Since everyone‘s chipping in now, and despite my own deep reservations about the utility of a referendum as a way of resolving the UK’s relationship with the EU, it is still prudent to make plans for such an eventuality: As David Cameron’s ‘tantric‘ speech looms ever closer, so the likelihood that it will offer a popular vote in some form on membership appears to increase, even if more through thoughtlessness than intent.

Into this mix, we might also add that I’ve been reading a book (for fun, mainly): Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman writes about the way we think (with an instinctive ‘gut’ and a more rational ‘head’) and about the biases that this thinking contains.  In particular, his ideas about availability and “What you see is all there is” are potentially very helpful to us.

Firstly, let’s consider the situation. We have no final decision about a referendum, but we do have indicators pointing that way. We also know that a formal campaign will be bound by the Electoral Commission‘s rules, which will structure debate (and spending on campaigning). We can be confident that any referendum topic presented is likely to be read as ‘in/out’ by most voters and participants, even if membership is not mentioned, and that voting will be shaped by attitudes towards domestic politics before the EU qua EU (a la Second Order voting). Finally, let’s assume that my own position is one of supporting membership, even if all the points here could apply equally well to the anti- position.

Now let’s bring in some Kahneman. He tells us that people are generally lazy in their reasoning, using heuristics to take short-cuts, and rationalising on the basis of what information they are presented with. In evolutionary terms, this has generally worked well, but it is not necessarily appropriate to all situations, hence the emergence of more rational approaches alongside it. While we might like to think that people act and make decisions on a purely rational basis, that’s evidently not true, so we might better assume that people will make decisions in the easiest way possible. As Kahneman says, faced with complex decisions, we often substitute a simpler decision: thus “should the UK remain in the EU?” becomes “do I like the EU?”, since the former requires an evaluation of costs and benefits, while the later is simply affective and can draw on “what I know about the EU”.

So far, this doesn’t look too good: both pro and anti sides spend a lot of time trying to build big banks of research to justify their cases, when it might just come down to ‘chat in a pub’ type attitudes (i.e. over a pint, you will views on most things, without developing a wide-ranging evidence base to support).

But it is also important to recognise that this also opens up a set of opportunities, of which I list three.

  1. Most people have shallow preferences on the EU. It has a low salience, as compared to other issues, so we might expect that while attitudes are currently more negative than positive, that can be easily moved, as in 1975. Associating high salience issues with a pro-EU position would therefore help;
  2. In the current open field of public debate, there is scope to set agendas and develop peoples’ heuristic models. Witness the slow-drip approach of some newspapers and of some sceptic pressure groups, building an image of the EU as bureaucratic, interfering, undemocratic and wrong: none of it is killer stuff, but it has become the default mode for media reporting of European affairs. ‘Brussels’ has a bad name in large part because communication of the alternative is much more complex and journalists use shortcuts too. However, this does not mean that other heuristic models cannot be developed, built around positive values of cooperation, consensus and outputs;
  3. What you see is still all that there is, so there is much scope to put things in peoples’ way to affect their thinking. The closer this comes to a vote, the more available it will be and the more likely to affect behaviour. This might include stressing the positive associations of a choice (e.g. for pros, the access to markets and funding, or the halo effect of membership on the UK’s international standing) or the negative associations of a choice (e.g. the costs of non-membership, in economic and political terms). Even if these associations are not substantiated in fact, they will still affect people’s attitudes, as witnessed by the wilder excesses of sceptic comments.

In brief, I would suggest that if a vote does come, then it will be much more open that most people realise (this is another Kahneman point, that people tend to over-estimate the likelihood of events occurring). However, for this to come to fruition, it will require pro-EU individuals and organisations to mobilise now in order to maximise their chance of influencing people. At the moment, only sceptics seem to have grasped this and consequently are making all the running.

 

UPDATE: with a slightly different reasoning, Jon Worth makes some very similar points in his blog here: I heartily commend it to you.

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Boris Johnson tells us it’s all sorted: David Cameron is going to make his long-awaited ‘tantric’ speech on the EU ‘within weeks’ and he’s going to offer an in-out referendum.

You will recall that this speech has been kicked back several times since the summer and that Cameron himself has given nothing more than veiled suggestions of what might (or might not) be in it.

The unfortunate effect of all this is that the speech is becoming ever more important to all involved, because of the potential it holds for moving British debate forwards from its current ‘phoney war’ status. For sceptics, it will be point where the game is properly afoot, a referendum is called and they can realise their goal of withdrawal; for pro-EU elements, it will either kick a referendum into the long grass, hopefully not to be seen again, or if a vote is called then it will mobilise the currently passive pro-EU constituency to follow in Tony Blair‘s wake in speaking out.

The reason for the delay is also pretty obvious: Cameron doesn’t know (or can’t decide) what to say. As Bagehot noted in The Economist recently, Cameron is hemmed in on one side by his increasingly radical backbenchers and on the other by the clear recognition that moving out of the EU will only marginalise the UK more.

In brief, there would appear to be a number of options of what he could say:

  • Offer an in-out vote this parliament. This is the sceptic maximalist option and very unlikely, given the pressure on parliament’s time, the long list of other (economic) priorities, the likely sundering of the coalition and the current sets of EU negotiations where the UK is already struggling to be heard;
  • Offer in-out next parliament. Less unlikely, since it offers the possibility of bouncing other parties into making the same commitment and (if we believe the polls) making it Labour’s ‘fault’ for falling out of the EU. However, it remains unlikely precisely because it would make it much more likely to tie politicians’ hands on future policy and Cameron has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t want to exit (in line with Labour and the Lib Dems);
  • Offer a consultative vote sometime to give a mandate to renegotiate membership. This side-steps exit (at least initially) and potentially gives HMG a strong hand to ‘go to Brussels’ to secure concessions. However, the mood across the EU is not a positive one, especially given the big push on EMU reforms, and it’s not hard to see ‘renegotiations’ turning out much like 1974, i.e. nothing of substance. It would also then presumably lead to a second vote on whether to accept the new terms, bringing exit back on the table;
  • Offer no vote, but instead set out his policy of critical engagement, defending British interests, etc. Also unlikely, mainly because it would cause uproar in his party and severely dent his ability to lead them. At best, this would end up just kicking the issue down the road a short distance, only for it to return  with heightened calls for its resolution.

Ultimately, there are no good options left for Cameron. His actions over the parliament (and before) have gradually exposed the flaws in his EU policy: ‘let’s not talk about it’ has been taken by backbenchers to mean that Cameron is with them on leaving the EU, when it actually just means ‘let’s not keep scaring voters that we’ve got nothing else to discuss.’

As Christmas approaches, Cameron is left in an invidious position of his own making. Whatever he does, it will have lasting repercussions.

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I have had the opportunity to research UKIP for many years now, having firstly worked on the party in the mid-1990s.

In that time, I have witnessed its rise from a small group of dedicated campaigners, working solely on the issue of  getting the UK out of the EU, through its electoral break-through in the European Parliament elections in 1999, into its current phase of increased media profile and talk becoming a consolidated part of the party political system. The headlines of recent weeks (“UKIP ‘are third force in British politics’“, “Ukip deserves to ‘be taken seriously‘”) would seem to point towards that being so.

However, my long memory was stirred by this talk: we have been here before. Talk of a sea-change was common in 2004, following UKIP’s success in coming second (with help from Kilroy-Silk) in the EP elections. Thus the Mail said that “the spectacular success of UKIP in knocking the Lib Dems into fourth place, leaving Labour and the Tories with less than 50 per cent of the vote between them, has (for now at least) rewritten the electoral map. We are witnessing a great surge of protest from a public that has had enough.”  The Daily Star wrote about UKIP as “a major political force”, with (then campaign leader) Nigel Farage “boasting” that “UKIP is now unstoppable.”

A quick peek at the Google Trends data for searches on ”UKIP” highlights the reality: within months, Kilroy-Silk had been ejected from the party, which entered into a period of in-fighting, ultimately resulting in a dispiriting performance in the 2005 general election. With the exceptions of the elections in 2009 (EP) and 2010 (UK), UKIP has not secured a structural position in either the media or party politics.

Even the recent media interest does not (yet) represent a change to this, given that much of it can be associated with a concentration of specific events (the PCC elections, the Rotherham fostering story and the three November by-elections). Indeed, as the second graph shows, there has already been a significant down-turn in searches on the party from the initial spike in late November.

In short, I would return to the hypothesis I set out some years ago on the tensions that UKIP has to confront. On the one hand has been successful in exploting its initial niche as an (EU) protest party. On the other, it now suffers from a number of internal difficulties in moving beyond this niche.

Firstly, it lacks an ideological basis. The party is held together by little more than its dislike of the EU. A read of the 2010 manifesto reveals a collection of populist measures, only made possible by assumed (huge) savings from leaving the EU. As Farage himself is often heard to say, UKIP is not just the Tories with a ‘proper’ European policy, but a much broader church. This makes it much harder to generate a coherent and comprehensive programme of government.

Secondly, it lacks depth of resources. Both money and personnel are in short supply for the party. Even with the recent influx of members in recent weeks, membership is roughly 20,000, or roughly 30 per Commons constituency (thanks to Tim Bale for that observation), hardly enough to support either an extensive campaigning strategy (even if it could be afforded): the Green’s 2010 strategy of pouring everything into one constituency isn’t viable. Likewise, the party leadership has been dominated by the considerable figure of Farage (it’s hard to see who else would warrant a piece of the kind the BBC produced this week); only Kilroy-Silk make a similar impact and that did not end well.

Indeed, this points to the third weakness. With its very democratic structure of governance, it is open to individuals seeking to maximise their power and influence. This was discussed by Adebi and Lundberg in a very useful analysis: essentially, the number of posts exceeds the number of moderate (in terms of party policy) individuals, making it easy for those with more radical agendas to gain influence. UKIP has had three major ruptures over personnel and policy since its foundation in 1993, each of which nearly killed it off: even today, the party suffers from defections (e.g. Nikki Sinclaire) by senior figures.

The media like a good headline, and Farage undoubtedly provides good copy, but to present UKIP as the ‘third party’ is a vast over-extrapolation, both of the party and of voters. Just as 2004 didn’t translate into 2005, and 20090 didn’t translate in 2010, so I would expect UKIP’s performance in the 2015 general election to remain a pale imitation of their 2014 European elections performance, even if the latter does leave UKIP as the best represented party in the EP.

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In recent months, Welsh actor Damian Lewis has shot to prominence on both sides of the Atlantic for his role in the proclaimed new TV drama, Homeland. This success has led Lewis to appear on British and American chat shows, and has even landed him with an invitation to dine with President Obama. Homeland, it transpires, is the president’s favourite TV programme. He has confessed to going into the Oval Office, on a Sunday afternoon, and pretending to work, only to watch the show’s latest episode.

Homeland’s central plot pivots around the main character, Sergeant Nicholas Brody, played by Lewis. Having spent 8 years captive in Iraq, the central question the show asks is whether or not Brody has been ‘turned’, away from his beloved America, to instead support the cause of terrorism.

Ably supported by an excellent cast and, in particular, a series of outstanding performances from Claire Danes, Lewis convincingly portrays the tensions of a man wrestling with conflicting identities and allegiances.

Homeland breaks down the familiar identity markers of Good Americans and Evil terrorists, as we are repeatedly left to contemplate Brody’s aims and motivations.

By continually prompting the viewer to ask the question, ‘whose side is Brody on?’, Homeland is able to highlight some of the problems with being able to ask that question in the first place.

Homeland then is part critique and part reinforcement of the logic of the War on Terror. The show’s appeal lies in its ability to confuse and conflate the two sides of the conflict, but ultimately reinforces the idea that, as George W. Bush said back in 2001, “you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists”.

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Dr Malte Kaeding

After the media was dominated for a perceived eternity by the US elections campaign or the endless Eurozone Crisis, in mid-November attention briefly went a bit further east where the Chinese Communist party (CCP) has completed its once-a-decade leadership transition, revealing the 25 members of the Politburo and the seven members of its Standing Committee.
In March 2013 Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will formally take over power from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, Xi as CCP General Secretary and President and Li as Premier. The media has tried hard to provide us with some information about who the new leaders are and a lot of scholars and pundits have analysed the possible impact of the leadership change on the rest of the world.
It is likely that China will become a more assertive regional power as its current belligerent maritime behaviour vis-à-vis Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines already suggests. On the wider international arena there is already its tough stance in the Libyan and Syrian crisis. It will not get any easier dealing with a ‘peacefully rising’ China. More state-owned enterprises and state investment funds going on spending sprees in Europe, including the political consequences, are also to be expected. Hence, will China rule the Western world, similar to fears of a Japanese overtake in late 1980s (just watch Blade Runner)? Maybe these fears are too extreme (yet), but it is crucial to stay alert, especially also in academia.
There has been a lot of speculation about political ‘reform’ in China. The argument is that the CCP has to react and that the people become more demanding – especially when the country faces problems such as growing inequality, slowing growth, ineffective allocation of resources, rampant corruption and a destroyed environment, to name just some of them.
To put it directly, it’s not going to happen! Observers have rightly highlighted the absence of anyone who could be remotely considered a ‘reformer’ in the new Standing Committee. Also we have to remember who and how one gets into the top leadership. Xi and Li and the other members of the new Standing Committee are chosen because they somehow represent the carefully balanced interests of various rivalling party factions and cliques. Moreover the outgoing leadership will not want to install anyone who might hurt their legacy. In such system not those with the greatest charisma or best ideas succeed, but those who could not endanger anyone and who are best connected. This is not the wise and benevolent leadership as some naïve Western observers believe; it is the result of a system which breeds conformity and mediocrity.
We shall also not forget that there has been absolutely no progress on the political front over the past decade. Indeed the situation is worse than under Jiang Zemin and this despite the great hopes that were connected with Premier Wen Jiabao ten years ago. He was the aide of disgraced Premier Zhao Ziyang and joined him when Zhao spoke to the demonstrators on the Tiananmen Square in 1989. Days later Zhao was ousted and tanks moved into the square. Wen talked a lot about democracy, preferably to the foreign press, but no actions followed. No wonder he is referred to as ‘the best actor’ among some Chinese. If even the allegedly most liberal politician of his generation did nothing for political reform, what is there to expect from the generation of ‘princelings’ – children of famous party leaders who led a privileged life and were groomed to become the ruling elite?
It is very difficult to envision that political reform is on the agenda and indeed it might never be. Yet, we shall not forget that it is the CCP ruling, a mafia-like regime that, like any communist party, will do everything to stay in power and if this means pretending to embrace some form of democracy it might even do this. However one look at Hong Kong and you will see what this version of ‘democracy’ means…
Dr Keading has studied and taught in the Greater China region for six years and is member of the Hong Kong Transition Project, the EU-China Network and an Associate Fellow with the European Center of Contemporary Taiwan Studies. You can’t follow him on Twitter…

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I’ve just posted a new piece on “Building a new Europe: Engaging with British euroscepticism” for the European Council of Foreign Affairs, as part of their “EU at the crossroads” project.

In it, I conclude that “The longevity of British euroscepticism – in all its forms – can be seen in one of two ways.  Either the British are ‘different’ and reconciliation is impossible, or we have just not found the right way to bridge the gap.  The very existence of the EU, built as it on the Franco-German rapprochement, shows the fallacy of the first option.  Therefore, euroscepticism should act as a spur to making the Union into an effective and legitimate mechanism for governance.  That will require a change, not only in institutions, but also in attitudes. ”

Full text here.

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Yesterday, I chaired a very interesting and engaging discussion at Europe House on the subject of “Democracy listens to dissent: what has euroscepticism done for the EU?” I was joined by Tom Moriaty of Occupy London and Gawain Towler, UKIP and EFD spokesman, who both talked about their group’s perspectives and their understanding of the democratic process in general and the EU in particular.

My key interest in the discussion was about opening up new debates around the integration process that try to bring in those voices that are usually excluded: as one attendee noted afterwards, these aren’t voices you normally get to hear. As much as the EU is a broad church (incidentally, a term both Tom and Gawain used to describe their groups too), it is not completely consensual, nor does it move, convoy- style, at the speed of the slowest boat. While that might be understandable, it is not sustainable, so the effort to identify new common ground is valuable for everyone.

As befits someone who has avoided grand theory wherever possible, I think I understand Hegel’s dialectic. Thus, the EU is the thesis and eurosceptical thought is the anti-thesis: only by bringing those together can we achieve a new synthesis that reconciles the two positions and takes us into a new phase of political action [doubtless, a colleague will come along shortly to correct me on this]. As much as it fits with Hegel, it strikes me as common sense that in the face of persistent and embedded euroscepticism the EU needs to try something different.

Two main ideas struck me from the debate.

Firstly, the degree of agreement between the two speakers, despite the very different nature of their groups and their activities. Both agreed on the need for debate and dissent within democratic systems, which in turn requires a level of political knowledge and engagement by individuals: this is indeed a key part of Parliament Week, under whose aegis the event was run. They also agreed that the deregulation of the financial sector was a vital part in understanding the economic crisis and, as a result, requires our attention, both because it compromises our economic well-being and because it has driven an increase in intolerant political and social behaviour (e.g. racism, sexism, etc.).

Secondly, the debate highlighted an aspect of euroscepticism that is often overlooked, namely that sometimes the EU is not the problem itself, but rather a place where problems play out. Thus Tom was very pragmatic about the EU, noting both that it had facilitated the contagion of the financial crisis, but also that the UK would logically work closely with its major economic partners to find solutions. Similarly, Gawain observed that one of the tensions in the EU (especially in the Parliament) is the clash of national political cultures that have very different fundamental conceptions of the role of politicians and political institutions.

Ultimately, I found it heartening that such a thoughtful and constructive debate could take place: the swivel-eyed monsters of many peoples’ prejudice weren’t there and everyone who spoke displayed a level of understanding that has too often been missing in media debates. I can’t pretend that we solved anything, but I hope we have demonstrated the concept of how we might advance towards new understandings.

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Mark Olssen and John Turner

One question that is still to be asked regarding the series of rebellions and protests in the Middle East that have come to be known as the Arab Spring concerns the possible parallels that can be discerned with those great liberal revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

At a first look certain similarities seem obvious. The rebellions of the Arab Spring, manifesting themselves across the Arab world in countries as different as Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Iran, Bahrain and Syria, have been a demand expressed for both liberty and rights more generally. Perhaps, what has been most common across all these countries has been a demand for certain specific freedoms which have been essentially economic and political. On the one hand they have been a call for economic entitlements to a decent living and viable future; on the other, and related to this, a questioning of the role of the state with concern to its legitimacy. Peoples in these Arab nations have, for really the first time in any major vocal way, come to question the state according to its justification for rule as well as for the ancillary privileges it confers on certain elite groups who have historically participated in rule, monopolized access to the power institutions whereby rule is conducted, and seen it as their largely undefined right to be able to continue to rule. For common to all of these Arab states has been a new demand that their states extend rights more generally to the population, and institute democratic mechanisms of accountability, transparency and representation to all, as well as justify their legitimacy in terms of such criteria.

No more obvious example is the case of Egypt which saw the end of the 30 year rule of Hosni Mubarak and his replacement, eventually, with a democratically elected legislative led by the Freedom and Justice Party and President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The same is true, despite the differences in the forms of state formation and civil society of these countries, with Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria. What has taken place and continues still, have been protests concerning the rights of individuals as citizens concerning democratic representation, as well as economic and political entitlement and inclusion more generally; demands that each individual, race and religious grouping, should have a fair and equal right to participation and assured rights of future continuance, based on transparent and generally accepted ideas of legitimacy, which motivate at this historical juncture such demands.

A further parallel between the rebellions of the Arab Spring and the seventeenth century revolutions consists in a reconfiguration of the dualities in the relation between representation and divine power. Just as Locke argued against Robert Filmer and the doctrine of the divine right of kings to open up and extend a space for popular representation and political obligation grounded in the individual, so too, a singular commonality of the Arab Spring has been a protest by the citizenry on behalf of securing a greater accountability of rulers to the demos in a refashioning of the basis of political legitimacy, away from justifications in terms of caste, tribe, family or religion. Such protests were not against religion per se, but rather for a re-spatialisation or re-positioning of the religious in relation to the secular whereby both the manner and rationale for governance will be rendered newly accountable to the people as citizens in what must now be seen as the emergence of a new, albeit early, form of social contract. Influenced and inspired by the messages emanating from new forms of electronic and digital technology which communicate comparative models of global governance experience and rights, Arab peoples have begun the slow demand for secured rights against oppression, or, indeed, as is just as likely, from being simply ignored, as well as new demands of justification by rulers for the rule they maintain and the basis by which they adhere to power.

Affinities with the earlier liberal revolutions and movements of change should be carefully qualified, however. Although these new demands can be represented as an expression of liberal rights and freedoms, they are of a narrower scope than those theorized by Locke and which came to prevail in the West, through the revolutions of 1688, 1776, and 1789. The qualified questioning of the legitimacy of Arab states over rights and democracy constitutes only a limited expansion of the secular to incorporate specific entitlements. It certainly constitutes a demand that states are responsive to the wishes of citizens generally, but in a very qualified way. Such protests also clearly articulate a demand that the state represents the citizenry and justifies the conditions in which it continues rule. Implicit within such demands, further, there is clearly a call for an expansion of the secular and a re-alignment of the legitimate role of religion resulting in the incorporation of a more formal clarification and institutionalization of the rights of each within the society overall. These result in a more limited demand for rights than was historically expressed in the West. Rather than the wide libertarian conception of individual rights, conceived by Locke as a natural right, giving each individual sovereignty over their own bodies and minds, with clear autonomous rights of saying and doing more or less anything they liked, constrained only by a conception of law that was negatively defined in relation to a laissez-faire state, the conception being demanded by the Arab world is more limited, and must be tailored to the more communitarian context that dominates their lives. Religion is one core dimension of this context. Tribal and community relations which are inextricably tied up with economic activity and local political structures, constitute others. This is why in the Arab world the indigenous uprisings have to a large extent been misinterpreted by a Western media who too readily have been willing to confuse what is being articulated with those ideas of liberty that we have in the West. Only by a more nuanced analysis can we differentiate and reconcile the demands for liberty being called for with the equal continued relevance within the Arab world of conceptions of Western decadence, which still hold sway.
By correctly understanding the call for freedoms and state accountability as a limited demand to increase individual rights of citizenship within a limited sphere we can more easily make sense of episodes such as the Dutch cartoons uproar, or more recently, of the shooting of the US Ambassador to Libya, as a response to religious outrage over perceived slurs to Mohammad. Although positive political and economic rights are being demanded, the rebellions must be seen as a qualified re-alignment of the relation of the secular in relation to religion. What are not being granted are rights of open expression in relation to sacred values or texts. In the Arab world, the type of liberty being called for excludes such hurts. As a further corollary of course, the parallel rise of violence concurrent with the demand for rights testifies to the absence of any institutionalized principle or mechanism which has agreed recognition or acceptance for the management or processing of such discontents. That rights should be more precisely defined is perhaps the lesson here that the West should contemplate. Simply defined freedom to act within the law raises the question as to what sort of law and on what basis it should be understood. Needless hurt to other peoples’ religious views in acts of gross insensitivity by proclamations through the public media must surely be seen as akin to gross violations of legitimate privacy, whether via phone hacking or with the assistance of a powerful telephoto lens. In this sense, we could say that the new demands of the Arab world should not be read as a blanket demand for liberty which tolerates either cultural or social insensitivity or hurt and that violence will be a likely result of such reckless irresponsibility. The liberty and rights sought can thus be seen to constitute a necessary realignment of the secular and the religious at a particular historical juncture without eradicating the demands for respect, responsibility, caution, and care.
Within this context we can understand also what perhaps may emerge in respect to democracy. If our analysis is correct, then calls for greater democracy are of a potentially different sort to those models that have been implemented in the West. What is being called for is more limited mechanisms of transparency and legitimacy concerning political representation and state power, and individual rights and freedoms must be interpreted in this light. Freedom in this sense should not be seen as countenancing individual rights to openly trade in insulting or insensitive religious criticisms. In this sense there is a clear distinction between the type of freedom being called for in the Arab protests and the way freedom is understood in the West. Individual rights should not be confused with collective cultural or religious rights. What is clearly needed here is the development in the West of more nuanced rules and theory which can distinguish these different types of freedom. Should freedom of individuals allow open rights for anyone to promote grossly insensitive and abusive discourse against other peoples’ religious or cultural lifestyles? Should such matters be left to individual legal remedy through such institutions as libel actions through the courts and be beyond the intervention of states? For Barack Obama to simply shrug, and say ‘that is not how our legal system works’ as a way of acknowledging the impotence of the state with respect to the release in the US of an abhorrent and insensitive film slurring Islamic beliefs may no longer be sufficient! Or can a meaningful conception of liberty with suitably restricted focus on socioeconomic, cultural and political rights be developed which can also prohibit individuals or groups from insensitive and socially irresponsible and provocative commentary likely to inflame protests and engender global discord? In other words, can we justify individual or sub-group restrictions over such things as criticizing religion, being publicly insensitive to other groups’ religious or cultural codes, or enforcing community architectural norms against libertarian economic ‘ínvaders’ from the West who expect to be able to transgress age-old community norms concerning such treasured values and codes? Seen in this light, it may be that what transpires in the Arab Spring, a protest now spreading throughout the Islamic world, is an attempt to balance the values of liberty with community responsibility in a way altogether different to what we in the West have historically understood that dividing line to be.
There are many other misunderstandings associated with the vagueness and generality of the concept of democracy. It is certainly far from clear that any simple, liberal-capitalist, Western, view of democracy can be straightforwardly exported to other parts of the world. Much clarification is indeed called for. Even in Western political theory, democracy is far from being a straightforward doctrine without ambiguities. There is always a potential problem with a conception of democracy as ‘rule by the people,’ lest, as has frequently happened, the majority in a society should act in illiberal or grossly unjustified ways. It is in addressing this type of problem that the philosopher Ronald Dworkin, in his recent book, Justice for Hedgehogs (2011, pp. 384 – 388), rejects majoritarianism as the basis for democratic decision-making, preferring what he calls a ‘partnership’ model of democracy. On this basis, he is willing to support practices, such as judicial review, which do not have ‘majority support’ or which are not subject to ‘electoral validation.’ The argument against majority decision-making is simply that majorities are not always right. He imagines a majority supporting a policy of ‘sticking pins into babies for fun’ as an obvious example of his objection in principle to majority rule. Expressed more philosophically, he means they sometimes depart from what is for him the essential normative principle upon which democracy is based: “the equal concern and respect that the community together, as the custodian of coercive power, has for each of its members” (p. 390). Yet the ‘partnership model’ that Dworkin prefers to the majoritarian model seems poorly defined at the level of practicalities to ensure such an outcome of equal respect. For Dworkin, “the partnership conception of democracy…holds that self-government means government not by the majority of people exercizing authority over everyone but by the people as a whole acting as partners” (p. 384). As Dworkin expands:
This must inevitably be a partnership that divides over policy, of course, since unanimity is rare in political communities of any size. But it can be a partnership nevertheless if the members accept that in politics they must act with equal respect and concern for all other partners (p. 384)
This explanation obscures what must be seen as a nagging doubt that Dworkin’s ‘partnership’ is one between majorities of ordinary people and established policy elites. This means that the conception of legitimacy, as embodying the principle of equal concern and respect, is what is central to the partnership conception, and that majorities’ decisions are only acceptable if they accord with such specialist groups made up predominantly, for Dworkin, of lawyers and judges. Some people might think that this is a bit like having the wealthy and powerful keep an eye on things! Specifically, says Dworkin, it means respect for the rule of law, and that the law be “consistent with [a] good-faith understanding of what every citizen’s dignity requires” (p. 384). While one would like to agree with Professor Dworkin that some principle or mechanism must be introduced in order to safeguard against possible abuses of majoritarian rule, the extent to which his ‘partnership’ conceals the ever-present possibility of rule by elites, with strange echoes of Plato’s class of guardian rulers, supposedly imbued with democratic values of respect and equality, leaves a great deal to be desired.
Arab communities and non-Western societies generally, would likely be suspicious of Dworkin’s so-called ‘partnership’ model as yet another version of Western hegemony seeking to discipline the Middle East according to Western standards, in what may well be claimed is a new form of imperialism. It would be better, we think, to accept that majoritarian democracy is itself a limited discourse which well may permit abuses, and to seek to forge consensus between West and East at a purely ethical or normative level of adherence to a global public good. While this would require a robust global discussion as to which elements and values were to be included and excluded, it is not judges who should constitute the partners with majorities, but rather globally constituted committees made up of ordinary citizens of the world, operating through already established structures such as the United Nations. Such a global public good based on what best continues life for all, at an abstract enough level to accommodate different cultural groups’ aspirations, comprising such elements as health, parrhèsia, or liberty of thought and action, legal access to institutions of support and guidance, respect for other values and principles, tolerance towards difference, education and training, and so on. The Arab Spring shows a new consensus on these values now emerging in a global world more interconnected than ever before under the impetus of new technologies of communication and publicity. Although the crucial issues and values will be mediated both culturally and historically in very different ways, hopefully they permit enough convergence to enable globally constituted panels to express judgments upon the practical workings of democracy if and when it errs. Rather than a partnership between different status and employment groups from different levels of society, as Dworkin suggests, what rather is required are overlapping networks representing the diversity of the world’s citizens organized variously in a plurality of cross-checking constituencies (ccc) and structures (ccs). What is needed to consolidate the expectations and stirrings of the Arab world then is the participation of refereeing bodies that can be seen to represent a genuine national non-partisanship in the opinions rendered.

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Today’s abig day for us. This evening we have the official launch of CRonEM, our Centre for Research on the European Matrix, headed up by my next-door neighbour Prof Alex Warleigh-Lack. With Sir Stephen Wall and Richard Corbett discussing whether “the EU Has Passed its Sell-by Date?” at Europe House in London, we’ve had lots of interest, both in the event and the Centre.

CRoNEM is a new multidisciplinary research centre housed in the School of Politics at the University of Surrey. 

At CRonEM, we research European integration as a matrix of overlapping layers of governance, institutions and processes that shape how people of this continent live their lives and are governed, as well as how Europe engages the rest of the world. We understand the EU as a core part of this matrix, but not as a synonym for it.

CRonEM organises a series of research seminars, an annual conference and other events aimed at outreach beyond academia, particularly in the Surrey region. We also welcome proposals from visiting scholars with research interests that reflect our research agenda.

One of the things that I will be looking forward to with particular interest is next year’s conference, with its twin tracks of panels and workshops, allowing space for much fuller discussion of contributions, rather than the often hurried format of general conferences. I’m working with several colleagues in the UACES Collaborative Research Network on Euroscepticism to pull together ideas for the event and it’s looking very interesting indeed.

So while most of the country belatedly remembers that they didn’t vote in the PCC elections today, my colleagues and I will be debating the future of Europe and the quality of Europe House’s nibbles. We’ll be getting the better end of that deal, I believe, so if you’d like to join in CRonEM’s activities on some other occasion, then we’d be glad to talk with you.

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What a relief to see that someone is finally taking up the gauntlet for what is being done to Higher Education in the UK. The Telegraph today published an article by its Education Editor, Graeme Paton, reporting on senior academics and peers’ arguments that HE reforms have resulted in ‘gross distortions’ in education. They cite the removal of funding for arts and humanities subjects, the promotion of the student as ‘consumer’ and the academic as ‘producer’. Education is therefore no longer about intellectual and critical development but about earning potential. I could not agree more and it’s a trend that is frighteningly hard to resist. It is the perception that there is nothing we can do to withstand the tide that means morale is failing amongst academics.

What the article does not cover is the effect of league tables. But before I get to that, there’s something I need to acknowledge. No-one can deny that the reforms are designed to address something that needs addressing. We are in the midst of economic crisis and we do need to make cuts. Universities have not always been good at connecting with the ‘real world’ and a certain amount of connection is right and proper. Some students are driven by the need to get good employment after university and universities need to be mindful of that. As for league tables, the student experience is important and students need to be seen as a vital part of the life of a department and university, not an inconvenience that distracts from the world of research.

But.

Higher Education is no different to any other area of our lives: it needs to be underpinned by adherence to an articulated set of principles and values. Looking around me and thinking about conversations I have had with people at a range of universities across the country, I’m not sure what those values are in HE anymore, unless they’re about the commodification of education.  What we will increasingly struggle to adhere to are the following: instilling in students reason to value education for its own sake, to help them internalise the idea that knowledge makes us wiser and stronger, better equipped to meet the many and varied challenges we face everywhere;  helping students to become self-sufficient and to be independent learners (sure, we all need someone to support us and guide us but there have to be clear limits to what is done in that regard); building flexibility into the treatment of students, who after all, are individuals who learn at different rates, in different ways and to different effects.

So why do we struggle? Part of it is the bureaucracy identified by the academics and peers in Paton’s article. Too often, the process, rather than the outcome the process is supposed to support, is the focus of attention. The funding issue, well, there’s nothing I can add there, it’s blindingly obvious – or perhaps not – what the middle to long term consequences will be of a decision to say the humanities and social sciences don’t matter. Let’s just say that I sooooo look forward to discussions on something like the impact of Alzheimers when those discussions are informed by medical researchers but not sociologists or political scientists.

But it’s the effect of league tables that most concerns me. My first cause for concern comes from the fact that we have already been taught the lessons of tables and targets in primary and secondary education. We know they resulted in teaching to the assessment rather than, well, just teaching and had a very negative effect on the quality of learning. I’m always telling my students, however, that knowledge is not the same as understanding. We know the lessons but we have evidently not learned the lessons of our failures in primary and secondary education. Apparently, setting targets for student recruitment, retention, student progression, number of ‘good’ degrees awarded etc in HE, none of these will have the same negative impact. As academics we will, of course, still be able to give good principled and impartial advice about where to study, what to study and whether to stick with it. We won’t design assessments that allow more and more students to excel rather than testing their learning in a rigorous fashion. We won’t reduce the amount of work they have to do in order to help them achieve better results. And our conversations about pedagogy will, of course, be all about what students need and not what students want, with full regard for the fact that we’re the experts, not the students.

I am not saying that we are at this unsavoury place yet but that is why we have to talk about it now, before we get there. The degree of incline on the slope of principles can be almost indiscernible. We could be halfway down before we know it. I have no intention of being part of the generation that killed HE in the UK. But that’s just the point, none of us intends that should happen, it just does – unless we are vigilant.

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