Posts Tagged ‘Featured’

5 June update: How about September?

The gridlocked Brexit talks may be kicked into the long grass, write Ros Taylor and Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz (LSE).

The bad news? No progress in Brexit talks. “Our lack of progress in these negotiations is not due to the method, but the substance,” Michael Barnier said today, adding that the UK had ‘backtracked‘ on the Political Declaration.

The good(ish) news? There’s no point in worrying about it until September, when the EU (and Angela Merkel, since Germany will by then hold the EU presidency) will call in Boris Johnson to get a deal done. That’s the gist of the Guardian’s report, which points out a summit is due on 15 October.

Persuading people that a last-minute deal is feasible would, of course, ease the pressure to agree an extension to the transition period by the end of June. That isn’t the FINAL FINAL deadline, but it is the easiest to obtain, according to a comprehensive Institute for Government briefing on the subject. It points out, as many others have, that businesses need time to prepare for a no-deal outcome, particularly after the blow of COVID-19.

Photot: Lyza via a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

Which regions would suffer most? A report by the Social Market Foundation finds the north-west and Midlands would be most exposed to the ‘double economic hit’.

Economic democracy: We must restructure the economy, not return it to its pre-COVID-19 state

Felix FitzRoy and David Spencer highlight some fundamental problems of UK economic policy, as exposed and exacerbated by the lockdown. They write that, alongside the temporary emergency measures adopted, there is an urgent need for wider reforms, based on the goal of promoting economic democracy.

The COVID-19 crisis has presented clear challenges for UK economic policy. It has meant the state intervening in the economy in unprecedented ways, such as through the implementation of a ‘furlough’ scheme. But the concern is that current economic policy is limited. Many workers still face unemployment, with little help from the state. Many others face having to get by in low-paid, unsafe work conditions. For all the talk of ‘key’ workers, there remains no serious effort to regulate work and to combat low pay.

There is also concern that emergency economic policies will be reversed too quickly. Doubts remain about the longevity of furloughing, for example. More generally, the spectre of austerity still looms over economic policy. Higher public spending could still be scuppered, under a false and dangerous insistence on bringing down the deficit. Further, there is the wider concern that current policy is about returning to ‘business as usual’. In this case, the need and opportunity will be missed to rebuild the economy. Indeed, the danger is that the same inequalities that existed before the crisis will be magnified and increased in the future.

 In a new paper, we highlight the problems of current economic policy in the UK. We also outline various measures (including an emergency universal basic income and a Green New Deal) that could be used immediately to support those worst affected by crisis. But we also propose wider reforms that, if enacted, would help to create a more sustainable economy – one that would offer not just greater prosperity, but also the conditions for higher wellbeing. These reforms are based on the goal of promoting economic democracy.

Unequal economic power

The crisis has shown the fragilities of the economic system. In particular, it has shown the precarious nature of work – many workers have faced redundancy without adequate economic and social protection. Unemployed workers face the prospect of meagre benefits, issued through a welfare system that is not designed to accommodate high unemployment.

The crisis has also exposed the inequalities in work. Firms remain places where workers’ interests are secondary. Human resource management reduces labour to a cost. Workers, in turn, are treated as bundles of human capital. In work, workers face having to do tasks that are required by employers and have limited autonomy over their work. Hence, in the crisis, firms have decided to furlough workers. Decisions on when workers come to work are also still left with employers.

An exception is the ‘gig economy’, where individuals are forced (by their own material deprivation) to work in order to live. Choice here obscures a dependency on work and exposure to chronic low pay.

The issue for us is that discussion of reforms in the crisis has missed the need to challenge the power inequalities in the economy. To the contrary, policies implemented thus far seem to be about restoring power for the already powerful. But challenging power is vital for recovery and renewal beyond the crisis.

Here there are different policy options, from higher progressive taxes to the introduction of new bailout schemes that make finance for quoted companies conditional on equity stakes. One way forward would be to ensure that, where government grants financial support to firms, it does so with the requirement that the firms adopt meaningful co-determination and profit sharing. A new social contract could be implemented with the government requiring firms that receive support to democratise work and share surpluses. Such a requirement could pave the way for general legislation for economic democracy, a long overdue, fundamental reform recently supported by thousands of scholars in The Guardian.

The guiding principle must be to restructure the economy, not return it to its pre-crisis state. Key objectives should be the empowerment of workers in firms and the shift in governance away from shareholder value capture. Only then can we seek progressive change, including higher pay and better working conditions, but also shorter work time and greater human freedom.

Political obstacles and opportunities

But in advancing radical change, there are political obstacles to overcome. There are always some groups that lose out from fundamental reform, and business lobby groups, in particular, are likely to push for a return to the status quo ante. Conservative politicians will also resist change.

The economist, Michal Kalecki, in a famous article published in 1943, wrote about the political obstacles to full employment. Capitalist employers required unemployment to retain the effectiveness of ‘the sack’. They also wanted to retain their ability to exercise control over the economy. While capitalist employers would benefit from higher profit in the event of the government pursuing full employment policies, they would still resist such policies because of the political effects of the policies on their right to manage.

But the political obstacles identified by Kalecki alert us to the reforms required in work and society more generally. In bringing democracy to the workplace, cooperation can be secured, without the threat of unemployment. And with society organised on principles of democracy, not rule by capital owners and their representatives, there is scope to achieve high surpluses with full employment.

In the present crisis, there is the risk of unemployment becoming entrenched, centralising power and preventing democratic change. Again this is where reform is needed, both to challenge and reform power relations. In this way, the crisis opens up space for a different politics – one where economic democracy is enhanced.

J.M Keynes, in another classic essay, wrote positively about the economic possibilities for the future. Writing in the depth of the Great Depression, Keynes looked forward to a time when abundance would replace need and free time would replace drudgery. The parallels with the present are stark. Hence Keynes wanted his reader to think beyond the crisis – indeed, he wanted his reader to keep alive the idea of – and strive for – a better future. Now, we can argue that a similar optimism is needed in order to reconstruct the economy.

A missing aspect of Keynes’s essay was the idea of democratic reform in work. Keynes was confident – if unrealistically so – that capitalist employers would pass on the benefits of productivity growth to workers. What he failed to note was how capitalism would require deeper reform to realise the kind of shared future he wanted to achieve. Here Kalecki was more conscious of the changes required to transform society for the better.

The general point is that while the crisis creates hardship, it also offers an opportunity to rethink how we organise work. Conservative politics will try to hold back necessary reform to conserve concentrated power, privilege, and wealth, but that only illustrates the need for such reform to occur. In the end, there is no other way to live better than to democratise the institutions that govern the way we work.


About the Authors

Felix FitzRoy is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of St. Andrews.




David Spencer is Professor at the University of Leeds.




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: by Ross Findon on Unsplash.

The Brexit car crash: using EH Carr’s What is History? to explain the result

Justin Frosini (Bocconi University) and Mark Gilbert (Johns Hopkins University) draw on EH Carr’s seminal What is History? to consider the root causes of Brexit. They identify three key factors: a British preoccupation with parliamentary sovereignty, the role of the media and the impact of migration from Central Europe.

The Brexit vote was the result of a confluence of several social and political causes – though the debate over parliamentary sovereignty, which burst into flame when Britain applied to join the ‘Common Market’ and has never been doused since, permeated all of them. The prolonged debate over sovereignty is crucial, since it explains why 17.4 million British citizens not only voted to leave, but in many cases manifestly rejected the EU even as an ideal.

The State Opening of Parliament in December 2019, shortly before the UK left the EU. Photo: UK Parliament. ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Why were so many British voters adamant that the EU was a superstate taking away fundamental rights? One answer might simply be that there are an awful lot of deluded nationalist bigots in Britain. But this is implausible. Brexit voters are ordinary, mostly lower middle and working class people who live in England’s rural towns and villages, the industrial heartland, the ports. They are Victor Meldrews, not Viktor Orbans. They voted for both John Major and Tony Blair not so long ago. Yet millions of them celebrated when Britain voted to leave in 2016 (and again on Brexit night in January 2020). Why?

The June 2016 referendum result was a car crash waiting to happen. We do not use the metaphor casually, since the methodological frame for our paper was provided by EH Carr’s use, in What is History?, of a road accident to explain historical causality. Carr examines the case of Robinson, who is knocked down while crossing at a blind corner where ‘visibility is notoriously poor’ by Jones, who is returning from a party where he has ‘consumed more than his usual ration of alcohol’, and is driving a car whose brakes are defective (Carr 1973: 104–5).

What is the cause of Robinson’s death? Jones’ drunkenness? The blind corner? The faulty brakes? The answer, of course, is that these causes fatefully combined. As Carr says, ‘the historian deals in a multiplicity of causes’ and the ‘relative significance of one cause or one set of causes or of another, is the essence of (a historian’s) interpretation’ (Carr 1973: 103). Most historians do ultimately identify one cause or set of causes that ‘in the final analysis’ they regard as overriding in any particular case (Carr 1973: 90). In the case of Brexit, the sovereignty debate is ours.

Of course, chance and human agency played a part in the accident, too. Jones might have knocked someone else down five minutes earlier. Robinson ought to have looked right and left before he crossed the road. Carr insisted, however, that we should not waste excessive time on happenstance. Scholars should construct their explanations primarily around ‘generalisable causes’. They should isolate the crucial socio-economic, intellectual, institutional, and political variables of any given case and suggest how they combined over time to produce a particular result.

The three generalisable causes that we concentrate on are

(1) the deep-rooted conviction that EU membership was incompatible with the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty;

(2) the role of the press;

(3) mass migration into a society that was already experiencing serious problems with social injustice.

We emphasise that the Brexiters’ slogan Take Back Control was a very effective way of summarising in plain English a 50-year debate about how entering the Common Market/European Union would adversely affect one of the pillars of the British constitutional system, i.e. parliamentary supremacy. Of course, this is not a debate unknown in other European countries (think of the judgment handed down by the German Federal Constitutional Court a few weeks ago), but it is particularly poignant in the UK because the sovereignty of Parliament has a similar significance to the British as postwar constitutions have for the Germans and Italians: though, of course, parliamentary sovereignty is centuries older and intrinsically bound up, for some, with a particular notion of British national identity. One of the huge paradoxes of Brexit, however, is that a campaign whose mainspring was giving back control to the British Parliament has damaged parliamentary sovereignty by enhancing popular sovereignty. In fact, mixing a classic representative democracy with an instrument of direct democracy such as a referendum gives rise to an unpalatable cocktail where the “taste” of direct democracy is overpowering. Whoever would have imagined the Daily Telegraph opening with the headline “Judges versus the people” after the famous High Court judgment concerning the triggering of Art. 50 TEU?

This leads us to the role of the press. We contend that, especially after the fall of Thatcher in 1990, the Eurosceptic press used a water torture method to disparage anything “European,” be it the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union, or even the European Court of Human Rights, which of course is not even an EU body. Though some headlines were amusing if you share the British sense of humour, they were part of a strategy to intimate that British freedom was in peril. In a nutshell, the tabloids played an important part in achieving Brexit by raising the profile of the issue of lost sovereignty with public opinion.

Large-scale migration, in particular from CEE countries following the 2004 enlargement, was grist to the mill. Many British people believed that their government and parliament no longer controlled their country’s border. This sentiment was exploited during the referendum by an electoral poster, redolent of Nazi propaganda, showing an endless queue of refugees, and by fake news claims that Turkey was on the brink of joining the EU. Again, however, the issue of EU migration was not a compartmentalised cause, but one that added fuel to the burning question of parliamentary supremacy. Brexit was perceived to be about the most fundamental question of politics: who rules?

The reference to fake news underlines a key element of contingency in the Brexit process. The Brexiters were more ruthless and more committed than the Remainers. Farage, Johnson and Gove were ideologues and Machiavels. The Cameron government, by contrast, was complacent about the result and fearful of the damage a Remain vote would have done to party unity. The campaign swung decisive votes to the Brexit camp.

We acknowledge that the weight of causation might be placed elsewhere. In What is History? Carr argued that historical interpretation is like looking at a mountain: it looks different from every angle of vision (Carr 1973: 26–27). Cultural causes such as the English habit of defining themselves against a continental ‘Other’ (Spiering 2014), or the role of imperial nostalgia both mattered. The strange death of British social democracy mattered too. We mention David Goodhart’s emphasis on the cleavage between ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’ (Goodhart 2017). These are all legitimate ‘generalisable causes’ which other scholars might weigh heavily in the balance.

We plead guilty to sketching the mountain from one angle in particular. But this angle is an important one, since the sense of liberation that many voters genuinely felt on 24 June 2016, and the tenacity with which Brexiters have since resisted compromise, is inexplicable unless you look at Brexit from this point of view.


Carr, EH (1973). What is History? London: Pelican.
Goodhart, D (2017). The Road to Somewhere, London: Penguin.
Spiering, M (2014). A Cultural History of British Euroscepticism, London: Palgrave.

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

UK-China relations: Labour need to communicate a consistent and clear stance toward China, now

Declan McDowell-Naylor explains why the Labour Party need to take a clearer stance towards China. While the issue is complex and good policy takes time, he writes that Labour must at least make it clear in what direction their policy will head in the weeks to come.

The Labour Party are currently without a recognisable foreign policy on China. Simultaneously, Western relations with China has emerged rapidly as a central issue in recent weeks, amid the coronavirus pandemic, and there are now signs that Sinoscepticism is set to sweep through British politics. It is therefore crucial for Labour that they clearly communicating their stance, as they seek to establish political credibility under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer.

These signs of change have come thick and fast. The EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borell has called for ‘a more robust strategy for China’ and for ‘collective discipline’ against China’s attempts to divide the bloc’s members over it. In May, the right-wing think tank, The Henry Jackson Society, published a report in which it called for an end for the UK’s ‘strategic dependency’ on China. In April, a group of Conservative MPs formed the China Research Group, led by the vocal chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat. In terms of public mood, recent polling by YouGov in May suggests that nearly 47% of the British public see a Chinese superpower as a ‘threat for Britain’; in an April poll, 51% said that the coronavirus outbreak had negatively impacted their view of China; in August, just 2% had a positive view of Xi Jingping, although 36% either didn’t know who he was or had no view.

Of course, It would be unfair to expect Labour to immediately provide a fully formed policy. But clearly, Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy as Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Stephen Kinnock as Shadow Minister for Asia and the Pacific are under pressure to make it clear in what direction Labour’s policy position will head, not least because of the impending issues of a new UK review into Huawei’s role in British 5G networks and the Hong Kong crisis. What Starmer, Nandy, Kinnock, and even Ed Miliband (as Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) say now will have important implications for Labour’s credibility and governing ambitions. By communicating effectively now, despite lacking a policy, Labour can boost its diplomatic profile at this pivotal moment.

However, Labour’s shadow ministers will need to present their message carefully and clearly. As Labour’s ambivalent Brexit position during the previous election showed, there are lessons to be learnt here. A good message is key, because the UK has many relevant interests to balance, which Labour will recognise. There is extensive Chinese investment in the UK, ongoing trade negotiations with the United States (which is hostile to China), and (despite Brexit) Britain’s inherent relations with an EU now itself revising its stance. There is also NATO, the climate crisis (to which China’s coal plants are key), and of course, Hong Kong. Moreover, Starmer, with a background as a human rights lawyer, will be well aware of the Uighur people being held in Chinese internment camps. In the face of these sensitive issues, and without a policy brief, there may be an urge to stay quiet or just criticise the government. But this would be a mistake. As Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has remarked, when it comes to the US and China, the ‘pressure to choose sides is growing’.

Fortunately for Labour, their Foreign Secretary, Lisa Nandy, has so far been a good communicator of complex issues, and has shown her ability to tackle serious and sensitive issues, such as the death of Harry Dunn. But what is her position? A recent New Statesman article covering Nandy’s foreign policy views did not even mention China. In her first newspaper interview as shadow Foreign Secretary, she told The Guardian that China’s actions, ‘should give us cause for concern, and they should make us much more vigilant’, adding, however, that ‘there is no global problem that you can solve without China’. In a further interview with The Independent, Nandy stated that barriers to the Chinese government were ‘very long overdue’, and gave the clear statement that ‘We’ve got to have a much more strategic approach to this, not least because there is no global problem that can be solved without the involvement of China […] So as well as having much more strategic independence, we’ve got to have a constructive relationship.’

Labour’s foreign policy spokesman on China, Stephen Kinnock, has been firm about the issue. He recently stated that China is presenting itself as an alternative to democracy and that it has taken advantage of the UK economically. He also spoke in opposition terms, calling David Cameron’s efforts at economic diplomacy an ‘an abject failure’. Similarly, Nandy has called Cameron’s approach ‘naïve’ and lacking a ‘coherent foreign policy’. This clearly signals a shift in Labour’s thinking and a willingness to be critical. But what will be key is cutting through and successfully connecting Labour’s own policy to improving its governing credentials.

This issue also plays into national identity. Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition commissioner, has said that Europe needs ‘to be more assertive and confident about who we are’, in relation to China. But how does this sentiment play out in a post-Brexit UK? For Labour, the rhetorical adoption of a Sinosceptic position must be weighed up against the potential prejudice it invites towards Chinese immigrants and their British-born descendants. This is a vital lesson from the Euroscepticism movement. Between April 2019 and January 2020, the public’s positive opinion of Chinese immigrants fell, and negative opinion rose. It is worth remembering, too, that Nandy won the support of Chinese for Labour during the leadership election. Whilst rebuilding trust with the Jewish community, the party cannot find itself even remotely in a similar position with the Chinese community.

In cold electoral terms, the strategic opportunity for Labour in having a consistent and clear policy on China is enormous. There are splits within the Conservative Party on China; a growing Sinosceptic faction being led by influential figures such as Iain Duncan Smith and Tom Tugendhat, set against the legacy of David Cameron’s ‘golden era’ and its recent supporters, including Boris Johnson. Nandy has referred to this split as ‘quite damaging’ to UK interests. Thus, a strong, clear, and consistent China policy would be an emphatic wedge that Labour could deploy over the course of the next Parliament, on an issue that may cause tensions within the Conservative Party. Interestingly, there have been suggestions that the China Research Group is in talks with Labour to develop a bipartisan policy on China with Labour.

But the question remains stark: what will this crucial policy eventually be? Here, the devil is the detail. Whilst the strategic benefits of having a clear China policy are easy to understand, the fine print of such a policy is anything but. The more pressing question is nevertheless how Labour will lay the groundwork for it in the weeks to come when the issue is pertinent, and people are paying attention. Kinnock’s vocal support of measures like those in Germany, where the government has approved new laws to prevent foreign takeovers of medical companies is sensible, but also puts Labour on the front foot. Promoting closer ties with East Asian democracies such as South Korea and Japan would offer the same. More controversially, supporting reshoring would offer a way for Labour to promise manufacturing jobs to voters – or risk losing them if investment is withdrawn.

Good policy takes time, nobody can disagree with that. But Labour cannot hide behind that, and Nandy has promised that ‘Labour will take a view’ on Huawei as it comes to Parliament. As time goes on, Starmer will be in less of a position to conduct his forensic dispatch box routine and be under increasing pressure to begin explaining his own party’s position.


About the Author

Declan McDowell-Naylor is Research Associate in the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff 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: by chuttersnap on Unsplash.



Welsh independence: can Brexit awaken the sleeping dragon?

Wales is the only devolved nation within the UK that has never caused a stir in constitutional terms, to the UK’s territorial structure. This is because Welsh independence has remained largely a dormant political issue, both within Wales and within the wider UK context. Can Brexit awaken the sleeping dragon, asks Darryn Nyatanga (University of Liverpool)?

Brexit does present the opportunity to awaken real discussion on the potential of  Welsh Independence. This can be attributed to two reasons, firstly – independence could be the only way to ensure Welsh interests are met after Brexit. Also, there has been a growth in sub-state nationalism within the UK, exposed by the Brexit referendum and the withdrawal process, highlighting the point that the UK is united in name only.

Welsh nationalism

The agenda for Welsh independence can only arguably be pushed by a strong sense of nationalism. This is the case in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, nationalism has been spearheaded by the SNP. Scottish independence (and Scottish home rule – before the introduction of devolution in 1998) has long been the main objective for the SNP since its genesis. In the case of Northern Ireland, two main forms of national identity exist; British and Irish. The latter identity challenges the status quo of the UK’s unitary nature. Irish nationalism in political terms is spearheaded by Sinn Fein, who advocate for the constitutional status of Northern Ireland to change i.e. Irish (re) unification. Within the Welsh context, however, there is a deficiency in terms of nationalism when compared to the other devolved nations. This is not to say that Wales has no nationalism. Rather, Wales’ nationalism tends to be embedded in culture rather than institutional. Essentially, Welsh nationalism tends to focus on language and tradition, rather than the creation of separate Welsh political institutions. Evidence of this can be highlighted by the two referendums on Welsh devolution in 1979 and in 1997.

In order to bring into effect the provisions of the Wales Act 1978 , a referendum was held to ensure that there was support for the process. The Act required that at least 40 per cent of the Welsh electorate had to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum for its provisions to come into effect. On a turnout of 58.8 per cent, 79.7 per cent of those voted ‘no’ in the referendum. The ‘yes’ vote only accounted for 11.8 per cent of the electorate, which was far below the 40 per cent threshold. The vote was essentially 4 to 1 against devolution, with no single council area voting majority ‘yes’. The 1997 Welsh devolution referendum once again highlighted the lack of popularity among the electorate for Welsh devolution. On a turnout of 50.22 per cent, the narrow majority ‘yes’ result of 50.3 per cent only accounted for 25 per cent of the Welsh electorate voting in favour of devolution. Under the criteria of 1979, Wales would have failed to gain devolution in 1997, as the yes vote would have fallen well below the 40 per cent threshold. The referendum also split the nation in half, of the 22 council areas in Wales, 11 (mostly in the east) voted majority ‘no’, Cardiff included. It is key to note too that the desire by the Labour governments in the late 1970s and 1997 to introduce devolution to Wales was due to the developments in Scotland. Devolution to Scotland was introduced as a mean to mitigate the growth of Scottish nationalism.

Plaid Cymru and Welsh Independence

Despite the lack of support for institutional nationalism shown by the electorate, Wales does still have a nationalist party. Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales) was formed in 1926. When it was first established, the preservation and continuation of the Welsh language within Wales was its focus. Over time it has evolved to become a party that first advocated for Welsh home rule and now, Welsh independence. Electorally, Plaid Cymru are not as strong as the other nationalist parties in the devolved regions. The party won its first-ever Westminster parliamentary seat in 1966, and in the 2019 General election, the party managed to secure only 4 of the 40 Westminster seats in Wales. They operate fairly better within Senedd elections, however. In the 2016 Senedd election, they secured 12 of the 60 Assembly seats, making them the third-largest party in the assembly after Labour and the Conservatives. The party’s constitutional ambition for Wales after Brexit is very similar to that of the SNP for Scotland. However, just like the SNPs constitutional proposal, the ‘Barroso Doctrine’ would also apply to Wales. The doctrine is named after EU Commission President at the time, José Manuel Barroso who stated in a letter to Lord Tugendhat that “an independent Scotland would become a third country with respect to the EU, and would therefore need to apply for EU membership.” Therefore, an independent Wales would need to reapply for EU membership.

Plaid Cymru’s constitutional objectives

Under the current UK constitutional terms, Wales (and England) has no unilateral clause to secede from the Union and become Independent. In comparison, both Northern Ireland and Scotland (time-limited) have been granted such a right. With regard to the former, the constitutional basis of this right is found under the Good Friday Agreement 1998 and section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. For Scotland, the constitutional basis of this right was granted temporarily via an Order in Council under Section 30 of the Scotland Acct 1998, for the purposes of holding a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. While this does not legitimate achieving Welsh independence, Plaid Cymru’s constitutional objectives can still be achieved via the constitutional developments in Scotland. A Welsh government that is in favour of independence could negotiate with the UK government for similar powers granted to Scotland in 2014 to hold an independence referendum (this can be achieved via an Order in Council under section 109 of the Government of Wales Act 2006). The Scottish government are strongly arguing for powers from the UK government to hold a second referendum on independence (Indyref 2). The rationale behind the need for Indyref 2 is to ensure that, for the Scottish government, Scotland’s interests are met after Brexit.

Given that “discussion of Welsh politics usually takes place in the shadow of developments in Scotland,” the Welsh government in the instance that Scotland is allowed to hold indyref 2 could take inspiration from these developments and put a case for Welsh reciprocity. However, as been illustrated throughout the Brexit process, any devolved input has been nullified by the UK government. For instance, the government has refused to grant Holyrood a section 30 order to hold a second referendum on independence. More recently, as a result of the current public health pandemic, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion to call for the extension of the transition period, in order to protect the region’s economic interests. Though, based on the subordinate nature of devolution, this motion is non-binding on the UK government. Those in favour of the motion, feel that the UK government has a greater obligation to honour it, considering that Stormont is a named party to the Withdrawal agreement, unlike Holyrood and the Senedd. Nevertheless, this is very unlikely to happen, especially given that the UK government recently pushed through the EU Withdrawal Agreement Act 2020, despite all three devolved regions (including Northern Ireland)  withholding legislative consent. The UK government are more likely to continue to ignore the views of the devolved regions over Brexit, and resume with their proposed agenda. Based on this then, the UK government may refuse to grant Welsh government independence by any legal means at its disposal.

Welsh public consensus on independence

Looking at recent polling carried out by YouGov, there has been an increase over time in Welsh public opinion for independence. For instance, support for Welsh independence rose from 14 per cent in 2014 to 21 per cent in 2020. The highest peak in support for Welsh independence was in the 2018 poll, at 23 per cent. Since the inception of this YouGov poll in 2014, the 2020 poll was the first time there had been a decrease in support for independence. In the 2016 poll, two follow up questions were asked in addition to the question on Independence. These included first, the break up of the Union as a result of Scottish independence, and second, Wales re-joining the EU as an independent state.  In that poll, 19 per cent were in support for Welsh independence, this increased to 24 per cent in the scenario that Scotland leaves the UK, and a further increase to 35 per cent in the instance that Wales re-joins the EU as an independent state. Essentially then, as highlighted by the 2016 poll, support for Welsh independence is influenced by both the constitutional developments in Scotland and  Brexit. Despite this, however, looking at the 2020 polling data, when asked about their constitutional preference for Wales, 24 per cent voted for the status quo, in comparison to 14 per cent who were in favour for independence. It is clear then from the polling data that there is a significant lack of public consensus within Wales for independence. Owing to the lack of public appetite, and lack of legal means to do so, it would be very difficult for any Welsh government in favour of independence to achieve this objective. However, fortunes could change as a result of the manifestation of Scottish independence and the conclusions of the Brexit process. For now, we are far away from seeing the reality of Welsh independence.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image by It’s No GameSome rights reserved.

Brexit and the tragedy of the Commons: how wedge issues generate detrimental outcomes

The difficulty Theresa May and Boris Johnson had in winning the backing of MPs for their Brexit strategies illustrates the impact that ‘wedge issues’ can have on party politics, write Tim Heinkelmann-Wild and Lisa Kriegmair (Ludwig-Maximilians-University). As issues like Brexit cut across traditional party lines, they are highly likely to create intra-party divisions and make compromises difficult to secure.

It is a political science truism that individual actors’ rational behaviours often produce collectively sub-optimal results. The politics of Brexit within the Conservative party is a case in point. Brexit and the repeated failures to deliver it brought the Tories to a breaking point: it contributed to disastrous election results, led to the fall of Theresa May’s government, and triggered the loss of a parliamentary majority for the succeeding government under Boris Johnson, leading to an early General Election. How did this come about?

theresa may
Happier times… Theresa May on 29 March 2017, leaving Downing St to give a statement on the triggering of Article 50. Photo: Number 10</a. via a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

The seemingly irrational developments surrounding Brexit were the result of rational strategies employed by factions within the Conservative party in reaction to the divisive nature of Brexit. The key feature of wedge issues such as Brexit is that they cut across party lines, and thus hold the potential to spark intra-party divisions. Non-wedge issues give rise to conflicts along party lines because they map onto the dominant left-right cleavage that gave rise to western party systems. By contrast, issues such as migration, the environment or European integration do not map easily onto the left-right cleavage. When a political issue is a wedge issues for a party, the latter tries to avoid the topic. However, avoiding wedge issues is not always an option – especially for governing parties. When other parties highlight a subject, or when the pressure to solve a problem is high, governing parties have to engage with a wedge issue.

Enacting a policy that addresses a wedge issue is complicated by its divisive nature. When dealing with non-wedge issues, the government is in a strong position. It can count on the overwhelming support of its party and win over recalcitrant members of parliament (MPs) through concessions. With regard to wedge issues, the government is in a much weaker position and a conciliatory approach is not feasible. The number of MPs opposing the government’s policy is too sizable and any attempt to secure their support is likely to provoke resistance by other MPs that support the policy.

The ensuing actor constellation therefore resembles a game of ‘chicken’, pitting the government against party rebels opposed to the government’s preferred policy. In this intraparty game (see Figure 1), it is rational for both sides to commit to their preferred policy to force the other side to back down.

Figure 1: A game of ‘chicken’ within the governing party

To garner parliamentary support, the government will opt for an uncompromising strategy that we dub the ‘politics of intransigence’. It will refuse to compromise and try to enhance the credibility of its commitment to the preferred policy. For instance, it might present the policy as a take-it-or-leave-it offer that parliament may only accept or refuse. The government’s intransigence puts rebel MPs who oppose the government’s preferred policy in an uncomfortable position. They can either accept a policy they dislike or defeat their own government. To avoid this uncomfortable choice, they are likely to employ an intransigent strategy as well.

The more rebel MPs credibly commit to their preferred policy, the more the government finds itself between a rock and a hard place. It can stick to the proposed policy and risk government failure, or it can make concessions and alienate constituencies that favour their original policy. To avoid this uncomfortable choice, the government is likely to double down on its politics of intransigence to force party rebels to change their stance. While both factions would be better off compromising, it is individually rational for them to counter intransigence with more intransigence – even at the risk of escalating intraparty conflict and government failure.

The politics of Brexit inside the Conservative party under Theresa May’s premiership were a clear example of wedge issue politics. The statements of Conservative MPs in which they attributed blame during the debates on Brexit in the House of Commons illustrated that the act of defining a Brexit policy drove a wedge through the party. While blame games in parliament are normally played between the governing party and the opposition, Conservative MPs also assigned blame within their own party to a significant extent. Figure 2 shows that before, during, and after the negotiation of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, more than a quarter of negative statements by Conservative MPs targeted members of their own party.

Figure 2: Conservative MPs’ blame attributions per 100 debate pages

Note: For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper (co-authored with Berthold Rittberger and Bernhard Zangl) at the Journal of European Public Policy

The divisive nature of Brexit gave rise to a game of ‘chicken’ between Theresa May’s government and Tory rebels, with both sides employing intransigent strategies. First, the government’s objective was to confront party rebels (and the Commons as a whole) with a take-it–or-leave-it offer, so that they would only be able to accept or reject the negotiated agreement. It therefore sought to keep parliamentary involvement at a minimum. Second, the government framed its agreement as the only policy alternative worth pursuing and ran down the clock to put pressure on parliament to approve the deal. The government also sought to keep on the table the two alternative outcomes – a ‘no-deal’ Brexit and no Brexit at all – that (at the time) found the least support among MPs. Finally, the government tied its hands to its own Brexit policy by publicly stating its unwavering resolve to stick to the agreement. It emphasised that there was no viable alternative to its deal.

In reaction to the government’s politics of intransigence, Tory rebels employed a similar strategy. Pledging rejection of the negotiated agreement, they sought to limit their freedom of action by declaring red lines. During the parliamentary adoption proceedings of the withdrawal agreement, Conservative rebels even began to claim that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit was preferable to the government’s agreement, thus committing themselves to an uncompromising position.

With no side willing to budge, both factions within the Conservative party responded to intransigence with more intransigence. This escalatory dynamic became visible in the share of blame attributions exchanged within the party. It increased from roughly one-third before and during the negotiations, to over fifty percent during ratification. The average number of blame attributions increased by over 200 percent.

In sum, due to the divisive nature of Brexit, the choice of a politics of intransigence was rational for the government and Tory rebels. Yet, it led to seemingly irrational and collectively sub-optimal results: a governing party unable to agree on a policy and a prime minister who saw no other solution to this impasse than to step down. Unfortunately, the politics of intransigence are likely to become a recurring challenge for western democracies. The rise of the new cleavage between communitarianism and cosmopolitanism implies a proliferation of divisive issues. To the extent that governments cannot avoid wedge issues, intra-party conflicts and thus the risk of policy and even government failure are increasing.

For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper (co-authored with Berthold Rittberger and Bernhard Zangl) at the Journal of European Public Policy.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. It first appeared at LSE EUROPP and has been slightly edited to bring it up to date since first publication.

‘All animals are equal’: the relationship between the Cummings row and public trust in democracy

The UK public voluntarily agreed to give up fundamental rights and liberties in the fight against COVID-19 on the assumption that this suspension applied to everyone – in other words, that governance remained democratic, writes Dimitris Skleparis. This is why Dominic Cummings’s lockdown breach has stirred a heated debate and this is why the government’s handling of the situation has already reduced public trust in democracy.

Both the government’s and the Prime Minister’s approval rates have recently recorded a significant drop, according to the latest Opinium/Observer public opinion poll conducted amid the Dominic Cummings row. Why has this story generated such a heated debate? We draw on an online representative public attitudes survey (n= 2100 people) about the coronavirus crisis, which was administered between 10 and 15 April – in retrospect, a key point in time: the UK was in its fourth week of lockdown, the Prime Minister was in hospital, and Dominic Cummings was in Durham. At that stage, a clear majority (66%) believed that the government had managed this pandemic very or fairly well. People also had more positive feelings about the way in which the British government had responded to this crisis: 44% felt hope; 42% felt acceptance; 38% felt confidence; and 35% felt unease.

Colleagues have already highlighted the key role of social solidarity in explaining the high levels of compliance with lockdown rules in April and May. They have also emphasised the importance of personal responsibility, as well as the need for clear communication from the government for ensuring that the public receive the right messages to continue to comply with the rules. It would be fair to argue then, that the public feel aggrieved because they perceive the actions of the PM’s Chief Strategist as compromising the widespread sense of personal responsibility and social solidarity in the fight against this virus.

However, there is more at stake here: the ability of democracy to self-regulate amid a state of exception. Equality before the law is the cornerstone of democracy. Everyone is and ought to be subject to the same laws. In liberal democracies, and in a warranted state of exception, such as the imposed lockdown in the face of COVID-19, civil rights and liberties are temporarily suspended, and emergency rules and laws take the place of ‘ordinary’ ones in the name of the public good. When one voluntarily agrees to give up fundamental rights and liberties, they do so on the assumption that, as laws apply horizontally to everyone during ‘normal’ democratic governance, so does their suspension during ‘exceptional’ democratic governance. In other words, one has faith that democratic governance is capable of remaining democratic, even in exceptional times.

In mid-April when our survey was conducted, the general concern about the spread of COVID-19 was very high among the population, with 90% worried (48% very worried), and women more worried than men (52% and 44% respectively). There was a widespread sense that the pandemic posed a threat to Britain’s future (79%), rather than to each one of us individually (59%). In other words, it was perceived as a collective, rather than an individual, existential threat. Indeed, a large majority (83%) perceived the government’s measures to combat the coronavirus as necessary to prevent a major national catastrophe. There was consensus (59%) that minimising the number of deaths from COVID-19 should have priority even at the expense of the national economy.

It was against this background that the public warranted the introduction and implementation of rules and laws that constituted, or would constitute, an unprecedented transgression of civil rights and liberties in peacetime. Draconian measures, such as allowing people to leave their homes only for essential reasons, closing all UK borders, enabling the government to use the military to enforce isolation measures, and maintaining the ‘lockdown’ for at least six months were met with exceptionally high levels of support (85%, 76%, 64%, and 50% respectively). The only ‘red line’, perhaps, drawn by the public in terms of civil rights and liberties concessions concerned the right to privacy, with only 42% being in favour of the government’s use of mobile phone records to stop the spread of the virus. In all, only 22% considered the government’s measures a greater threat to civil liberties than the virus itself, and only 32% were concerned about Britain becoming a police state.

This eagerness with which the public conceded fundamental rights and liberties surprised even the Prime Minister. Soon after announcing the easing of lockdown measures on 13 May, he allegedly stated to colleagues that “I’ve learnt that it’s much easier to take people’s freedoms away than give them back”. Indeed, this was not the first time, (and perhaps not the last one either) that public attitudes to civil liberties were comparatively less liberal and generally chimed with the direction of public policy, particularly in relation to issues of national security.

One should be careful, however, not to overstate this factor. This would run the risk of obscuring the British public’s trust in democratic governance, and the potentially important role that this attitude played in warranting a temporary state of exception.

At the time of our survey, the public were fairly or very satisfied (77%) with the way democracy worked in the UK, and had trust (54%) in the UK government. On the whole, the majority (54%) had trust in democracies being capable of dealing with crises, compared to only 15% who were thinking otherwise. What is important to highlight at this point, however, is the 31% who placed themselves in the middle of this scale. This may suggest that approximately one third of the respondents were not yet convinced about the ability of democracies to deal with crises of such magnitude, or simply recognised that this is something that will only show in the long run.

It is primarily for this 31% who build their trust in democracy on a day-to-day basis that one needs to be very careful about the messages that are being communicated during this pandemic. The public agreed to temporarily give up their civil liberties with the premise that, as laws apply equally to everyone during ‘normal’ democratic governance, so does, or should, their temporary transgression during ‘exceptional’ times. The public’s perception that ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ has stimulated a very heated debate. What is mainly at stake here, however, is the public’s trust in democracy’s ability to successfully counter a crisis of such magnitude, and, yet, remain democratic.


About the Author

Dimitris Skleparis is Lecturer in the Politics of Security at Newcastle 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.

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