Facing up to the “Jockalypse”


Some of us are still reeling. We were so sure that there would be a prolonged period of constitutional uncertainty following the UK general election that it has been difficult to adjust to realities that suddenly and dramatically shifted in character. Indeed, as for Republicans in last year’s presidential election, there was cognitive dissonance among some from the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats  as they questioned both the 10.00pm exit poll and the first few results.

Although the left is now, just three days after the election, taking comfort from memories of John Major’s government as he wrestled with a narrow majority and the Eurosceptic “bastards”, the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act now gives David Cameron a lengthy period within which the UK can be reshaped. While the Europe referendum will occupy minds, there are reasons to think that we are set for radical economic and social reforms. This will be neoliberalism mark something or other, (where are we up to now?)

Europe aside, there is also the “Jockalypse”, as London Mayor Boris Johnson crudely termed the dramatic electoral gains by the Scottish National Party. Even however, at this very early stage, a Scottish strategy is taking shape on the Sunday talkshows as well as in blogs and tweets. The strategy draws upon the approaches adopted by Mrs Thatcher’s governments as they faced militant left-wing local councils in the 1980s.

The Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils were abolished and the ill-fated poll tax was introduced. The tax (which while providing some rebates sought to equalize payments for local government services) contributed much to Mrs Thatcher’s eventual downfall.

The guiding principles behind the poll tax were to make payments for council services much more visible while at the same time curbing the redistributive effects of the taxation system. Increased visibility, it was said fairly openly, would encourage councils to cut services and seek efficiency savings so that poll tax increases would be minimized. If Labour councils failed to do this, there was a hope the electorate would turn to Conservative councillors who would curb the growth of services and offer a lower poll tax.

The poll tax was defeated by the politics of the late 1980s. There were widespread protests and deep anxieties among Conservative backbenchers. Sufficient numbers threw their weight behind Michael Heseltine’s challenge to Mrs T.

We now live in different times. There is just one Conservative MP who has to worry about Scottish electoral sensibilities. There are few impediments to reform particularly if it can be framed as a healing gesture that goes some way towards meeting SNP demands.

As with local government, the Scottish strategy will rest on fiscal visibility. The Scottish electorate can, it is increasingly being said (although not in such direct terms), be brought back to its political senses through full fiscal devolution. If the Scottish Parliament has full and visible authority over tax-raising and service provision, the SNP will take the heat for the tax rates that uncut services require. Scottish politics will thereby be pulled rightwards.

Can it work? If we return to the history of local government, and compare the political climate today with that in the early 1980s, the answer is undoubtedly yes at least over the long-term. Will it be adopted. Probably not. As the Daily Telegraph warns, there may be too many risks.


Globalization Revisited

UnknownThere will be a launch event to mark Grahame Thompson’s new book, Globalization Revisited. It will be held on Wednesday 13 May 2015 at 13:30 in CSS 4.2.26 (The Lunch Room) at the University of Copenhagen, (Øster Farimagsgade 5, 1353 København K).

Grahame will be introducing the book and responding to comments. Laura Horn (Roskilde University) and myself will be serving as discussants.

Further details



Krugman takes on the Tories (again)


Paul Krugman’s columns in The New York Times are always a good read. Indeed, he is the quintessential public intellectual.

Today’s column is no exception. In it, he takes aim at a familiar target in the shape of Britain’s Conservative-led government. He bemoans the way in which the Conservatives “.. are posing as the guardians of prosperity ..”. By, implication, he acknowledges that such a frame might well secure David Cameron’s re-election as Prime Minister. Yet, as Krugman bitterly records, “.. Britain has had a much worse track record since 2007 than it had during the Great Depression”.

True enough. Certainly, if per capita real income is considered, the current level for the UK is only now somewhere around the figure it reached just before the financial crisis broke in 2008.

Why, then, Krugman asks are the Conservatives getting away with it? The answer, he suggests, is that voters have short-term political memories and, when making a decision about the way they will vote, only factor in trends over the preceding six months or so. During that period, there has indeed been growth in the UK.

This may well be part of the answer. However, studies of the six-month periods preceding British general elections suggests a more nuanced picture. And we also make comparisons. A parallel can be drawn with perceptions of poverty and deprivation. As Walter Runciman’s classic 1966 study (Relative Deprivation and Social Justice: a Study of Attitudes to Social Inequality in Twentieth-Century Britain) suggested, we draw comparisons with those around us. We do not judge our own income and well-being through comparisons with Bill Gates or other billionaires. Instead, we make judgments through comparisons with those around us. Often we believe on the basis of this that we are entitled to equal or better remuneration.

Our understanding of those around us has broadened since Runciman wrote his book. We look at other countries. We draw comparisons with the Eurozone. The Greek experience (whether real or imagined) has loomed large. On that basis, while British growth may indeed be pitiful, it seems (rightly or wrongly) to be significantly better than that in many of the continental European economies.

To date, the European issue has not, despite UKIP’s best efforts, been high on the agenda. It is nonetheless always there in the background.


Nick Clegg – too soon for obituaries

imagesThere’s an interesting piece in today’s Guardian by Matthew d’Ancona. It is a sensible corrective to those who have written off Nick Clegg and assumed that both he and his party will be wiped out in the coming general election.

To be sure, the Liberal Democrats will take what Barack Obama would call a “shellacking”. They have paid a heavy price for the ministerial posts that they secured in 2010. Conservatives despise them for holding back the government from more full-blooded forms of policy. (This is however a difficult counter- factual to sustain. Would David Cameron really have acted that differently if he had gained his overall majority?)

More importantly, despite much evidence to the contrary, many of the Lib Dems’ 2010 voters saw them as a party of the left. Indeed, in the wake of the Iraq war and Blairism, the party appeared well to the left of New Labour. Some of these voters will return to Labour while others to defect to the Greens or the nationalists.

Yet, although political blood will undoubtedly be shed, incumbency will probably work to the Lib Dems’ advantage and will probably retain more seats (including Clegg’s own seat of Sheffield Hallam) than simple percentages might suggest. And, in a close overall race, their twenty or so MPs could well again give Nick Clegg the role of kingmaker. As d’Ancona observes, Clegg had considerable life in him during the leaders’ debate last week. And well he might.

The French Other

I have always been a bit suspicious of “Othering”, the cultural processes through which those who are not the same as us or “one of us” are constructed.

In large part, my sentiments have been driven by my innately cautious approach to cultural studies. All too often, it seemed to me, the discipline was guilty of trying to do too much. It reduced anything and everything to the cultural terrain. And, although I accept that my conclusions were based upon the thinnest of readings, there also seemed in many accounts (although certainly not all) to be precious little space for processes of contestation.

Nonetheless, all this having been said, Othering has a certain conceptual legitimacy. And certainly, as the British General Election bears down on us, (as Sky News has just reminded me there are only 46 days to go), France and the French are again destined to serve as the Other. Writing in today’s Sunday Times, David Cameron (or more probably an apparatchik writing on his behalf) holds out the spectre of Britain becoming another France should Ed Miliband become Prime Minister. He pointed to Miliband’s (rather tepid) embrace of Francois Hollande three years ago when he secured the presidency:

“Imagine if Miliband had been free to pursue his French dream: the fallout would be felt in catastrophic job losses, falling living standards, eye-watering debt and fast-diminishing hope in our future”.

In contrast, so as to seal the deal, Cameron highlighted British fiscal rectitude and economic growth figures.

It is a picture that of course neglects Hollande’s reconciliation with neoliberal economics. The Wall Street Journal, hardly a friend of the left, has charted the budget cuts and their impact upon local government in France. And, unlike President Mitterand thirty years ago, Hollande never really bothered with an initial tack to the left. There was nothing comparable with the “tournant de la rigueur” simply because there was more or less nothing from which to turn away.

France-bashing is a long-established and popular sport in the politics of the Anglosphere. Back in 2004, Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate and now Secretary of State, was accused by Republican supporters of “looking French” and, worse still, of speaking the language. It played well.

I’m not sure if Ed Miliband “looks French” but France might be pulled out of the campaign locker by Conservative operatives rather frequently over the coming weeks.


The irresistible rise of Scott Walker

CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) has just finished. The conservative gala – although that is a term participants probably wouldn’t like – attracts about 3000 activists and provides an opportunity for Republican presidential hopefuls to lay out their platform, attempt to establish a (sometimes new) political personality, and rouse the faithful.

Given the make-up of the attendees and their libertarian leanings, Rand Paul’s place at the top of the straw poll taken at the gathering comes as no surprise. There are times however when coming second is in itself a victory. Back in 1992, Bill Clinton’s second place in the New Hampshire (far behind the late Senator Paul Tsongas) sealed his claim to be the “comeback kid”. The rest, as they always say, is history.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker came in second at CPAC with just over a fifth of the votes . It establishes him as a, perhaps the, front-runner.

I tweeted recently that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was employing shock and awe tactics in terms of both fund-raising and assembling a formidable and loyal campaign team. True enough. But it may not be enough. Bush’s political accommodations, his seemingly managerial style and his inevitable associations with his father and brother’s political failing, are sufficient to damn him in too many conservative eyes. Walker just about manages to appeal to the different Republican and conservative constituencies. He can at least talk the talk (walking the walk comes later) in a way that draws support from party elites, business interests, religious conservatives, and Tea Party groupings, (known collectively as fifty shades of red).

And that is probably sufficient to win the party nomination. All it needs from this point onwards is, as Rick Perry discovered to his cost last time around, a modicum of competence on his part.


Rethinking Conservatism and conservatism workshop

CFP Rethinking Conservatism Workshop

University of Durham on Tuesday 16th June 2015

Call for Papers

The rise of the Tea-Party in the USA and Eurosceptic right in Europe illustrate some contemporary aspects of the challenge which stem from conservatism to Conservative Parties. This workshop will bring together scholars from across disciplinary boundaries to examine the relationship between the ideology of conservatism and the Conservative organisations. The workshop ‘Rethinking Conservatism and conservatism’ aims to bring together Political Scientists, Political Theorists and historians to address these questions from different disciplinary perspectives. The workshop will be held on 16 June 2015 in the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.

The keynote presentation will be given by Professor Reba Soffer with a discussion of what it meant to be a Conservative in Britain and the USA before Thatcher and Reagan.

The themes the workshop will explore will include:

  • The character of conservatism as an ideology (including the question of whether it is an ideology)
  • The character of Conservative political organizations
  • The relationship between the conservative ideas and Conservative political organizations.

Papers are welcome which focus on Britain and also those which consider Conservatism further afield.

Abstract Submission

All proposals should please include the following: title and name, institutional affiliation and address, and email address; together with, a paper title, an abstract of not more than 300 words, an indication of which theme(s) you are addressing, and up to five key words about your paper. Please also state whether or not you are a postgraduate student.

Abstracts (max 300 words) should be sent by 2nd April 2015 to sarah.cohen@northumbria.ac.uk

Anglo Files

I have an article looking back at the November 2014 US mid-term elections in the latest edition of Anglo Files. It reflects on some of the reasons for the Republican gains and considers their consequences for the final two years of President Obama’s period of office. The article assesses, in particular, the White House’s efforts, undertaken in the wake of the election, to reform immigration policy and reset relations with Cuba.