Category Archives: Social Sciences History and Philosophy

How studying in my 40s gave me much more than new knowledge and skills

Fabien Littel did an MSc in Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck. Here, in a blog post that originally appeared on his personal site in October, he talks about his experience studying whilst in his forties. 

Fabien sitting in front of an open laptop looking at the screen with a dog sitting on his lap.

It’s only been two weeks since I handed in my dissertation, the final step in completing my MSc in Organisational Psychology, at the end of a life-changing 2-year adventure. It’s only been two weeks, and it will be another good few weeks before I get my final results and know if I’ve been awarded the Masters. Still, I already know just how much I have learned and how I developed a new perspective on work, and life in general, which no grade won’t take away. I have often used the term “life-changing” to refer to this experience, very mindful of how cliché and over-hyped it may come across. It is however merely a fact: through these studies, my life has changed. I am now embarking on an academic path I would have only dreamt of a few years ago, and most importantly have developed the courage and confidence to understand, accept and express my individual beliefs and views on the world around me, and to move away from the comfort and convenience of general blind acceptance.

From jigsaw puzzles to research journals
Looking back at September 2020, why did I suddenly decide to get back to university? My light-hearted answer to this question is usually that, during the first few months of covid-19 lockdowns, I had developed a dangerous addiction to jigsaw puzzles, and needed to find something else to occupy my free time. This was only partly a joke; I had genuinely built a large collection of jigsaw puzzles, was on them before, after – and sometimes during – work

(I’d argue that it helped me focus my mind…), and they frequently invited themselves in my dreams too. Aside from that, I was increasingly interested in what motivates people to work, what makes them feel good about their job, and what might they feel more conflicted about. The pandemic played a part in this too, as companies had to take responsibility for their employees in a way they never had before, and many employees had opportunities to contribute, in one way or another, to the response to this crisis, and gain a new sense of purpose in the work they were doing. I started reading on the topic, and gradually felt that I wanted to develop some more in-depth foundational knowledge to shape my own thinking. From there on, it became a relatively quick process, and probably just a matter of days until I enrolled onto my MSc. Organisational Psychology quickly appeared like the most appropriate choice for my area of interest, and to build on my first Masters in HR by approaching work from a different angle. And the choice of university was quite straightforward too, once I had narrowed down the options for part time online learning. Birkbeck, which I ended up joining, stood out with its mission of supporting lifelong learning, designing classes for people who study alongside work, and for its longstanding expertise in organisational psychology – a choice I never regretted, quite the opposite.

Learning about yourself while learning about others
The nature of the course and what we were studying meant that it enabled us not only to learn about careers and organisational behaviours of others, but also to reflect on our own. And this started quite early on, as we looked at career development, or employee motivation. A large part of the learning was about reading required lists of weekly research journals and additional material in support of essays and other work. And we weren’t short of additional recommendations from lecturers.

One of the first ones I took up was to read Herminia Ibarra’s book Working Identity. It provides a perspective on the sense of identity attached to people’s careers, and importantly how a change of direction and transition in one’s career can help reinvent this identity, or how Ibarra calls it, “becoming yourself”. She describes a process consisting of experimentations and sensemaking to define your new self, and a long process of transition made up of small steps, taking place through the course of several years. The book is illustrated with examples which bring to life these experiments, and steps people have taken to lay the foundations of a new career, and indeed reinvent themselves. It was a fascinating read, which I did just as I was beginning to envisage what a different second half of my career might look like, therefore couldn’t help seeing it both as a complement to the course, and a self-development book for myself. From that perspective, it made a great difference to read it when I did; while I was at first concerned about this perspective on career transition as taking years, requiring deep-level self-reflection and experimentation (especially when feeling a certain sense of urgency for change), it helped me take a more measured and long term view on a process which I am still only just probably half way through, and helped me come to terms with the fact that you shouldn’t just expect to wake up one day with a clear view of where your career, and life more broadly, should go, but that it requires time and effort.

“Resistance is fertile”
From the very start of the MSc, we were told that one the main skills we should develop was our critical thinking, and that we needed to find our voice. At first, this might have seemed like a contradiction as we were also told to base our writing and arguments on existing research and scholar literature – so how can we be critical, and find our own voice, if we can only repeat what has been said before? It turns out we were vastly underestimating the spectrum of ideas and perspectives already out there, and still learning the art of taking existing views, organising them and building on them in a way that becomes deeply personal to you (an art I am still working on…). The most energising and stimulating side of the reading we were doing was to read papers with opposing views and paradigms, particularly those highlighting the shortcomings and challenges with what had been seen and applied as most mainstream theories for decades. This came through particularly in a couple of modules, including one looking at selection and assessment, led by an inspiring lecturer who was committed to providing insights on not only the widely accepted theories and processes, but also the challenges of racism and social injustice which came with them, including issues such as racial bias in cognitive ability testing, and perpetuation of social inequalities via practices mostly developed through the lens of white western men.

Her teaching took inspiration from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, particularly in rejecting the “banking” view of education, whereby someone in position of power imparts the knowledge they are the custodian of, to others in a position of inferiority who are expected to receive and accumulate this knowledge. Instead, it advocates for co-creation of knowledge, which is something we experienced through this teaching. Of course, some concepts and ideas were presented and shared with us, however through discussions opened up by the lecturer, there was a clear acknowledgement and respect of everybody’s individual experiences, and how much these experiences contributed towards everyone’s learning, and provided much richer perspectives.

I was fortunate to also get the opportunity to join this lecturer, together with a couple of other students, in a collective writing project, which I hope to share more about in due course, and was for us an amazing way to bring co-creation to life, and constructively share and bring together our lived experiences and beliefs, in an environment of solidarity and support.

Becoming a truer version of myself
University, and studying in general, is a time for exploring, exchanging, and experimenting with ideas, developing your own thoughts and beliefs, your hopes for the world. Too often, for young people, this risks getting quashed when confronted with the reality of the corporate world. One of the benefits of experiencing this after twenty or so years working, observing the dynamics of corporations, getting satisfaction from achieving things and bearing the scars of burnout, is that it enables you to pause and revisit those twenty years with a little bit of distance, and some new perspectives. What it did for me, was to bring out views on the world of work, and systemic injustice or harmful phenomena, as well as hope for meaningful and fundamental change, which I would have briefly thought about and kept well hidden in the past. It gave me permission to think these ideas through, resist the sense of inevitability I had felt up until that point. Learning, reading and discussing new concepts such as neoliberalism, social constructionism, social Darwinism, moral disengagement, and many more, which wouldn’t have meant much two years ago, put names on what had only been until then passing thoughts, and opened up the door for even greater exploration, and knowledge that not only did others share similar thoughts, some had actually spent much of their careers defining and studying them.

Practically, unearthing and embracing these views throughout the MSc, together with conducting my research project on matters related to moral reasoning at work, contributed to me questioning in more depth my own contribution to the world through my work. This led to my decision to leave the defence industry (which I have talked about in an earlier article), and to find a way to continue on this academic path. “Following your dreams / passions” is an easy piece of advice often given, however remains a very privileged thing to do, when the reality of daily life and cost of living hits, and prevents many from exploring a path of their choosing. And so I do feel privileged that I was able to find arrangements I could put in place to enable me to follow this path further through starting a full-time PhD.

I am only a couple of weeks into my PhD with the University of Southampton, grateful, energised and excited about what the next three years will enable me to learn and do. And I remain very mindful that I wouldn’t have reached this point if it hadn’t been for the opportunity to conduct part-time studies online while working. Both the practicality of what Birkbeck had to offer, and the commitment and dedication of its staff to deliver a truly transformative learning experience, despite some of the challenges they may have faced in trying to safeguard this level of quality and acceptable conditions for themselves, is to be applauded. At times when careers are stretching longer and many people will look to transition part-way, enabling access to higher education to the working population should be seen for the powerful and genuinely life-changing impact it can have.

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Black History Month and beyond: in conversation with Dr William Ackah

Senior Lecturer in Black and Community Geographies in the Department of Geography, Dr William Ackah’s academic specialism is around issues of religion and politics across the African diaspora. Here, we find out more about his work.  

Where did your interest in Black diaspora and community development start?
My family came from Ghana to Britain in the 1960’s, and I was born in Walthamstow, East London – so my childhood took place in fairly multicultural setting. I went to Liverpool for university, and after that, went to live in Haiti for a year, to teach English. It was what I experienced there that had a profound impact on the shaping of my political and academic interests.  

Haiti was the first independent Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere, the place where African descendents had thrown off the shackles of white supremacy. It was a place of inspiration but also a place of pain and suffering. I witnessed oppression and poverty based on years of corrupt governance, international neglect and the crazed absurdity that Haiti was paying France reparations.  Seeing what was happening to my fellow African brothers and sisters made me recognise that when I came back to the UK I would want to undertake work to assist in restoring the legacies and improving the lived experiences of people of the African diaspora.  

How did you begin to do that?  
Back in the UK, I initially pursued a more academic vocation, studying for a Master’s in Pan-Africanism, which was all about linking the experiences of Black communities across the globe and looking at their relationships, their common points and differences. And that was the kind of work I then pursued in some shape or another, whilst living in the North West of England for several years.  

I worked in a Black Community College, teaching students largely from Black communities in Liverpool, who had been failed by the school system and lacked confidence in their academic ability. It was really rewarding work. I taught them Black history and Black studies and saw how it helped build their self-esteem and confidence. I saw how in turn, that enabled many of them to get into Higher Education spaces – something that up until that point, many of them had felt wasn’t accessible to them. 

After several years doing this, I moved into higher education, teaching Race Equality Studies at what’s now known as Edge Hill University. All the while, I was doing my PhD doctoral work in Government. Once that was complete, I came to Birkbeck, teaching about Community Development. It was similar work to what I’d always done: all about uplifting marginalised communities, encouraging thought about people whose stories and experiences get ignored and how they can be empowered to improve their own lives, to challenge unfair systems, and fight for equality and justice. That’s at the heart of what I do for Birkbeck, as the programme director for Community Development and Public Policy.  

What else has influenced your work?  
While in the USA in 2009, on a sabbatical, I interacted with some African American Scholars, including Drew Smith, a Professor of Urban Politics, looking at the impact of religion and politics on Black communities. We became good friends and found our interests overlapped and fed each other in very interesting ways. So, we formed, along with Rothney Tshaka from South Africa, the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race. This initiative brings together scholars of African descent with faith-based leaders, to think about how spiritual and religious connections can enable people to make a difference to improve the lives of people of African descent.  

Then in 2016/17, I was a Fulbright Research Scholar, again in the US. I was looking at the city of Pittsburgh, urban revistalisation, and the impact that gentrification has on African American congregations and communities there. I’m currently writing that research up, then working on a broader book project that explores the idea of Black space. I make the argument that Black space matters, and that African descended people need our own geographical, cultural and spiritual spaces to resist patterns of erasure, of racism, of gentrification; patterns that have denied us space and in doing so, denied us the opportunity to be who we want to be. 

What are you doing to help create Black space? 
A lot of my work for both Birkbeck and the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (TRRR) involves community building. With the TRRR, we hold international conferences, two of which have been hosted by Birkbeck, exploring African diaspora and faith. We also produce academic texts on various themes such as culture and spirituality across Africa and the African diaspora, Black churches and contesting multiculturalism, and most recently racialised healthcare in the context of Covid-19. 

Community building is an important aspect of my academic and personal practice. During Covid, working with a group of Black Christians, we started an online space called ‘BlakPak’. It’s a two-pronged initiative. First, we interview prominent people in the Black community in Britain who have something to share with the wider community. It’s called BlakPak as a play on the word, backpack: what’s in your BlakPak? What’s your historical experience and understanding of life? What is it that you’ve drawn on and learnt that you can share with the wider community? We’ve had speakers like Margaret Busby, one of the first Black publishers in Britain, and Gus John, a leading Black academic and activist.  

The second prong is an international dimension that we call ‘Critical Conversations’, where we bring together people from Britain with people from the US, the Caribbean and from the continent to have conversations around issues that we think are impacting us as a community globally. These might be about health, criminal justice systems, the state of Black womanhood and so on. The whole thing is targeted at ordinary people, the idea is to create a repository of Black wisdom, in the hope it can contribute to uplifting communities.   

For me, it’s a win if people access this information, then go away and, in their sphere, think ‘let me go and make a difference’. Raising awareness and disseminating wisdom and conversations from community elders and experts is so important, because it can result in people taking tangible action.  

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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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A day in the life of a postgraduate student

MSc Politics of Population, Migration and Ecology student, Sorrel Knott, shares a day-in-the life account of her experience as a full-time postgraduate student at Birkbeck.  

You might be wondering what a day in the life of a postgraduate student looks like. To tell you the truth, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to that question. Birkbeck has an incredibly diverse student body, bringing together people from a variety of professional backgrounds with varying daily responsibilities. Alongside my studies, I work as a part-time marketing assistant and researcher, as well being a student ambassador for Birkbeck. My part-time professional role is completely remote; as a result, I have been able to cultivate a flexible routine, and evening study at Birkbeck has enabled this. So, here is a day in my life as a full-time postgraduate student. 

8am: *Insert irritating iPhone alarm sound effect* 

Typically, I wake up at 8am. I’ll stretch, make my bed, and get ready, before attempting my daily Wordle with breakfast. As my job is remote, I don’t commute to work unless I am working as a student ambassador at an event for Birkbeck. Therefore, I’m lucky that I can have a laid-back start to the day.

8.30am: let’s work 

I try to get started quickly. I try to get started early, helped along by the to-list that I make every Sunday, that sets out all my tasks for the week. My work includes posting on social media, academic research, compiling bibliographies and writing reports in order to build my company’s platform 

12pm: student commute 

At 12pm, I’ll have another coffee before packing my bag for university, being sure to include my laptop, chargers, headphones, notepad, pen, water bottle, reusable Tupperware and cutlery, mask, hand sanitiser and a trusty lip balm. I usually catch the bus to Euston Station and walk eight minutes past Gordon Square to reach Birkbeck’s Malet Street campus. If the weather permits, I ride my bike, as there are plenty of bike racks on campus. I tend to avoid the tube to save money, though there are convenient tube stations located at Russell Square and Goodge Street. 

1.30pm: arrive in time for some free food on campus 

If you arrive before 3pm, you can normally catch the Hare Krishna group handing out cooked food, bread, fruit and, if you are lucky, home-made cake! I will normally pick up lunch from them in my reusable Tupperware before heading to Russell Square or the green space on Birkbeck’s Malet Street campus. There are also other squares to choose from – sometimes I sit in Gordon Square by Birkbeck’s Arts building. I enjoy visiting Birkbeck’s surrounding squares as I think it’s important to visit green space when working on a laptop all day. Plus, I might get lucky and see a cute dog (or six)! 

2pm: become a bookworm in Birkbeck’s library 

After lunch, I head to the library located in Birkbeck’s Malet Street campus. Usually, I sit down in the group study area, but there are silent study areas too. I watch pre-recorded lectures, complete my pre-reading for my seminar and make notes. I’ll ensure that I understand the topic of the seminar, which might involve watching documentary clips, keeping up with the news and emailing professors with any questions. If I have an assignment, I’ll work on that after my seminar preparation, including my dissertation research. If a friend is on campus, we’ll go for a coffee at Terrace 5 on the fifth floor of Birkbeck’s Malet Street campus. Sometimes, you can get a discounted hot drink through the Twelve app! 

6pm: it’s seminar time (normally) 

On the evenings where I don’t have a seminar, such as the summer term when postgraduates only work on their dissertations, there might be a Birkbeck event, which I can work at as a student ambassador. During term time, my seminars start at 6pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and last for around an hour and a half. 

In the Department of Politics seminars are very collaborative, involving group discussions surrounding the pre-seminar readings and materials. My intellectual progression has been enriched by the diversity present in the seminar groups, and I have enjoyed having my viewpoints constructively challenged by others. The seminar is also an opportunity to ask your professor to clarify the pre-seminar lecture or readings, as well as an opportunity to discuss a particular topic with a Birkbeck academic. 

7.30 – 9pm: let’s go home 

If it’s a Tuesday or Wednesday, I finish at 7.30pm. If it’s a Thursday, I finish at 9pm because I have two seminars back-to-back. When you choose your modules in the Politics department, you’ll be able to see the days of the week when a module is taught, as well as having the option to choose between a 6pm or 7.30pm start time for your seminar. This has given me the flexibility to avoid clashes between two modules that are provided on the same day. 

Regardless of time, I’ll either catch a bus or cycle home. Sometimes, other members of the class will head to a pub or bar for a post-seminar drink. I don’t drink alcohol, but it’s enjoyable to attend these casual post-seminar events in order to socialise. 

The rest of the evening: time to relax 

When I arrive home, I’ll make dinner with my partner, take a shower and relax. I think it’s important to dedicate time towards your family, friends and loved ones, as well as taking time to reflect after your day. My partner and I talk about our day, watch a TV series or play video games. I’ll also complete any daily chores, like the washing up.  

 This is the time to rest and recuperate before another day, as well as checking in with yourself to see if your body is bringing anything to your attention, both physically and mentally. Sometimes, I realise that my body needs more sleep, so I allow myself an extra hour of sleep. Sometimes, I realise that my body needs some alone time, so I might read a book for an hour. I’m lucky that the combined flexibility of my professional role and evening study at Birkbeck enables me to pay attention to my own needs. 

So, there you have it! 

This is what a typical day in my life looks like; it may not be representative of every student’s time at Birkbeck, but it really works for me. It’s a stable routine that enables me to balance my professional and academic work. Other student’s days might include attending a university-related event, such as a cinema showing in Birkbeck’s Arts building or a guest lecture. Those after even more of a social student life can join a society and attend their meetings and events outside of seminars and work hours. Some students might even visit one of the galleries, museums and exhibits which the Bloomsbury area is famous for. It’s the additional experiences that are available at the university and in the surrounding area that bring a little extra joy to your life! 

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From shades of Gray to a confidence vote: three things we know about Boris Johnson

Yesterday saw UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson narrowly surviving a vote of confidence by Conservative MPs. Senior Lecturer in Politics, Dr Ben Worthy analyses the findings of the Sue Gray Report and gives his predictions for the future of Boris Johnson in Downing Street.  

There were parties  

The Gray report finally confirms that regular parties were held in Downing Street. This is simple but important. They weren’t accidental, or ‘cake ambushes’ taking the poor PM by surprise. Police investigated a total of twelve parties, with a further four left uninvestigated. The parties were organised, premeditated, and put together in advance, while the rest of the UK was in severe lockdown so stringent that funerals couldn’t be held, and relatives couldn’t visit loved ones in hospital. As the report put it bluntly: ‘It is important to remember the stringency of the public health regulations in force in England over the relevant periods and that criminal sanctions were applied to many found to be in breach of them’. What was fine for Downing Street, resulted in a fine for others.   

It shouldn’t need saying, of course. But the truth is important. Most Prime Ministers, and most politicians, are ‘economical with the truth’. But more than most, Prime Minister Johnson’s career has been built on what Nixon called ‘things that later turned out to be untrue’, from the £350 million promises written on a bus to the denial of lockdown parties. The first question on his recent Mumsnet interview was “Why should we believe anything you say when it’s been proven you’re a habitual liar?” A website has collated more examples of lies from Boris Johnson. Even his biography of Churchill was littered with ‘misunderstandings’, including that the Germans captured Stalingrad 

Amid the fog of untruth and evasions, the report sets out what happened, when and where, with photos and evidence.  Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly depending on how cynical you are, allegations of more parties have emerged since the report. As Marina Hyde, Guardian columnist, always points out, with Boris Johnson there’s always more.   

They knew they were wrong  

One of the more astonishing parts of the report is how much of the wrongdoing was recorded. What was written showed that many participating knew it was wrong. Again, there were no accidental parties but instead, instructions to ‘bring your own booze’. The report shows that someone close to the Prime Minister, warned fellow party goers:  

‘Just to flag that the press conference will probably be finishing around that time, so it would be helpful if people can be mindful of that as speakers and cameras are leaving, not walking around waving bottles of wine etc.’  

The individual went on to write: ‘Best of luck with a complete nonstory but better than them focusing on our drinks (which we seem to have got away with).’  

Perhaps the hardest parts of the report are the details of the treatment received by those who pointed out what they were doing was wrong. In the report, Gray writes: ‘I was made aware of multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff. This was unacceptable.’ Though there are no details, The Sun has reported how one security guard was mocked for pointing it out and cleaners were laughed at as they cleared up the mess. One image that stands out, is of staff, the days after the many nights before, scrubbing post-party wine stains after travelling across lockdown London.   

Conservative MPs are not happy  

If Conservative MPs were surprised by the Gray report, many were silent for some time after. In the 24 hours after its release, many thought that no news was good news, and a sign that Johnson was out of trouble. But we now know the quiet was more ominous, with MPs weighing up options. In the following days there was a steady uptick in letters to the 1922 committee which triggered a vote of confidence.  

Some Conservative MPs were genuinely outraged. Paul Holmes, who resigned from the government, spoke of his ‘distress’ at a ‘toxic culture’ in Downing Street. Others, depending on your view, may be more cunning or realistic; even before Partygate, Johnson had slowly become an electoral liability. He is now a vote loser not a vote winner.    

Already nervous Conservative MPs know that, because of the Gray report, every leaflet from a Labour, Liberal Democrat or Green opponent will feature a photo of Boris Johnson drinking, which they will have to defend or distance themselves from. This is at a time when a full 59% of the public believe he should resign (though not many think he will). One analyst has worked out that ten recent letter submitters are in vulnerable seats at greatest risk to the Lib Dems. Over in Wakefield, where there is a by-election this month, Labour are twenty points ahead, with the main reason for voters switching, according to one pollster, is ‘Boris Johnson tried to cover up partygate, and lied to the public’.  

Boris Johnson still isn’t safe  

On Monday 6 June, Johnson finally faced a confidence vote which he won but, it must be said, won badly, with 40% of his own MPs voting to remove him. More Conservative MPs voted against him than voted against Theresa May in 2018, and she lasted only a few more months in power afterwards. This leaves his leadership in the worst possible position, still in post but with almost half of his own party against him.   

Boris Johnson is now in very serious trouble, and his time in Downing Street can probably be measured in months, if not weeks. His MPs, his party and the public are deeply unhappy. The details and images from the report may mark the end of Johnson’s time in Downing Street. Whatever happens next, the Sue Gray report will be a defining document of Johnson’s premiership, and a symbol of what went wrong.     

Ben Worthy is the Director of the MSc in Government, Policy and Politics at Birkbeck. 

More information  

 

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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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“If you’re considering a career change, I would say go for it – shifting your focus can reignite motivation”

Simon Hayes, Birkbeck Politics PhD student, recently successfully defended his PhD thesis and has since been offered his dream job. In this blog, Simon reveals how undergoing a career change in his early thirties, from being an audio engineer in London to completing a PhD in Politics at Birkbeck, was the best decision he could have made.

Simon Hayes

What was your path to Birkbeck? Why did you undergo a career change from being an audio engineer to studying global politics?

My path to Birkbeck began after a move to London from Canada in 2002 – the initial purpose for this relocation was the aspiration to work as an audio engineer in the music industry. Eventually, I managed to land a job at Mayfair Recording Studios near Camden Town where I stayed for six years. This was an incredible experience: not only was the studio host to the rising talent of that time, but many of the bands and artists I had grown up with would also frequent. By 2009, falling music industry budgets saw Mayfair (and other studios like it) close for good. After a stint of freelance work and a string of unpleasant temporary employments, I decided to focus my energy onto another pursuit.

The idea of studying did not cross my mind: I was 32, I had not been to university, and I was uncertain about whether I could perform in an academic environment. However, whilst travelling to work one day, I saw a tube advertisement for Birkbeck. I went to an open day and decided to study global politics and international relations; shortly after, I met with the programme convener who helped shed light not only on life at Birkbeck, but also the possible educational pathways I could pursue.

I was relieved to find out that Birkbeck offered Certificate of Higher Education programmes and that I did not need to commit to a whole degree; in fact, I did not even need to complete the certificate because the option of taking individual modules was also available. This is exactly what I did: my first module was ‘The Study of Politics’ – an introductory course which, in addition to covering basic concepts such as ‘the state’; ‘sovereignty’ and ‘the international’, also taught us key skills including efficient note taking, essay structure and writing a bibliography. While this served as a necessary first step that would facilitate my future learning, the experience felt revelatory: it wasn’t just that I was learning new things, but it was changing how I thought and viewed the world.

From thereon in I was hooked, I enrolled on further modules in order to complete the certificate and after doing so, went on to complete the full degree graduating with a first-class honours three years later. After spending twelve months completing a Master’s in global politics at the London School of Economics, I returned to Birkbeck in 2017 where I have recently successfully defended my PhD thesis.

What are your main hobbies and passions in life? Where does your interest in global politics and human rights come from?

Although my main hobby and passion in life has been music, the events that took place in the first decade of the 2000s (e.g. September 11 attacks, the war on terror, the Iraq War and the financial crash of 2008) really began to spark my interest in global politics. Throughout my studies, these interests intensified not only because I was engaged with theories and concepts that helped explain these global dynamics; but also because I was sharing this experience with a diverse group of Birkbeck students, some of whom were able to offer first-hand accounts of the issues and places being discussed; for example, Rohingya refugees, individuals from Kosovo who had fled in the 1990s, and former members of the Peshmerga.

As time went on, my research interests became more concentrated, primarily as a result of a module I took on European integration. Here, I developed an enthusiasm for the study of regional and global institutions (e.g. the EU and the UN); I would later fuse this with my passion for workers’ rights to form the basis of my PhD thesis which assessed the impact of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

What are your aspirations for the future? What would you say to people thinking about a career change?

I am interested in research positions within organisations that have a social welfare focus – primarily governmental or public institutions either at the local, national or international levels. I have recently been offered employment with a local authority as an analyst looking at the socio-economic factors driving health outcomes. This will, I imagine, be a challenging role with the potential to make some positive difference and as such, is an exciting opportunity and one that I owe in part to the Talent team at Birkbeck Futures – a service which assists students in their career development.

When contemplating life changing decisions like a career change, especially when it is later in life, it is normal to feel apprehensive and to worry about all of the reasons why it might be too much of a risk. But if you are feeling as though things are stagnating and thinking of such a move, I would say go for it – shifting focus can reignite motivation, especially if it is something you feel passionate towards. This in-turn helps produce the outcomes you are aiming for whether they are career oriented or for reasons of self-development.

I feel Birkbeck is an incredibly important institution that can facilitate this process for individuals in varied and even challenging circumstances. I am grateful to have had the Birkbeck experience and thankful that such an institution exists, I hope to stay connected to it for years to come.

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How to get your Birkbeck studies off to a flying start

Student Engagement Officer Rebecca Slegg offers top tips to new students, to help you settle into Birkbeck, get your studies off to a flying start and help you make sure you get the most out of your time here.

  1. Set up a study space at home. If possible, decide on one place where you will be able to study. Keep it free from clutter and other distractions as much as possible and make sure that your family/flatmates know that when you’re there they should avoid interrupting you if they can.
  2. Talk to your friends and family about your course. If the people in your life know why studying is important to you and what it involves, they will be able to better support you throughout your course. They’ll understand why you might not be able to go out every weekend at exam or assignment time. They’ll also be interested to hear about the new ideas and topics you’re now an expert on!
  3. Attend Orientation and the Students’ Union Fresher’s Fayre in September. This is a great opportunity to meet fellow students, find out about life at Birkbeck and join some of the many clubs and societies open to students.
  4. Create a wall planner and use it to map out your first term. Plot on your term dates, exam dates and assignment deadlines. This will help you to know when the pressure points are so that you can plan ahead in other areas of your life to accommodate your study needs and be well prepared to meet all of your course requirements comfortably.
  5. Set up a WhatsApp group/Facebook group with your classmates. This will enable you to share tips and information between lectures and seminars and help you get to know each other quickly. You will probably find that your classmates quickly become a source of support and encouragement.
  6. Sign up to academic skills workshops. Birkbeck offers a wide-range of resources for students to brush up on their academic skills, whether you need a refresher on essay writing or an introduction to academic referencing – get ahead with these skills now so you’re not trying to master them at the same time as researching and writing your first assignment.

  7. Explore the campus. Get to know Bloomsbury. There is a wide range of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, indie bookshops and cultural facilities close to our campus.
  8. Arrange to meet your personal tutor. Your tutor is there to offer advice and support on issues that may affect your academic progress. Some of the topics you might discuss with your tutor include module choices; exam revision; meeting deadlines; any personal or professional issues that are affecting your studies.

  9. Buy some nice stationery. Investing in some nice paper and pens is a subtle reminder to yourself of the investment you have made in coming to Birkbeck and that this is something that you believe is worth doing and will help you to move ahead with your life goals.
  10. Find out about Birkbeck Talent (the in-house recruitment agency) and the Careers and Employability Service. These two services can offer advice on CV writing, interview techniques, setting up your own business and can suggest suitable short- and long-term positions to match your skills and interests.
  11. Make sure you’ve ticked off all the items in our new student checklist, which includes all the practical details you need to have covered like enrolling on the course, paying your fees and setting up library and WIFI access.

At our graduation ceremony we asked those who had made it what advice they would give new students:

If you’re a current student, why not add your own advice for those just starting out in the comments section?

 

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The missed opportunity of the National Food Strategy

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in the Department of Politics, shares his opinion on the National Food Strategy, a report released last week. It’s the first independent review of England’s entire food system for 75 years, and it makes recommendations for the government, which has promised to respond formally within six months.

The publication of the much-heralded independent review of the National Food Strategy – the so-called ‘Dimbleby Report’, named after its author, the food entrepreneur and writer Henry Dimbleby – marks an important moment for food policy and politics.

The report is divided into a consideration of the effects of the food system on health and the environment. The health question is centred on the problem of what Dimbleby calls the ‘Junk Food Cycle’. He sees it as a central failure of the food system, promoting a poor diet with disastrous consequences for public health, in particular the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes. The cycle begins with our appetites for highly calorific food being preyed upon by the junk food industry, which churns out ultra-processed foods containing very high levels of sugar, salt, and fat. Market competition means that any reduction in the levels of these (unconsciously) desired ingredients in food products would lead to loss, and so food production companies have become involved in an arms race resulting in the proliferation of junk food. The more this junk food becomes embedded in the culture, the more it has increased appetites for it, both physiologically and psychologically.

Dimbleby’s solution is to break the cycle by imposing a wholesale tax of £3 per kilo on sugar and £6 per kilo on salt. The report headlines this proposal, and it has been the main focus of the media coverage. But the immediate response of the government to the idea of a sugar and salt tax has been, at best, lukewarm. That seems like an anticipation of the picking apart of the report’s proposals by corporate lobbyists that will inevitably come.

Dimbleby is probably right that the imposition of these taxes would have the desirable effect of reducing the consumption of foods harmful to human health. But the issue is with the whole approach of the report and how likely it is to secure the kind of policy changes required to deal with the deep-seated problems that Dimbleby rightly attributes to systemic features of food production and consumption. These problems cannot be resolved without raising questions about power, ownership, and control in the food system, yet Dimbleby skirts over these.

Dimbleby rejects the belief in de-regulated food markets that occupies the Conservative backbenches and some of the chairs at Cabinet. Nonetheless, he does not escape from the market’s view of food as at base a commodity designed to satisfy the biological appetites of the consumer. Here it is clear that Dimbleby has fallen under the spell of the Behavioural Insights team, popularly known as the ‘Nudge Unit’, established in the Cabinet Office in 2010 to apply behavioural science to public policy. What they are reasonably good at is predicting behaviour where a simple and clear instrumental choice is on offer. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, when it comes to patterns of activity that involve complex, strategic choices with unclear outcomes, they are at sea. Diet is such a pattern of activity, not a set of discrete instrumental choices. It does not boil down to the selections we make at the snacks shelf in the supermarket or the counter at Leon.

Dimbleby is right to argue that we should be wary of solutions to food inequality and poor diet that shift the responsibility to the individual, emphasising personal food knowledge, cooking skills, or commitment to exercise (which has little impact on weight loss anyway). This leaves the door open to those who all-too eagerly and loudly blame the poor for their poverty. But raising questions about how people could and would act under very different conditions of choice is neither to individualise responsibility nor to renounce the necessarily systemic setting of our food choices. The failure to pose these questions is the principal disappointment of the report. To be fair, it does make a number of recommendations about changing the circumstances in which we make our food choices, such as the Eat and Learn initiative for schools that encourages food education from early years. But more generally there is silence in the report on questions of citizen involvement in the food system. At a time when local councils are selling off allotment sites to fund ‘essential’ local services, there isn’t a single mention of the availability of land for small horticulture, funding for cooperative local food-growing schemes, or the provision of public spaces for common cooking and eating. In short, on these crucial questions of food citizenship, Dimbleby simply has nothing to say. The report needed to question the very foundations of the food system: far from doing this, it merely asks for a reformulation of its parts.

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Pioneer 1.0 Programme 2021: Meet The Finalists

Meet the entrepreneurs who will be pitching their Business Ideas at this year’s virtual Pitch & Awards evening in June, competing for Best Business Pitch and Best Business Idea.

We are delighted to introduce this year’s Pioneer 1.0 finalists who have been shortlisted to pitch their exciting business ideas in front of a virtual audience and judging panel. Now in its fourth year, the programme continues to support and champion early-stage entrepreneurs with innovative ideas, helping to turn them into a reality.

Pioneer 1.0 is an extra-curricular course for Birkbeck students and recent graduates looking to develop the knowledge and skills to excel as an entrepreneur. Over seven monthly weekend sessions, participants learn from a range of entrepreneurs, industry experts and each other to build the skills needed to develop their business idea further.

Representing the best entrepreneurial minds in Birkbeck, the finalists are in with a chance of winning either the Best Business Pitch or Best Business Idea award, each worth a £1500 cash prize to support their business, along with a bespoke package of mentoring, coaching and promotion.

This year, over 150 students and recent graduates have participated in the programme and their achievements will be celebrated at the virtual pitch and awards evening on Thursday 17 June, with a panel of independent judges, fellow entrepreneurs and industry leaders.

Meet the Finalists!

Picture of Nicky CarderNicky Carder

Being surrounded by people doesn’t automatically cultivate connection. Gatherism understands that and aims to bring customers and businesses together who seek community and share its mission to reduce loneliness and isolation.

Founder Nicky Carder has worked in community development and events management for 12 years and has experienced first-hand the importance of bringing people together.

Gatherism starts with a podcast to engage listeners through the storytelling of shared experiences and the power of community with the aim to inspire, motivate and connect people to the communities, projects, products and services that matter the most. Gatherism wants to listen to the needs of an evolving, post-pandemic community to help them to thrive better, together. Will you gather with us?

Picture of Lydia CarrickLydia Carrick

Apputee is an app designed to guide new amputees through their hospital stay and subsequent recovery, connecting them to a support network of experts and other amputees. Over 1 million amputations occur globally, and amputees often feel alone and scared.

The app will accompany new amputees through their recovery, using progress trackers and a gamified system to help amputees get the motivation they need. The app will also accumulate knowledge from medical professionals, such as doctors and mental health specialists, as well as interviews with other amputees about their experiences.

Apputee helps ease anxieties around the unknown and creates a roadmap from hospital back to their new “normal” – from understanding medication to navigating their return to work.

Picture of Makeda ColeMakeda L. Cole

At Kho Kho London we’re nuts about delivering eco-friendly, affordable fashion! We specialise in repurposing environmental waste into uniquely bespoke bags, saving landfill and reducing toxic emissions and supporting socio-economic empowerment for disadvantaged communities.

Our coconut-shell pouches are designed by nature making them quite literally one-of-a-kind — for the modern person with enough space for what you cherish –handcrafted with love in West Africa.

The amazing thing about our bags is that they are handmade by artisans meaning that we are actively engaged in improving the socio-economic status and livelihood of our crafters in Sierra Leone.

We hope for a world where you know where your products are made and by who. Well, that’s us in a nutshell. Cashew later!

Picture of Grzegorz JadwiszczakGrzegorz Jadwiszczak

Financial Literacy is an ongoing concern, with research showing that many people struggle with basics of finance and money management. My business’s mission is to tackle this issue with a three stage plan, starting with building an online community providing social media content and podcasts under ‘Finance Preacher’.

I hope to utilise this to setup a platform where like-minded individuals can network and learn from each other as well as local experts. This will hopefully enable locals to help each-other, giving more impactful advice than what is available to date.

This platform will be leveraged with the aim to lower the entry point to financial advice. Developing either an AI Chat Bot or a process for short term meetings with financial advisors.

Picture of Rosie MaggsRosie Maggs

History through theatre offers a unique interactive history experience tailored to the national curriculum and delivered straight to the comfort of the classroom.

From plays to talks, we can tailor the session to the school’s needs as well as making it age appropriate. We are fed up of children not getting the most out of their history lessons and disliking a subject that should be valued.

Our goal is to create unforgettable experiences which will spark a life long interest in history.

Picture of Kate StrivensKate Strivens

Afro Cycle is a black owned business designing helmets for children and adults with afro, black natural and thick curly hair. The helmet combines fashionable aesthetics with ergonomic design to produce a product that provides safety to the cyclist and protection to the hair.

When I cycle through London I know I am not safe and my hair is getting damaged beyond repair. This is why I am passionate about using my lived experience to create a helmet for people like me, who want to cycle safely and have products designed with them in mind.

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