to limit rises in global temperatures. And yet, climate change barely troubles domestic politics. As part of a collaborative research project with Lancaster University and Green Alliance, I have interviewed over 20 members of the UK parliament since 2015. One message has emerged with striking clarity: the electorate are not asking their representatives to act. In the words of one of my interviewees, “Voters don’t ask about it. We go out and knock on doors, and we speak to people, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked about climate change, ever.”

This is a fundamental dilemma for politicians. Most of them know what needs to be done. Yet they get their mandate from voters, who are not asking them to do anything at all. How can they square this circle?

The answer to this question boils down to the way in which political representation is understood. This is something that has been debated ever since the Ancient Greeks’ early experiments with democracy. In the UK parliamentary system, we tend to think about representation in terms of the electoral constituency. MPs represent the local area that elected them. But they are influenced, not controlled, by what their electorate tells them. They are representatives, not delegates. This is explained well by a new theory put forward by the political theorist Michael Saward. He argues that representation should be seen as a process of claims-making, in which the politician makes claims which are then accepted, rejected or ignored by the electorate. In short, representation is a dialogue. When an MP campaigns against a hospital closure, they are, in effect, saying “I am campaigning for local health services and this makes me a worthy representative of this area”. Saward calls this a “representative claim”.

Saward’s theory helps to explain how MPs might tackle a complex global issue like climate change. It’s a harder sell than the local hospital, that’s for sure. But my research shows that MPs develop ways of claiming that action on climate change is necessary. In my interviews with MPs, I encountered four different sorts of “representative claim”.

A cosmopolitan claim: This frames climate change a global problem to which a global solution is proposed. Politicians argue that it is in the interests of the global community to take action. As one interviewee told me, “a lot of the impacts of climate change are going to hit other places before they hit here. [My constituency] is not likely to be one of the first places to be hit particularly badly. So what? I just happen to be here.”

This claim has the advantage of acknowledging the global dimensions of the problem. Yet it has limited appeal, as another explained, given that many people “fundamentally care about themselves, their environment, their friends, their local space… We have these sort of massive big things about what will happen in other parts of the world… and they’re like, “yeah, ok, whatever”.” In short, this claim is often ignored.

A local prevention claim: Another strategy is to tailor the claim explicitly to a local setting, saying that action is necessary to prevent local impacts like flooding. One MP representing a flood-prone area told me that he used floods as a way of talking about wider climate impacts. This claim has the advantage that it links a global issue directly to the local area, and allows a politician to talk in terms of the interests of local people. As with the cosmopolitan claim, though, it does not link directly to a case for local action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A co-benefits claim: The most common strategy that interviewees reported was linking climate change to practical, achievable local actions, particularly economic measures, such as encouraging renewable energy generation, or improving transport infrastructure. This has the obvious advantage of relevance to the local area. As one MP told me, “I’m happy to use an economic argument if that means that more people will come on side… I change the language to be much, much less extreme.” The disadvantage of such a claim, though, is that it may reduce the opportunity to discuss the full implications of climate change, focusing instead on small steps at a local level.

A surrogate claim: A significant minority of MPs in my sample use an intriguing strategy, which I call the ‘surrogate claim’. This approach involves promoting local benefits, like public transport, or reduced congestion, with no mention of carbon savings or climate change. In this case, although the politician is privately thinking of a particular strategy in terms of its climate benefits, they deliberately do not mention this, because they think it would backfire. One judged that, if he had mentioned carbon emissions in arguing for a sustainable transport scheme, “there would have been a rolling of eyes and saying, ‘oh here he goes again’”.

These findings are relevant both for the way we understand representation, and for thinking about how we might tackle climate change. My study confirms that politicians construct their representative role in an active sense, as Saward describes. Politicians know that climate change requires political attention, and so they find ways of building a claim that is meaningful to the people they represent. Seeing representation in this way overcomes the vexed questions of whether politicians can or should represent nature or other species; people beyond their constituency; and over the long-term rather than a single electoral cycle.

The answer is deceptively simple: they can, and should, if they can make a representative claim which is accepted. Implicit in the theory, however, is the idea that some claims are harder than others to sustain; a claim like the cosmopolitan claim identified here, based on the long-term interests of a globalised humanity, will find it more difficult to gain traction than a claim which represents immediate local interests. Thus the theory provides a nuanced account of the way in which politicians conceptualise their role as a representative.

The research also points to ways in which politicians could be better supported. Demonstrating wide buy-in, from other interest groups beyond the environment community, will help to develop claims that are more widely accepted. Second, politicians might be tempted to use a surrogate claim, trying to get the right policies in place without seeking a mandate for action on climate. But such an approach is ultimately self-defeating, as it does not help to build the case.

Last, it’s both legitimate and necessary to think of all policies and actions in terms of whether they will build public support. Who will it appeal to? Does it help to make the wider case for action? It is only by making bold, positive claims that a political, as well as scientific, case for action on climate can be made.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Political Studies.

About the Author

Rebecca Willis is a Researcher in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University.




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.

Across the water: personal and political reflections on holding dual British-Irish citizenship

richard graysonAfter the Brexit vote, Richard S Grayson (Goldsmiths, University of London) became an Irish citizen, meaning that he has dual British-Irish citizenship. This was partly from his desire to retain a European identity. More importantly, it reflected a Northern Irish ancestry which, before and after partition, was intimately bound up with the rest of the island. He suggests that for those with ties to Ulster, holding dual citizenship may help to break down barriers between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Mid-morning on Christmas Eve 2016, I had what felt like a present in the post: my first Irish passport. I applied for citizenship of the Republic of Ireland in July 2016, like thousands of Britons, following the vote to leave the European Union. The first stage was obtaining my ‘foreign birth registration’, a document from the Irish authorities confirming my Irish citizenship on the basis of being born overseas to an Irish parent. When that appeared in November I rapidly applied for a passport.  The application was through my Grayson ancestry, using what is commonly thought of as a ‘grandparent rule’ (a grandparent born on the island of Ireland).  It is more accurately a ‘parent rule’: my Essex-born Dad was considered Irish by the Irish government since he had at least one Irish-born parent (actually both in his case).

My application came after the referendum, but was not only for that reason.  I did feel a profound sense of alienation from the majority opinion as reflected in the vote, and wanted to do something as an act of resistance against the Brexit vote. I also wanted to maintain a formal sense of being European, beyond the emotional one of cheering for Europe during the Ryder Cup. Many people have taken this step for pragmatic reasons, such as wanting shorter queues at airports. But I would have felt uneasy about applying for citizenship solely on those grounds. For me, taking dual citizenship had to mean being able to feel some sense of commitment to both states and their peoples.  In this case, I do. For the past seven years I have been working on a book about Dubliners involved in the First World War and the Irish Revolution. I have spent much time in the Republic of Ireland, feel a connection particularly to Dublin’s story and its people, and am at home in the city. But my legal connection makes the way I feel about all this more complicated.

lough neagh

Looking towards the north shore of Lough Neagh. Photo: Oisin Paternell via a CC-BY-SA .0 licence

The Grayson family roots are in Lurgan in Northern Ireland, not the state which issues the Irish passport.  The family story is of six Grayson brothers first going to Ireland as part of King William’s army over three centuries ago.  Family graves in Lurgan are more than two hundred years old, and we farmed the same land at Kinnego on the edge of Lough Neagh for nearly the same length of time. Grandfather Edward Grayson married Maud Powell, born in County Down, whose family claimed some Huguenot ancestry.  From then, it would scarcely be possible to construct a story covering more aspects of the Ulster Protestant narrative (though one Ulster great-grandmother was born into a Catholic family): mass family signing of the Ulster Covenant, a great-uncle in the 1913-14 Ulster Volunteer Force, and extensive service in the British military in the First World War, including on the Somme in 1916 in the iconic 36th (Ulster) Division.

So my personal identity is complicated. I am ‘from’ Hertfordshire: I was born there and have lived there most of my life. But there has long been an emotional connection in the family to Ulster and its link with Britain. Born in 1969, I was conscious at an early age of Ulster being unique, not only because of the Troubles. But my grandparents were pre-partition unionists and such people also had a wider connection to Ireland. My position was summed up by supporting England at cricket (note that England’s one-day team is now captained by a Dubliner) and Northern Ireland at football.  For a time, with a nod to my Mum’s family roots, I supported Scotland at rugby, but the anti-Englishness that sometimes involves was alarming, so I switched to Ireland years ago. My Dad died in 2009 so can’t give me his thoughts on all this, but he certainly had a multi-layered identity. One weekend during the Six Nations, I spoke to him on a Saturday when he said ‘We won’ of an Ireland match and then next day ‘We lost’ of England.

These complications raise significant cultural and political questions about someone from my family background holding dual British and Irish citizenship. If you support the Union and its continuation, is it plausible to be a citizen of two states, and show loyalty to both, when one was born out of rejection of the other?  If I couldn’t answer yes, I wouldn’t have applied for Irish citizenship because I was not fundamentally driven by the pragmatism which has driven many, even if Brexit prompted the timing. For me, some reference to the historic nature of unionism is necessary, whatever its contemporary tone might be. Just as Redmondite Irish nationalists sought devolution within the UK, not full independence, unionists historically recognised an all-Ireland dimension to their lives. Edward Carson did not seek partition at the outset of his campaign for the Union. In ways that are seen now most clearly seen in support for the all-Ireland rugby team (and other sports) and membership of the Church of Ireland, institutions intimately connected to pre-partition unionists were all-Ireland: from ‘Irish’ rather than ‘Ulster’ regiments of the British army, to Trinity College Dublin, and the Irish Times. Politically, some of this came back more than two decades ago, but said ever so softly. The Belfast or ‘Good Friday’ Agreement of 1998, for all the flaws of Stormont politics, deftly constructed greater all-Ireland cooperation on practical matters, accompanied by often underestimated changes to the Irish Republic’s constitution to reassure unionists.  So by having citizenship through my grandparents, I feel that I am regaining some kind of all-Ireland connection which they had, while not being any less British, nor signing up to a state which denies the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s connection to Britain. Loyalty to two states is possible when those states are no longer in conflict in the way they once were.

The future political significance of unionists in Northern Ireland being willing to hold Irish passports (which is complicated, but is happening) can only be speculative. But surely the fact of embracing some formal connection with the Republic, even if only pragmatically, opens up the prospect of changes on the island. One is that the act of holding an Irish passport might open minds to useful practical cooperation on more matters of economy and society than is already the case, even if that might just mean deeper working on agriculture and tourism. Another, and arguably more important emotional change, is that if more and more people hold two passports, those doing so are less likely to see ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ as mutually exclusive. That view has dominated life for the past century but was not the case prior to the First World War. A change could have profound effects on how unionists view the place of the Irish language in Northern Ireland, becoming less inclined to see development of the language as a gain for the ‘other side’, and perhaps even increasing engagement with it.

None of this will happen quickly, but could be unintended consequences of Brexit. So while Brexit might erect barriers between the UK and the continent which I hoped never to see, it could do something to break them down within these islands.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Richard S Grayson is Professor of Twentieth Century History at Goldsmiths, University of London. Dublin’s Great Wars: The First World War, the Easter Rising and the Irish Revolution is to be published by Cambridge University Press in the summer of 2018.

Referendums, though they may be political lifeboats, can be very bad for democracy

Britain has an uncodified constitution. No one is exactly clear – when is it proper for a government to hold a referendum? In the absence of clarity, all seek to take advantage, to the detriment of well-functioning democracy. Consequently, while referendums may be treated as political lifeboats, they can be very bad for democracy, argues Peter Wiggins


‘Boris Johnson has told friends that a “no” vote is desirable because it would prompt Brussels to offer a much better deal, which the public could then support in a second referendum. [Sunday Times, 28 June 2015, Tim Shipman]

“[A second referendum would be a] disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal,” he said. “Let’s not go there.” [Boris Johnson, 14 February 2018, speech on Brexit to Policy Exchange]

The 1975 referendum, which gauged whether the electorate supported the government’s campaign to stay in the European Community, was Britain’s very first referendum. The Labour Party was bitterly split on Europe, and by calling a national referendum, prime minister Harold Wilson aimed to heal the divide. Wilson, who had himself negotiated the terms of British entry to the European Community, won the vote. Wilson would later claim that the referendum provided “a lifeboat into which the whole Labour Movement could clamber.”

The story of 2016 is not very different. David Cameron had pledged to negotiate a new deal with the European Union and to call a referendum on EU membership on such new terms as he got. He sought once and for all to silence the Eurosceptic rebels in his party. For Cameron too, then, the referendum was a lifeboat, albeit a faulty one. Having lost the referendum, he resigned as prime minister.

Calling a referendum, it turns out, does not have anything, in particular, to do with constitutional principle. Rather, it’s about party management and political strategy.

Nor, it would seem, is a referendum a particularly good way of settling an issue. The ’75 referendum certainly didn’t settle the issue of Europe for long. Nor did the 2016 referendum: in its aftermath, the proposition that “the final deal will have to go back to the people” has built up a head of steam.  The pro-European Liberal Democrats included in their 2017 manifesto a commitment to put the government’s deal to a vote of the British people in a referendum “with the alternative option of staying in the EU on the ballot paper”.

For sure, it is now the remainers we can expect to see campaigning for another referendum. But in fact it’s not so long ago that one rather prominent Leave campaigner was making the same case. In June 2015, the fiercely anti-European Union Dominic Cummings, who went on to run the Vote Leave campaign, argued on his blog, that a second referendum on the deal would offer comfort to those inclined to vote leave but nervous of doing so. As he put it, “it seems likely that the parties will be forced by public opinion to offer a second vote, and therefore this could be turned to the advantage of NO.” Cummings was at least being honest at this point.

The blog made a bit of an impact. For the sake of his own ambition, Boris Johnson took up the idea for about ten minutes. And some political commentators got a bit excited. Simon Jenkins for one was keen. A second referendum, he argued in his Guardian column could “let a new Europe take root”.

At the time, many remainers laughed the idea away. This was the stuff of fantasy, surely. Ex-prime minister Cameron saw no chance of a new lifeboat – holding another vote “was not remotely on the cards”, he said. But remainers are no longer laughing. Now they cite recent polling, which suggests there is popular support for another referendum ‘on the deal’. Constitutional specialist Vernon Bognador seems to think it likely: he writes in the Guardian, “In March 2019, Tories may well come to the view that there is a stronger case for another referendum than they currently believe.”

Copyright Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Will Britain have another referendum? We might note that the bookies’ odds keep shortening, but it is very hard to know. It is also very hard to know what exactly the electorate would be asked if there was another referendum. Would it be simply “deal” (i.e. the government’s negotiated deal) versus “no deal”? If the electorate voted “no deal”, then would we need yet another referendum – “remain” versus “WTO rules”? Or would the second referendum include, as the Liberal Democrats wish, the option to “remain”? But wouldn’t that seem to undermine the result of the 2016 referendum? At any rate, if it were possible to vote remain, then it would have to be known that Article 50 can be revoked. And so far, no court has been willing to judge on that. So actually, it is not clear whether we can escape Brexit; nor, however, is it clear that any particular version of Brexit has a parliamentary majority. What was conceived as a lifeboat is proving to wreck the ship.

Paradoxical though it might seem, referendums can be very bad for democracy.

What a mess the 2016 EU referendum has made – and what a further mess a second referendum could yet make. The report ‘Brexit and public opinion’ by The UK in a Changing Europe shows how the 2016 referendum has become symbolic of all those issues Britons are divided on. Political identity in the United Kingdom is more and more bound up with the European Union. Increasingly citizens see themselves as ‘leavers’ or ‘remainers’. This, the report argues, has the potential to profoundly disrupt our politics in the years to come. A second referendum can seem most unwise. Paradoxical though it might seem, referendums can be very bad for democracy. They pit citizens against one another. By prioritising some areas of policy (e.g. the European Union) above others (e.g. the NHS), they can sap the life out of politics. Since 24 June 2016, nearly all government business appears to have been in a quasi-permanent state of ‘on hold’. Determined as they are to lead with Brexit, the media underplay important stories, letting Brexit dominate. And referendums, by impacting different parts of the country in different ways, can lead to regional resentment. Northern Ireland is no doubt the country most greatly affected by Brexit. Yet 56% of its population voted against.

If it seems as though the politicians and campaigners are making it up as they go along, then that’s because they are. In the Briefing Paper for the 2016 Referendum Bill, MPs were told, ‘The UK does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented’. Yet the British public were told, in a leaflet sent to every household in the country, “This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide”. Referendums expose cynicism too. The Liberal Democrats were against the referendum held in 2016; but, having lost it, they now want one. Meanwhile, Mr Cummings and Mr Johnson were in favour of a second referendum; but having won the 2016 vote, they are now against.

If the UK must be a home to national referendums, there are so many important issues that need to be addressed, and the UK would surely do well to codify its constitution. As things stand, no one is clear — when is it proper for a government to hold a referendum? Are there issues on which governments should be required to hold a referendum? And we might ask about thresholds for turnout and/or for the needed majority, as is common in other established western democracies. We might want to consider requiring that for a change to take place via a referendum that that all four of the UK’s nations give it some minimum level of support.

It’s too late to avoid the present mess. But let us not be ruled by misjudged opportunism in the future.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics.

Peter Wiggins has a B.A. in Politics from the University of Sussex and a postgraduate diploma in Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. For the last five years, he has worked in public affairs and stakeholder engagement, and he currently works as a consultant at a small charity, the Learning Skills Foundation.

Sport and Britishness: the politics of the 2018 Winter Olympics

Although primarily about medal tables, Olympism, and human interest stories, the Winter Olympics have much to say about the representation of national identities in contemporary sport, writes John Harris. He reflects on the politics of the 2018 Winter Olympics.


There’s always the sport. Or so people say, more and more often, as they become sadder about what is happening to the rest of television (Raymond Williams)

Raymond Williams was right, and his words seem even more pertinent now. Taking part in the Olympic Games is the dream of athletes in a range of sports and represents the pinnacle of many sporting careers. Despite the ideology of Olympism, merely taking part is no longer always enough. The medal table becomes ever more visible in a variety of media across a whole host of nations and for athletes from Great Britain and Northern Ireland (GB&NI) the rewards attached to national lottery funding means that there is an increased pressure to perform.

For us armchair Olympians, the comprehensive coverage from Pyeongchang (South Korea) across the BBC offers the opportunity to watch sports that might only capture the imagination once every four years.  As the athletes do well, we get to learn more and more about individuals, and claims and counter-claims are likely to be made about the nation. As always, the curling teams will be made up entirely of women and men who compete for Scotland in the World Championships, but for Great Britain & Northern Ireland in the Olympic Games. Being both Scottish and British is something that many are comfortable with, but is a topic that gets significant coverage when it comes to sport.

The human interest stories and the dramatic events contribute to make the Olympics a kind of soap opera. The 2016 Great Britain and Northern Ireland team was celebrated for the number of openly gay athletes in the group, the number of couples taking part, and the six sets of siblings that wore the Team GB colours. The winter Olympians are not as diverse a collective but they wear the same colours and sporting success can be widely celebrated in a number of ways.

The British media focus in the summer of 2016 moved on from the stories of major health concerns and social unrest to concerns about how the diving pool turned from blue to green. Williams once noted the compulsive talk before and after a big event, the type of chat that has always surrounded sport but is reshaped by the studio ritual. There is even more studio talk about sport now and success for GB&NI in Pyeongchang will be framed around the wider socio-political sphere in much of the media coverage.

The then-Prime Minister David Cameron described London 2012 as the time that ‘patriotism came out of the shadows’. The decision on Brexit and continued uncertainty as to what the future holds means that the landscape has altered markedly since 2012. Yet whilst some things change, some things remain the same.

The Great Britain and Northern Ireland team won more medals than expected in 2016 as there is usually a spike in medal success when a nation hosts an Olympics and a fall thereafter. Four years earlier the negative press surrounding the so-called ‘Plastic Brits’ disappeared as soon as many of these athletes who were born outside of the country performed well. Research on the print media reporting of London 2012 showed that a progressive, benign version of Britishness was most visible in the narratives of the nation. The successes and failures of ‘our’ athletes become an important point of departure for discussions of broader political issues.

Sport is often used as a tool for political means. Mega-events like the Olympic Games are never just about sport but much of this is politics with a ‘small p’. Of more significance here in 2018 is that a Korean team has been part of the games in Pyeongchang as North and South Korea came together in the women’s ice-hockey competition. China and the USA will keep a close eye on how the other is performing in the all-important medal-table and there will be continued debate on the place of Russian athletes in the Olympics. In 2022 the games will take place in Beijing as it becomes the first city to host both the summer and winter Olympic Games.

The Winter Olympics have not always been looked upon favourably by the British media. For many years there was little to celebrate in terms of the number of medals won and there was limited support for athletes competing in activities often described in derogatory or sarcastic terms. With increased funding and a clear focus on the podium then we are now in a very different era and sports that do not do well face significant cuts to the funding they receive from UK Sport.

It is often said that sport is a reflection of society and the Olympic Games are also a story about athletes of all shapes and sizes. But the event also offers an important window into the idea of ‘Britishness’ and the (re)presentation of national identities in contemporary sport. The winter Olympics may not have the same global appeal as the summer event but as a means of discussing identities, and as a site for boosting national prestige, it still has a visible presence.


About the Author

John Harris is Associate Dean Research in the Glasgow School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University. His publications include Rugby Union and Globalization (Palgrave Macmillan).

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. 


Book Review: A Research Agenda for Neoliberalism by Kean Birch

In A Research Agenda for Neoliberalism, Kean Birch seeks to bring clarity to the ubiquitous use of ‘neoliberalism’ as a term in academic and popular discourse, looking at how analysts from across the political spectrum have understood this concept. The book does a valuable job of establishing the contours of existing discussions of neoliberalism, finds Christopher May, and would be an excellent resource for readers within and beyond the academy. 

A Research Agenda for Neoliberalism. Kean Birch. Edward Elgar Publishing. 2017.

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Neoliberalism has become a term that is more often used than fully understood in academic discussions, popular writings on the economy and/or the news media. There is a large and growing library of books on the subject, yet still students from undergraduate to PhD level, as well as academics and other commentators, use the term as if we all knew what it meant, and as a catch-all prejudicial accusation levelled at any aspect of the contemporary political economy they find unacceptable or malign.

In this new book, A Research Agenda for Neoliberalism, Kean Birch seeks to do something about this situation. Across three sections, Birch seeks to define neoliberalism, survey the current debates that problematise such attempts at definition and set out three strands for future research. As Birch notes immediately, the book is not intended to be about neoliberalism, but rather how we – by which he means analysts from across the political spectrum – understand neoliberalism. Self-avowedly approaching the subject as someone who is ambivalent about the concept and sceptical of its analytical utility, Birch sets himself the challenge of trying to rescue something of interest from debates about neoliberalism.

Birch first attempts to assemble a history of the idea of neoliberalism. This is made all the harder because those now most often identified by their critics as neoliberals (such as the attendees of the World Economic Forum last month, or Birch argues, economists like Robert Frank or Steven Levitt) generally avoid the term altogether. Birch’s survey of a range of various attempts to establish a – or the – history of neoliberalism leads him to identify eight interweaving strands: the Austrian; British; Chicago (I); Chicago (II); French; Italian/Bocconi; Ordoliberal/Freiburg; and Virginia strands. While some might disagree as to which ‘schools’ really are neoliberal – for instance, there is considerable debate about the fit between ordoliberal approaches and other neoliberalisms – equally this mapping is unlikely to find anyone complaining that a particular element has been omitted. Birch then takes the reader through his explanation of different ways of ‘thinking like a neoliberal’ by exploring how the market is conceived (and facilitated/supported) in various approaches. Central to his account is the neoliberal argument that far from being natural, the market as an economic allocation mechanism needs to be constructed and supported by state actions and, most obviously, legal institutions.

Image Credit: Hong Kong Stock Exchange, 2013 (See-ming Lee CC BY 2.0)

Having established the historical contours of neoliberalism, Birch then moves to examine analyses of neoliberalism. Noting that there is a common tendency (especially in more journalistic accounts) to criticise a neoliberal straw man, he again sorts through the academic literature to find seven main perspectival clusters: Michel Foucault and governmentality; Marxism and class analysis; ideational analysis; the history and philosophy of economics; institutional analysis; state theory and the regulation school; and neoliberalisation, human geography and the processual perspective. Although quite short sub-sections, each contains a useful guide to representative literature and a thumbnail sketch of the analytical commitments shared by those collected together in each cluster. As will be clear from this summary of its first half, the text is certainly an excellent resource, and will provide those with a wide range of books and articles on their shelves with some useful taxonomical hints and tips. However, for the neophyte arriving at neoliberalism having perhaps been mystified by the term’s use, this will have been a swirl of information that may merely cause such a reader to put their head in their hands.

Possibly anticipating this response, Birch’s next chapter discusses the ambiguities and tensions within these debates to try and explain why the field looks how it does. However, as Birch concludes, if you are going to use the term in your writing, it is not now possible to merely shrug and ignore these issues: rather, what is required, as he consistently argues, is a clear understanding of one’s own definition of neoliberalism. At this point, if you have developed a good idea about what you think neoliberalism is and are comfortable with its complexity, you might be wondering what you can do with your newfound appreciation. Therefore, the final section of the book asks what new areas of research into neoliberalism might prove most fruitful and constructive.

Firstly, Birch argues that neoliberalism has a problem with the corporation (and specifically corporate monopolies). While early neoliberals had regarded all monopolies as suspect be they corporate- or labour-based, later neoliberals have focused mainly on the monopoly effects in labour (i.e. unionisation), and have been relatively relaxed about market distortions flowing from monopolistic or oligopolistic corporate control of markets. Rather than lead political economic developments like the rise of the finance sector or the dismantling of anti-trust regulations, neoliberals have actually merely followed a corporate-led agenda of social transformation. Thus, what is required is a much more nuanced and detailed account of how neoliberalism has both been facilitated by the rise of big business, but also how it has legitimated and supported such developments (for instance, via business schools), and why.

Using a similar logic, Birch’s second research theme asks a related set of questions about the normative triumph of entrepreneurship and the (re-)establishment of a rentier economy. Finally, he argues, too often accounts of neoliberalism and the law have focused on the centrality of property rights, when actually what is required is a much more detailed understanding of the role of contract law in modern capitalism and how neoliberals have sought to use contracts as a tool for the depoliticalisation of economic relations.

Overall then, Birch’s book is full of valuable detail and insight: it is hardly a substitute for many of the works he cites, but it does an important job of establishing the contours of the discussion of neoliberalism in such a way that anyone reading it will be unlikely to lapse into the lazy straw man forms of commentary which remain all too evident both within and beyond the academy. If this book were a paperback then it would be an excellent purchase for any students on degrees or postgraduate programmes with substantial elements of political economy. As it is, if you are teaching political economy, you would likely find this a remarkably useful book to have on your desk (even at the current hardback price).


Note: This post was originally published on our sister site LSE Review of Books.

About the reviewer

Christopher May is Professor of Political Economy at Lancaster University, UK. His most recent book is Global Corporations in Global Governance (Routledge 2015) and he is currently editing The Edward Elgar Research Handbook on The Rule of Law (2017). He has published widely on the interaction between law and political economy, and wrote the first independently authored study of the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

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. 

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