Posts Tagged ‘Featured’

Why Change UK may turn out to be neither democratic nor a force for change

Lea Ypi explains why Change UK – The Independent Group appears to be aligning itself to a very different tradition of thinking about the relationship between citizens and representatives.

Modern democracy, wrote one of the great political scientists of the past century, is inconceivable – save in terms of party government. If that is true, when democracy is in crisis, a new political party might in principle offer opportunities for a way out. The newly created Change UK/Independent Group sees itself as a fresh political force breaking the way old politics works. It wants to occupy a space in the centre that traditional party divides are accused of having left void. It urges people to make change happen.

Except Change UK is not your standard political party. It has no manifesto, no popular base, no memory of struggles, victories and defeats. Instead of being a movement in search of political representation, it is a group of elected representatives in search of a movement. Instead of being the many represented by a few, it is the few urging the many to get involved.

Elections are arguably one of the most important moments in which a political group consolidates its principles and identity. It is how a new political force gathers the popular support that legitimises its demands for change. But Change UK is not that interested in elections either. If members were interested in popular mobilisation – campaigning to persuade fellow-citizens for the need to change, deliberating with supporters over principles – they would seize the first opportunity to confront their adversaries in by-election campaigns. Instead, they argue, fighting a by-election would “crush the birth of democracy”.

Change UK may not have a manifesto but it must at least have a vision of democracy. Except, on closer inspection, it turns out to be not very democratic. The birth of democracy, to return to their favourite formulation, is associated to rule by the many. In the Greek polis, the many ruled themselves by making direct decisions in the Athenian assembly. In modern societies, the many are too many and too diverse to speak directly for themselves. They speak through representatives in parliament. The extent to which the relation is democratic depends on the degree of proximity between representatives and represented. When that relationship is not subject to ongoing scrutiny it is not clear who the representatives speak for. Or what they speak about.

The more democratic a representative relation is, the more likely it is that the voice of the represented is heard in parliament (and not just on election day). Maintaining a close relation between professional politicians and the people who elect them is the only way to ensure that the voice of the many is continuously heard. For radical democrats, the purpose of democratic politics was to ensure that powerful people with more money, knowledge, and means to access public office were kept in check by the masses; that the few were constantly scrutinised by the many. To this effect they advocated a number of measures: mass membership in political organisations, imperative mandate, mandatory reselection, mechanisms of deselection of MPs, rotation in office, and so on. This is what democratic theorists call “the delegate” model of representation.

The Labour Party’s recent moves to expand membership along with proposals to change the relationship between members and MPs are part of this tradition. MPs are seen as only one of the links in the chain of democratic participation, they are by no means the most important one. Every MP and every decision made by them must remain accountable to party members at every step of the way.

Labour party leaders are often accused of authoritarianism. But if Labour really had been in the business of silencing criticism and undermining democracy, it should have discouraged rather than encouraged the delegate model of representation. The current Labour Party may have many flaws but a lack of democratic commitment is not one of them.

The same cannot be said about Change UK. The expressed refusal to fight by-elections and the arguments given to motivate that refusal signal its alignment to a very different tradition of thinking about the relationship between citizens and representatives. Members of Change UK insist that there is no reason to subject their views to democratic scrutiny since their values have not changed. But even if that were true, MPs are not selected only for the values they embrace but also for how they interpret those values in public life, and for the policy proposals they generate on that basis. A cursory look at CHUK’s statement of values in connection to particular public policies reveals sharp differences between those policies and the manifesto of the Labour party on the basis of which its former Labour members were elected. The only argument in their defence is given by a view of representation where MPs retain independence from their constituents: what is often called the trustees’ model of representation.

Historically, the emergence of the trustees’ model is associated to an explicitly anti-democratic attempt to isolate politicians from the power of the many. Its origins are in the explicitly moderate (we might say ‘centrist’ thought) of authors like Sieyes, Constant or Madison. The trustee model seeks to conceive of the representative relation as one in which political institutions are authorised by the masses but isolated from them. The argument is essentially an elitist, technocratic one: since modern life is about division of labour, only those with accumulated knowledge, expertise, and the right degree of wealth or skill are in the best position to make decisions about common affairs. The point of political authority is to guarantee the minimal amount of security that enables particular individuals to pursue their private affairs. The institutions that work best are, as in CHUK’s statement of values, those where “well-regulated private enterprise can reward aspiration and drive economic progress”. Disagreements of principle are reducible to disagreements of policy.

On the trustees’ model of political representation, once representatives are selected, their link with the represented is essentially a fiduciary one, like the link between a bank manager and the people who put money in a bank account. Once money is in the bank, you trust the bank managers to do their job. Once elections are over, you trust politicians to represent the people. While that model is much more pervasive in the electoral systems and political institutions of Western liberal democracies, the divide between professional politicians and ordinary people on which it is premised is arguably at the heart of what citizens resent the most in contemporary liberal politics.

To revive democracy, one has to depart from the trustee model of representation and consolidate the radical democratic one. Change is needed and change is coming. But it won’t come from a group of politicians whose democratic antipathies go so deep that they resent confrontation with ordinary citizens at every level, including in by-elections, the most basic level of representative accountability.


Note: a shorter version of the above was first published in the New Statesman.

About the Author

Lea Ypi (@lea_ypi) is Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-author of The Meaning of Partisanship.


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.

How involved is the public in changes affecting the devolved NHS?

Ellen Stewart, Angelo Ercia, Scott Greer, and Peter Donnelly compare how the public is involved in major service changes across the UK’s four health systems. They find some clear differences between the four systems’ processes, including the extent of central government oversight and guidance.

Of the issues that have dogged health politics since the creation of the NHS, the closure of hospitals has proved one of the most intractable. What decisionmakers describe as service ‘reconfigurations’ or ‘redesigns’, but many campaigners perceive simply as cuts, highlight central-local faultlines that have been evident in the NHS for 70 years. They outplay any other local issue in causing national political ructions; with local clinicians elected to Westminster, Stormont, and Holyrood on single-issue ‘save our hospital’ campaigns. Health policy debates have long exhibited impatience with such campaigns, and the result is that the bricks and mortar of the NHS is remarkably slow to change.

Recent research has argued that genuine processes of public involvement – how organisations consult and engage local populations in decision-making – may be key to enabling healthcare organisations to make the changes that they argue are clinically, and oftentimes also financially, necessary as health systems manage ageing populations with increasingly complex health needs. However what constitutes ‘meaningful’ (or ‘successful’) involvement processes remains contested.

In our research, we seek to understand how the NHS is involving the public in contentious service change comparatively, drawing on the remarkable natural experiment that is devolved health policy in the UK’s four health systems: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It’s a task complicated by increasing divergence in both terminology and structures between these evolving systems, but one which provided intriguing insights into their priorities. All four systems have a stated, in most cases statutory, requirement for NHS organisations to involve the public in changes to services. However beyond that there are significant differences.

Public involvement and NHS England

England is both by far the largest of the UK health systems and also the one which has been most subject to radical reorganisation – or what has been described as redisorganisation – and fragmentation in alternating pursuit of competition or collaboration. Change – including closures – seemed most frequent in the English NHS compared to the other health systems. Central government actively seeks to distance itself from local service changes:

If your starting point here is who’s responsible for NHS service change … it doesn’t take place in this building [the Department of Health] anymore. Government, central government is not responsible for service change in the NHS. (Official, England)

As well as the Department of Health’s distance from change plans, NHS England, the behemoth agency-come-policymaking body, also emphasises that it advises but does not take responsibility for local decisions on approach. English policy guidance to local NHS organisations encourages involvement but in very general terms, and based on broad principles, not prescription.

Public involvement and the Northern Irish NHS

Northern Irish policy, by contrast, mandates a somewhat rigid and legalistic approach to public involvement. The focus is very much on pre-defined ‘consultation schemes’ which set out with some precision who will have a say and exactly how, and the approach to engagement was broadly, and with good reason, risk averse.

Say for example there was a service change and I thought I’ll have a focus group… we’re likely to be challenged… If it’s controversial and somebody doesn’t like our decision, which quite often happens, we would be challenged on the process. (NHS manager, Northern Ireland)

Not helped by prolonged periods without a functioning Government, hospital closures are vanishingly rare in the Northern Irish NHS, and even ostensibly minor changes to services provoke significant concern. As in the all the devolved system, Government civil servants play an active role in brokering solutions where controversy develops over proposed changes, but the overwhelming impression from our Northern Irish research was of frustration from both NHS staff trying to improve services and from campaigners, tired of repeated consultations on even very minor changes.

Public involvement and NHS Scotland

In Scotland, Health Boards redesign services with an extensive and prescriptive set of policy guidance which sets out how involvement should proceed. Perceived by some interviewees as excessively thorough, others felt that the detailed guidance gave Boards a degree of protection:

…incredibly nitpicky… it was absolutely exhausting… [But] you’re much more certain to be able to make the change if you’ve gone through the process, you’ve got a fighting chance. (NHS manager, Scotland)

A team of service change specialists within the Scottish Health Council (an NHS agency) provide advice and also assurance on the quality of involvement. Distinctively, current Scottish health policy additionally mandates the approval of the Minister in every service change which is deemed ‘major’. This contrasts sharply with the other three health systems where government politicians are generally shielded from the often febrile politics of hospital changes, and has kept hospital closures firmly on the Scottish political agenda.

Public involvement and the Welsh NHS

Welsh policy ambitions in this area are the most distinctive by some distance. Welsh health policy directs Local Health Boards to focus on continuous engagement with its population, with far less attention to a discrete process of consultation when a change is proposed. This emphasis on building trust, and therefore dialogue, between an organisation and its population seems closest to longstanding accounts of best practice. However this ambition for culture change towards transparent, responsive organisations was less evident in local practice, and had seemed to become embroiled in extant entrenched battles over particular hospitals.

Despite a proliferation of generic best practice guides and the availability of technical advice from organisations which cross national boundaries, processes of public involvement in contentious service changes were overwhelmingly shaped by factors endogenous to the four health systems. This supports other studies which have criticised organisational change management models for neglecting the highly politicised context in which UK healthcare organisations operate: put simply, in the UK, NHS change projects are deeply entrenched in their national politics. Taking an explicitly comparative approach to understanding British health politics – still too often assumed to refer only to English health politics – enriches debates on the relationship between the NHS and the British public. While calls for more comparable quantitative performance data are commonplace, qualitative comparison remains well-placed to handle the complexity of our increasingly divergent NHS(s).


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Health Economics, Policy and Law.

About the Authors

Ellen Stewart is Chancellor’s Fellow in Social Studies of Health & Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Angelo Ercia is Research Associate in Health Informatics at the University of Manchester.

Scott Greer is Professor in Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan.

Peter Donnelly is Professor at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto.


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.

Is Brexit a constitutional crisis, or a political one? The answer matters

Even now, with Brexit consuming Parliament, the question of whether we are suffering a constitutional or a political crisis is important, write Anand Menon and Alan Wager. A general election might be enough to push a deal through the Commons, but it would not necessarily fix the greater problem: the damaged political legitimacy of Parliament.

What constitutes a political crisis? And when, and how, does a crisis of politics evolve into a crisis of the constitution? This might sound like an argument over semantics. Yet for political scientists, the distinction is an important one. This is because it can tell us what might happen next: a political crisis is solvable by politicians as gridlock – slowly – works its way through to a resolution. A constitutional crisis, on the other hand, suggests something more fundamental: a deeper contradiction in the system requiring an altogether different solution. One is (more or less) temporary, the other (potentially) permanent.

The case for Brexit as a temporary bug in the Westminster system can be made via counterfactuals. If the general election had not been held in 2017, Theresa May would be operating with a slim majority rather than as head of minority government. If different decisions on the direction of Brexit had been made at various forks in the road – particularly following the loss of this governing majority – then it is at least plausible to think the present situation might look very different. Reaching out in June 2017 to secure broader support for a softer Brexit than she had laid out before her ill-fated popular poll might have made all the difference. The point is that these are questions of statecraft, not a system failure.

Indeed, retrospective analysis of the legislative politics of the last two years shows that the minority government has, on the whole, managed to fumble along – up to now – as well as one might reasonably have expected. The last period of minority government in the 1970s led to an equivalent number of defeats and many of the same political tactics: pulling votes at the last minute, mass abstentions from the government and the politicisation of the whip’s office.

However, you have to reach further back, to 1924, for anywhere near comparable defeats as those suffered by May on her Brexit deal. But again, these defeats were the result of political parties realigning and the party system coming to terms with the rise of the Labour Party. They were a matter of the party system, not the political system.

There is also a problem in assessing the functioning of Westminster through its capacity to manage the issue of Europe. The last period of comparable governing turbulence to now was during John Major’s premiership. Then, as now, the issue of Europe and tight parliamentary arithmetic disrupted the normal flow of relations between government and parliament.

The difference now is that the EU issue has underlined and heightened a political cleavage in the electorate based on social values. The new post-Brexit politics is something that the Independent Group, and undoubtedly any future project headed by Nigel Farage, hope represents a political sea change.

Yet they may be disappointed. The result of the Brexit brouhaha might yet be a recreated political coalition on the centre-left that looks a lot like the pre-coalition Liberal Democrats, and the latest iteration of British Euroscepticism on the right. This would begin to look a lot more like the ebb and flow of conventional British politics than a dramatic reformulation. And the surest bet in British politics is that, when politicians attempt to redefine the political system, the electoral system reasserts itself.

It is when we look more closely at the rhetoric and actions of MPs that things become more worrying. Unworkable and unsustainable contradictions are the symptoms of a constitutional crisis. A breakdown of collective cabinet responsibility, which leads to cabinet ministers saying one thing to the House of Commons and then doing another. A Prime Minister who, at crunch time, decides to pit the office of Prime Minister against the Parliament from which she derives her political power. A Parliament made up of MPs who are unable to reconcile a desire to act as both delegate and representative.

Theresa May’s speech on 20 March appeared to be moving the politics of Brexit on from crisis management to a political blame game. The Prime Minister’s theme of anti-politics outraged MPs, but these rhetorical themes of collective failure and systematic breakdown are shared – one way or another – by Jeremy Corbyn, Chuka Umunna and Nigel Farage.

The realities of complex modern democracy sit uneasily alongside the idea of simple solutions. This friction creates a different type of constitutional crisis: a long-term undermining of political legitimacy among voters. And what all the polling shows is that the one thing that seems to unite voters is a sense that politicians are failing. Moreover, and for what it’s worth, surprisingly resistant to this blame game on the Brexit impasse so far is the EU: voters blame the government, followed by parliament, with the EU a distant third.

Perhaps the key determinant of whether the current crisis is political or constitutional is whether it can be resolved through an electoral event. If so, it is ephemeral. And a general election could, in theory, break the deadlock. A small swing towards the Labour Party could lead to a different minority government and another referendum. A Conservative leader advocating a different deal or no deal at all may get the numbers they need. However, any general election or referendum campaign is likely to be driven by recrimination. The danger is that we could, in trying to resolve a temporary political deadlock, talk ourselves into some longer term damage.


Note: The above is taken from a longer report on Article 50 two years on. It was first published on LSE Brexit. Image: Wellcome Collection via Europeana (CC BY 4.0 licence)

About the Authors

Anand Menon is Professor at King’s College, London and Director of UK in a Changing Europe.



Alan Wager is Researcher at UK in a Changing Europe.




The political roots of capital mobility: reassessing Britain’s abolition of exchange controls

Jack Copley explains how the Callaghan and Thatcher governments in the late 1970s were concerned by the worsening performance of British industrial exporters, and so exchange control abolition constituted a strategy to depreciate sterling and boost export competitiveness.

Exchange controls – restrictions on the purchase or sale of currencies – have been thoroughly delegitimised as an instrument of economic management amongst advanced capitalist states. A state’s implementation of exchange controls is generally seen as a sign of that economy’s ‘emerging’ status, a temporary measure to respond to a severe crisis, or an indication of a development model that radically diverges from contemporary liberal ‘best practice’. Indeed, Argentinian President Mauricio Macri’s dismantling of his country’s currency controls after his election in 2015 was intended to signal Argentina’s entry into the modern capitalist world after more than a decade of populist interventionism.

Yet this has not always been the case. Following the Second World War, exchange controls were commonly employed by states to manage the exchange rate and balance of payments, despite IMF rules that sought to phase them out. Such controls constituted an important instrument for states as they sought to reconcile the globally interconnected economic order of Bretton Woods with national democratic politics.

How did exchange controls fall so dramatically out of fashion? Political economy literature has tended to focus on two factors. Firstly, in the 1970s states began to compete to attract mobile capital flows by pursuing a deregulatory race to the bottom. Secondly, the rise of neoliberal ideas during this same period, within both national policy-making circles and international organisations, acted to stigmatise exchange controls and capital controls more generally.

Britain occupies a special place within this conventional explanation. The British abolition of exchange controls in 1979 was amongst the earliest deregulations of this kind, and thus acted as an important domino in the global dismantling of currency controls. Further, the British case is said to best exemplify the combined role of competition and ideology in motivating exchange control liberalisation, as this policy was supposedly driven by a competitive desire to promote the City of London as a global financial centre and the Thatcher government’s commitment to neoliberal principles.

My research challenges this dominant explanation of Britain’s scrapping of exchange controls. I argue that this radical deregulation, which was actually implemented in four stages from 1977-9 by the governments of James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher, should be understood primarily as an ad hoc, pragmatic attempt to address the serious governing dilemmas generated by the stagflation crisis.

The British state faced two major problems in the late 1970s: rising inflation and low rates of profit. Additionally, sterling began to rise in value following the 1976 IMF bailout and the discovery of North Sea oil, which aided in the fight against inflation, but exacerbated the profitability crisis by further reducing the competitiveness of UK exports. In this context, the scrapping of exchange controls was a double-edged sword. By abandoning controls on the sale of sterling, the value of the pound could fall, which would aid British exporters; yet this would compound the problem of inflation by raising the price of imports. Archival evidence suggests that both the Callaghan and Thatcher governments prioritised the export competitiveness problem, at the expense of inflation. The potential benefits for the City of London and the influence of neoliberal ideology played secondary roles in motivating this deregulation.

However, two barriers stood in the way of this strategy to lower the value of the pound. First, the Trades Union Congress was strongly opposed to the liberalisation of exchange controls, as they saw exchange controls as an important element of a much needed industrial strategy. Second, in a context of floating exchange rates, any attempt to manufacture a depreciation of sterling could frighten money markets and result in a run on the pound.

The Callaghan government was ultimately impeded by these obstacles. The Labour Party’s close ties with the unions, combined with the fact that their incomes policy was already putting a terrible strain on their relations with the Trades Union Congress, meant that they were wary of further incensing the labour movement through an aggressive policy of exchange control liberalisation. Furthermore, Callaghan’s administration failed to come up with a strategy to pursue this competitive depreciation of the pound without spooking global markets and risking a sterling crisis. The result of this combination of pressures was Labour’s limited relaxation of exchange controls in October 1977 and January 1978.

The Thatcher government had much more success in pursuing this policy. The problem of an opposed trade union movement had significantly eased following the Winter of Discontent. Additionally, the Conservatives forged a rhetorical strategy that they believed would allow them to put downward pressure on the value of sterling without frightening global markets. Key members of the Thatcher government publicly declared that exchange control liberalisation was motivated purely by laissez-faire notions of responsible economic management, rather than a pragmatic desire to boost British exports.

This strategy was remarkably successful, with Thatcher’s supporters and critics united in their belief that this policy was indeed driven by a deep commitment to neoliberal principles. The government hoped that this discursive strategy would act to reassure currency markets, and thus allow for a gradual diversification of investment out of the pound, rather than a full sterling crisis, with the ultimate objective of easing the terrible pressure on UK exporting firms. Confident in the success of this strategy, Thatcher’s administration took a ‘leap in the dark’ in July and October 1979 by fully scrapping exchange controls.

The UK’s abolition of exchange controls is widely understood as a crucial juncture in the creation of a global economy in which capital flows freely across national borders. Yet this policy was not primarily designed to privilege the City of London’s business nor can it be simply categorised as an expression of Thatcher’s laissez-faire credentials. Rather, this liberalisation was pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments as a strategy to postpone the worst effects of the global economic crisis of the late 1970s by boosting the competitiveness of British exports through sterling depreciation.


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

About the Author

Jack Copley is Early Career Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick. His research interests include the political economy of financialisation, state theory, Marxism, and British politics. He has published in New Political Economy, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Environment and Planning C, and Capital & Class.


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: Wikimedia Commons.

Not always so Eurosceptic: Britain and the inter-war dream of European unity

tommaso milaniBritain has not always been reluctant to countenance European unity. Tommaso Milani (LSE) recalls the intellectual impetus for a European community in the inter-war period, which was driven by a desire for peace and, from some, the left-wing case for a socialist European economy.

As history is written and rewritten in constant dialogue with the present, Brexit is likely to affect the way Britons think about their national past. Due to current events, some of the interpretations of the relationship that the UK has had with the European Communities from 1950 onwards will undergo close and renewed scrutiny. Perhaps future research will finally dispel the aura of historical inevitability that surrounds Britain’s pursuit of EEC membership – which is how the story has often been presented in textbooks and surveys for the general public.

national party

A Conservative (National) party poster from 1935. Image: Bodleian Library via a CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 licence

The task of the scholars operating in this field – to quote a witty analogy coined by Wolfram Kaiser – may no longer resemble “that of a pathologist concerned with identifying the syndromes responsible for Britain’s dysfunctional behaviour”, the latter being “the abnormal detachment” from the European project following the second world war. Writing in 2019, the assumption that Britain’s fate lies, and supposedly always lay, in Europe looks increasingly questionable. Long gone is the belief, so widespread in the 1970s, that the decision to join European institutions had become, in the words of Frederick S Northedge, “natural and perhaps inescapable” and only the “faulty perceptions, anticipations and priorities” of successive post-war cabinets prevented the country from embracing its preordained destiny earlier.

However, even revisionism has its dangers – the biggest of which is to further downplay the already neglected role that ideas of European unity played in British history and culture, hence fuelling a narrative of separateness and estrangement. Scholars must resist the temptation to conflate the aloofness that the British political class occasionally displayed towards institutional endeavours aimed at fostering European integration with a general lack of interest in blueprints for a federal Europe. While it is true that British leaders – especially when serving in office – have been scarcely receptive to ‘Europeanist’ intellectuals and societal pressure groups, those inputs nonetheless existed and drew heavily from a long-standing tradition of a distinctively British – as well as imperial – international thought.

If we move beyond the examination of the European policies actually put in place and incorporate a wider range of elite-level discourses on Britain’s position towards the Continent in our analysis, the thesis according to which supranationalism is a fundamentally non-British, or even anti-British, idea appears utterly untenable. As a consequence, the more we scratch beneath the government level, the less persuasive the exceptionalist accounts – based on an allegedly unbridgeable gulf between British and European attitudes towards national sovereignty – seem to be.

To be sure, even when sceptical or semi-detached, British intellectuals of the 19th and 20th centuries could hardly ignore the significance of Europe as a political arena – partly because of its geographical proximity, partly because the rise of the British Empire led them to focus on international relations as a distinct area of inquiry. After 1914, it was the problem of peace that came to dominate British thinking about the Continent – and understandably so, considering the sheer loss of life that the first world war wrought on the UK. While British policy promoted the creation of a relatively loose League of Nations, prominent voices contended that only the centralised pooling of armaments, rather than a non-binding legal framework for member states, would prevent the outbreak of wars in the long run. The trajectory of Philip Kerr – a distinguished politician, editor, and diplomat better known as Lord Lothian – from critical backer of the League to advocate of European federalism through a prolonged flirtation with appeasement epitomises the painful process through which growing sections of the British establishment called into question the sustainability of the 1919 Versailles settlement.

A second, original source of support for the creation of a European federation involving Britain came from left-wing thinkers who, during the Great Depression, highlighted the danger that the drive towards greater capital concentration, economic nationalism and autarchy would exacerbate international tensions. Rather than simply championing the restoration of liberal free trade, authors like Henry Noel Brailsford, Kingsley Martin, and Leonard Woolf envisaged a European federation centred on wide-ranging economic planning, aimed at ensuring full employment, monetary stability, equal living standards between different European regions, and – perhaps more crucially – a unique sphere of influence for British socialism, which they regarded as different both from American unfettered capitalism and from the Soviet, more authoritarian brand of it.

Acknowledging the existence of a substantial body of imaginative, highly sophisticated and at times surprisingly far-sighted literature on European unity produced by British intellectuals before 1945 should not, however, be taken as conclusive evidence of Britain’s inherent European vocation. Rather, it should encourage historians to investigate how, in many respects, the peculiar, historically contingent form of European integration experimented from 1950 onwards – i.e. the Monnetian, functionalist undertaking centred on sectoral integration and aimed at achieving increasingly close interdependence between member states – was poorly suited to meet the expectations, the interests, and the demands that British supporters of European unity had expressed during the previous decades.

Researchers may come to realise that an even more profound mismatch emerged between the neat, highly stylised but deeply coherent British models of European federation elaborated throughout the interwar period and the complex, muddled, and inevitably haphazard set of institutional arrangements through which the actual European Union was gradually built. Nevertheless, British visions of European unity deserve better consideration – not only as a repository of ideas, but also as a reminder of the roads not taken by the process of integration.

If, as the convulsions of Brexit suggest, Britain’s relationship with Europe is bound to remain problematic, unresolved and impervious to any teleological reading, one could only hope that greater engagement with British ideas will stimulate Europeans to reflect more critically about the EU – its achievements, its shortcomings, and its future prospects.

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

Further reading and references

M. Beloff, Britain and European Union: Dialogue of the Deaf (Basingstoke: Macmillan 1996)

D. P. Billington Jr, Lothian: Philip Kerr and the Quest for World Order (Westport: Praeger 2006)

M. Burgess, The British Tradition of Federalism (London: Leicester University Press 1995)

M. Gilbert, ‘The Sovereign Remedy of European Unity: The Progressive Left and Supranational Government, 1935–1945’, International Politics (46:1 2009)

J. Frankel, British Foreign Policy, 1945-1973 (London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs 1975)

W. Kaiser, Using Europe, Abusing the Europeans: Britain and European Integration, 1945-63 (Basingstoke: Macmillan 1999, 2nd ed.)

T. Milani, ‘Retreat from the Global? European Unity and British Progressive Intellectuals, 1930-1945’, International History Review, January 2019, 1-18.

T. Milani, “From Laissez-Faire to Supranational Planning: The Economic Debate within Federal Union (1938-1945)”, European Review of History / Revue européenne d’histoire, (23:4 2016), 664-685.

F. S. Northedge, Descent from Power: British Foreign Policy, 1945-1973 (London: George Allen & Unwin 1974)

Dr Tommaso Milani is a Guest Teacher of International History at the LSE and a stipendiary lecturer in Modern European History at Balliol College, Oxford.

The EU’s “ever tighter union” needs informed debate, not blowing things up

Supporters of a hard Brexit have cited research by Matthias Matthijs, Craig Parsons and Christina Toenshoff to make their case – but these political-economy scholars see their work pointing in other directions. Describing the EU as an “ever tighter union,” their research highlights that some constraints on member states are now stronger than those on states within the US federation. This description can indeed support some criticisms of the EU, but also implies criticisms of American governance. Their broad takeaway contrasts sharply to the dominant tone of pro-Brexit thinking: we need careful and well-informed debate on these complex questions of economic rules and policy, not simplistic calls to blow things up.

As the Brexit drama drags on, now moving to salvage an orderly withdrawal with a “flextension” into October 2019, hard-core Brexiteers are increasingly frustrated. In the view of The Telegraph’s Allister Heath – complaining about Theresa May’s discussions of compromise options with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn—there is “no betrayal May won’t countenance in order to push through her Remainer Brexit.” To justify a harder Brexit, Heath pointed approvingly to our recent publication, “Ever Tighter Union? Brexit, Grexit, and Frustrated Differentiation in the Single Market and Eurozone.” We offer this post to discuss its implications in a more balanced way. We are comfortable connecting our research to some criticisms of the EU, but not to endorsing Brexit (let alone a hard “cliff edge” Brexit scenario).

Our paper appeared in a special issue collection of Comparative European Politics addressing pressures for “differentiation” in the EU, i.e. various arrangements that allow member-states to mix and match their European commitments. It is common these days to suggest that more differentiation is inevitable in the EU’s future. The Union already functions at “multiple speeds” of integration, but has become both more heterogeneous and more centralized over time, leading to rising tensions.

We cautioned that differentiation may not come easily. Recent history underscores obstacles to differentiated deals in the EU’s core areas of the Single Market and the Eurozone. In the fall of 2015, the British sought various opt-outs in the Single Market and were largely rebuffed. That set up the 2016 Brexit vote—which quickly hit the same EU wall against attempts to “cherry-pick” (that is, differentiate) some Single Market commitments while dropping others. Meanwhile, in the Eurozone, the crisis-struck Greeks sought wiggle room within the rules, and flirted with a euro exit (“Grexit”) if they didn’t get it. They got neither: rather than differentiation or Grexit, we saw a tightening of Eurozone oversight of national budgets and banking.

To highlight the distinctive nature of these EU requirements, our paper compares them to requirements the U.S. federal government makes of its states for market openness and fiscal discipline. We argued that “[EU] rules in these areas are considerably more constraining than are analogous federal constraints within the USA.” This is especially clear in the Eurozone: Brussels reviews (and can veto) national budgets and borrowing, but Washington D.C. has no similar powers. On the Single Market, Heath summarizes well our contrast of EU regulatory “harmonisation” to American fragmentation:

A number of US federal agencies are responsible for the regulation and minimum standards of certain goods… But unlike in the EU, where all of these rules are also centralised, states can set higher standards if they choose to. California operates its own standards in 800 [chemicals]; the equivalent number for the UK is zero. On top of that, many US goods aren’t regulated by the federal government, so in those areas states have greater powers than EU members. Lifts are a case in point: different rules apply in different states.

As to services, the US is even more decentralised, with states imposing their own laws when it comes to everything from lawyers to architects. Last but not least, US states are freer when it comes to awarding public-sector contracts: it’s the very opposite of the EU, where countries are bound strictly by common rules. The US system is too protectionist and anti-competitive, and in need of drastic reforms, but the point is that the EU now operates more like a single country in many areas than even America.

It does not surprise us that Brexiteers think that our “ever tighter union” image supports their cause. But Heath’s interpretation of our empirics displays the kind of careless thinking that drove the whole Brexit train-wreck in the first place. He jumps to overly hasty conclusions that say more about his preconceived antipathy to Europe than anything else.

He writes that the comparison proves “that harmonisation isn’t necessary to promote cross-border trade and mobility.” Not so fast: higher cross-border trade and mobility in the US do not prove that it has well-designed regulations. Americans share a language, an identity, and a distinctive culture of mobility. They trade and move despite costly regulatory barriers. The EU situation is the opposite. Europeans speak different languages and do not even move much inside their countries. They would presumably need to remove far more regulatory barriers than Americans to foster cross-border flows.

Heath’s big takeaway is that centralisation in the EU “won’t end until all differences and all national self-government have been stamped out.” Even if we restate this silly hyperbole as more reasonable concern about EU authority, an economically-literate person must recognize some benefits from “stamping out” regulatory differences. As Heath allows in passing, our comparison displays a protectionist US in need of reform as much as it showcases an overbearing EU. Maintaining different standards for lifts is simply bad governance. Consumers pay more when manufacturers must tailor lifts to different jurisdictions’ specifications. We believe that this variation often protects big U.S. producers against smaller or foreign competitors with less capacity to navigate a bewildering regulatory thicket. The US could actually do with a version of the EU’s 1995 Lifts Directive.

The same goes for other areas. EU requirements for competition in public contracts may feel onerous, but they make more economic sense than the laws of 47 U.S. states that favour their own firms (including outright bans: Oregon agencies may only purchase printing services in Oregon). Europeans have mixed feelings about the EU’s efforts to facilitate free movement—legitimately so—but it makes sense that experienced electricians licensed in one jurisdiction can safely work in others. In the US they cannot, period.

Our point is certainly not that the EU displays perfect economic governance. Far from it. Its regulatory harmonisation can be insensitive to conditions on the ground. Member-states have valid reasons to seek more discretion on certain issues or more economic policy levers, especially during hard times. In the Eurozone, the fiscal rules and some constraints that come with banking union may be economically inefficient and politically inexpedient (though concerns about Eurozone rules aren’t directly relevant to calls for Brexit). Our point is that economic governance is complex, involves many trade-offs, and requires careful consideration that can be helpfully informed by comparisons across polities that do things very differently.

Stepping back, it often seems that the Brexiteers have forgotten much of free-market economics, though most claim to be devotees of markets. For a century and a half after Adam Smith, the main challenges for markets were understood to come from protectionist local jurisdictions. Higher-level governments and international trade treaties fostered markets by tying lower-level actors to the mast of openness. With the 20th-century rise of modern economic regulation, the Soviet Union, and welfare states, many economists—especially American and British economists—shifted their emphasis to cast “big government” as the main concern for markets. Both concerns make some sense, but Brexit thinking remains selectively focused on this latter theme. Obsessed with the beast of the “Brussels bureaucracy” and the downsides of harmonization, Brexiteers have forgotten the more basic (and British-led) thinking of the 19th century. So too have most American conservatives today, who ignore ill-justified interstate barriers and champion “states’ rights.”

Again, we do not mean to dismiss criticisms of the EU’s “tight” constraints. There are economic and plenty of political reasons to debate them. But these questions of economic governance are too complex—and too consequential—to answer by chasing after Brexit unicorns of “taking back control” and dreams of Empire 2.0. Britain and Europe need a careful dialogue that takes seriously the costs, benefits and trade-offs between common rules and space for policy flexibility to help democracies respond to their electorates’ legitimate demands.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Matthias Matthijs is Assistant Professor of International Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. 

Dr Craig Parsons is Professor of Political Science, University of Oregon.

Christina Toenshoff is a PhD student in Political Science at Stanford University with a focus on International Relations and Comparative Politics. 

Why Britons living abroad for more than 15 years still don’t have a vote

Britons who have lived abroad for more than 15 years lose the right to vote in UK elections. This would have changed had a Private Member’s Bill with government support passed last month – but a Conservative MP talked it out. Susan Collard says the incident reveals the shortcomings of parliamentary democracy.

MPs’ attempts to take over the parliamentary agenda are an illustration of how the government lost control of its management of Brexit. But 22 March saw another spectacular example of how Theresa May has lost control of her own party as well.

That was the date set for the Report Stage of the Overseas Electors Bill 2017–19, a Private Member’s Bill (PMB) sponsored by the Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire, Glyn Davies, and backed by the government as a Handout Bill. The Bill aimed to introduce ‘Votes For Life’ by abolishing the existing ‘15-year rule’ which means that UK expatriates lose their vote 15 years after moving abroad. With the government’s support, it was successfully ushered through the second reading last February and the committee stage last autumn despite determined opposition from Labour, which put forward a range of objections and counter-proposals.

Britons living abroad were therefore expecting that it would proceed through the report stage to the House of Lords. Those who were disenfranchised in the 2016 EU referendum and hoped to win the right to vote in time for a possible ‘People’s Vote’ or another Brexit-based snap election felt a particular sense of urgency to get the Bill passed.

However, it fell foul of the arcane procedures in place for consideration of PMBs, which allow an opponent of the Bill to kill it by ‘talking it out’, otherwise known as filibustering. This is frequently the fate of PMBs, only 5% of which on average make it on to the statute book. A government-backed bill normally stands a better chance of success. However, these are not normal times and events on 22 March did not turn out as anticipated.

Instead of the Bill being talked out by Labour, which had been planning to focus the discussion on its cross-party amendment to allow votes at age 16, supported by 85 MPs, it was filibustered by the Conservative MP for Shipley, Philip Davies, a member of the European Research Group (ERG) and ardent Brexiteer. In what was clearly an act of collaboration with Labour against the government: Davies more or less copied and pasted a whole raft of new clauses and amendments tabled by the opposition during the Committee Stage (none of which had been successful) that he referred to as ‘Matheson’s greatest hits’ (Christian Matheson was leading the proceedings for Labour), adding a few more of his own to boot. Several amendments were tabled jointly by Matheson and Davies.

With his well-established talent for talking endlessly without much substance, only ‘giving way’ to pre-arranged interventions from other MPs in order to prolong a semblance of discussion, Davies ended his speech just 10 minutes before the Speaker called time at 2.30pm. This left only a few minutes for Labour’s Matheson and the sponsors of the Bill, Glyn Davies and the constitution minister Chloe Smith, to make a few concluding statements. Labour might have been glad of the support in killing the Bill, but its planned debate on votes at 16 was also hijacked in the process.

Other rebellious Tories also turned out for the session and Labour mustered an impressive showing. But genuine supporters of the Bill were thin on the ground: Dominic Grieve and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown for the Conservatives, Ben Bradshaw for Labour, Mike Gapes (ex-Labour, now Independent Group) and Layla Moran for the Lib Dems, were all notably absent. There was no question of anyone putting a closure motion for the government as at the Second Reading: their troops were simply not there to answer the call. The progress of the Bill came to an end, not with a bang but a whimper.

This deliberate humiliation of the government did not only reflect the fallout from Brexit. It was also a rebuke for trying to push through a significant change to the franchise, indeed a party manifesto pledge, through a PMB rather than a government Bill.

What was it that persuaded Philip Davies to jump in at the last minute with his myriad amendments? Was it that already-infamous speech by the Prime Minister against Parliament? Did he fear the possibility of an extended expat vote swinging the result against Brexit in the event of a second referendum? Was he put up to it by Labour to make sure the Bill would not get through? Whatever his motives, several conclusions can be drawn from this extraordinary display of strategic disruption.

First, there is serious need for reform of the procedures for Private Member’s Bills: the government has failed to act on a number of petitions and recent reports from the Parliamentary Procedure Committee making recommendations for change. A system that allows such wasting of parliamentary time by filibustering, funded by taxpayers, and watched with incredulity and incomprehension from the public gallery, surely has no place in a country which considers itself to be a model of democracy.

Second, the intervention by Philip Davies laid bare the internal disarray within the ranks of the Conservatives, torn apart by deep divisions over Brexit. That a Conservative MP should filibuster an important Bill supported by its own government reveals the extent to which the government has lost control of its own party.

Third, the question of overseas voting rights continues to be dominated, as in previous parliamentary debates, by party politics. As anticipated a year ago, the pursuit of partisan interests prevented the emergence of a properly informed discussion of the core issues at stake in this Bill. It is those who will become, or remain, disenfranchised by the 15-year rule that have paid the highest price.

The Overseas Electors Bill is now dead, but the question of UK overseas voting rights will not go away and determined expatriate campaigners will continue their battle for what they see as electoral justice. The Conservatives should recognise that trying to deliver votes for life through a ‘single issue bill’ presented as non-political was an ill-judged strategy that proved to be counter-productive, particularly in a hung parliament.

The politics of overseas voting in the UK are such that the removal of the time limit on the overseas franchise is more likely to be achieved if it is counter-balanced by the reduction of the voting age to 16, which is now a manifesto pledge of all opposition parties. Both extensions of the franchise could be incorporated into a single but wide-ranging bill to increase democratic engagement, which could also include a much needed overhaul of electoral administration, putting an end to the untidy state of current legislation, as called for by the Association of Electoral Administrators.

But – and it is a big but – this would demand a significant degree of political compromise. Unless the trauma of Brexit triggers a new approach to consensus-building in Westminster, the necessary cooperation remains unlikely: Britons abroad will once again drop out of sight and out of mind.

Readers who want to know more about the issue of voting rights for Britons abroad can go to Britons Voting Abroad or its Facebook page.

Note: This post represents the views of the author and not those of the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. It was first published on the LSE Brexit blogFeatured image: Philip Davies MP. Photo: UK Parliament via an Attribution 3.0 Unported licence


About the Author

 Dr Sue Collard is a Senior Lecturer in French Politics and Contemporary European Studies in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.




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