Rethinking Britain – How to build a better future

Sue Konzelmann, Reader in Management at Birkbeck, and her colleagues John Weeks and Marc Fovargue-Davies introduce their new book, Rethinking Britain: Policy Ideas for the Many. 

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Of the nineteen UK governments since the Second World War, only two have torn up the rule book and tried to build a better future, instead of simply recycling the tired slogans and policies of the past. The two governments that did try radical change – not always successfully – were those of Clement Attlee in 1945 and Margaret Thatcher in 1979.  We are therefore well overdue for another major policy rethink, aimed at solving the problems we have now – largely as a consequence of Thatcher’s legacy – rather than endlessly trying to reignite the ideological battles of the past. That’s why we concluded it was high time for Rethinking Britain: Policy Ideas for the Many.

Rethinking Britain is not only for the many – it’s also written by the many. As a result, it doesn’t set out the vision of one or two people, but instead offers the assessment of a wide range of experts, who are working in or studying the areas we cover. We not only set out the problems and suggest policy solutions to address them.  Our aim is to help improve life for people living in today’s Britain.

Between each set of policy ideas, you’ll also find interludes.  These draw upon real-life stories of people in Britain who are experiencing unresolved difficulties that should be considered unacceptable in any developed economy or civilised society – and we suggest how these problems could be solved, too.

“We strongly believe that a society that produces healthy, well educated, strongly motivated people – who have, or can realistically hope for, a good standard of living – will also help to generate a powerful and dynamic economy.”

Although some depressing situations are described, our overall approach is extremely positive. Instead of denying that there are problems – or ignoring them, as many politicians have done – we take a much more “can do” approach to building the society that most of us would want to live in.  That leads to another significant point: Whilst Attlee’s 1945 government put people and society at the centre of its policy ideas, less than forty years later, Thatcher’s administration reversed this, focusing on the individual, privatization and the wealthy. This raises the question: “In whose interests should the economy be run”?

The shift to individualism, private profit maximization and an obsession with “free” markets resulted in serious wealth for the few – and runaway inequality and poverty for the many.  It’s therefore not hard to guess where those contributing to Rethinking Britain are coming from!  We strongly believe that a society that produces healthy, well educated, strongly motivated people – who have, or can realistically hope for, a good standard of living – will also help to generate a powerful and dynamic economy.

The post-1979 dogma – that the British government should play as small a part in the economy as possible – is also misguided. Far too much capital is being used for short-term, speculative purposes, whilst not enough is finding its way into the development of sustainable businesses that provide long term employment and pay decent wages – not the hand to mouth existence of a zero hours contract. In other words, the economy should work for the many, not just the few.

Another theme that runs through Rethinking Britain is the concept of citizenship – where sets of rights and obligations mean that you are indeed part of something bigger than yourself.  This is the polar opposite of Thatcher’s point of view, that there is “no such thing as society”.  Many of her policy ideas were developed in the context of the Cold War – which came to an end thirty years ago; and it’s time for her policy ideas to do the same.

By investing in Britain’s people, we can build a stronger, more cohesive society – which will underpin a more vibrant economy.  Rethinking Britain shows how.

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The food politics of Brexit

Dr Alex Colás and Dr Jason Edwards discuss the crucial place of food and drink in the Brexit negotiations, and how they could impact domestic and international politics. They are authors with Jane Levi and Sami Zubaida of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System (University of California Press), which will be launched at a reception on 13 December. Find out more and book your free place here.

Whatever the outcome of ongoing Brexit negotiations, one conclusion is abundantly clear: food and drink are critical to this process, and more widely to both domestic and international politics. This is most obvious in relation to the UK’s food security. With just over 30 per cent in value terms of Britain’s just-in-time food supply coming from within the European Union, the UK’S food security is likely to be compromised. A recent authoritative report warns that Britain’s nutritional and political stability could be undermined by price volatility, sharpening inequalities and erosion of public trust following Brexit. Far from being an anecdotal sideshow, the effects of the divorce on Britain’s food economy are starting to become apparent in both the agricultural and hospitality sectors, so dependent on EU labor.

The consequences of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU go beyond the high politics of summitry, increasingly appearing in the everyday lives of UK residents, touching on issues like national and regional identities, public health, fisheries and agriculture, commodity supply chains, fast food workers, food standards and changing consumer tastes. Products like Stilton, Arbroath Smokies or indeed Scotch whisky, all currently listed by the EU as having Protected Designation of Origin or Geographical Indication, are expected to retain this status only if there is a UK alignment with European regulations, and will otherwise have to apply as a ‘third country’ producers. The great British institution of the Friday night curry is also affected by Brexit. During the 2016 referendum campaign, leading Brexiteers secured the support of the Bangladesh Caterers Association – a major organisation representing the sector – with the promise that leaving the EU and ‘taking back control’ of immigration would ‘save our curry houses’. Two years on, representatives of this emblematic sector of the country’s catering industry say they are disappointed that the final Brexit deal is likely to offer EU citizens preferential access to the UK labour market. News headlines have equally highlighted the public health and food safety dimensions of Brexit as farmers and consumers worry about the prospect of chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-treated beef or genetically-modified organisms entering the UK food chain through trade deals with countries outside the EU.

All of these concerns have an extensive history in British and continental politics. In our new book Food, Politics, and Society we take the long view and argue that in fact questions of food prices and international trade; cuisine and identity; state regulation of food and drink; or the public health and environmental consequences of different food regimes have been central to the development of western social theory since the eighteenth century.

Classical political economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and their eminent critic Karl Marx should to different degrees be seen as theorists of food politics. Food is key to Smith and Ricardo’s famous accounts of rent and comparative advantage, while the importance for Marx’s work of the agro-ecological concept of ‘metabolism’ has recently been expertly recovered by Marxian scholars. Closer to our times, theories of nationalism, the public sphere, class or gender have emphasized the centrality of food and drink to the reproduction of these social phenomena.

It is useful to place the ongoing policy debates and political disputes surrounding the food politics of Brexit in wider historical and sociological perspective because food and drink have been of critical importance to European geopolitics in the modern age. In the nineteenth century, ‘Gastronationalism’ played a significant part in the formation of national identity in major states like Italy and France, and the invention of national and sub-national food cultures remains a feature of politics across Europe (an activity, somewhat ironically, much supported by the EU). But modern national food cultures have been shaped by a more-or-less conscious mimicry or rejection of other food cultures. The traditional British distaste for garlic – a French predilection – developed at the same time as a public eating culture massively influenced by French ideas of culinary technique and table service. The ‘revival’ of British food over the last twenty years is in fact far more of an invention shaped by foreign food developments, such as the Slow Food movement originating in Italy.

At the same time, the struggle to define national cuisines within states has often mirrored deep divides along lines of class, gender, and ethnicity. Brexit is – or has become – more than a disagreement over the economic costs and benefits of EU membership. It has expressed underlying conflicts in modern British society, and these conflicts are reflected in contending visions of what British food is and should be. Post-Brexit, British Gastronationalism is likely to be reinvented once again. As one restaurant critic recently put it: ‘In a post-Europe landscape, we’ll drink only Denbies red wine from the vineyards of Dorking and eat fish and chips off fancy plates while listening to vintage Arctic Monkeys’.

Alex Colás and Jason Edwards teach in the Politics Department at Birkbeck College and convene the Birkbeck Food Group. Get free tickets for the launch reception on Thursday 13 December where discount copies of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System will be on sale.

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How should we talk about white majorities?

Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics, argues that we need to talk about white majorities and do so with understanding in his new book, Whiteshift.

Across the West, anti-immigration populists are tearing a path through the usual politics of left and right. Immigration is remaking Europe and North America; over half of American babies are non-white, and by the end of the century, minorities and those of mixed race are projected to form the majority in most Western European countries. The left-right distinction is being overshadowed by a culture war pitting whites who dislike diversity against those who embrace it. Ethnic transformation will continue, but conservative whites are unlikely to exit quietly; their feelings of alienation are already redrawing political lines and convulsing societies across the West.

Drawing on detailed and extraordinary survey, demographic and electoral data and enriched with illustrative stories, Whiteshift explores the majority response to ethnic change in North America and Western Europe. Eric Kaufmann, a leading expert on national identity and ethnic change, calls for us to move beyond empty and partisan talk about national identity and open up debate about the future of white majorities. He argues that we must move past the dominant storyline of ever-increasing diversity to enable conservative whites and liberals alike to see a positive future in “whiteshift” – a new story of majority transformation through intermarriage that can help lift anxieties and heal today’s widening political divisions.

Professor Kaufmann has been researching immigration, religion, and national identity for over twenty years. A native of Vancouver, British Columbia, he was born in Hong Kong and spent eight years in Tokyo, and is now Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. His previous books include Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? and The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America.

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Contemporary Trotskyism: the resilience of social movements

John Kelly, Professor of Industrial Relations at Birkbeck, discusses the social and political dynamics of Trotskyist organisations – the subject matter of his new book, Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain.

Almost eighty years after Leon Trotsky founded the Fourth International, there are now Trotskyist organisations in 57 countries, including most of Western Europe and Latin America. Yet no Trotskyist group has ever led a revolution, won a national election or built an enduring mass, political party. If the Trotskyist movement has been so unsuccessful, then how can we account for its remarkable resilience?

The book argues that to understand and explain the development, resilience and influence of Trotskyist groups, we need to analyse them as hybrid bodies that comprise elements of three different types of organisation: the political party, the sect and the social movement. It is the properties of these three facets of organisation and the interplay between them that give rise to the most characteristic features of the Trotskyist movement: frenetic activity, rampant divisions, inter-organisational hostility, authoritarian and charismatic leadership, high membership turnover and ideological rigidity.

As political parties, Trotskyist groups have always been small, never exceeding a membership of 10,000, and their vote shares in general and European elections have been derisory, rarely exceeding one percent. Yet Trotskyist groups are distinct from mainstream parties because in addition to their search for votes, office and policy implementation, they are also sects. This means they are powerfully wedded to the defence of Trotskyist doctrine, a core set of taken-for-granted beliefs that guide their actions and which are considered to provide the blueprint for ultimate political success. Trotskyist doctrine, like religious doctrine, appears in many different forms and struggles over the proper interpretation of Trotskyist and Leninist texts have splintered the movement into seven competing families.

Yet against this record of failure and division, Trotskyist groups have been assiduous in building a number of broad-based and successful social movements, to campaign on single issues. The Anti-Nazi League, created in the 1970s by the Socialist Workers Party, made a significant contribution to the electoral demise of the far right in that decade, whilst the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, created by the Militant Tendency in the late 1980s, helped destroy that Conservative government tax in the early 1990s.

These isolated success stories provide one element in the explanation of Trotskyist resilience, but an equally important factor is their astonishing efficiency in raising funds and building organisational capacity. The income per capita raised by Trotskyist groups from their members is around ten times greater than that of mainstream parties, an extraordinary achievement that allows them to employ large numbers of staff and to publish a wide range of newspapers, magazines and books. These organisational resources enable them to wield a public presence, on demonstrations and marches for example, out of all proportion to their tiny numbers. The same resources, coupled with their vigorous and uncompromising anti-capitalist message, allows them to recruit hundreds of young people each year, many of whom however quit after a short period.

Drawing on extensive archival research, as well as interviews with many of the leading protagonists and activists within the Trotskyist milieu, this is the first major study for thirty years of this small but vocal movement.

Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain is available from Routledge.

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