Tag Archives: politics

“Birkbeck’s policy of not requiring specific grades and instead assessing my ability meant I had the chance of getting a degree”


Godlisten Pallangyo received a limited education in his home country of Tanzania. Despite not having an abundance of resources at his disposal in his early life, he demonstrated a will to finish school and study politics at university.

Born into a poor family in rural Tanzania, Godlisten was limited by the lack of resources available to students who were not able to afford to pay for their education. At the end of the school day and at the weekend, Godlisten would help his parents with farming their land.

Despite these challenges, Godlisten passed primary and secondary school. However, when it came time to progress to A-Levels his family could not afford to pay for his education. He went out and supported himself financially so he could complete his studies, while also supporting his younger brother at school.  Unfortunately, Godlisten did not get the grades needed to get a place at a university in Tanzania, but he never gave up hope of getting a university education.

Ten years later, Godlisten was living and working in the UK with ambitions to study politics. He said; “I became interested in politics from an early age, as growing up in Tanzania, I wanted to learn more about how decisions were made both at global and national levels.”

Even though Godlisten’s grades would have disqualified him from some university courses, Birkbeck’s inclusive policy meant that his application was assessed on future potential, not just past attainment. He commented: “I think it is very important for universities to recognise the potential in students rather than just looking at grades as many people don’t get the same opportunities as others educationally and so don’t achieve the right grades to progress. Birkbeck’s policy of not requiring specific grades and instead assessing my ability through set assignments meant I had the chance of getting a degree, something which I never thought I would achieve.”

When he first started at Birkbeck it had been ten years since he had written his last essay so his first assignment was a challenge. He recalled: “I was not used to reading long articles and books as I am quite slow at reading and it took me a while to get used to it. Learning how to structure an essay and develop an argument, when you come from an education system that just teaches you to listen and repeat information rather than think creatively was definitely a challenge!”

Godlisten found support from his lecturers and tutors who were able to help students from non-conventional educational backgrounds and was aided by the flexibility afforded to students through evening teaching, which he said allowed him to “plan my time well ahead of each term in order to ensure I attended all my lectures and complete my assignments on time.”

For Godlisten, taking the step into higher education was a worthwhile one that will hopefully see him fulfil his ambition of influencing political change in Tanzania. His parting words of advice for anyone unsure about returning to education: “If you’re thinking about getting a degree I would wholeheartedly recommend it. It may seem like just another three years of reading long books but I gained so much more than just writing essays and achieving good grades. I got to meet people I would never otherwise have met, increase my confidence and broaden my thinking.”

Further information



Making a good Parliament: Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow visits Birkbeck

Dr Ben Worthy from the Department of Politics discusses a recent lecture at the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, which welcomed the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. His lecture was titled, “Parliament as Pathfinder: Changing the culture of an ancient institution”.

How can Parliament be reformed? The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, took time out from imposing order on MPs to tell a packed audience of Birkbeck students how he intends to do it.

Since his election in 2009, the Speaker has made his name as someone who wants to make Parliament a different place and the Commons is undoubtedly different as a result. When Bercow became Speaker, Parliament famously had a shooting gallery but no creche. In his speech he pointed to some of his successes, including allowing children through the voting lobby. However, as he said, more needs to be done.

Drawing on, (or in his words, ‘shamelessly plagiarising’), the Good Parliament report by Birkbeck’s own Professor Sarah Childs, the Speaker addressed the principles around which any future change needs to be built.

Change is not just about tinkering with the rules of an institution but about transforming the culture inside to make sure reforms really happen. Any reforms need to be made along several dimensions at once, a mixture of ensuring equal participation, altering the infrastructure and changing the culture.

Although passion and even anger can be normal parts of political discourse, he emphasised the need for MPs to be treated with respect. He also pointed out the importance of making Parliament a more diverse place, a vital democratic principle in itself when, for example, women make up 32% of the MPs in the Commons but 52% of the population – it’s good, but not good enough considering the average voter is likely to be a woman.

Opening up Parliament, he pointed out, is also a way of broadening the views, ideas and experience coming into the House of Commons, and he highlighted the work of Tan Dhesi, the first turbaned Sikh in the House of Commons.

The Speaker ended by making the point that change was also about the culture around politics and how it was reported. Prime Minister’s Questions, while a vital public event, sometimes gives the public the wrong impression of the work of the House and the atmosphere inside. He highlighted his commitment to make the lobby who report on Parliament at least 40% female by 2020.

So, as one audience member asked, will it work? The Speaker argued that without cultural change, no other reforms will really ‘stick’, as ‘culture eats strategy’. But he felt that at a time of unhappiness with elites, and a desire for making things different, the House of Commons was readier for change than it had ever been.


Records of War: Film, History and the Art School

Conny Klocker, intern at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) and PhD candidate at the School of Law writes on a recent screening of 1930s propaganda film. 

As part of the UCL Festival of Culture, the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) was showing two propaganda films about the Italian invasion in Abyssinia in 1935/36 according to a programme first presented at the London Film Society in 1937. One film depicted a Soviet account of the events from the Abyssinians’ perspective, the other from the invaders, the fascist Italian perspective.

The screening itself presented a difficult task for the two projectionists, who were doing a live montage of the films. Having to perform quick changes of 35mm film rolls, to work with two projectors at once, to rewind film rolls to the exact starting point and to turn projectors on ahead of their use to get their motor warmed up over and over again certainly includes complex manoeuvres which they performed brilliantly. In that sense, the Record of War screening could be rather seen as a performance by the two projectionists, not just as a screening.

In 1937, Thorold Dickinson, the director of the programme shown at the London Film Society, saw an opportunity to confront his ‘fashionable Sunday audience’ with a challenging screening programme. The films were shown in dialogue to each other, with one depiction of, for instance the preparations for the war from the Italian side, followed by the war preparations undertaken by the Abyssinians. The chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Italian side followed by their impact on Abyssinian civilians. This direct interaction illustrated the contradicting narratives of the same event. And the audience in 1937 was seemingly not prepared for it. As one of the organisers of this year’s event, Henry K. Miller, pointed out, 1937 was ‘a time when seeing was often equated with believing’. Film material on recent affairs was shown to the public only occasionally, for instance in cinemas before the start of the film screening.

Taking up on this aspect, the reconstruction of the programme in 2017 (the third time that the programme has been shown in this form at all) appears timely. Although seeing does not equate with believing in today’s reality, it is rather a form of seeing but not believing. The sheer amount of film material on current affairs on offer on news portals or sometimes rather flooding one’s social media accounts might well lead to a certain degree of scepticism. Of mistrust or suspicion towards “the media”.


However, the challenge presented to the audience in 1937 and the audience today has remained the same. It is a question of making up one’s own mind. Of consciously deciding to take a stand. And that of course, means to defend it if challenged. Today it appears that more and more people do not want to engage with their environment in that sense and most discussions on political issues come to a quick halt after everyone has repeated the most recent one-liners. Anything going further than that is rather considered an annoyance, something people do not want to engage with in their spare time.

The resurgence of such sentiments requires to be challenged. And events such as the Record of War screening can contribute to that aim. Seeing the themes coming up during the invasion of Abyssinia and the way in which they were communicated by fascist as well as Soviet propaganda, one is invited to reflect on the presentation and narration of current affairs. Of the glorious restoration of peace in Abyssinia by the Italians or the struggle for independence of the Abyssinians, trying to fight against foreign occupation and colonisation. Similarly, there are quite a few issues today which are framed in such contradicting, opposing ways by various interest groups. The question here is then, if one decides to take those narratives as presented and to repeat them unfiltered, or, if one decides to question those narratives and to take a stance.


Enough is Enough: Secrets of the Warburg Photographic Collection

This article was contributed by Sue Wiseman, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities

A visit to the Warburg Institute always provides food for thought; indeed its very system of book classification is designed to precipitate serendipitous findings. So, I should not have been surprised when our Arts Week jaunt to uncover the secrets of the Warburg Photographic Collection, led by its least secretive of guardians, Dr Paul Taylor, provided me with a way to think about our Arts Week lead of art and politics, but I was.

The Warburg Photographic Collection is a library of images that runs from the early Renaissance to the eighteenth-century. As Dr Taylor explained, it covers that period because what Erwin Panofsky called the pre-iconographic and the iconographic exist in a particular relation during that time. So, if we see an image of a woman beside a pool we might think about it pre-iconographicallly – woman with pool. But if we are to think about it iconographically in the period 1450-1790 we are likely to think about the wither Susanna and the Elders (the Bible) or the classical goddess Diana, bathing with her nymphs because that is what Renaissance and eighteenth-century viewers might have had in mind. To stay with classical imagery, we might similarly understand a woman with a helmet on her head in pre-iconographic terms as – just that. However, considered iconographically she might be, or suggest, Athena, and the woman with snakes in her hair that she is killing shares the complex iconography of Hydra, with all the associations of rebellion and misrule. The collection stops in the eighteenth century because, as Paul reminded us, that was when artists and viewers began to think differently about images and for a time these associations faded. Nowadays, of course, they are a smaller but always available part of the thinking of an artist or a viewer and sometimes they give extra resonance not only to the images of artists as different as Cy Twombly and Cindy Sherman, but to the images we find around us in the our image-drenched everyday.

Thinking about pre-iconographic and iconographic looking is an important part of what   modern readers of the internet practice astutely all the time. Renaissance iconography can help us to see more clearly that thinking about images iconographically can add depth and resonance and make us understand more deeply the messages a particular image is offering or, often, selling us. And it is this, of course, that set me thinking about a specific hairy political problem that I have been struggling with. The problem is hairy in several ways –  it is tangled; there is something at stake, and, above all, it is a problem about political hair. Can Erwin Panofsky’s idea of the iconographic help me to understand the iconography of hair as it is playing out. Let us try the method.


Credit: Think London

Hair was brought to the attention of the viewing public when Donald Trump began his political ascent. His hair, like that of Boris Johnson, is unruly and speaks of disruption but also, I think, of the retention of youthful energy into old age. Jeremy Corbyn’s beard, of course, leads us not only to the Bible but to all the images of distinguished masculine age, but the neatness of hair and beard might be a careful distraction. More attention is paid to the appearance of female politicians. It is not that images of men don’t carry meanings but that in many systems of images, not only the Western art that makes up the bulk of the Warburg Photographic Collection, images of women signify instability. Modern politicians know this and part of life for a female politician must be using her image to her advantage – but always with an eye to forestalling problematic associations. Women in the public eye know all too clearly that part of what iconographic thinking does is make visibible some of the living connection between art and politics. Theresa May moves on the stage of world politics beside men whose hair draws comment, and (as Gaby Wood’s fashion-homage to May in Vogue tells us) we know that she is herself interested in fashion. So why has the image projected by her own sleek bob been so little remarked?


Credit: The Margaret Thatcher Foundation

If thinking about May’s hair as a bob is pre-iconographic, it can, nevertheless, take us towards some potentially helpful iconography. Perhaps the most obvious visual antecedent for a female Conservative Prime Minister is Margaret Thatcher and in some ways Theresa May has drawn on that legacy. She does it carefully, though. Just as she has told us ‘Brexit means Brexit’ she has said ‘Margaret Thatcher was a Conservative, I am a conservative’ or on 4 June 2017, apparently marking the latest attack over which she has presided as Home Secretary and Prime Minister, ‘Enough is enough’. These structures of speech are analogous to thinking pre-iconographically in that each rejects an invitation to make an association; they stop short of agreeing to a meaning that comes from outside the control of the speaker. The soundbites strongly associated with Margaret Thatcher such as ‘The lady’s not for turning’ are strong assertions and have over the years been subject to exactly the repurposing and satire that at least the three sentences I have quoted by May resist by refusing image, metaphor, analogy. If May’s speech is distinct from Thatcher’s in attempting insulation and resisting bold, unruly, assertion that might make her vulnerable, I think the same can be said of her relationship to Thatcher’s image. There is little to connect them beyond their use of suits and that is hardly a connection in the wardrobes of political women. May makes little use of Thatcher’s visual image altogether and a comparison on their hair bears out this question. Thatcher’s hair is bold yet fixed in a style now redolent of the aggressive management style of the 1980s when Teresa May was also making her way in politics.

By the time Teresa May caused a stir by putting some spring in her step by wearing a pair of leopard-print kitten heels to the Tory conference in 2002, Margaret Thatcher was long gone. Tony Blair has been elected on a landslide victory. The Tories were nowhere and May was not a particularly important politician. As the eagle-eyed commentator on the politics of fashion, Hadley Freeman, noted in The Guardian there might be some significance in May’s fashion choice. Could May be distancing herself from the difficult Thatcher image by fashioning her own image – in this case by using ‘the old trick of wearing an implausible item in order to create a new image and divert attention from a tiresome past?’ In the end Freeman decided that May liked shoes and liked fun. Yes, but fun and shoes still might have meaning.

princess_dianaFirst coming to politics under Thatcher, May’s formational years were not dominated by the fashions favoured by a woman born in 1925 and whose power hair seemed to grow into a larger and larger helmet as her popularity waned. Much more appealing to a Tory woman born in 1956 might be the fashionable dressing of another, potentially much more sympathetic, political figure – Diana, Princess of Wales. And if we look at the iconography of the People’s Princess in popular memory we can, I think, see much of what May quietly claims from the Thatcher years in her subtle iconography of heel – and hair. Of course, in the 1980s Diana was a troubling and troublesome figure of constrained femininity. However, as time passed, her femininity and fashion sense were remembered. She was beloved, a fashion icon and had the other kind of 1980s hair – various versions of a bob. Any young Tory politician would want to annexe some of Diana’s charisma and good looks. But with May’s subtle appropriation of heel and, especially, hair we might also find something of Diana’s set-apart quality and, of course, it can’t be missed that Diana was political – but she was a princess, not a mucky politician.

Vivienne Westwood by Mattia PasseriDiana was a princess, May was not and was only likely to attain power by a long and careful game. But they both liked fashion, and their tastes were shaped in the eighties. If one Queen of eighties fashion was Diana, the other was of course Vivienne Westwood. Producing madly wearable brilliantly iconoclastic clothes Westwood’s iconography was like Diana’s singular, but much more heavily Elizabethan. She can readily be found as Queen Elizabeth I and II and her Elizabeth gown is at present on display in the Chatsworth chinoiserie. As we now all know, May succeeded in the long game and soon after her accession to rule she made a speech about Brexit – wearing her ‘lucky’ suit. If the trouser part of the suit annexes the panther power of punk, like the leopard she trod in, then its Vivienne aspect fills in the regal dimension from head (hair) to (leopard) toe. If May is a ruler she is a queen – isolate, singular, and deriving her power from a mixture of personality and taste, not from power-dressing, muck-slinging politics.

All this, of course, makes us ask what is the iconography of a female ruler – not helmet haired like Athena or Thatcher, but subtle, powerful, yet without vulnerability? What might Diana and Vivienne do for her?  Well, Vivienne Westwood’s designs draw on the twin iconographies of Britishness (the tartan we find in May’s trouser suit) and the queens Elizabeth. Her designs suggest a rebellion restrained to an iconographic tradition of Britishness that punk both satirised and marketed and that was ultimately absorbed into Cool Britannia and the Olympic iconography of 2012. Westwood’s regal iconography combines deference to royalty and a fantasy of her own regal rule. There is no mistaking that just as her dresses might make a queen, so, too, they mean she is indeed a queen.

If we move up to the hair, then the bob is one of the most common and versatile styles for women’s hair. It can look natural, and that is the way Teresa May wears it (pre-iconographic again) yet it is often saturated with cultural meanings and knowledge. If we look back to the 1980s to think about bobs other than Diana’s, perhaps Debby Harry of the band Blondie offers an example of the bob. Like May, Debby Harry wanted to annexe values to her brand, but none of them were natural; her bob calls up Marilyn Monroe’s. Yet, where Monroe was wrecked by fame, by the time we were all looking at Debby Harry’s bob she had already survived heroin addiction: she was older than most punks; she was a woman and the band, brand and hair were hers – and her hair said it all as the name of that band: Blondie. So if Harry claimed and reworked classic feminine icons of modernity to offer a knowing bid for a modern kind of freedom in which the ‘natural’ was long past, May’s use of the blow dried natural look speaks of a return to nature but also, once again, an avoidance of the iconographic: no helmet for her rather subtle styling, subtle colour and age-appropriacy. Yet for all that May’s hair says to us ‘hair means hair’, the gently groomed and subtly coloured ‘natural’ bob is claiming the power of a quiet femininity that is mixed with brand princess.

Of course, I began by saying that men have an easier time in terms of meaning. Many are allowed to stay in the pre-iconographic. So as I am writing just before an election why can’t I offer some balance by considering Corbyn’s hair? That would be a different topic. Just for the present, though, perhaps we can visualise his head with hair and beard outlining a pineata. As it is repeated and violently struck, sweets and trophies fly through the air at some velocity. It is time to return to the Warburg Picture Collection to ask Dr Paul Taylor for help on the iconography of Corbyn as a pineata …