Author Archives: Olivia

Smoke and mirrors: the sovereignty trick

Ahead of the Queen’s funeral next Monday 19 September, Dr Jason Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Programme Director of the MSc in Social and Political Theory, delves into the mystique of sovereignty. 

Buckingham Palace, London

Watching the live broadcast of the proceedings of the Accession Council on the morning of September 10 2022 is the closest many of us will ever come to seeing the trick of sovereignty played out in real time. Like all good magic tricks, sovereignty needs the right staging to convince us it is real. And there is no greater stage for performing the trick than the ritual and ceremony around the death of the monarch. 

While theorists of sovereignty don’t routinely talk about it as a trick, they have long wrestled with the problem of its mystique. The mystery of sovereignty was clearly on display at the Accession Council in its proclamation of the death of Elizabeth II and the apparently seamless accession of Charles III. The Council was not making Charles king – he became ‘our Sovereign Lord’ the moment ‘our Sovereign Lady’ died. This suggests that sovereignty was somehow transferred between two bodies, or that it was ‘alienated’ from one person to another. But if we know anything about sovereignty, or at least so the story and the language goes, it is ‘inalienable’. Indeed, the constitution of the UK relies on the idea that sovereignty both never ceases and never moves – it is always invested in a single body eternally occupying the space of command. What is the mysterious process that allows a mortal human being to become the bearer of a supposedly permanent and inalienable power of sovereignty? 

In the later Middle Ages, one way of dealing with the conundrum, as Ernst Kantorowicz sets out in a famous book, was to say that the king occupied ‘two bodies’ – the natural body of his own person and the body politic, or the state. Something of this is captured in Louis XIV’s declaration that l’état c’est moi (‘I am the state’). We might also note, as more than one commentator has this week, that for many, the Queen was Britain in a way that went beyond mere symbolism. At a time when it is increasingly difficult to discern commonly valued national institutions or a common culture, Elizabeth II was the ‘constant’ in people’s lives, the shared reference point of Britishness in a society of growing division and conflict. 

The medieval theorists maintained that the king came to occupy the body politic through an act of God. That notion remains at the heart of the Accession Proclamation: it is God ‘by whom Kings and Queens do reign’. In his Leviathan, written over the course of the English civil war, Thomas Hobbes sought to remove God from the picture of king-making; it’s not God who creates kings and queens, but the ‘Multitude United in one Person’, or the mass of the people agreeing to live under the laws of a sovereign lord.  But Hobbes wanted to maintain that the sovereign power exercised by a king or queen (or indeed by an assembly of men like a parliament) was not their possession but a power that emanated from the state as a permanent body, an ‘Artificial Man’ or a ‘Mortal God’, as he put it. This ‘Leviathan’ is the enduring site of sovereign power, of which sovereign lords and ladies are only ever bearers for a term of life. 

The Accession Council is a bit behind the times in being somewhere between the idea of the King’s two bodies and the Leviathan. In his own declaration, Charles said that he is aware “of the duties and heavy responsibilities of sovereignty which have now passed to me” and that “I know that I shall be upheld by the affection and loyalty of the peoples whose sovereign I have been called upon to be”. In other words, Charles is taking on the personal exercise of powers invested in him by God. But the picture is much more complicated. Charles knows the implications of being head of state in a constitutional monarchy, with the sovereign’s powers (such as they are) largely delegated to the government, as well as being limited and revocable by Parliament. “I shall strive to follow the inspiring example I have been set in upholding constitutional government”, he declares. The King thus acknowledges that he is one element of the state, not the state itself. All this is perfectly consistent with the constitutional law doctrine that the sovereign in the UK is the ‘Crown-in-Parliament’. 

But if a magician promised to pull a rabbit out of a hat and rather produced a tedious document defining what ‘rabbit’ means, we’d probably feel short-changed. The Accession Council was about sustaining the illusion that the King Charles-shaped figure pulled out of the hat is not just the sovereign but sovereignty itself, when we know that this cannot be the case. So the trick can’t stop there. On Saturday, it culminated with the revelation of the sovereign – in obvious tension with the idea of a constitutionally bound monarch – as the unbound law-maker or uncommanded commander (legibus solutus). The concept of an earthly sovereign, is, of course, an essentially theological one, drawn from the notion of God as uncaused cause and unmoved mover. God speaks and it happens; it’s the same idea with the sovereign. Historically, the real expression of this idea of sovereign command was the control the sovereign exercised over their subordinates. In late medieval and early modern Europe this effectively meant command of the court retinue, who promised obedience to their ‘Liege Lord’ (a feudal pledge that remains in the Accession Proclamation) and, as became increasingly important, command of the armed forces. Indeed, the clearest indication of the power of the uncommanded commander is reflected in the British monarch’s status as the ‘Commander-in-Chief’. 

The really important part of Saturday’s ceremony, then, was not the words uttered in the Accession Proclamation, which magic away the problem of how unbound sovereignty can be exercised by a sovereign bound by the constitution, but rather in the reading of the Proclamation on the balcony of St James’s Palace in front of the public. For standing there between the Heralds and the gathered spectators, were the King’s Guards, soldiers armed with bayonets fixed to their rifles, drilled to the maximum, and poised to kill on command. At one point they placed their rifles on the ground so they could raise their bearskins in a perfectly synchronised and completely terrifying rendition of three cheers for the King, an act which, if performed in front of a child at their birthday party, may well have left them traumatised for life. And this, really, is the way that sovereignty has always ultimately shown itself and completed the trick – through the awe and fear inspired by the spectacle of a very coordinated squad of trained killers coming towards you, their deadly weapons drawn. 

Sovereignty is smoke and mirrors. We know that in reality human beings don’t possess two bodies, just the one; the ‘body politic’ is not a ‘Mortal God’, but a highly differentiated complex of institutions and daily-applied rules that are constantly challenged and transformed by forces internal and external to the state; and no individual or group can last long pretending to be an uncommanded commander – if we want to survive and flourish in the world we have to engage and compromise with other people rather than just threaten to kill them. For a long time, though, many people bought the trick and embraced the mystery of sovereignty. The reasons are complex – Empire and faith both played a big role – but key was how sovereignty’s workings took place behind closed doors, away from the eyes of the public. But in the present, the permanent gaze of TV and social media mean the trick is increasingly difficult to perform convincingly. The live broadcast of the Accession Proclamation is just one example of the way in which the exercise of sovereign power has been laid bare as quite unmysterious. As Anthony Barnett notes, there are other ways in which the mystique of monarchy is fast diminishing. King Charles seems to understand well that it needs to if the institution is to survive. But the danger to the monarchy is that once the secrets of the illusion of sovereignty have been exposed, you have to find some other way of persuading people you serve any useful purpose. In today’s Britain, the new King will find that a very hard trick to pull off.  

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“The Pioneer Programme was absolutely phenomenal”

Susan Christine Wachera, MSc Organisational Psychology student and winner of 2022 Pioneer Award for the Best Business Pitch, tells the story of her business, Black Talanta, as well as sharing her experience of taking part in Pioneer, a Birkbeck programme that helps students and graduates develop the knowledge and skills they need to start a business.

Susan Wachera

What is your business about?
Black Talanta supports Black students and recent graduates in accessing highly-skilled employment, mentorships and internships.

Did you always know you’d be a businesswoman?
From the age of 10 my whole life had actually been geared towards becoming a doctor. I studied BSc Medical Biochemistry and received an offer for a place at medical school. However, I knew I also had this other side of me that was very entrepreneurial and business-minded. I’ve always had side hustles going on. I thought for a while I could balance being a part-time doctor with my other businesses. Everyone thought I was crazy!

Why didn’t you end up pursuing a degree in medicine?
During my undergraduate degree, I founded a business that helped secure students medical internships and work placements. By doing this, I realised I had a talent in supporting people write CVs and build their personal brand, and I wanted to explore this career path further. I made a big and brave decision to give up my place in medical school, the year before I was due to start. I wanted to find out who I was when medicine wasn’t involved – because my whole identity at that time was wrapped up in medicine.

What did you do next?
I discovered Birkbeck’s MSc Organisational Psychology course and I was mind blown. I never knew that I could combine my love for business and my love for psychology. I started the course in October 2020 and haven’t looked back. Black Talanta came about through my lived experience and my desire to help other Black people secure opportunities and achieve their goals. It has taken off in recent months, with the help of Birkbeck’s Pioneer programme.

Susan Wachera presenting at the Pioneer Awards ceremony

How did Pioneer help you progress your business idea?
Pioneer was absolutely phenomenal. It helped me move from concept to product in only three months, which is almost unheard of. I was focused on applying everything I learnt on the programme, and I was taught how to set up a business in the right way, so I managed to set the foundations for my business quickly. I really appreciated all the Pioneer workshops, mentors and resources – it definitely helped me get opportunities, such as working with the Deputy Mayor of London, Silicon Valley, and the United Nations. I would definitely recommend the programme to other students.

What are your plans for the next few months?
For Black Talanta to really work at the scale I want it to, I’m looking to develop more partnerships with employers, so I can bring in as much talent into the workforce as I can.

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21 tips on how to become a successful researcher

Last week, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) results were announced, with the majority of Birkbeck’s research (83%) being confirmed as world-leading and internationally excellent. Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele, Professor of Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism, shares his wisdom on how to become a successful researcher.  

Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele, Professor of Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism

Having been active in academia for more than 30 years, I realise that I have reached the pinnacle of my career in applied linguistics and multilingualism research. I’ve always been passionate about research and teaching, and I am lucky enough to work in an institution that allows me to focus on both.  

Close to 30 of my former PhD students have made their way into academia and the wider world, and when we meet occasionally, we reflect on what it takes to become a successful researcher and how to climb the slippery career ladder.  The first thing is undoubtedly luck: with health, work, relationships. None of those should suffer in the drive to become successful. By “successful”, I mean good quantity and quality of research output, resulting in citations and invitations to present one’s work and ideas at workshops, panels and conferences.  It can also involve becoming part of international professional organisations, editorial boards, and spending time encouraging and guiding younger researchers.  Of course, it is impossible to know in advance whether one will become successful.  I would say that it is a mind-set. Think positively!   

Practical advice also helps, which is why I’ve come up with these 21 tips on how to become a successful researcher. There is one caveat: if the drive to success undermines happiness, it is not worth it. It is definitely better to be a happy person rather than an unhappy -even successful- researcher. It is really a matter of balance. 

  • Be happy and curious, creative and courageous, regulate your emotions. 
  • Have your finger on the pulse of your field: Where is it heading? What are the exciting new developments (theoretical, epistemological and methodological)? How can you contribute to these new developments by adding something distinctive? Can you end up shaping the field? 
  • Establish what your unique selling points are: What are your strengths and what makes your research distinctive? Why should anyone care about what you have to say? 
  • Find your own unique academic voice: you’re not a robot, you need to stand out from the crowd – while still fitting in the community. 
  • Research is not a competition as there are no ‘winners’. It’s a collaborative enterprise: helping others means you will get help too if you ask for it. 
  • Be optimistic, resilient, humble, ambitious, conscientious, honest, excited, enthusiastic. 
  • Accept that all research requires a huge investment in effort and time – often much more than expected. 
  • Realise that while reviewers are often constructive in their comments on your work, some can also be mean and hostile: don’t let them rattle you. Build a mental shield to protect yourself when things get nasty (also at conferences) and don’t lose your cool. 
  • Visualise your name in print under the title of a new paper in an excellent journal. 
  • Build up a network of fellow researchers from a wide range of ages and experience, be visible, sociable, friendly and trustworthy. 
  • Organise panels on your topic and major conferences, then turn the contributions into a special issue for a good journal. Plant a flag, invite people to join you, use humour to dissipate tension. 
  • Realise that even the best and most experienced researchers don’t produce gold on the first attempt: rework papers endlessly until they reach the publication threshold. Pay attention to detail. Don’t be overly discouraged by rejections. Experienced researchers are able to benefit maximally from feedback, with the resulting publication being many times better than the original one. 
  • Realise that more time spent in front of the computer does not guarantee better quality work. 
  • Go walking and do physical activities that take your mind off academic work (music, dancing, sports…) 
  • Go to conferences to present your work in progress and check how it is received and what feedback you get. 
  • Offer to collaborate with fellow researchers if you feel your skills could complement theirs in reaching a common objective. 
  • Try to write (and present) better. 
  • Be generous in giving credit to people who influenced and helped you. 
  • Be able to switch off being a researcher sometimes, talk about something else, and listen to others’ views on arts and politics and life. 
  • Never submit a paper straight after finishing it: go for a walk first and think about every word and every reference and anything you may have forgotten to include or things that forgot to remove. A good night’s sleep before a final re-reading is also recommended. 
  • Disseminate your findings beyond academia and see whether your research may have practical implications that could boost social justice and equity. 

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Easter traditions from around the world

As Christians prepare to mark the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday, with many going to Church and attending Easter egg hunts, a number of countries around the world will celebrate without a single chocolate egg in sight! Here, we round up our top five Easter traditions unique to the country and region, along with their historical significance. 

people making a giant omelette

Giant omelette-making tradition in Southern France.
Credit: TIME magazine/Remy Gabalda—AFP/Getty Images

  1. In Mexico, on Holy Saturday, it’s typical for locals to re-enact the burning of Judas by burning an effigy, part of a weekend of rituals thought to rid oneself of evil. Close to two million people will crowd the streets to watch one of Latin America’s most elaborate re-enactments of Christ’s crucifixion in the Iztapalapa neighbourhood of Mexico City. Intended as a deeply religious experience and held on Good Friday, the Passion Play, like others seen around the world, depicts Jesus’s suffering and death. The tradition began in the nineteenth century to rejoice the end of a cholera epidemic.

  2. Like other islands in the Caribbean region, Barbados has held onto the tradition of kite-flying to celebrate Easter. Families come out to compete in competitions and festivals with the most elaborate, colourful designs and incredible skills vying for the attention of spectators and prize-givers. The vibrant displays will showcase every imaginable shape going, from the traditional quadrilateral to boxes, rectangles and more elaborate polygons. Some aim to outdo others with gigantic contraptions requiring five to ten people to launch the kite and heavy-duty twine to keep it intact. The spectacular flight of the kites is said to represent the resurrection of Christ.

  3. In the village of Bessières, in southwest France, eggs are neither boiled and painted nor made out of chocolate. Instead, villagers there opt for the more arduous task of making a giant omelette from 15,000 eggs, to be served with bread to villagers. The origins of this incredible task, which requires 50 volunteers to make and nearly two hours to crack the eggs, is said to date back to the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s recorded that he had enjoyed an omelette so much that he asked that locals collect all the eggs in the village and cook a massive version for his army.

  4. Home to over 350 million Christians, Africa’s Easter celebrations involve lots of traditional, communal activities, stemming from its rich history and contribution to Christianity, from Early 2nd century AD when Pope Saint Victor, the first bishop of Rome born in the Roman Province of Africa (North), decreed that Easter be universally celebrated on a Sunday. For Nigeria’s Christian population, palm branches decorate homes from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday and the Igbo people perform a distinctive masquerade dance, with young men wearing colourful costumes to celebrate their ancestral spirits.

  5. The island of Marinduque, Philippines hosts the Moriones Festival during Holy Week, with women and men impersonating ‘moriones’ (Roman soldiers), inspired by Longinus, a Roman executioner of Christ. They don masks, helmets, and gladiator-inspired garb and wander the streets to pull pranks and scare children. According to legend, Longinus was blind, and was cured when a drop of Christ’s blood fell in his eye during the crucifixion. This specific tale is often re-enacted during the festival.

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Tuberculosis: the forgotten pandemic!

Every year March 24 marks World Tuberculosis (TB) Day and this year the theme is ‘Invest to End TB. Save lives’. In this blog, Professor Sanjib Bhakta, Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Biochemistry, discusses the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on TB, why this is so alarming, and how research at the Mycobacteria Research Laboratory of the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB) at Birkbeck is making a difference. 

Professor Sanjib Bhakta’s research group at the World Tuberculosis Day Keynote lecture at the Infectious Diseases conference

World Tuberculosis (TB) Day is a significant and meaningful day to highlight public awareness of TB around the world. TB is typically a respiratory infection caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The causal bacterial pathogens are spread via droplets and primarily infect the lungs. However, TB can infect any part of the body and can cause infection that spreads throughout the systems of the body.  

More than a quarter of the global population (approximately 2 billion) are infected with M. tuberculosis, with approximately 10% regularly developing into active TB, increased by risk factors such as HIV, smoking, diabetes and malnutrition. It is estimated that by 2050, drug resistant TB will be responsible for 2.6 million deaths a year.  

COVID-19 has greatly impacted the available services, treatment and diagnosis of TB, disrupting ongoing progress towards combating the disease1. Co-infection of COVID-19 and TB resulting in more severe disease and higher death rates have been reported among this population. Improved preventative measures, such as vaccines, rapid diagnosis and new drugs are in dire need to bring this pathogen under control.  

In order to tackle this forgotten pandemic effectively, strong global interdisciplinary partnerships, community engagement and antimicrobial stewardship are crucial. We, at Mycobacteria Research Laboratory, have participated in many key multi-centred research activities and public engagements in an effort to highlight community awareness on TB and antibiotic resistance. These include: 

  1. As active members of the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, we have played roles as “Antibiotic Action Champion” and/or “Antibiotic Guardian” 
  2. We have partnered with the “Joi Hok” charity in Kolkata, India to reach out to local and global school children on various science and art based public engagement projects to raise public awareness on TB and anti-microbial resistance (AMR) in TB and the project won the Microbiology Society Outreach Prize in 2020.
  3. We aim to validate new therapeutic targets for new anti-TB drug design3. In addition, our research has identified the prospect of repurposing non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reverse the AMR in TB4
  4. Recently, we have received a Birkbeck-Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund (ISSF) Translational Research Award to fund our investigation on repurposing NSAIDs to tackle TB. In our research group World TB Day public awareness poster this year and World TB Day Keynote lecture at the Infectious Diseases conference (23 and 24 March 2022) in London, we will be highlighting our interdisciplinary approaches to tackle antimicrobial resistance in TB.    

Our international biotechnology partner, Dr Parvinder Kaur, Principal Scientist of the Foundation for Neglected Disease Research, said: “FNDR, India, is a not-for-profit biotech organization working to discover and develop novel drugs for various infectious diseases that have a high socio-economic impact. FNDR’s clinical drug candidate, TBA-7371, is currently undergoing Phase-2 clinical trial focusing on drug-resistant TB. Our collaborative efforts with Professor Bhakta’s Mycobacteria Research Laboratory at the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology include TB drug development support and knowledge exchange to facilitate translational aspects of TB research.”  

Key References: [1] WHO, Tuberculosis deaths rise for the first time in more than a decade due to the COVID-19 pandemic, (2021) [2] Microbiology Society, Members Sreyashi Basu and Sanjib Bhakta win the 2020 Microbiology Outreach Prize (2020) [3] Maitra, A., et al., FEMS Microbiology Reviews, 43 (5) 548–575 (2019) [4] Maitra, A et al., Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 75 (11) 3194–3201 (2020)  

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Why World Wetlands Day is now being officially observed by the United Nations

Wednesday 2 February 2022 marked the first official observance of World Wetlands Day. In this blog, Dr Dale Mineshima-Lowe, Lecturer and Acting Programme Director of MSc Environment and Sustainability, explains the significance of the day and how it’s raising awareness of biodiversity, climate mitigation/adaption, and the global environment.  

Wetland in Korea

Wednesday 2 February marked the first official observance of World Wetlands Day, adopted by the UN General Assembly in August 2021.  February 2 was chosen as the date to mark the anniversary of the Convention on Wetlands (also known as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands), adopted as an international treaty back in 1971. 

Since 1997, the 1971 Convention has been celebrated annually as ‘World Wetlands Day’, as a means of raising awareness about how global wetlands are critical ecosystems that contribute to various global environmental and sustainability issues. The 2021 UN Resolution has now adopted this day officially as an internationally observed day. This additional recognition, it is hoped, will highlight the issue within public discourse, raise concern for the issue, and mobilise political will and commitment (national and international) for resources towards wetlands protection, restoration, and preservation.  

‘Wetlands’, broadly defined, covers a multitude of water ecosystems – natural and human-made, including both freshwater and marine-coastal ecosystems – such as mangroves and other coastal areas, coral reefs, tidal flats, estuaries, swamps and marshes, rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers. This year’s theme of ‘Wetlands Action for People and Nature’, explains how wetlands are ecosystems that contribute to biodiversity, climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. Its focus on the inter-relationship between nature and people is meant to serve as a ‘call to action’ – dedicating human, financial and political resources to protection and restoration efforts.  

According to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands – Global Wetland: Special Edition 2021 report, global wetlands deterioration is widespread, impacted by climate change – with changing weather patterns creating more risk of droughts and flooding – causing ecosystem damage and degradation. While the report identified the negative impacts on wetlands, it also recognised wetlands as important for their role as part of climate mitigation and adaption strategies. It highlighted that wetland ecosystems can be both solution and problem dependent on how they are managed – as power source carbon sinks if undisturbed and maintained, or a source of greenhouse gases if allowed to degrade. This is where the report, along with the call to action of this year’s World Wetlands Day theme, calls for the need to enhance coordination and integration across different sectors – wetland management, agriculture, and urban development amongst others for instance. It highlights the need not only for international agreements and national strategies, but the commitment of vital resources to actualise the agreements in the short and long-terms.   

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It’s only a matter of time before Boris Johnson resigns

Dr Ben Worthy, Senior Lecturer in Politics, analyses the fate of Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister, following the allegations of illegal parties taking place in 10 Downing Street during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Boris Johnson is in trouble. Quite how much trouble is a matter of dispute. Amid the ever-unfolding ‘Partygate’ scandal are two questions which are central to his future: a moral question of if he should go, and the more political one of whether he will. 

In terms of whether he should go, the answer from the public is a clear yes. A recent YouGov poll found that 63% of Britons think the Prime Minister should resign. Conservative party members are themselves deeply divided 

The Gray report itself, the report that isn’t a report but an ‘update’, pointed that way too. It was a masterpiece of saying a lot with a little. Even the title ‘Investigation into alleged gatherings on government premises during Covid restrictions: Update’ sounded ominous. It was very brief, but damning in what it did say, with a rather brilliant tone of measured moral disappointment:  

 “At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.” 

It went on to speak of multiple failures:  

“There were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times. Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.” 

Perhaps it’s my reading of it, but if I wanted to say ‘the Prime Minister should resign’ without saying it, that’s what I would write.  

And what about the rules? The Ministerial Code, with an enthusiastic preface by Boris Johnson, states in section 1.3 C that:  

‘It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.’ 

Johnson stated on the 8th December 2021 in the House of Commons that “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken”. This sits rather uneasily with claims he was present at an Abba-themed party in his flat.  Everything hinges on the words ‘knowingly’ and then whether Johnson would do as ‘expected’. In a system reliant on ‘good chaps’ rather than rigid rules, much depends on if Johnson would be one. I leave it to you.  

This takes us to the question of whether he will leave. There’s a great deal we don’t know, and the politics seem to swing almost daily. At the time of writing only 11 Conservative MPs have called for Johnson to go but, less reassuringly, many more have criticised him. As for how many letters are now with the Conservative Private Members’ Committee, only Sir Graham Brady knows. David Bowie once said that “tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”. The problem for Conservative MPs is that they can hear one future with Boris Johnson and one without. 

Those MPs who support him claim that he will bounce back by changing himself or his policies. It is possible but unlikely. In personality terms, the behaviour took him to Downing Street, so it is very unlikely he is willing, or even able, to change. In policy terms, the much-waited for Wikipedia inspired ‘Levelling Up’ White Paper, which some thought could help re-launch him, seems to offer a spectacular front cover, many mayors but no money. The front cover of the ‘Benefits of Brexit’ paper seemed to say ‘that ship has sailed’ 

For Conservative MPs who are less convinced, the major unknown is the Alice in Wonderland question: how deep does the hole they are falling down go? The number of parties keeps on growing. The Metropolitan Police have 300 photos and 500 documents containing who knows what. Here the Gray report was again, a perfect trap and a perfect example of the Streisand effect, where you draw attention to something by trying to hide it. Gray’s brief report simply flagged up how much more there was to know.   

Taking a step back, I would argue that, beyond the daily speculation of letters and white papers, Johnson will go. He will go because his fundamentals are bad and worsening. Johnson is now a vote loser, even if he was never actually a real vote winner. His polling numbers are worse where it matters, and focus groups indicate his magic voter coalition is falling apart. The Conservative Party’s fate is now tied to him, and he is descending rapidly.   

Yet, amid all the noise and unhappiness, the same day that four staff walked out the door of Downing Street, we missed the most important resignation in British politics 

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My experiences of a year abroad as one of the last Erasmus students in the UK

Johanna Frank is on a year abroad studying BA Film and Media as part of the Erasmus programme. In this blog, Johanna shares how she is finding her year abroad and living in student halls.

Johanna Frank

When the application period at my home university, the Leuphana University Lüneburg in Germany, opened for the Erasmus programme, I jumped at the opportunity to study in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies. I knew a number of people who had been on the Erasmus programme, and no matter who I asked, their answer was always the same: the exchange was the best experience they’d ever had – intercultural exchange, a new city, new country, more people than you could count and a whole new way of experiencing studying.

I was happy when I found out I had been accepted onto the programme, and now here I am, one of the last Erasmus students in the UK, as with Brexit, the UK government pulled out of the Erasmus programme. The UK government has since created the Turing Scheme, a replacement for the Erasmus programme, which provides funding for international opportunities in education and training across the world.

It’s been interesting comparing the UK to Germany; the academic system in the UK is not that different to Germany. But evening studies are very new for me and as an early bird I’m still struggling a bit to find the energy to contribute to the seminars. It is another experience! During the day, I mostly discover London and the area around my student halls. I got a membership in the local gym, found a job at a small coffee shop around the corner and see my friends every day. I’m part of the Birkbeck badminton team, which is a lot of fun. I also got a Student Art Pass which makes it possible to enter a lot of exhibitions and museums for free and in my remaining time on my year abroad I plan to discover as much as possible.

This term, I am looking forward to the modules ‘Principles of Layout and Design’ and ‘Gender and Sexuality in Cinema’. I am especially curious for the latter! At my home university, I am taking modules to receive the Gender Diversity Certificate. The certificate is one of the elective profiles at the university. It is for students wanting to commit their complementary studies to learn in-depth about one certain topic. Gender studies, equality and feminism are not only at my university an important and present topic, the whole city, Lüneburg, is super open and questions patriarchal structures. I’m taking the seminars on a voluntary basis as I’m really interested in the history and recent developments of feminism. Coming to London, it was weird at first, as I didn’t feel the same spirit of “let’s change the system”. But that is why I’m even more excited for the module, just to see how other students think and how present the topic is in their daily lives.

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My favourite things to do in Bloomsbury

Valentina Martinez, BA Film and Media with Foundation Year student, shares her top tips of places to go and things to do in Bloomsbury, central London, where Birkbeck’s campus is located. 

Valentina Martinez

A key reason I chose to study at Birkbeck was its central London location. Located in Bloomsbury, it is in a student hub, with other universities close by and world-famous museums and galleries quite literally on your doorstep. I’ve shared below just some of my favourite things to do in Bloomsbury and the surrounding areas.  

Places to eat 

From pubs to museums, Bloomsbury is surrounded by incredible places to hang out, either before or after your evening classes. Let’s start with places to eat. Even though Birkbeck offers its own rooftop bar in the main building and cafes in different areas of campus, if you ever fancy a change of scene, there’s so many options to check out. 

In Gower Street, facing Birkbeck, you can find a beautiful building which houses Waterstones. Not only is it a fantastic bookstore with more than two floors filled with books, but it also has a  café attached to it that offers a pleasant place to have a nice hot chocolate or just to sit down and read before classes.  

However, if you’re in the mood to eat something I highly recommend going to DF Tacos, a Mexican restaurant with exquisite tacos and a great modern atmosphere. You can find this place on Tottenham Court Road near the British Museum. Finally, if you’re looking for somewhere to hang out after classes and have a few drinks I would go to a pub called The College Arms, located on Store Street, just five minutes from Birkbeck. It’s a lively pub filled with students, music and good drinks and it’s a great place to socialise and meet new people.  

Museums, cinemas and gardens 

There are so many other exciting things to do in Bloomsbury aside from eating out. Firstly, there is obviously the British Museum. With its back entrance facing Birkbeck, this museum is a fantastic hangout spot to learn and even get inspiration for your future assessments. It will probably take you more than one day to walk through this enormous place, so you can visit it often and still find something new each time. You don’t even have to pay to get into the exhibitions.  

British Museum

British Museum

Next, if you have enough luck to enjoy a sunny day in London you will probably want to make the most of it. So, I would recommend heading towards Russell Square, which is right next to Birkbeck. This beautiful park has a lovely fountain with benches so you can soak up the sunlight or sit in their wonderful café. It is usually filled with kids playing football and people doing sports, so if you’re a sporty person yourself you can also have a workout there! I still can’t believe such a gorgeous green place exists in the middle of a busy city like London.  

If you enjoy watching films, Birkbeck has its own cinema in the School of Arts building, located at 43 Gordon Square, so do keep your eye out for upcoming film screenings. I would also recommend going to Picturehouse Central in Piccadilly Circus. I know this is not quite on campus, but this cinema has a stunning vintage aesthetic which is definitely worth the walk. It has the newest film releases and even a restaurant and café. If you’re a student, you will get student discounts on your tickets so you should without doubt check it out.  

As you can see, there are a lot of things to do around campus, and I have only told you about a very small percentage of attractions that Bloomsbury has to offer. I encourage you to go ahead and discover more things on your own, I can guarantee you will find hidden gems everywhere! After all, you are in the heart of London if you come to Birkbeck – there is bound to be something exciting around the corner for you to enjoy.  

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How I’ve found my first term at Birkbeck

Wojciech Zaluski, MSc International Marketing student, shares his experiences of his first term at Birkbeck, reflecting on how he’s found in-person lectures and what the most enjoyable aspects of his course have been so far.

My first term at Birkbeck was my first formal interaction with the British education system and my reappearance within formal learning – it’s been a long time since I finished my Master’s degree in Philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Poland.

As 2021 was another year overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, before the start of the term we were informed that we could choose whether we study in-person or join lectures and seminars online. I chose to study in-person, and as I am studying part time, my first term only had two modules and classes took place during the evenings, due to Birkbeck’s evening teaching model.

In my first term, I found having in-person lectures to be really stimulating; the lecturers are very approachable and engage us in conversations. Students are encouraged to talk to each other and share their insights, and because classes are very international with students from all walks of life, those conversations are especially interesting. I was able to share my thoughts and exchange my ideas with students from Japan, Brasilia, USA, Ukraine, and the UK.

In all our lectures, what we were learning was strongly focused on the state of culture and society now, so it all felt very relevant. We were asked to discuss articles that highlighted how the internet is shaping our society and economy and at the same time how COVID-19 is shaping the marketing strategies of big companies. My first module was in Strategic Marketing Management, and we were assigned a group project. I joined a group of students from the USA, England, and Portugal, and we worked together on developing a marketing strategy for Netflix. Grace, a fellow student from the USA, proposed we should focus on the needs and interests of Gen Z, the generation born between 1997 to 2012. That was very interesting for me as someone who represents Gen X/Millennials.

Everything relating to your studies is organised through an online system that allows students to choose their options, check their agenda, and access study materials. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised how well everything works and how easy it is to navigate the online platform. We can focus on our studies, but Birkbeck has additional options which also are accessible through your online student account. For example, you can sign up to the Library and access lots of books and articles online; you can use the Birkbeck Futures platform to build your professional career; you can join Pioneer, a programme for people looking to develop a new business.

Each class that you have has a recorded version of the lecture available online, which is really helpful as it means you can listen to lectures more than once – I often revisit parts of lectures until I fully understand the concepts being discussed. There is also a reading list, which means you know what to read to understand the topics and you can be prepared when joining live seminar discussions.

Every week, students receive a general newsletter of what is happening at Birkbeck, and it is a wonderful source of information to learn what Birkbeck has to offer outside your studies. You can learn about job fairs, activities organised by the Birkbeck Students’ Union, and interesting things that are going on.

In summary, going into my second term, I feel energised and inspired to explore the subjects on my own. I am looking forward to learning more and getting a better understanding of modern marketing. I am also looking forward to meeting other students again, and I feel that in the second term we will feel more at ease and more open to sharing our ideas.

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