Hard right, soft power: fascist regimes and the battle for hearts and minds

This article was written by Dr David Brydan, a post doctoral researcher in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology and on Birkbeck’s Reluctant Internationalists project. It was originally published on  The Conversation.

A new global “soft power” ranking recently reported that the democratic states of North America and Western Europe were the most successful at achieving their diplomatic objectives “through attraction and persuasion”.

Countries such as the US, the UK, Germany and Canada, the report claimed, are able to promote their influence through language, education, culture and the media, rather than having to rely on traditional forms of military or diplomatic “hard power”.

The notion of soft power has also returned to prominence in Britain since the Brexit vote, with competing claims that leaving Europe will either damage Britain’s reputation abroad or increase the importance of soft power to British diplomacy.

Although the term “soft power” was popularised by the political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1980s, the practice of states attempting to exert influence through their values and culture goes back much further. Despite what the current soft power list would suggest, it has never been solely the preserve of liberal or democratic states. The Soviet Union, for example, went to great efforts to promote its image to intellectuals and elites abroad through organisations such as VOKS (All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries).

Perhaps more surprisingly, right-wing authoritarian and fascist states also used soft power strategies to spread their power and influence abroad during the first half of the 20th century. Alongside their aggressive and expansionist foreign policies, Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and other authoritarian states used the arts, science, and culture to further their diplomatic goals.

‘New Europe’

Prior to World War II, these efforts were primarily focused on strengthening ties between the fascist powers. The 1930s, for example, witnessed intensive cultural exchanges between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Although these efforts were shaped by the ideology of their respective regimes, they also built on pre-fascist traditions of cultural diplomacy. In the aftermath of World War I, Weimar Germany had become adept at promoting its influence through cultural exchanges in order to counter its diplomatic isolation. After 1933, the Nazi regime was able to shape Weimar-era cultural organisations and relationships to its own purpose.

Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s film-maker. Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY

This authoritarian cultural diplomacy reached its peak during World War II, when Nazi Germany attempted to apply a veneer of legitimacy to its military conquests by promoting the idea of a “New Europe” or “New European Order”. Although Hitler was personally sceptical about such efforts, Joseph Goebbels and others within the Nazi regime saw the “New Europe” as a way to gain support. Nazi propaganda promoted the idea of “European civilization” united against the threat of “Asiatic bolshevism” posed by the Soviet Union and its allies.

As seen in Poland: a BNazi anti-Bolshvik poster

Given the lack of genuine political cooperation within Nazi-occupied Europe, these efforts relied heavily on cultural exchange. The period from the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 until the latter stages of 1943 witnessed an explosion of “European” and “international” events organised under Nazi auspices. They brought together right-wing elites from across the continent – from women’s groups, social policy experts and scientists to singers, dancers and fashion designers.

All of these initiatives, however, faced a common set of problems. Chief among them was the challenge of formulating a model of international cultural collaboration which was distinct from the kind of pre-war liberal internationalism which the fascist states had so violently rejected. The Nazi-dominated European Writers’ Union, for example, attempted to promote a vision of “völkisch” European literature rooted in national, agrarian cultures which it contrasted to the modernist cosmopolitanism of its Parisian-led liberal predecessors. But as a result, complained one Italian participant, the union’s events became “a little world of the literary village, of country poets and provincial writers, a fair for the benefit of obscure men, or a festival of the ‘unknown writer’”.

Deutschland über alles

Despite the language of European cooperation and solidarity which surrounded these organisations, they were ultimately based on Nazi military supremacy. The Nazis’ hierarchical view of European races and cultures prompted resentment even among their closest foreign allies.

Jesse Owens after disproving Nazi race theory at the Berlin Olympics, 1936. Bundesarchiv, Bild, CC BY-SA

These tensions, combined with the practical constraints on wartime travel and the rapid deterioration of Axis military fortunes from 1943 onwards, meant that most of these new organisations were both ineffective and short-lived. But for a brief period they succeeded in bringing together a surprisingly wide range of individuals committed to the idea of a new, authoritarian era of European unity.

Echoes of the cultural “New Europe” lived on after 1945. The Franco regime, for example, relied on cultural diplomacy to overcome the international isolation it faced. The Women’s section of the Spanish fascist party, the Falange, organised “choir and dance” groups which toured the world during the 1940s and 1950s, travelling from Wales to West Africa to promote an unthreatening image of Franco’s Spain through regional folk dances and songs.

But the far-right’s golden age of authoritarian soft power ended with the defeat of the Axis powers. The appeal of fascist culture was fundamentally undermined by post-war revelations about Nazi genocide, death camps and war crimes. At the other end of the political spectrum, continued Soviet efforts to attract support from abroad were hampered by the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

This does not mean that authoritarian soft power has been consigned to history. Both Russia and China made the top 30 of the most recent global ranking, with Russia in particular leading the way in promoting its agenda abroad through both mainstream and social media.

The new wave of populist movements sweeping Europe and the United States often also put the promotion of national cultures at the core of their programmes. France’s Front National, for example, advocates the increased promotion of the French language abroad on the grounds that “language and power go hand-in-hand”. We may well see the emergence of authoritarian soft power re-imagined in the 21st century.

The Conversation

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The take-over: Prime Ministers without a popular mandate, 1916-2016

This post was contributed by Dr Benjamin Worthy, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics.This post first appeared on the LSE blog on 12 July 2016.

There are more or less two routes to becoming Prime Minister. You can either win a General Election or win a party leadership election to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves. Having just achieved the second route, Theresa May has become our ‘takeover’ leader. Here, Ben Worthy discusses the history of this route to power, its successes and – more often than not – its failures.

The table below shows the takeover PMs for the last 100 years, with the previous position, whether they won or lost the election, time in office, how they left office and their ranking as Prime Minister according to Professor Kevin Theakston’s 2004 expert survey.

Takeover Prime Ministers 1916-2016

[1] Pre 1965 Conservative party leaders were ‘chosen’ rather than elected
[2] Not included here is Ramsay MacDonald. He took over as Prime Minister in 1931 in charge of a national coalition government but, rather confusingly and controversially, took over from himself as Labour Prime Minister in the previous administration. He was ranked 14 in the survey.

What are the patterns from history?

One notable point is that takeover has been a very common route to the top. Of the 19 Prime Ministers from Lloyd George to David Cameron 12 have been, in some form and at some point, takeover PMs (counting twice Stanley ‘double takeover’ Baldwin).

May’s exact route, however, is rather unusual. Much has been made of May’s experience as the longest-serving Home Secretary since Attlee’s James Chute Ede (thanks to Gavin Freeguard from the Institute for Government, for putting everyone right). Interestingly, none of the other takeover Prime Ministers ever came to Downing Street directly from the Home Office, though two of them, Churchill and Callaghan, had been Home Secretaries in the past.

In terms of exit, Prime Minister May appears to have even chances of leaving office by election or resignation. Over the 12 takeovers 6 have resigned and 6 were defeated. The premiership of takeovers are relatively brief-their average time in office is a rather small 3.3 years.

Incoming Prime Minister Theresa May stands poised at the lecturn to give a speech

Theresa May – unopposed for the top spot (image; DFID – UK Department for International Development CC BY 2.0)

The big question is how such Prime Ministers are judged to have performed. Using Kevin Theakston’s rankings and Peter Hennessy’s ‘taxonomy’ of performance most takeovers don’t do well, and are in the lower reaches of the ranking. Only two of them, Lloyd George and Churchill, are truly ‘top flight’ or ‘weather-making’ leaders, though Macmillan comes close.

More worrying for Prime Minister May, the bottom 5 of the rankings are all takeovers. The nether reaches of Theakston’s table are full of names such Anthony Eden or Neville Chamberlain, both ‘catastrophic failures’ in crisis partly of their own making, and ‘overwhelmed’ leaders like John Major, who was famously told he was in ‘office but not in power’ (Arthur Balfour, not included here, also replaced Robert Cecil, his uncle, in 1902-hence the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’).

Dr Ben Worthy

Dr Ben Worthy

As the Financial Times said a new prime minister — now comes the hard part. Brexit, a divided country and the breaking up of Britain are huge challenges for any leader. Being Prime Minister is about the personality of the holder and much has been made of May’s competence and clarity. However, May’s habits of mulling over details is rather Brown-esque while her tactic of blaming others when things go wrong (just about) worked in the Home Office but is unlikely to do so in Downing Street.

Moreover, May has a slender majority in the House of Commons of 12 MPs and is inheritor of a rebellious party that has rebelled most over Europe and fears UKIP. Other recent takeovers like Callaghan, Major and Brown who headed similarly divided parties and faced deep crises became what Roy Jenkin’s called ‘suffix’ Prime Ministers, acting as historical codas to an era. We shall soon see if May joins the ‘weather-makers’ or the greatness of her office finds her out.

Note: This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck, University of London

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Labour’s contradictions on European integration after the referendum

This post was contributed by Dr Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics where he directs the MSc programme in European Politics & Policy. Here, Dr Dimitrakopoulos  looks at what the recent month’s activities indicates about the Labour Party’s possible future. A version of this post was commissioned by the ESRC’s ‘The UK in a Changing EU’ programme, and published on its website.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn

When Mark Rutte, the Liberal prime minister of the Netherlands, said that “England has collapsed”, he was not referring to England’s elimination from the European football championship by Iceland. What he meant was that the UK has collapsed, in his words, “politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically”.

Far from looking like a party of government in waiting, capable of offering an answer, the Labour party has become entangled in this systemic crisis and may end up splitting as a result. The party’s reaction to the outcome of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union demonstrates that the image of unity and pro-European conviction that could be detected before the referendum was little more than a façade.  The pro-European conviction is being shaken to the core and unity, if it ever existed, has evaporated.

Key facts indicate that it did not have to be like that.  Recent polling indicates that 81% of Labour party members are in favour of the UK’s membership of the EU.  Nearly two thirds of those who voted Labour in 2015 are estimated to have voted for the country to remain a member of the EU.  More than 90% of Labour’s MPs were active supporters of the Remain campaign and the leaders of virtually all trade unions and the TUC.  For a party that over the past year has been divided over a number of policies, these are indications of a remarkable degree of unity. In reality, though, things are quite different.  The behaviour of leading Labour politicians indicates that both the left and the right wing of the party find it very easy indeed to move away from their declared pro-EU stance.

Corbyn, and immigration

Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in the referendum campaign was so lackluster and he was, arguably, so late in supporting the Remain camp (a stance that may be the result of his Bennite associations), that a couple of weeks before the referendum almost half of Labour’s voters said they did not know where the party stood on the referendum question.  The extraordinary degree of hostility from the media towards its leader (a hostility that brings to mind the mendacity of the British press against the EU that arguably had a decisive impact on the referendum’s outcome) can explain only part of this state of affairs.  Even if one ignores the multiple allegations that Corbyn and his collaborators actively sabotaged the party’s Remain campaign, the suspicion that Corbyn actually preferred Brexit was compounded by his spokesman’s statement that the result shows that Corbyn’s view is much closer to the views held by the British public.

Secondly, the extent of anti-EU sentiment in the party’s former heartlands in the North of England was such that just days before the referendum leading members of the party’s frontbench like its deputy leader Tom Watson and prominent backbenchers like Yvette Cooper argued in favour of restrictions in the free movement of people inside the EU.  Cooper in particular was so desperate in this attempt that she argued in favour of the abolition (in all but name) of the essence of Schengen area (i.e. one of the most significant achievements of the process of European integration) despite the fact that the UK is not part of it.  This was a belated and ultimately unsuccessful effort to appease the anti-immigrant (to put it mildly) feeling that was unleashed by the referendum.

It was reminiscent of the party’s 2015 general election pledge to reduce new EU migrants’ access to some benefits for two years: late, wide of the mark, out of line with the party’s pro-EU stance and ultimately unsuccessful. Crucially, these Labour politicians did not try to confront the public’s misconceptions and prejudices at a time when academic research shows the significant contribution that EU immigrants make to the exchequer, even before one considers the cultural and other forms of their contribution.  Nor did they say much about the fact that for decades non-EU immigration (for which the UK has sole responsibility) has been higher than immigration from the EU.

So, even if one (despite the evidence) believes that immigration in the UK is a problem, policy failed in the part that is under the control of the UK government.  Though changing public perceptions during the post-fact politics is anything but easy, these Labour politicians have failed the party and the country by allowing the fact-free, anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiment to settle.

The European Union flag

A major dilemma

To his credit Corbyn publicly rejected the notion that immigration is a problem.  Both he and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, were right to argue that parts of the country were feeling the negative impact of immigration as a result of decisions made in Whitehall, not Brussels.  Proof of this is the scrapping by the Conservative/Liberal coalition government in August 2010 of the fund that was meant to help ease the pressure on housing, hospitals and schools felt by these communities.

The huge row inside the Labour party after the referendum has focused much more on Corbyn than on the policies that the party ought to pursue in the future. In this context even some of Corbyn’s supporters (including amongst trade union members) have acknowledged that under his leadership Labour cannot make the electoral progress that it needs to make and offer the country a real alternative to the Conservative government.

At the same time, internal analysis of Labour’s performance in last May’s local elections shows that the party has increased its share of votes in areas where this progress would not affect the outcome of a general election.  As the authors of that analysis put it:

“The strategic problem is that only 14% of our gains were in areas we need in order to win general elections – while just under 50% of our losses were in those areas.”

This poses a major dilemma, the answer to which will determine the fate of the Labour party in the next decade or so.  Should it abandon its pro-Europeanism of which its support for immigration is a key indication and hope to attract some of the voters it has lost in its Welsh and northern English former heartlands or should it stick to facts and principles and try to change (rather than echo) the views of these voters some of whom harbour xenophobic opinions.  In other words, at the end of the day, it must decide whether it is a progressive, left-wing party or not.

Those amongst its most prominent MPs and officials who (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) prefer the former to the latter must be aware of the costs that this option will entail. Joining the anti-immigration bandwagon (instead of, for example, attacking austerity and beefing up labour standards) is no free lunch.

The millions of cosmopolitan, urban dwellers (including those who helped propel Sadiq Khan to victory in the 2016 London mayoral elections) who support Labour (and have boosted its membership since Corbyn’s victory) will abandon it if it becomes little more than ‘red UKIP’ while it is hard to see why other voters (who could be tempted by the anti-immigration line) will prefer the copy to the original.  After all, preliminary evidence shows that a) there is absolutely no correlation between wage growth and support for Brexit and b) culture and personality, rather than material circumstances, lie behind majority support for Brexit.

Note: This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck, University of London

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Who will succeed David Cameron? A brief history of takeover Prime Ministers

This post was contributed by Dr Benjamin Worthy, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics.

Following David Cameron’s announcement that he will resign following the EU referendum, Dr Worthy assesses the experiences of Prime Ministers who have taken over mid-term, and considers what can be taken from this as we look forward to the upcoming Tory leadership battle.

this post first appeared on Democratic Audit on Friday 24 June.

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Credit: Number 10 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

David Cameron will not be Prime Minister by October, and is going even earlier than I predicted. So what does the past tell us about who might take over as Prime Minister, and how they might fare? Who, out of these runners and riders, will be next as First Lord of the Treasury?

There’s generally two ways you can become Prime Minister in the UK through (i) winning a General Election (ii) winning a party leadership election (or in the pre-1965 Conservative party being ‘chosen’) to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see this great infographic here.[1]

Whoever sits in 10 Downing Street after David Cameron will be what I’m calling a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by (ii) rather than (i). As the UK Cabinet Manual states:

Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor (p.15).

Although often seen as ‘lame ducks’ or less legitimate, remember both Lloyd George and Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, number 1 and number 2 respectively in the highest rated Prime Ministers of the 20th century, got to 10 Downing Street without winning an election.

Here’s a table looking at the last six Post-war ‘takeover’ Prime Ministers that sets out who they took over from, their previous position before Prime Minister, and – the all-important question – whether they went on to win the next election.

Takeover Prime Ministers 1955-2010

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 09.59.48

Interestingly, of the 12 Post-war Prime Ministers almost half were actually takeovers. So how did these takeovers do in the General Elections that followed? It seems there are exactly even chances of winning or losing, as 3 takeovers lost their elections and three won, though drilling down it can be close. John Major had a very narrow win in 1992 and Alec Douglas-Home a surprisingly narrow loss in 1964. What the table doesn’t show is the danger in stepping into Downing Street without an election, which explains why the other 50 % failed to win. Takeover is a risky business even in tranquil times, as this great paper shows.

In terms of who does the taking over now, a superficial look at the table offers good news for Theresa May and Michael Gove and bad news for Boris Johnson. All the takeovers Post-War were already holders of ‘great offices of state’. In fact, 3 were Chancellors and 3 were Foreign Secretaries. This makes sense as it is senior politicians who will have the resources, the reputation and, most importantly, the support in the party to win a leadership election.

The past is not, of course, always a good guide to the future, especially in a Brexit-ing Britain. To be Conservative leader you must make it through a particular bottleneck, as two potential leaders must emerge from the votes of the Conservative MPs for a run-off with the rest of the party. This morning it is very, very unlikely that the next leader will be the (probably) soon to be ex-Chancellor George Osborne. Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond is, as far as we know, not interested.

The closest ‘great offices’ are Theresa May in the Home Office, whose chances have been talked up until yesterday, and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who has ruled himself out repeatedly (though so did his hero Lyndon Johnson, many times). However, Boris Johnson, who has no great office but was Mayor of London for eight years, will have a large amount of political capital and has powerfully bolstered his reputation. A Brexit Johnson versus a Eurosceptic May run-off looks likely.

Gauging how ‘successful’ the takeover leaders were is more tricky-the whole question of whether and how a Prime Minister ‘succeeds’ depends on how you measure it. Half of the leaders achieved the most basic aim of winning an election and a number of them not only won but also increased their majority. Beyond this, some are widely regarded as having failed amid crisis, splits and defeats, especially John Major and Gordon Brown. Not all takeovers are failures or lame ducks. Three of the leaders came number 4, 7 and 8 in the academic survey of the top ten Post-War Prime Ministers and Harold Macmillan in particular is widely regarded as a highly capable and astute Prime Minister.

Whoever takes over from Cameron will face deep problems. He or she will be in charge of a ruptured party, and a worrying in-tray of pressing problems. Being prime Minister of Brexit Britain will mean trying to hold together a divided country and Dis-united Kingdom, not to mention overseeing a hugely complex negotiation process. Whoever takes over will need a very healthy dose of fortune and skill to be a Macmillan rather than a Brown.

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[1] There are other ways but it all gets a bit complicated and constitutional see p 15 ofthe Cabinet Manual 2.18-2.19. If a government falls and an opposition can muster up a majority then an opposition leader could become Prime Minister without an election (but would probably want to call a General Election soon after). The Cabinet Manual hedges its bets by saying ‘The Prime Minister will normally be the accepted leader of a political party that commands the majority of the House of Commons’.

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Note: This post represents the views of the authors and not those of Birkbeck, University of London

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Justice Scalia wasn’t just immoral—he was philosophically confused

This post was contributed by Rob Singh, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck. Prof Singh’s new book, ‘After Obama: Renewing American Leadership, Restoring Global Order’ will be published by Cambridge University Press in May.

This aticle was originally published in Prospect on 16 February.

With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia on 13th February, the United States Supreme Court became a central issue in the raucous 2016 presidential campaign. While President Obama has stated his intent to nominate the next justice, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued that Scalia should not be replaced until after the presidential election — and nominees must be confirmed by the currently Republican-held Senate. These competing claims show how the Court now reflects and reinforces the broader partisan polarisation in Washington.

Antonin Scalia Official SCOTUS Portrait crop

Justice Antonin Scalia (By Steve Petteway, photographer, Supreme Court of the United States[1] (See [2]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

On decisions from gun control to campaign finance, the court over the last decade has pursued an outspokenly conservative agenda. But other key rulings—such as upholding the Affordable Care Act and the right to same sex marriage—have also grievously disappointed traditionalists. With the remaining eight justices now split between four progressives and four conservatives, Scalia’s replacement could potentially reshape constitutional law for years to come.

A man of acerbic wit and often scathing venom, Scalia developed an approach to constitutional interpretation—originalism—that many found coherent and compelling (a whole book, Scalia Dissents, was even dedicated to his disagreements with prevailing opinion). In a democracy, how can a Court legitimately strike down the laws passed by the Congress and signed by the president? Originalism offered a simple solution: rather than consider what the writers of laws, or of particular constitutional clauses, intended the law to mean, judges should instead interpret these in terms of how the text was commonly understood at the time it was adopted. That adherence to the values of others seemed to limit the dangers of judges writing their own views into law. It had the happily convenient benefit, to Scalia, of also yielding reliably conservative policy outcomes. But three problems plagued the path Scalia paved, which he never convincingly resolved.

First, the practical outcomes of Scalia’s philosophy are widely regarded as repugnant to contemporary moral values. Take Maryland v Craig (1990), where the Court upheld a state law allowing a victim of child sex abuse to testify over CCTV rather than in court, in the presence of her abuser. Scalia dissented, arguing that the Sixth Amendment provides that in “all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right… to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”

The only things that had changed since 1791, he argued, were society’s “so-called sensitivity to psychic trauma” and the judgment of where the proper balance lay between assuring conviction of child abusers and acquittal of those falsely accused of abuse. At the same time, in supporting states’ rights to enact statutes rooted in “moral disapproval,” Scalia opposed striking down laws criminalising gay sex in 2003. Relying on “tradition” and popular sentiment to thwart progress, he selectively transformed the Bill of Rights from a safeguard against majoritarianism into another expression of it.

But beyond specific rulings was a second, broader problem. Central to Scalia’s judicial philosophy was an inherent contradiction: would the original framers of the Constitution whom he so venerated have prescribed an originalist approach? Compelling evidence suggests otherwise. Not only is the language of the document notoriously ambiguous and vague, deliberately open to competing and evolving interpretations, but the Framers expressly rejected freezing the fledgling republic in the conditions of 1787. Iconic figures such as Thomas Jefferson even expected new generations to rewrite the Constitution anew.

Thirdly, in decisions such as that made in court case The District of Columbia v. Dick Heller (2008) (which was presided over by the Supreme Court of the United States, and thus Scalia) the Court hardly exemplified a conservative role; for the first time in American history an individualist reading of the Second Amendment was announced. It was ruled that an individual is entitled to carry a firearm for private purposes, such as self-defence, and that the Amendment doesn’t just apply to the rights of groups such as militias. The result of this ruling was a litigation bonanza centred on exactly what gun regulations offend a citizen’s right to own firearms. But if the US survived more than two centuries without the 2nd Amendment ever conferring such a right, when did this change, and why?

Originalists used to criticise the Court’s progressive rulings of the 1960s and 1970s, when the liberal Justices exercised “raw judicial power” by “inventing” new constitutional rights that weren’t explicitly in the Constitution. Now, the same charge can be levelled at the conservatives, whose recent embrace of judicial activism often appears less philosophical rationale than political rationalisation.

Read the original article in Prospect

Read the original article in Prospect

To be fair, Scalia did frequently abide by his own strictures to act as a judge rather than a legislator, not least on First Amendment cases such as flag desecration, where his reading of free expression trumped his affront at unpatriotic acts such as burning the Stars and Stripes. But it is difficult to disassociate his embrace of originalism from his finding in its cold but confused logic a way to oppose every progressive advance from reproductive rights to affirmative action.

George W Bush declined the opportunity to elevate Scalia to the Chief Justiceship in 2005, but Republican presidential candidates have already solemnly avowed to appoint “another Scalia” to the Court, should they be sworn into office in 2017. The chances of that are increasingly slim. With the Court’s future direction now a key issue in the presidential election, several vulnerable Republican Senators facing uphill battles for re-election in swing states such as Wisconsin and Illinois, and the Grand Old Party likely to seem nakedly partisan in obstructing a new Obama judicial nominee from even coming to a vote, Scalia seems likely to remain a magnet for controversy in death as well as life.

It would be mildly ironic if Scalia’s passing, and controversial legacy, hamper the prospect of a more conservative direction in constitutional law by helping to energise the Democratic Party base and costing the GOP the White House and/or the Senate.  And even more ironic that the remainder of this year’s contentious argument over the Court will itself test the proposition of whether a Constitution designed in and for the 18th century is still fit for purpose in the 21st, or more resembles a noble piece of paper housed in the National Archives.

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The Presidential Apprentice? Taking Trump Seriously

Rob Singh is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck. His new book, ‘After Obama: Renewing American Leadership, Restoring Global Order’ will be published by Cambridge University Press in May. Prof Singh recently appeared on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Long View which focused on ‘Donald Trump and the Politics of Celebrity’

Donald Trump Sr. at Citizens United Freedom Summit in Greenville South Carolina May 2015 by Michael Vadon 13Buffoon. Joke. Jerk. Those are just some of the descriptions of the current front-runner for the Republican Party nomination for president of the United States. From his fellow Republicans, that is. Beyond the party, Donald J. Trump has been lambasted as a bigot, misogynist, and racist. Yet none of this has seemingly hampered the popular appeal of his quixotic quest for the White House.

Should we take the Trump phenomenon seriously? The answer is, emphatically, yes. Laugh at or loathe him, Trump has been the Heineken candidate, reaching parts of the electorate no other candidate can reach. And whilst it remains to be seen whether he can translate his support in the polls into votes, Trump already dominates 2016 in singular fashion. There exists no precedent in the modern era for a political novice setting the agenda so consistently that the media focuses in Pavlovian fashion on whatever subjects Trump raises. From stopping illegal immigration through a ‘beautiful’ great wall with Mexico to a moratorium on all Muslims entering the US, no-one has commanded attention like the New Yorker. Moreover, not only have other Republicans felt compelled to follow his lead but even President Obama’s final State of the Union was essentially an extended rejoinder to the Donald.

So, what underlies the success? Anger, authenticity, media savvy, populism, and timing.

An unapologetically redemptive force

First, most Americans think their country is on the wrong track. Among white working class Americans – the core Trump constituency – stagnant wages, real income decline, and loss of a once-dominant status in a nation transforming economically and culturally underlies disillusion. For Americans regarding ‘their’ country as in need of taking back and among those fearing the US is in terminal decline – polarised and gridlocked at home, discounted and challenged for primacy abroad – Trump represents an unapologetically redemptive force: a visceral, primal scream from the heart of white American nationalism.

Second, Americans broadly view their government as ineffective and political system as corrupt. Running for Washington by running against it, on a platform of incoherent but potently opaque policy positions, no-one – for those wanting to change Washington – embodies the outsider like Trump. Moreover, uniquely, his personal fortune insulates him from charges that he can be ‘bought’ by vested interests. When Trump talks about knowing how to work the system as a businessman, he is credible. Add to that an outspoken willingness to speak directly, bluntly and without fear of causing offence and millions of Americans view the Donald as a truth teller. Like businessmen in politics before him, Trump promises that what he did for himself he can do for America, and that ordinary Americans will once more partake of the increasingly elusive American Dream.

Social media mogul

Third, Trump has exploited his formidable media knowledge with astonishing shrewdness. Outrageous statements, outlandish claims and telling personal insults – seemingly spontaneous but carefully pre-planned and road-tested – compel ratings. Social media abets the creation of an alternative reality and echo chamber from which the distrusted mainstream media are excluded. Disintermediation – cutting out the middle man – compounds Trump’s celebrity status to forge what his 5 million Twitter supporters perceive as a personal link to their politically incorrect champion.

Fourth, Trump – for whom id, not ideology, is all – upends conservative orthodoxy. A New York native who was for most of his life pro-choice on abortion, pro-gun control and a donor to Democrats, Trump is no staid Mitt Romney. In rejecting free trade deals and ‘stoopid’ Middle East wars, pledging to make allies from Saudi Arabia to South Korea pay for US protection, committing to punitive taxes on Wall Street and preserving entitlement programmes for the average Joe, Trump’s anti-elitism is scrambling a party establishment fearful of an anti-government populism it unleashed but cannot control.

Finally, if Obama won the presidency in 2008 as the ‘un-Bush’, what more vivid an antithesis to the current lame duck could be imagined than Trump? After seven years of the most polarising presidency since Richard Nixon, Trump promises to restore the art of the deal – something the US Constitution mandates for successful governing, and AWOL since 2009 – at home and abroad alike.

Can Trump triumph?

Can Trump prevail in the Republican demolition derby? The odds are still against him. After all, most Republicans do not support him and he has been first in national polls in large part because the ‘establishment’ vote has been so fragmented among Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie. But if Trump can win or come second to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucus, and then top the New Hampshire and South Carolina polls, the prospects of him securing the nomination are 50-50 at worst. By the time of the Republican Party convention in Cleveland, Ohio in July, if not well in advance, no one may be laughing other than the Donald.

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The Politics of David Bowie

This post was contributed by Dr Benjamin Worthy, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. This blog was originally posted on the 10 Gower Street blog on 11 January 2016.

david_bowie_by_alexwomersley-d5g9foa

Picture courtesy of Alex Womersley

As with almost everything about David Bowie, no one is sure exactly what his politics were. The Mirror claims he turned down an OBE and a knighthood in the 2000s. In 1977 he is quoted as saying ‘the more I travel and the less sure I am about exactly which political philosophies are commendable’. Nevertheless, many have seen ways in which Bowie’s career could provide lessons for how we do politics.

David Bowie rarely indulged directly in politics or political slogans. His lyrics seemed to deal obliquely with it across his career-from ‘Now the workers have struck for fame’ in‘Life on Mars’, his 1996 song ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ to the album Diamond Dogs, based on George Orwell’s 1984. However, direct ‘interventions’ seemed rare and a little unclear, as with his plea for the union and Scotland to vote No to independence in 2014, sent via Kate Moss, or this rather entertaining acceptance of a Brit award in 1996 from a young Tony Blair. This didn’t, of course, stop his fans who seem, on the whole,left-wing (and also fans of scrabble, Patrick Moore and Monty Python, according to YouGov).

But Bowie was not apolitical. In the 1970s Bowie challenged entrenched gender and sexuality stereotypes at a time when few would. Jarvis Cocker has said how Bowie sent out the message that it was OK to be different while the Mirror speakers of how the singer’s ‘radical, gender-busting personas turned traditional conservative views upside down and widened what was acceptable in society’. He also wrote about the world around him, describing events from the space race to divided Berlin (the German Foreign Ministry today publically thanked him for helping to bring down the Berlin Wall).

At the same time, his championing of different cultures pushed all sorts of new ideas into society-look over his top 100 books, covering everything from a memoir of Stalin’s Gulags to Viz magazine. He popularised of whole kaleidoscope of new sounds and visions to new audiences, from German electronic music to Soul, while also experimenting with what people insist on calling ‘world music’. And his message reached a huge, diverse number of people.

In this way, David Bowie was a very political animal, in the same way that Elvis Presley or the Beatles were. None of them urged ‘revolution’ or told people how to vote. Elvis was rather conservative, John Lennon asked to be counted ‘out’ of the revolution (or maybe ‘in’-he wasn’t sure) and David Bowie was too wide-ranging or elliptical to join any one party. But like these other musical legends, in challenging convention, the Man Who fell to Earth tore down barriers and opened up new worlds. David Bowie made people think differently about the world around them. And that is very political.

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TEF, REF, QR, deregulation: thoughts on Jo Johnson’s HE talk

This post was contributed by Dr Martin Eve, senior lecturer in Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. It was originally posted on Dr Eve’s personal blog on Wed 9 September. It was then reblogged by Times Higher Education.

Jo_Johnson_at_British_Museum

Universities minister, Jo Johnson

I feel fairly drained today reading the speech given by the minister for Higher Education, Jo Johnson.

The inferences I make about the speech are that:

  1. There’s a massive coming wave of shake-ups to HE finance, both research and teaching, implemented through a Teaching Excellence Framework
  2. Critiques of the REF have backfired as they are used in a deft rhetorical move to cut state funding for research through QR

This is all just my reading of the speech. It doesn’t represent my employer’s views and it is speculative.

On TEF

Even while decrying REF as “bureaucratic and burdensome to academics”, Jo Johnson wants a TEF. There’s so much talk of “deregulation” in the speech, even while the crux of it is to introduce a massive top-down regulatory mechanism. The core of TEF is financial, though, regardless of what Johnson says about “teaching quality”. It is to be incentivized by allowing institutions to raise their tuition fees:

there will be financial incentives behind the TEF, with those offering high quality teaching able to increase fees with inflation

Another way of putting this is from the flip side: there will be real-term cuts to the funding of institutions that do not fare well under this system. Since assessment will presumably be relative from a single budgetary pot, this is a zero-sum game in which some universities are to be slowly de-funded.

There’s also the problem of private providers for the government. These were fairly disastrous before. TEF gives a way to control this expansion, though. It seems that the government wants to decouple fee increases from social mobility while at the same time controlling the expansion of private provision according to teaching metrics. The end point looks likely to be to cut all public support for teaching outside the fee loan system and to squeeze the loan system to drive up competition (while getting rid of social mobility regulators like OFFA). Lots of universities won’t survive that kind of move, but will be replaced by new teaching providers.

On REF and Research Councils

The current modelled spending cuts in BIS are unlikely to leave research funding untouched. The Minister for HE used a deft rhetorical elision to couple academics’ critiques of the REF with removal of state funding for teaching and research:

“To deliver our ambitions, we also plan to reform the higher education and research system architecture. […] Our regulatory regime is still based upon a system where government directly funds institutions rather than reflecting the fact that students are the purchasers. […] It is also clear to me that there are many in the sector demanding a process for assessing the quality of scholarly output that is less bureaucratic and burdensome to academics.”

These critiques, of course, were of REF as a reductive quantifying procedure. They were not meant to justify the removal of QR, just the removal of the process by which it was assigned. Be careful what you wish for. REF was the way that QR was saved. Regardless of whether you like REF or not (I hate the procedure, but want universities to continue to receive state funding for research), QR gives institutions the freedom to allow their researchers and teachers to fulfil both roles. It is naive to think that this government would continue to fund universities in this way without a procedure like REF. So, I don’t like REF, but I accept it as the pragmatic/political compromise negotiated with a centre-right government to continue funding. This is my view of a messy political compromise, not my pure ideal.

The problem is that there are now several different ideologies competing here and the government must weigh its alleigance to each before deciding what route to pursue to achieve its aims. While Johnson says that he is “committed to the maintenance of dual funding support”, i.e. Research Councils and QR, something has to give. So, the ideologies competing are:

  1. An ideology of cost-effectiveness
  2. An ideology of deregulation
  3. An ideology of strategy

REF/QR is cost-effective compared to the Research Councils:

The REF assessed the outputs and impact of HEI research supported by many types of funders. In the context of £27bn total research income from public sources in the UK over a six-year period, the £246M total cost for REF 2014 is less than 1%. In the context of dual support, the total cost amounts to roughly 2.4% of the £10.2 billion in research funds expected to be distributed by the UK’s funding bodies in the six years, 2015-16 to 2020-21. This compares with an estimate of the annual cost to the UK HE community for peer review of grant applications of around £196M or around 6% of the funds distributed by the Research Councils.

So there’s a drive to maintain REF and QR for cost effectiveness.

But REF/QR has been massively slammed by academics as “bureaucratic and burdensome”, so it doesn’t fit the ideology of deregulation (however contradictory). Furthermore, REF/QR can’t be directed, as can Research Council funding; institutions can spend it on whatever research projects they like.

So the government has to work out what it really wants. If there is to be state funding for research, does it value a cost-effective route (REF.); a de-regulated route (maybe Research Councils? Or just cut REF but keep QR? Yeah, right.); or a route that it can control (Research Councils)?

Finally, the Research Council rejection rate is massive. Only a small number of applications go through. If we’re all forced to apply for funding via this route because there is no QR, then this will get even worse. Research funding will only be available at a very small number of places as concentration rises. This protects the golden triangle while exposing everyone else.

In conclusion

Johnson said, in his speech, that he has “no target for the ‘right’ size of the higher education system”. However, we can infer from this that he does not believe the size to be “right” at the moment because of all the changes he wants to make. Indeed, he said that we need changes to ensure “that more [people going to university] does not mean worse [quality of education]”, which presumably is what he thinks happens at the moment. I speculate, from reading this talk:

  • that the government continues its policy of protecting prestigious institutions while sharpening severe financial competition among all others.
  • that TEF is a financial move, not a teaching quality move, even if you think that teaching should be better rewarded in the academy.
  • that real-term de-funding of existing institutions through TEF will be the way in which the expansion of private providers is regulated.
  • that as long as the student loan system stands, the government can have it both ways: it can claim that it does not fund universities and that this is private income, even while having a regulatory say over them because taxpayers “underwrite” the RAB charge.
  • that REF/QR and the Research Councils are up for debate but the government is to use academics’ calls for its abolition as a justification to cut QR.
  • that there are several competing motivations for the government’s actions in the research funding space that it must weigh.
  • that the stability of operation for many institutions is to be upset.
  • that the talk of de-regulation here is only possible by the introduction of massive new regulatory bodies.
Dr Martin Eve

Dr Martin Eve

None of this is new, of course. I haven’t here, also, gone into liberal humanist defences of the university, of which we will surely see many in the light of this talk. I find myself supportive of the goal to get a more diverse student body – I can’t argue with that, just the methods by which it might be achieved. For instance, while there are talks of supporting those who don’t go through a “traditional route” to HE, the government’s recent policies on funding led to a period of severe financial difficulties for institutions like Birkbeck that cater exclusively for those non-traditional students. So, again, the rhetoric is confused.

But now we have it from the Minister and I suspect we will see action on the ground very soon.

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Cameron’s Human Rights Headache?

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy, lecturer in the Department of Politics

Human-RightsAs a newly elected Prime Minister, you wait around for one European problem then two come along at once. While David Cameron is trying to deal with his EU referendum promise, another ‘European’ problem has reared its head in the Queen’s Speech. The Conservatives promised to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British Bill of Rights-see this full fact analysis for background. The Conservative manifesto stated that:

The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights

The Conservatives would draw up a new Bill of Rights that ended the controversial link with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, treating their rulings as advisory and giving power back to the UK’s Supreme Court. But it looks like the commitment has at least been slowed down – to a promise to consult rather than, as was suggested, to have proposals ready in the first 100 days.

What’s caused the re-think?

The Human Rights Act is surrounded by layers of myths and half-truths. The claim is that the Act creates a set of new rights (it doesn’t, it just adds them to UK law), that it allows judges, and particularly judges from the European Court of Human Rights, to challenge and change British law (it doesn’t really, just lets them declare it ‘incompatible’) and undermines Parliament’s power (which is actually preserves)-see this famous speech by Lord Bingham. This guide to the Act concluded ‘the Government also acknowledged that a series of damaging myths about the Act had taken root in the popular imagination’.

However, the Human Rights Act has become a symbol of ‘European’ interference in ‘our’ politics and abuse of laws designed to protect us. So David Cameron is trying to change something because of what people think it is doing rather than what it is.

So why has Cameron slowed down?

Like any good politician, Cameron has looked across the battlefield and foreseen what could happen. Let’s run a little thought experiment and imagine that he and Michael Gove can draw up a new Bill of British Rights and Responsibilities, one that better reflects British values (putting aside whether it breaks any treaty obligations etc). They can send it, at least in a draft form, to Parliament and repeal the Human Rights Act. At this point, the fun would begin.

In the House of Commons, his own party is deeply divided-and even invoking the classic ‘what would Winston Churchill say’ line hasn’t helped. Some Conservatives oppose any ‘reduction’ in human rights, with one ‘senior’ politician this weekend rumoured to be considering resigning and a group of influential conservative MPs ready to oppose anything they see as a ‘weakening’ of rights.

On the other side, his Eurosceptic [or Euroexit] MPs are keen for something very different that ‘breaks’ the ‘formal link’ with the ECHR and reflects UK values. So the new Bill would have to be a masterpiece that balances these two viewpoints – different from the old Act but not giving less protection.

The truce is fragile

Dr Ben Worthy

Dr Ben Worthy

Cameron’s party, for the moment, is holding off rebellions but the truce is fragile and one issue they do like rebelling about is Europe. Just to make things more tricky for a Prime Minister with a small majority, opposite his own party the new block of 56 SNP MPs, 8 Lib-Dems and the whole of the Labour party are all firmly against scrapping the Act.

Then we get to the House of Lords. Technically the House of Lords cannot block anything promised in a manifesto-but in this case it isn’t so clear cut. The government can’t rush them to any decisions and the Lords can block legislation for some time and even ‘filibuster’ (talk until legislation is dropped).

In the House of Lords the Conservatives do not have a majority and there’s a big healthy dollop of Labour and angry Lib-Dems (there’s only 8 Lib Dem MPs but 104 highly engaged Lib-Dem Peers). Added to this, it’s full of lawyers and experts who see themselves as protectors of civil liberties. The second chamber has already issued warnings that any repeal or new bill won’t get through.

Cameron’s headache may become a migraine

So, piloting this through the House of Lords and House of Commons is very tricky. It’s at this point that Cameron’s Human Rights headache may become a migraine. The Human Rights Act 1998 is deeply tied up in the devolution settlement to Scotland, Wales and, especially, Northern Ireland, where it is embedded in the peace process.

Legally, as Mark Elliot points out, it seems Westminster can just about push a new Bill of Rights across the UK. But politically it will be extremely difficult and it’s possible that Scotland may refuse to co-operate. The ultimate danger is that, as pointed out here, a British Bill, opposed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, could become an English Bill.

So what could Cameron do? Playing for time seems a good idea. How about a referendum?

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Cameron girds up for titanic battles on Scotland and the EU

This post was contributed by Ben Worthy, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally posted on May 11 at The Conversation

David Cameron’s 2015 election victory is all the more powerful for being almost completely unexpected. But as the euphoria dissipates, the obstacles in his path are coming into focus. Above all, he faces two tricky and complex problems: the promised EU referendum and future arrangements with Scotland (and by extension, the other parts of the UK).

The EU referendum was in large part a gamble to see off UKIP and settle his party, but now he looks likely to do it as soon as possible, perhaps even in 2016, banking on a status quo bias to keep us in. And on Scotland, he has committed to implement further devolution and push through the jointly agreed Smith Commission proposals. In both cases, the devil’s in the detail.

On the EU, lots of the specifics are unclear. We don’t yet know what the question on the referendum ballot might be, or what “reforms” to the EU will convince us to stay – and the coming struggles over them promises to be vicious.

On Scotland, it is about giving the new SNP stronghold “the strongest devolved government in the world” – but there will be a need, as Nicola Sturgeon put it, to discuss these issues in more detail (and ditto for Wales). Devolution may also flow back into the Europe debate – Cameron has already refused a separate EU referendum for Scotland but could he hold that line?

On both these pressing matters, Cameron is up against assorted bodies and people who could make his life harder. They can all be dealt with separately, but if they join forces, they could drain Cameron’s political energy and time – the two things a prime minster can least afford to lose.

Houses divided

Cameron’s majority is 12 (or actually eight or 16, as Colin Talbot points out. This is far better than most expected, but it depends on the solidarity of an increasingly rebellious party.

The trouble for Cameron is that parliamentary rebellion is habit-forming: the more you rebel more likely you are to do it again in the future. And the last parliament was the most rebellious since 1945 (here are its top seven rebellions against him).

This bad news gets worse: the two biggest issues that Conservatives rebelled over were constitutional matters and Europe – the two most urgent problems for the next five years. Party management and discipline will be crucial, but even that may not stave off problems if Cameron’s majority is whittled away over time. Just ask John Major, whose 22-seat advantage in 1992 withered to zero by the end of 1996.

The new block of 56 SNP MPs has limited practical power in the Commons, but its members can still use their electoral dominance and high media profile to keep Scotland high up the agenda. And in the event of a Tory rebellion, or a vanishing majority, the opposition parties’ ability to co-ordinate could determine Cameron’s room for manoeuvre.

Don’t forget the House of Lords

The House of Lords is often overlooked, but its potential power to delay and disrupt a government agenda is great – and growing. As Meg Russell demonstrated, since 1999 the Lords has clearly started to feel more legitimate and more prepared to defeat the government: its members did so 11 times in 2014-2015 and 14 times in 2013-14.

The Conservatives are now heavily outgunned in the House of Lords, with 224 peers facing off against 214 Labour ones, and 101 (presumably livid) Liberal Democrats and 174 cross-benchers.

The Lords will be duty-bound to pass an EU referendum bill due to the Salisbury Convention, which means the Lords have to pass manifesto policies. However, there are plenty of other venues for lawmakers to vent their anger or disrupt the government’s timetable for other parts of its reform programme. Select committees in both the Lords and Commons expressed concerns at the lack of consultation on the Smith proposals, boding ill for the constitutional arguments ahead. Concern in one house triggers worries in the other, so wherever it crops up, Cameron will need to take it seriously.

Outside parliament, it remains to be seen whether the eurosceptic right-wing media will be satisfied with any concessions or reforms Cameron gets from Brussels. It may prefer to give the oxygen of publicity to the SNP (particularly the very media-savvy Salmond) and treat us to a long and fascinating Cameron-vs-Sturgeon battle royale.

Cameron also invoked English nationalism in the election campaign, going so far as to launch an England-only manifesto, but it remains to be seen if he can channel and control the mounting pro-English clamour in the right-wing press over the coming months while simultaneously making concessions to Europe or Scotland.

Circling vultures

Behind Cameron are a number of senior Conservatives with at least semi-public leadership ambitions. He’ll have to manage them with precision. In the almost certain event of an EU referendum, he would have to make a very tough choice: whether to ask all ministers to all support staying in, or as Harold Wilson did in the 1975 referendum, to let everyone temporarily agree to disagree.

Equally, there’s no knowing how Cameron’s discontents and potential rivals might react to new devolution settlements. Perhaps the future leadership contenders are already plotting to court English nationalism for party and media favour.

Cameron’s leadership capital is high for the time being, but with so little room for division, his promise to step down by the 2020 election may come back to haunt him. As he seeks to deal with the “Scottish lion” and slay the EU dragon – or at least negotiate with it – everything could get complicated and intensely political very quickly. And the chances of success (whatever that is) are almost impossible to gauge.

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