Monday, 28 July 2014

The Irish Constitutional Convention, 2012-14

David Farrell from University College Dublin discusses the Irish Constitutional Convention.

The Irish Constitutional Convention (ICC)[1] was established on the heels of the worst economic crisis in the history of Ireland as an independent state. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition government that was elected in the 2011 electoral ‘earthquake’ promised a ‘democratic revolution’ with an attractive suite of packages, among them: the introduction of gender quotas; re-instatement of appropriate freedom of information legislation; enacting whistleblower legislation; establishing a register of lobbyists; making party finances more transparent; and parliamentary reform.[2]

Included in the mix was a proposal to establish a Convention to consider a number of potential areas of constitutional reform.  Ireland’s 1937 constitution is showing its age but it can only be reformed by referendum, something that has been attempted 33 times – 24 of them successfully.  The existential nature of this crisis brought into sharp relief the need for a fundamental overhaul of Ireland’s constitution and wider political institutions. The ICC represented a step – to many a far too small step – in that direction, with a rather eclectic agenda of topics including: marriage equality, blasphemy, the role of women, electoral reform, reducing the voting age, votes for emigrants (but only in presidential elections), the length of the president’s term of office.[3]

This is not the first time that a body has been established to investigate possible constitutional reform. But what marked the ICC out as unique was its membership and how it was selected. Building on the citizen’s assembly model that was trail blazed in British Columbia in 2004, ordinary citizens were at the heart of the process, only in the Irish case the citizens were sitting cheek by jowl with politicians: citizens comprised two-thirds of the 100 members, with members of parliament the other one-third. 

Following the British Columbia example the citizen members were selected randomly by an opinion poll company (though ensuring a fair representation in terms of sex, regions and socio-economic sectors): they did not run for election (as in Iceland), nor were they selected to represent particular sectoral interests as has happened often in the past in processes like this. 

The reason for selecting citizens at random was to ensure that they were there in their own right as ordinary citizens; they didn’t feel mandated as a result of fighting for office, nor did they feel duty bound to represent vested interests.  This selection process was a crucial feature in the design of the ICC organization, which was modeled on deliberative principles.  These principles also applied to how the ICC operated. Rather than the norms of parliamentary grandstanding and debating from fixed positions that so often governs the modus operandi of bodies of this type, in this instance the norm was deliberation – detailed discussion after becoming informed on all sides of the issue, respecting differing views, being prepared to change one’s mind.

The ICC met over a 14-month period, meeting roughly one weekend a month.  The members were ranged around tables of eight (mixing citizen and politician members), with trained facilitators ensuring that all members had equal opportunity to contribute.[4]  Each weekend ended with a secret ballot on the ICC’s recommendations.

These recommendations are gradually making their way through the higher echelons of government and parliament.  The government committed to responding to each of the ICC’s reports within four months of receipt by way of a parliamentary debate.  To date, four of the reports have been discussed resulting in government commitments to hold a number of referendums early in 2015 on marriage equality, reducing the vote age to 16, and reducing the age requirement for presidential candidates.  More referendums are anticipated.

It is too early to judge the success of this ICC: the government has only reacted to a portion of its reports (and there have been some worrying delays in reacting to the remaining ones); and we’ve yet to see the outcome of the referendums.  But what can’t be denied is that as a process, in terms of how the ICC operated, it was seen as a great success: many who had been critical before admitted to being converted, and senior politicians from all parties talk of the possibility of creating another ICC in the future.

Given the ongoing constitutional uncertainties in the UK due to the impending Scottish referendum and the anticipated referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union, it might be timely to consider borrowing from the Irish example and establishing a constitutional convention for the UK.
David Farrell is a Professor of Politics at the University College Dublin. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and was the Research Director for the Irish Constitutional Convention.

[2] Some less attractive – and in some cases, frankly, potty – proposals included the abolition of the Seanad (Ireland’s upper house), reducing the size of the Dรกil (the lower house), and cutting politicians’ salary.  The government’s efforts to sell the idea that less-government-means-better government backfired spectacularly in October 2013, when the abolition of the Seanad referendum was defeated.
[3] The ICC was given space at the end of its deliberations on the agenda set by the government to consider other matters.  Having sought public submissions, the members voted to devote its final two weekends to the issues of parliamentary reform and economic, social and cultural rights.
[4] Experts prepared briefing documents that were circulated a week in advance of each meeting; the same experts then made presentations at the start of the meeting and were available to answer questions of fact.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Rejoinder to "Reflections on Economic Under-performance on Both Sides of the Atlantic"

David Coates replies to Wyn Grant and Terrence Casey, who posted comments on the original piece here.

Dear Wyn and Terry

I entirely agree with Terry that we need to specify a clear alternative.  My own argument, of course, is that the creation of that alternative is the key task now facing those of us committed to successful center-left politics. So three additional thoughts

l. To Wyn.  Your pessimism may be justified but I hope it isn’t.  I take comfort from the fact that new projects take time to create and to implement: the 1930s before Keynesianism, the 1970s before Reagan/Thatcher. I hope we can move more quickly – we don’t want a lost decade – but I fear we are in one.

2 To Terry. I have tried to map my sense of the broad character of that new strategy in earlier writings – the article on “Escaping the Debt,” the last sections of Prolonged Labour and of Making the Progressive Case: always arguing for a new social contract (coming out of Keynesian rather than neo-liberal policies) built on greater equality, a stronger welfare net, a fairer work-life balance, a strengthened manufacturing sector built by active industrial policy, new trade rules and trade union rights.  But my views don’t matter. It’s the package that does.  There are lots of ideas out there, and they all need serious review.

3. Which suggests to me a task for the next BPG one-day conference: to focus on just these issues, bringing academics and think-tank people from the US (Center for American Progress, EPI) and their equivalents from the UK (SPERI and Hull at the very least) together. Some of the latter may by mid-2015 be advising a new Labour government.  I hope so.  If so, the timing would be perfect.

Lots to talk about in Washington when we meet!
Best wishes as always

Monday, 14 July 2014

‘Swaggering is a Gendered Attribute: it won’t help women get selected as parliamentary candidates’

Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender at the University of Bristol, discusses the problems of male 'swaggering' in British party politics.

Swagger: walk or behave in a very confident and typically arrogant or aggressive way: he swaggered along the corridor (New Oxford Dictionary of English)

Mathew Parris, ex-MP, Times Columnist, and Chair of a number of Conservative Party Selection meetings made a simple observation in last week’s Times (8 July 2014): too often women seeking selection as parliamentary candidates ‘lack swagger’. The implication here is however troubling: if you want to get selected as a Conservative parliamentary candidate, start to swagger. Yet Parris rightly notes that swagger is a male characteristic.

In the days since Parris’ intervention I’ve tried very hard to come up with the names of women who swagger. I couldn’t think of any British ones, politicians or otherwise. Perhaps Katie Hopkins (the former reality TV star). But she invites vitriolic criticism for what she says and how she says it. American ones? Hilary Clinton? She wasn’t swaggering on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last week. Nor Microsoft/Google’s Sheryl Sandberg – her book Lean In is a paean to women’s inability to swagger. And her campaign with Beyonce to ban the term ‘bossy’ reveals the gendered risks for women.[1]  Madonna is the best my friends and I could come up with. But then again, she’s not always exactly admired for how she represents herself: too transgressive; too ‘in your face’; too ‘sassy’.

Right at the end of his piece Parris puts forward a radical conclusion: preconceptions of what the good politician should be like must change. But I’d take issue with his related claim that ‘the prejudice we need to confront is therefore subtler than sexism’. Swagger has everything to do with gender. Recognizing that swagger is a valuable political resource and implying that success will follow the adoption of this male characteristic, is another example of the daily double bind women face. It’s a modern version of the Wollstonecraft dilemma – behave like a man to succeed; or behave like a woman and fail.

With this problem of the ‘male- politician-norm/‘female- politician-pretender’ in mind I’ve been trying to imagine a candidate selection committee faced with such a swaggering woman.  Do we really think that she’ll be embraced rather than considered a ‘ball breaker’ (Read: Hilary Clinton)? When it comes down to the final choice, will the selectorate not find her gender transgressions at little too uncomfortable; a little too atypical of her sex?

Analysis of the resignations of the Labour Ministers Clare Short and Estelle Morris revealed how these two women’s personalities were regarded by the press.[2] Gendered criticism was never very far away. Short was depicted as a ‘bad minister and a bad woman’; Morris at least remained a ‘good woman’. She was ‘honest’, ‘straight’ and ‘unspun’, ‘decent’ and ‘honourable’ even as she lacked ‘authority’; ‘hopeless’, ‘hapless’ and ‘accident prone’. Short, in contrast, was ‘bossy’ and ‘mouthy’, ‘proud’ and ‘flamboyant’ and ‘terryfying’: a ‘bully’ and ‘arrogant’. So much for the ‘arrogance’ required of the swaggerer...

When there is only a single and masculinized model of the ‘good MP’ women will invariably struggle to be regarded as MP material. This is what the academic literature terms indirect discrimination (Childs 2008; Norris and Lovenduski 1995). It is not direct – where individual women are judged on the basis of characteristics seen as common to their group. Its indirectness comes from the fact that it valorizes resources and characteristics primarily associated with (some) men and (certain types of) masculinity.

Contemporary MPs engage in a wide variety of representational and governing activities. Not all MPs have to be excellent at all that MPs collectively undertake. Some may excel at public speaking in the House; others at the detail of legislative scrutiny and holding government to account; yet others responding to the needs of constituents or interests of pressure groups. How important is ‘swaggering’ in much of what an MP does? It might help in the macho moment that is PMQs or on certain radio and TV programmes, but that says rather more about the hyper masculinity of those institutions.

The limitation of privileging a singular model for the ‘good MP’ has been accepted by the political parties over the last decade or so.  Isn’t this why the political parties have diversified the criteria and tasks that make up their selection procedures? Under these procedures wouldn’t women’s merits be better noticed when they are being judged against tasks rather than against a particular masculinized personality?  Parris' remarks suggest that despite these reforms the Conservatives are still struggling to select women. The latest parliamentary selection data for the 2015 general election are telling. Looking just at the Conservatives and the Labour:

In retirement seats Conservatives have selected 6 men (67%) and 3 women (33%), Labour 4 men (24%) and 13 women (76%).
In target seats the Conservatives have selected 9 men (82%) and 2 women (18%), Labour 14 men (47%) and 16 women (53%).
In the seats where the parties came second in 2010 Labour has selected 22 women out of 38 new candidates (58%), and the Conservatives have selected 4 women out of 20 (20%).[3]

It is interesting that Parris does not mention All Women Shortlists. Some Conservative women are beginning to acknowledge that this may well need to be on the table after the General Election.[4] Conservatives may not like this approach but it is a strategy that has worked for Labour since it was first used in 1997 when it returned 101 women MPs; it is clearly working for them again for 2015. When only selecting from women the selectorate cannot be basing their decision on which candidate had the best swagger.  

Sarah Childs researches politics and gender at the University of Bristol.

[2] Childs, S. (2008) Women and British Party Politics (London: Routledge).
[3] Campbell (2014) “Women Candidates. Parliamentary Candidates UK” [Online] Available from: [Accessed June 2014]

Tougher, more restrictive...just right...for now? Changes in Conservative immigration policy, 1960-2010

Tim Bale and Rebecca Partos discuss the development of Conservative immirgation policies since the 1960s.

Why might political parties shift their position on immigration? To find out, we looked at the Conservative Party’s immigration policy over a half a century to explore the extent to which significant shifts in policy can be explained by the three most commonly cited drivers of party change derived from the framework developed by US political scientists Bob Harmel and Ken Janda: first, external shock (essentially, electoral defeat or loss of office); second, a change of leader; and, third, a change in the dominant faction (or coalition) that, to a greater or lesser extent, runs the party in question.[1] We concluded that they all made a difference – but that their impacts varied, and varied over time.  Here are the take-home messages from our findings published in the journal, Contemporary European Politics.

Things may now be changing with the rise of UKIP which, unlike the National Front or the British National Party, does pose a serious threat to the Conservative Party’s ability to win elections. Traditionally, however, tightening of Tory immigration policy tends to be driven more by the Party’s determination to maintain its edge over Labour than any desire to reach out to a more radically right-wing constituency via an even more restrictive policy, not least because taking things too far might lose the Party its core support among well-heeled (and increasingly well-educated) middle-class voters. Policy change between 1964 and 1966, for example, was partly the result of the Conservatives’ acknowledgement that Labour had, despite its criticisms of the restrictive 1962 Immigration Act when it was in opposition, retained the legislation when it entered government and even took steps to make it harder still for ‘coloured’ immigrants to enter the country. 

There is no sure-fire connection between the Tories losing an election and then hardening their line on immigration: electoral defeats are not always followed by significant policy change; in fact a narrow defeat may lead to a bigger shift and vice versa. That Tory policy became more restrictive after 1966 had less to do with Labour’s landslide win in the general election of that year and more to do with a) Labour’s sudden and breathtakingly restrictive response to the threat of a large scale influx of ‘coloured’ immigration prompted by Kenya’s decision to expel its Asian population and b) the need to bow to demands on the part of activists (and voters) for a harder line on the issue after Heath, much to their chagrin, sacked Enoch Powell for his infamous Rivers of Blood Speech in 1968.

Policy changes on immigration are sometimes driven by the Party responding to events, and then responding to the response to that response! In 1972 Uganda decided to throw out its Asian population, many of whom were entitled to British passports. Acting on legal advice, the Cabinet decided it had no choice but to allow some 25,000 of those affected to settle in Britain. The decision was regarded by many party activists as a clear breach of the Party’s manifesto commitments, and thus provoked resignations from constituency associations around the country. Just as it had done in the run-up to 1970, this pressure, combined with similarly inclined public opinion, helped ensure that, over time, policy was ratcheted yet another notch towards restriction.

Although a change of leader doesn’t always make a difference, it can have a real impact, not least when it comes to tone. By 1979, the Tories were promising more hard-line policy interventions than ever before. Their manifesto committed an incoming Tory administration not only to a new British Nationality Act that would define citizenship and right of residence but to a series of unusually specific and restrictive pledges across the board. Immigration did not play much of a role in either of the two general elections in 1974, but two Tory defeats did hand the leadership to a leader, Margaret Thatcher, who was far more in touch (and in sympathy) with party and public feeling on the immigration than her predecessor – and far more convinced that politicians had a duty to reflect it, both in reality and by ramping up the rhetoric.  In contrast, David Cameron, taking over in 2005 from three leaders who banged the drum on immigration and asylum, dialled down the rhetoric considerably. Yet by 2010, in response to massive anxiety about the Labour government presiding over a huge influx of migrants and only belatedly tightening the regime, the Conservatives had actually adopted an even more restrictive policy stance.

The findings of our study, then, fit nicely with Harmel and Janda’s (and their colleagues’) conclusion that electoral ‘shocks’ matter but that leaders matter most, while factional turnover is of lesser importance. We should note, however, that policy change need not be driven by a change of leader; it can equally well be driven by an existing leader changing his or her mind. There are many reasons why that might happen, but there are two which are especially important.

The first is what might fairly be termed force majeure – international crises or legal agreements and decisions that cannot be wished away: predictably, perhaps, such external events are more acutely felt in office than they are in opposition, which may well explain why at least some of the promises made when outside government have to be broken in it.  The second reason is the need to respond to party and public feeling, whether it be triggered by particular cases or by developing trends. In stressing the latter, our findings also support more recent cross-national research on parties’ policy changes – for example, those by Jim Adams and his collaborators – which strongly suggests that election results are much less likely than is widely assumed to trigger them than shifts in public opinion.[2] 

In essence, Conservatives believe that, by tightening the UK’s country’s migration regime, they will outbid and outperform their opponents electorally. But they are also fulfilling what they see as their democratic obligation to respond – ‘thermostatically’ to borrow a term from scholars like Chris Wlezien and Will Jennings – to voters’ insistence that government protect the nation’s borders and its culture, however porous and ill-defined they may be.[3]

Rebecca Partos is an ESRC-funded doctoral researcher in Politics at the University of Sussex. Her research examines the development of Conservative Party immigration policy with a focus on how periods in opposition and in government inform policy-making. She has had articles published in Comparative European Politics and The Political Quarterly.
Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. He specialises in party politics and the politics of migration. He is the author of numerous articles, two books on the Conservative Party and European Politics: A Comparative Introduction (Palgrave, 2013).

[1] See Harmel, R. and Janda, K. (1994) An integrated theory of party goals and party change. Journal ofTheoretical Politics 63(3): 259–287; Harmel, R. and Tan, A. (2003) Party actors and party change: Does factional dominance matter? European Journal of Political Research 42(3): 409–424; Harmel, R., Heo, U., Tan, A. and Janda, K. (1995) Performance, leadership, factions and party change: An empirical analysis. West European Politics 18(1): 1–33; Janda, K., Harmel, R., Edens, C. and Goff, P. (1995) Changes in party identity: Evidence from party manifestos. Party Politics 1(2): 171–196.
[2] Adams, J., Clark, M., Ezrow, L. and Glasgow, G. (2004) Understanding change and stability in party ideologies: Do parties respond to public opinion or to past election results? British Journal of Political Science 34(4): 589–610.
[3] See Jennings, W. (2009) The Public thermostat, political responsiveness and error-correction: Border control and asylum in Britain, 1994-2007. British Journal of Political Science 39(4): 847–870 and Soroka, S.N. and Wlezien, C. (2009) Degrees of Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Reflections on Economic Under-performance on Both Sides of the Atlantic

David Coates presents a fascinating piece on the economic underperformance of the British and US economy.

One of the most intriguing problems in any form of contemporary analysis – political or economic – is to judge whether contemporary trends are best read as a glass half-full or a glass half-empty. The events themselves rarely dictate which view should prevail: almost always the judgment call (and it is necessarily a matter of judgment, not a statement of fact) is the product of prior scholarship and reflection. Those thoughts came to mind when reading Terrence Casey’s recent and fascinating essay on “Britain’s ‘natural economic experiment’” posted on the British Politics Group Blog Site.[1] Terrence and I have long examined similar things to different effect. In the decade-long debate of varieties of capitalism, neither of us have been an uncritical advocate of co-ordinated market economies. Rather, and on the continuum of views that stretches from “neo-liberalism is still a viable growth model” to “a plague on both their houses since neither work,” Terrence is still arguing some version of the first[2] and I have long argued some version of the second.[3] Hopefully there is still value in the contrast – hence this.

The evidence that persuades me of the continuing weakness of neo-liberalism in both the US and the UK can only be illustrated in the space available here, but it certainly includes the following.[4] 

 The growth and competitiveness performance of both economies remains weak and unimpressive. The average annualized growth rate of the US economy between 1947 and 2013 was 3.2%. By contrast, the US economy actually contracted 2.9% in the first quarter of 2014; and its projected annualized growth rate for 2014 is just 0.1%. Meanwhile, having narrowly avoided a third-dip recession, the UK economy was still 3.3% smaller in mid-2013 than it had been in 2008. Both economies meanwhile carry persistent trade deficits of currently 2.3% (US) and 5.4% (UK) of their respective GDPs.

 The record on job creation and persistent unemployment is more troubling still. The US economy took until May 2014 to create the number of jobs it last saw immediately before the 2008 recession; and that still left a jobs gap of 7.9 million. As late as January 2014, the ratio of job seekers to available jobs in the US economy as a whole remained at just under 4 job seekers per job. The UK story is tragically similar. Though the UK moved its official unemployment rate down from 7.9% in 2010 to 6.8% in 2014, as late as 2012 the unemployment level there was at a 17 year high: and in the UK economy’s recently better performance on unemployment, fully one-fifth of the new jobs created have been part-time jobs, and nearly half of all the job growth has been the product of a move into self-employment. 

 General wage levels and living standards remain stagnant in both economies. In the UK, average wages in 2014 were still at 2004 levels, with no likelihood of their returning to their 2009 peak much before 2020.  Likewise in the US, wages for the bottom 70% fell between 2007 and 2012 and where jobs were regained, they occurred in sectors disproportionately prone to low pay. Currently a full 25% of jobs available in the US economy pay wages lower than the poverty level for a family of three.

 Poverty and Inequality has intensified on both sides of the Atlantic. Currently one American in seven lives in poverty. One American in three lives within one tranche of the poverty level for their size of family. Measuring poverty differently (at 60% of median income) the UK still had 22% of its children living in poverty in 2010, with 3.5 million children projected still to be there in 2020. There is a squeeze on both middle class incomes and general social mobility in both economies. In both, the link between productivity growth and wage growth characteristic of the first half of the post-World War II period is currently entirely broken.

Any pre-recession assertion of the inevitable superiority of Anglo-American ways of running capitalist economies now has a hollow ring.  Nor does the pattern of post-recession performance of either economy easily support the view that the route back to generalized prosperity across the advanced capitalist bloc as a whole is through greater public austerity and private sector deregulation. The parallel problems of more coordinated market economies do not in that sense vindicate their liberal market alternative. They suggest rather, as David Gordon among others has argued in another context,[5] that the route to generalized prosperity again is a route that still needs to be found. Finding that new growth model is indeed the central task of the age: for without it, a generation of young workers now entering both American and British labour markets will live out their maturity constrained by stagnation of Japanese-like proportions and longevity; and as they do so, their support for both democratic institutions and progressive politics is likely to wane.  If we want a future dominated by Tea Party politics on one side of the Atlantic and UKIP-like populism on the other, we can sit back and do nothing.  But if we do not, now is the key time to put on our thinking caps, and find a new program of reform that is neither neo-liberal nor corporatist in kind.

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American studies at Wake Forest University, and has published widely on British politics. 

[2] Terrence Casey, “How Macroprudential Financial Regulation Can Save Neoliberalism,” British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Forthcoming. Available in Early View --
[3] See David Coates, Models of Capitalism: Growth and Stagnation in the Modern Era. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.
[4] The data is presented more fully in the paper “Giants in Decline: The Shared Political Agenda of the Anglo-American Growth Model,” to be presented to the British Politics Group one-day workshop on Britain and America in Critical Perspective: Austerity, Uncertainty and Decline? Washington DC: August 27, 2014 (available from the author)
[5] Robert J. Gordon, Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds. NBER Working Paper 18315, August 2012: available at

Monday, 30 June 2014

Rhetoric, Neoliberalism and Crisis Politics: David Cameron’s Justifications for Austerity

Andrew S Crines evaluates the rhetoric of David Cameron in the context of political crisis and the justification for neoliberalism.

As a basic principle of the art of politics, rhetoric is how a message is communicated from the party leadership to the party membership, the media, and subsequently the broader electorate. On an even more fundamental level it also represents the lifeblood of the political process because it enables debates between opponents to take place. It is how ideological positions are communicated thereby enabling parties and individuals to gain political success.

Interestingly, this art has received little scholarly attention in British Politics. This is because of an innate suspicion of rhetorical techniques, however better understanding their intellectual significance is in the process of being addressed. This has been partly enabled by the increasing importance of the political persona in British Politics which has enabled a greater actor-centric approach of analysing contemporary politics to emerge. Needless to say this takes inspiration from the far more developed school in the United States.

More generally, how rhetoric and political discourses are constructed is enabled through ‘regimes of truth’. As Foucault discerned these differ between nations and states which produce different oratorical styles and political discourses because each depend upon the ideological context of the political debate. For example “Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.”[i]

When considering the rhetorical justifications of neoliberalism one has to look at these political and economic contexts. The years running up to 1979 and 2010 represented moments of economic crisis which were used by the leader of the Conservative Party to blame the outgoing Labour government for those global economic crises. By doing so the arguments avoiding deconstructing the international causes for the crisis given it was more politically expedient to attribute those crises to the domestic arena.

In the case of David Cameron’s ‘regime of truth’ this tends to be premised upon the politics of fear and common sense. For example during his years in opposition he argued “We must pay down this deficit. The longer we leave it, the worse it will be for all of us.” [ii] He continued by arguing “Here's the most obvious reason we can't wait. The more we wait, the more we waste on the interest we're paying on this debt” (ibid.). As the Prime Minister of a Coalition Government he continued using fear in this way by arguing “we're going to spend £43 billion pounds on debt interest payments alone. £43 billion - not to pay off the debt - just to stand still.” [iii] The rationale behind creating this sense of fear is to justify austerity “in the national interest.” [iv] To enhance the subsequent credibility of this argument he argued “we have acted decisively - to stop pouring so much of your hard-earned money down the drain. And at the same time it's stopped us slipping into the nightmare they've seen in Greece, confidence falling, interest rates rising, jobs lost and in the end, not less but more drastic spending cuts than if you'd acted decisively in the first place.” [v] This enables Cameron to argue that through austerity the Coalition has saved the economy from the brink of collapse, thereby justifying neoliberalism.

In terms of how his justification is rhetorically constructed Cameron used antithesis by using binary opposites of possible economic strategy. For example, as Pete Dorey argued, those opposites are “private sector ‘good’ / public sector ‘bad’; wealth creators / wealth redistribution; small state / big state; liberty / equality; workers / shirkers; individualism / collectivism, amongst others.” [vi] This enables Cameron to argue his own position is self-evidently positivity whilst those of his opponents are self-evidently negative. Moreover this simple argument resonates with the electorate because the argument is premised upon Cameron’s credibility (ethos).

Succinctly, Cameron has constructed a political persona that sees him as a likable figure, even in contrast to the broader image of his own party held by the electorate. These issues are, of course, far more nuanced than I have argued here. Indeed, I have developed these arguments for an upcoming article that has appeared in the Global Discourse journal. However, in summation, it can be discerned that simplicity, antithesis, and common sense rhetoric drives Cameron (and others) justifications for neoliberalism which precludes a broader economic debate. This political rhetoric has enabled the global economic crises to reaffirm neoliberalism rather than challenge it in the way some economic theorists may suggest.
Andrew S Crines is a political scientist at the University of Leeds where he researches oratory and rhetoric in British party politics. He is also the Publicity Officer for the PSA Conservatives and Conservatism specialist group, and the coeditor with Richard Hayton of two forthcoming volumes on Oratory in British politics.

[i] Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Writings 1972-1977, Pantheon Books: New York.
[ii] Cameron, D. (2009) Speech to the Conservative Party conference, 8 October. Available from:
[iii] Cameron, D. (2010) Speech to the Conservative Party conference, 6 October. Available from:
[iv] Crines, A. (2013a) ‘Rhetoric and the Coalition: Governing in the National Interest?’ Representation 49: 2, pp. 207-218.
[v] Cameron, D. (2010) Speech to the Conservative Party conference, 6 October. Available from:
[vi] Dorey, P. (2014) Policy Making in Britain, Sage Publishers: London.

Monday, 23 June 2014

John Smith's Political Legacy

Wyn Grant, from the University of Warwick, discusses the political legacy of John Smith.

The twentieth anniversary of the tragically early death of John Smith in his mid-fifties is an opportunity to reflect on what might have happened if he had survived and gone on to become prime minister.   This is not a straightforward task, as his political legacy is in some respects ambiguous and people can project on to it what they want to.   We do, however, have the benefit of an excellent biography by Mark Stuart who sets out his own views on what might have happened had Smith lived. [1] 

If John Smith had continued to lead the Labour Party into the 1997 general election, Labour would still have won because the Conservative Party was internally divided, which voters dislike, beset by problems of ‘sleaze’ and perceived to be intellectually exhausted.   Voters perceived that public services, particularly in education and health, were deteriorating because of a lack of investment and the protection of such services was at the heart of John Smith’s political philosophy.

Tony Blair was desperate to reach out to ‘middle England’, to Daily Mail readers, in order to put Labour’s election victory beyond doubt.   In doing so, he may well have moved New Labour to the right of the median voter.   John Smith’s desire to run the Labour Party in an inclusive way, and reach out to the party’s left wing, would have prevented him for travelling so far rightwards.   Indeed, his relatively modest proposals for tax increases when he was shadow chancellor at the time of the 1992 election damaged Labour in the south of England and may have been a decisive factor in the election result.

If Tony Blair had won the election with a smaller majority, he might have been willing to bring Liberals into his government.   They might then have demanded a more serious commitment to proportional representation which could potentially have transformed the political landscape. It is difficult to envisage John Smith entering into such an agreement, however.

Tony Blair was seen as a charismatic figure, but arguably this led to a triumph of style over substance. His biographer, Antony Seldon discusses Blair’s flaws for the Guardian here. [2] Smith was about substance if he was about anything.   His political style was one of solid reassurance based on deeply rooted principles.   Harold Wilson once said that he tried to convey a family doctor image as prime minister and Smith fitted into that mould, although others have seen him as a provincial bank manager before the banks’ reputation was damaged.   In other words, he was about probity, about firm but fair decision-making.

John Smith had a deep commitment to the European Union, rebelling against the party in the 1970s.   Would he have gone so far as to take Britain into the euro?   He would not have faced two constraints that prevented Tony Blair from exercising his preference for euro membership.    First, Blair had developed a close relationship with the Murdoch media empire which was opposed to Britain joining the euro.   Second, he was constrained by Gordon Brown’s opposition.   Smith would not have had to cope with the problem of Brown thinking that the leadership had been unfairly denied him.

However, that does not mean that Smith would have proceeded to join.  He was nothing if not cautious; indeed one of the criticisms of his political style was that he was too cautious.    He would have weighed up the merits and disadvantages of carefully and might have decided that there were too many uncertainties to do anything but defer a decision.

The boldest decision of the 1997 Labour Government was to give operational independence to the Bank of England to determine interest rates.    Once again Smith’s caution might have stood in the way of such a bold move which many commentators think, on balance, was the right one.

The most striking difference between Blair and Smith as prime ministers might have been in the field of foreign policy. It is difficult to see Smith signing up as enthusiastically as Blair to a liberal internationalist foreign policy or developing such a close personal relationship with George W. Bush. Blair’s doctrine of liberal interventionism was set out in his Chicago speech discussed here [3].  He would have been much more reluctant to commit Britain to intervention on Iraq.

Blair’s commitment to military intervention was in part in consequence of the success of the early interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone and the plaudits that this brought him. However, it also flowed from Blair’s religious convictions and his tendency to view the world in terms of a Manichaean struggle between good and evil. Smith was also devoutly religious, but arguably in a more sophisticated way than Blair.

If Smith had won with a smaller majority than Blair in 1997, would he have faced defeat in 2001. Probably not, although Michael Portillo might well have retained his seat at Enfield and become Conservative leader rather than undertaking railway journeys for television. However, Labour might have lost in 2005 and it would then have been the Conservatives who would have been in office during the global financial crisis and taken some of the blame that went to Labour.

1: Stuart, M. (2014) ‘What If.. John Smith Had Lived?’, Ballots and Bullets Blog, University of Nottingham.
2: Seldon, A. (2009) ‘Tony Blair’s lack of humility is destroying my admiration for him’, The Guardian.
3: Powell, J. (2008) ‘In Defence of Liberal Interventionism’, IP Journal.

Wyn Grant is a political scientist at the University of Warwick, and has published widely on the subject of political studies. He also held the Presidency of the Political Studies Association.