Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Puzzle of Cameronism

Matthew Lakin discusses 'the puzzle of Cameronism' in our latest research note.

The prospect of the British General Election of 2015, the most unpredictable and uncertain in a political generation, is an appropriate juncture at which to assess the so-called puzzle of Cameronism. In other words, what have been the formative features of the political thinking of Cameron’s Conservatisms?


The first problem, perhaps most troubling, refers to Cameron’s presentation of his politics as ‘practical’, ‘non-ideological’ and ‘pragmatic’. He is a politician, as are the other Cameronites (i.e. George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Nick Boles), who eschew ideological attachments. This, rather troublingly, as been taken as self-evident by both academics and journalists. Cameron has been painted and presented as the pragmatic and masterful statesman supremely equipped to respond to event as they arise.

This troubling falsehood places an impediment to approaching this so-called problem of the puzzle of Cameronism. It is reflected, inter alia, by Rafael Behr’s recent article in The Guardian, in which he argues that the ‘tragic’ Cameron premiership will leave no ‘ideological trace’, and will ultimately remain a futile project preoccupied with ‘power without purpose’.[1] Behr repeats the well-worn and facile canard that Cameron ‘abhors ‘isms’’.

The second problem refers to the vague notion that Cameronism, even if it is admitted in its most weak and feeble formulation, is less ideologically-dominant than Thatcherism and New Labour. Instead, it is purportedly accounted for by being a mere ‘cypher’[2] for the broader neoliberal project, a continuation of the triangulatory fudge of Blairism, or merely a ‘delusion’. This notion of Cameronism as ideologically derivative and/or delusory discounts the possibility that it does have an analysable, distinctive, authentic and meaningful political map and contribution to the ideo-political environment in which it inhabits.

Therefore, the lazy assumption that Cameronism is non-existent or ideologically-anemic causes academics/journalists to look elsewhere, and instead look to Cameronism merely in terms of statecraft, governance, elections, foreign affairs and party membership. Serious ideological analysis of Cameronism has been sadly moribund.

Ideologies needn’t be dominant or especially clear. Ideologies, according to Michael Freeden, need to be ‘typical’, ‘imaginative’, ‘creative’, ‘influential’ and ‘communicable’. On that criteria, Cameronism is equally as deserving as any other purported political phenomenon of ideological analysis, enquiry and scrutiny. In order to solve the puzzle of Cameronism, one must at least regard the puzzle as a puzzle worth solving.

Cameronism is rooted, like all ideologies, in what Freeden identifies and calls its ‘idea-environment’: the constraints on the content and objectives of an ideology imposed on it by context. Cameronism evinces three discreet, but nevertheless overlapping and adaptable, political commitments: (1) a steadfast and determined commitment to reducing the size and scope of the central state; (2) a recognition that neo-liberal economics is a necessary but insufficient precondition for the delivery of wider Conservative aims; and (3)  a rediscovery and commitment to the renewal of civil society as an alternative to state intervention in response to the perceived failures of neo-liberalism.

The first strand of Cameronism, and the first strand in other post-Thatcher Conservatisms, is a commitment to ‘rolling back the state’. Indeed, the commitment to further retrenchments and reductions, in the scope and size of the state, has been a consistent commitment of British Conservatisms from Mrs Thatcher to Cameron. Indeed Mark Garnett argued that Cameronism would be determined and shaped by the ‘problem of path dependency’’, insofar as Cameron inherited, when becoming Conservative Party leader in 2005, three decades of broadly anti-statist attitudes.[3] Cameronism’s anti-statism has been consistent. During the Blameronite consensus, circa 2005-2007, Cameronism looked Right to decentralisation, deregulation and the promotion of commercial competitiveness where Blairism looked Left to social investment and state activism. Cameronism’s anti-statism was presented with ever more elaborate and byzantine decoration, which included allusions to ‘social responsibility’ and ‘the post-bureaucratic age’. In the passage from Blairite prosperity to Cameronite austerity, anti-statism and state retrenchment were presented more clearly in the tropes of ‘living within our means’, the need to ditch ‘big government’ and the promotion of 1930s-levels of public expenditure as a proportion of GDP. For Ben Kisby, Cameronism believes ‘that the state is bad and almost anything else - the free market, charities, volunteers - is better’.[4]

The distinctiveness of Cameronism resides in its particular ‘ideological experimentation’: the particularistic meaning it invests in the combination of political concepts it promotes. The second feature of Cameronism refers to its attitudes towards neo-liberalism. Stuart McAnulla convincingly argued that ‘neoliberal economics’ is ‘necessary’ but ‘insufficient’ in the mission of regenerating civil society.[5] It is however a core decontestation of market-state-civil society relations in Cameronism. Proto-Cameronites like Oliver Letwin and David Willetts have lamented that British Conservatisms, and the Conservative Party in turn, had become too economistic.[6] There are four distinct and identifiable areas of Cameronism’s qualified neo-liberalism: (1) Cameronism’s pitch to ensconce a new and more ‘moral capitalism’; (2) a rhetorical, albeit shallow, commitment to downward income redistribution, social justice and wealth inequality; (3) a more inclusive and positive attitude to public services; and (4) the evolution of a light industrial strategy with an adjacent emphasis on ‘full employment’. Attitudes towards neoliberal economics has been the most misunderstood aspect of Cameronism. This is understandable insofar as the preponderance of Tory-driven austerity in the ideological practices of Cameronism has overcast the subtle points of the insufficiency argument.

Cameronism’s qualified neo-liberalism was a by-product of Conservatism’s discovery that ‘economics is not enough’ and a ‘vibrant market economy’ is merely a ‘precondition’ for the third strand of Cameronism: the renewal, interest in, and celebration of, civil society.[7] The conceptual commitment to civil society, for a time signified by the Big Society, is essential and distinctive because: (1) civil society and its renewal are conceptualised as a better response to the problem of the insufficiency of neo-liberalism than state intervention, and (2) civil society pervades Cameronism as an ideological free-standing concept alongside the market as a mirror-image to the state. The locus classicus of Cameronism captures this point: ‘there is such thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state’. In this ostensible repudiation of Thatcherism’s ostensible rejection of society, Cameronism wanted to be defined by the ‘social revolution’ of creating the Big Society.

Cameronism is a recognisable and distinctive member of the Conservative family. The commitment to reducing the central state has, increasingly, predominated over its earlier attempts to qualify neo-liberalism and reinvigorate civil society. It is, like all ideologies, a changing, evolving, mutable and transient ideology. If the Conservatives form the government after 7 May 2015, expect more change. However, it will likely follow the pattern of anti-statism, supplementing neo-liberalism with non-statist remedies, and promoting the civic middle.

Matthew Lakin teaches history and politics at Whitgift School having gained his Dphil from Oxford working with Michael Freeden.


[1] R. Behr. 2015. ‘Power without purpose: the tragic rule of David Cameron’, The Guardian, 6 January.
[2] See R. Seymour. 2010. The Meaning of David Cameron. London: 0-Books.
[3] M. Garnett. 2010. ‘Built on Sand? Ideology and Conservative Modernization under David Cameron’, In British Party Politics and Ideology after New Labour, 117.
[4] B. Kisby. 2010. ‘The Big Society: Power to the People?’ Political Quarterly 81 (4): 485.
[5] S. McAnulla. 2012. ‘Liberal Conservatism: Ideological Coherence?’ In Cameron and the Conservatives: The Transition to Coalition Government, edited by T. Heppell and D. Seawright. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 167.
[6] D. Willetts. 1999. ‘Reviving Civic Conservatism’, In The Social Market and the State, edited by A. Kilmarnock. London: Social Market Foundation, 29; D. Willetts. 1998. ‘Conservative Renewal’, Political Quarterly 69 (2), 113; O. Letwin, ‘From economic revolution to social revolution’, In Is the Future Conservative? 73.
[7] D. G. Green. 1993. Reinventing Civil Society: The Rediscovery of Welfare Without Politics. London: IEA, ix.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Poverty and Inequality in Coalition Britain

Kevin Hickson at the University of Liverpool discusses poverty and inequality in Britain


At the last Prime Minister's Question Time of 2014 on 17th December David Cameron stated that both poverty and inequality were falling under his government.  In so doing, he repeated a claim he had made last summer (11th June).  The statement begs two questions: to what extent does Cameron fit into the Conservative Party's traditional forms of thinking on poverty and inequality; and, secondly, is he right in making such claims?


Elsewhere I have argued that inequality is the core unifying principle of Conservatism.  All Conservatives believe in inequality.  The disagreement is not over the principle of inequality but how much inequality is tolerable and how it should be justified.[1]

There are three broad positions on inequality within British Conservatism.

  • One Nation Conservatives believe that inequality is a natural part of any society but in order to avoid social instability the rich and powerful have an obligation to help those who were less fortunate.  Social reform would create a sense of social unity and stop the rise of socialism.  Social inequality would be maintained in that people would be part of a class system but in order to stop social antagonism poverty should be seen in relative rather than absolute terms. 
  • Traditionalists believe that a hierarchical and unequal society is both natural and inevitable.  Any well-functioning society would have inequalities in power, status and wealth.  A ruling elite was inevitable and should be imbued with a sense of authority which inequality provided.  The authority of the state would be maintained through a strong sense of patriotism and law and order. 
  • New Right followers of Margaret Thatcher believed that inequality should be justified primarily in terms of the market economy.  Tax breaks for the rich would encourage entrepreneurialism and the new wealth created would benefit society as a whole.  Although the gap between rich and poor would increase it wouldn't matter in that the newly created wealth would 'trickle down' to the less fortunate.  With a residual welfare state for those in need, those who remained in poverty would do so because they lacked individual responsibility.  Poverty would be seen in absolute rather than relative terms and only existed if people lacked enough to meet their basic needs.  Since basic needs were largely met there was very little poverty.  On this basis the poor of the 1980s were wealthier than medieval barons according to Keith Joseph.

We are now in a position to examine Cameron's approach to poverty and inequality.  In significant statements in the run up to the 2010 General Election Cameron and other Conservative modernisers sought to distance themselves from Thatcherism.  In particular they expressed their support for the 'Big Society'.  They argued that this was different from both New Labour, which had pursued statist policies at the expense of the voluntary associations and local networks of civil society, but crucially it also distinguished them from Thatcher who had claimed that 'there was no such thing as society'.  Although only saying this once, it took on a significance and notoriety within popular understandings of Thatcherism.  It appeared to show Thatcher's uncaring and individualistic attitude.  In an attempt to show that the Conservative Party was no longer the 'nasty party', in Teresa May's famous phrase, the Big Society rhetoric was an attempt to show that the Conservative Party was now more caring and compassionate.  Poverty was to be understood once again in relative terms, rather than as an absolute as the New Right had expressed it.

Cameron's claim that inequality was falling was technically correct when measured in terms of the Gini coefficient, which was 32.3% in 2011/12, its lowest level since 1986.[2]  Moreover, there were 300,000 fewer children in relative poverty between 2009-10 and 2011-12.  However, absolute child poverty increased by the same amount over the same period.[3]  As ever, there is a need to analyse why these trends happened and the main reason seems to be that those on average earnings were squeezed while welfare payments for the poorest increased.  The result was an increase in absolute poverty but a fall in relative poverty.  Cameron's claim was therefore true but only tells part of the story.

However, the welfare reforms of Iain Duncan Smith have seen even greater emphasis on the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor and increased conditionality.  Specific measures such as the spare room subsidy, or 'Bedroom Tax' have caused significant financial hardship.  Moreover, towards the end of 2014 George Osborne stated that his desire was to further reduce public expenditure as a proportion of GDP to the level that it was in the 1930s.  The austerity agenda has focussed on reducing the size of the 'wealth consuming' public sector in order to free up resources for the 'wealth creating' private sector. 

One consequence of this is that respected sources of opinion point to the rise of both poverty and inequality in coming years.  The Institute of Fiscal Studies says that in 2020 relative child poverty will be at its highest since 1999 and absolute child poverty at its highest since 2001.[4]  By 2020, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research the government will have missed its target for reducing child poverty - 24% for absolute child poverty (19% over target) and 21% for relative poverty (11% over target).[5]

We can see the revival of New Right economic and social priorities.  Consequently the use of the term 'Big Society' has been used less frequently, if not abandoned altogether.  The doctrine of the Big Society was formulated prior to the banking crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession and at that point the Conservatives were stating that they would match Labour's spending commitments.  The economic crisis recast Conservative thinking and the earlier Thatcherite themes re-emerged.  There has been no revival of One Nation Conservatism and the New Right mode of thought still dominates Conservative Party thinking. 

Kevin Hickson is the leader of Crewe Town Council and Labour's PPC candidate in East Yorkshire. He is also a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool, where he researches British politics and ideologies. He tweets at @Kevin_Hickson.



[1] K. Hickson, 'Inequality' in K. Hickson (ed.) The Political Thought of the Conservative Party since 1945 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005) and numerous journal articles.  The thesis was further articulated by P. Dorey, British Conservatism: The Politics and Philosophy of Inequality (London: IB Tauris, 2010)
[2] All statistics taken from http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/factcheck-child-poverty-inequality-falling/18387. Accessed 9th January 2015
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Candidate Selection for the 2015 Election: A Comparative Perspective

Susan Scarrow discusses the processes of candidate selection for the 2015 general election.

With the 2015 British election looming, a few constituency parties are still scrambling to pick their prospective parliamentary candidates.   As of November, the Conservatives still had over 150 seats left to fill, and the Liberal Democrats had over 400, though all the parties had already picked most candidates for their potentially winnable seats.   Based on selections so far, analysts have already made some predictions about the composition of the Commons after the 2015 election, including that there will once again be far more female MPs on the Labour benches than on the Conservative ones.[1]  The ability to make such predictions so far in advance underscores the importance of candidate selection in determining the final outcomes:  voters can only choose candidates whom the parties have selected.   Parties’ candidate selection rules can have a huge political impact, yet in the UK, as in most countries, these rules are private matters determined by the parties, only lightly regulated by law.  As a result, they vary across parties, and parties can and do change their internal rules from election to election.


In the UK in the past quarter century, all the main parties have frequently revisited their selection rules.  Some of these changes have expanded the circles of those who are eligible to participate in parties’ candidate selection procedures – the so-called “selectorate”.    For the 2015 election, as for 2010, all major British parties gave their individual party members a significant role in the choice, usually allowing them to choose between candidates who had been shortlisted by the constituency party executive.  Conservative constituency associations were allowed to invite registered non-members to participate in the process, though few associations used this option. This norm of membership voting in candidate selection has expanded potential participation in the process, and may encourage MPs and prospective candidates to be more attentive to local party activists.  Offsetting these changes has been an increasing assertion of central party control over the process, both in how they approve eligible candidates, and in some cases with mandates such as the Labour Party’s rules requiring all-women shortlists in some constituencies.  

These conflicting tendencies illustrate what some authors have described as increasing inclusiveness alongside increasing centralization.[2]   British voters generally favor the idea of parties using more inclusive candidate selection procedures.  One 2013 poll found that 60% of respondents said they would participate in candidate selection votes if these were open to parties’ registered supporters; 38% said they would participate even if supporters had to pay a minimal fee as well as to register.[3]
 
The popularity of such procedures helps explain the trend towards more inclusive selection rules, a trend that has been evident in many parliamentary democracies.   Perhaps not surprisingly, often it is opposition parties which have taken the lead in opening up their procedures for selecting candidates and/or party leaders.  Many of these resulting ballots have been described as “primaries”, in emulation of the American term.   However, there are politically important variations in the procedures described by this term.[4]  Some have been extremely inclusive, allowing for participation by almost all interested supporters.  One example of this was the French Socialist Party “primary” to select its 2012 presidential candidate. This procedure was open to any supporter who registered and paid a nominal fee.  Over 2.8 million people cast votes in this party ballot, a figure equivalent to 44% of the votes the party’s presidential candidate received in the first round of the previous presidential election.   So far, however, the openness of the French Socialists’ ballot remains unusual, and most party selection ballots are open only to members who have joined in advance of the vote.  One result is that members of many political parties have been acquiring important new political rights.

Parties may adopt more inclusive selection rules in hopes of gaining positive headlines and popular support, but such procedures also have the potential to produce negative publicity.  The UK Labour Party experienced this in the Falkirk constituency selection in 2013, triggered by allegations that supporters of one candidate were improperly signing up new members.  Such controversies are not unique to the UK.  Whenever inclusive candidate selection procedures are used, there may be intra-party wrangling about who is eligible to participate (for example, long-time members only, or newly enlisted members?), or whether to use ballot procedures that encourage or discourage broad participation (for example, internet voting?).  These rules can be controversial, because they affect the size of the selectorate, which in turn may affect the outcome. 

One safe prediction is that we are likely to see growing use of more inclusive candidate-selection procedures in parliamentary democracies. Whatever their actual impact, the fact that they are often described in terms of the “democratization” of party politics makes it difficult for parties to revert to procedures that appear more exclusive or elitist.  However, this does not mean that parties will stop tinkering with their rules.  In fact, we may see more frequent changes in rules that affect turnout and eligibility for intra-party ballots.  Those who want to evaluate the extent to which increases in inclusiveness actually shift decision-making power need to keep an eye on these types of procedural details, not just on the headline news about party primaries and the democratization of candidate selection.

Susan Scarrow is Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston, and researches representation and participation in Parliamentary systems.


[1] “The Slow Pace of Candidate Selections,” November 18, 2014.  http://www.ge2015.co.uk/slow-pace-candidate-selections/#more-459; Campbell, Rosie, Chrysa Lamprinakou and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson,“The New Political Class of 2014,”, November 11, 2014. http://constitution-unit.com/2014/11/11/the-new-political-class-of-2015/ 
[2] Rahat, Gideon, and Reuven Y. Hazan.  2001.  "Candidate Selection Methods: An Analytical Framework." Party Politics 7(3): 297-322.
[3] Andrew Grice,  “Poll Shows Majority of British Voters Would Welcome US-Style Primaries,”  The Independent, September 20, 2013.  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/poll-shows-majority-of-british-voters-would-welcome-usstyle-primaries-8827689.html
[4] For more background on this topic, see Pilet, Jean-BenoĆ®t, and William Cross, eds.  2014. The Selection of Political Party Leaders in Contemporary Parliamentary Democracies: A Comparative Study. Routledge.  Cross, William P., and Richard S. Katz, eds. 2013.  The Challenges of Intra-party Democracy. Oxford University Press.


Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Transatlantic Relationship, the European Union, and British Politics: Negotiating a British Foreign Policy

Amani El Sehrawey discusses the transatlantic relationship between the European Union, Britain, and the US. 

Britain finds itself negotiating an increasingly complex position in global affairs, in a time where it is juggling multiple and at times competing relationships and identities. The famous, longstanding “special relationship” ties UK foreign policy to the United States, and more broadly, to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The European Union provides another highly integrated member body for the UK. On the one hand Britain has attempted to maintain involvement in a European intergovernmental Common Foreign Security Policy (CFSP). On the other, it must work to assure its American partners that although the CFSP has grown in influence and subsequently risen as a potential future competitor to NATO, the UK is still firmly committed to the Atlantic partnership. [1] In many respects, Britain finds itself in a position of dependence on two organizations that have duplicate and often competing aims as well as a marked lack of strategic dialogue with one another. Meanwhile, the Americans have expressed increasing frustration with European powers’ inability to make credible commitments to the organization, most notably in funding, troops and equipment.  As the US shifts its strategic focus towards Asia, American frustration with the Europeans is compounded by its desire for the EU to take a greater stake in managing their own neighborhood.

In many respects slthough the recent Ukrainian crisis and ongoing threats in the near East may prompt a reassessment of strategic priorities for the US, the trajectory of diminishing focus on the “special” relationship as well as NATO by the Americans must prompt Britain to reassess its dependence on the Atlanticist foreign policy and defense infrastructure. Europe, however, poses a different host of challenges, ranging from sovereignty, to funding, to logistical bureaucracy, and the UK finds itself hesitant to become more deeply entrenched in the Union. The complicated relationship Britain has had with the European Union is further problematized by the domestic politics at home. Many of Britain’s European and foreign policy decisions are dictated not by geo-strategy and international relations, but by domestic party politics in Britain. This phenomenon can be described by Putnam’s two-level game theory that postulates an interplay between international and domestic decision-making, with the “games” at either level influencing the outcomes of the other.[2] In the British case, the negotiations taking place at the EU, US and NATO level are fundamentally impacted by the win-set at the domestic level.

Massive cuts in British defense spending necessitate closer relationships with Britain’s European partners, both with the EU and, to a lesser extent, with NATO. UK skepticism towards European defense and security mechanisms has often been framed by its concern over preserving NATO primacy and by extension the transatlantic link with the United States.[3] However, the Americans have expressly stated a strategic shift away from Europe and towards Asia, with a desire for the Europeans to take a greater stake in managing security in their region.[4] This means several things for the UK: first, that the American commitment to NATO (which the UK has been hedging its power in) is decreasing in strategic importance for the US, and therefore overall strength, and second, that the US is advocating for, rather than impeding, a stronger European foreign policy mechanism.

However, a domestic political scene averse to EU membership, as well as the rise of the far right, most notably UKIP, compromises Britain’s very membership in the EU. Euroscepticism is a key determinant, perpetuated by media and present in the British public, which drove the charge towards a treaty referendum, and has influenced David Cameron’s pledge for an in/out referendum on the EU, causing a split in the Conservative Party. Eurosceptic discourse to a large degree dictates the terrain on which policy debates on the EU, and by extension EU foreign policy, can be based upon.[5] Subsequently, the current win-set in which Cameron is able to negotiate on Europe has become very small. As Putnam’s theory describes, neither domestic nor international analysis alone can explain policy decisions, rather the two feed off of one another and are entangled.[6]

Geopolitical events are demanding strong leadership from Western powers more than ever. Budget cuts in defense spending across Europe and in Britain make the pooling of resources to maximize power more important than ever. Particularly given US strategic realignment and interest in greater European accountability in NATO, diversifying its foreign policy partners is in Britain’s best national interest.  EU involvement should be viewed as an asset in addition to involvement in the NATO alliance, rather than in replacing it. Britain has most to gain from membership in both organizations. However, national interest on the geostrategic level is not the only determinant of policy outcome. British political drivers have had a significant influence on Britain’s capabilities as a foreign policy actor. Britain has long grappled with a fundamental identity crisis regarding Europe, dictated by national public debate, and this has stunted its ability to exert itself on the international stage. 

Amani El Sehrawey is a Program Development Assistant at the Harvard Kennedy School.



[1] O’Donnell, Clara Marina. “Britain’s coalition government and EU defence cooperation: undermining British interests”, International Affairs, 87:2 (2011) p426. Date accessed: 7/10/14.
[2] Putnam, 434
[3] Lehne, Stefan. “The Big Three in EU Foreign Policy”, The Carnegie Papers (July 2012) p22. Date accessed: 7/2/14. http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/07/05/big-three-in-eu-foreign-policy/ck4c
[4] Menon, Anand. “Between Faith and Reason: UK Policy Towards the US and the EU”, Chatham House (July 2010) p7. Date accessed: 7/16/14. http://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/papers/view/109403
[5] Hawkins, Benjamin. “Nation, Separation, and Threat: An Analysis of British Media Discourses on the European Union Treaty Reform Process” JCMS, 50:4 (2012) pp573. Date accessed: 7/10/14 http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5965.2012.02248.x
[6] Putnam, Robert. “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games” International Organization 42:3 (Summer, 1988) p430, MIT Press. Date Accessed: 1/22/14. http://web.pdx.edu/~noordijk/Noordijk/EU_Readings_files/putnam_1988_two-level.pdf

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Two countries (still) separated by a common language

Donley Studlar considers the differences of language within the British and American academies. 

'England and America are two countries separated by a common language’ is a quote widely attributed to the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Unfortunately, like many ‘well known’ quotes, its origins are suspect, and no original source as ever been identified.  But his compatriot Oscar Wilde did write, ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language’ (The Canterville Ghost 1887). 

My first year of teaching in the UK has reconfirmed the validity of these adages. With almost 40 years of experience in the US, I was faced with the task of trying to understand the academic curriculum at Strathclyde. But that entailed discerning what the various written and spoken messages actually meant.  Despite having studied British politics for over 40 years and claiming to speak ‘transatlantic English’, I found myself inadequately prepared.  British and US higher education do speak different languages (AmerEnglish and BritEnglish, or AmE/BrE), which I am still trying to master.  Thus, consider this an introduction/induction to the differences.

Here is an introduction (induction) to the main language discrepancies I have discovered, with the AmE listed first:

1: The academic hierarchy:

a) president/principal (chief administrator of the University)

b) college/faculty

c) faculty/academic and research staff (there is also the administrative staff)

d) full professor/professor

e)                        /reader (a rare rank for which there is no US equivalent)

f) associate professor/senior Lecturer

g) assistant professor/lecturer

h) lecturer (teaching professor, adjunct faculty)/teaching fellow, a rank of varying seniority with primarily teaching duties.

Of course, the generic title for all faculty/teaching staff in the US is ‘professor’; in the UK it is ‘lecturer’.  

2: discussion Groups/tutorials (‘tutors’ refers to those leading tutorials but also to the supervisors--first readers--of Honours, MSc and PhD dissertations)

4) degree program/course of study

5) graduate/postgraduate

6) undergraduate senior/Honours (final year) (junior/3rd year); (sophomore/2nd year); (freshman/1st year).

7) academic Year/session

8) courses/modules

9) syllabus/handout (handbook, guide)

10) term papers/essays

11) review session/revision

12) monitoring (proctoring)/invigilating (my favo(u)rite)

13) thesis/dissertation (requirement for BA and MSc students, plus PhDs)

14) grading/marking (There is ‘second marking’ for some assignments, especially term papers/essays, by another internal instructor. If the two markers disagree, there may be a 3rd marker called in to adjudicate.

There is no US equivalent in my experience to the ‘pre-boards’ and ‘boards’ for both undergraduate and postgraduate MSc students, in which the ‘teaching staff’ (faculty) of the School come together to discuss the overall status of each student.

The grading/marking system in the UK also is somewhat different from that in the US although as one of my colleagues says, ‘take the US mark and knock off 20 points’.  The overall marking system is First Class/A (70 and above), 2(1)/B+ (60-70), 2(2)/B (50-60), Third Class (Ordinary)/C (40-50), and Failure/F (below 40).

But not all is mutual incomprehension.  Deans are still Deans although Associate and Assistant Deans are ‘Vice Deans’. Exams are, well, still exams, although in the UK this usually means the one exam of the course/module, what in the US would be called ‘the final exam’.

Most grades/marks (BA and MSc) are based on two written pieces of work, the term paper/essay and the one exam. Some courses of study/degree program(me)s elsewhere in the University do have ‘continuous assessment’, which means US-style teaching of courses/modules, with more frequent required assignments/exams.  And PhD dissertations are still PhD dissertations, although the ones in the UK remain longer than their US counterparts, with the latter getting shorter in some institutions (the equivalent of three publishable articles is this new standard).  

Alas, after passing through these different academic nomenclatures, the overall degree standing/GPA of undergraduate students in the UK is reported to be 2.1 and the mean grade overall in the US is the same, B+, according to some sources. So as another famous British author said, ‘All’s well that ends well’.

Armed with this knowledge, I can now attend US conferences and, during unexpected interregnums such as the ‘Long Night at the Marriott’, respond to the second-most frequent question posed to me at the 2014 APSA, ‘what’s it like to teach in the UK’?

For more on AmE/BrE language differences, see the useful blog maintained by a US-trained linguist, now a Reader in the UK:

Donley (T.) Studlar, School of Government and Public Policy, University of Strathclyde

Sunday, 16 November 2014

London, England, Britain and Europe: Places Apart?

Tim Oliver considers approaches to understanding the United Kingdom and its relationship with the EU.

Academics are often as guilty as many others for lazily using ‘London’ as a catch-all term to describe the UK, UK Government, the financial institutions of ‘the City of London’, England, or ‘the South’ or South East of England. Of course, as the UK’s capital city this usage can often seem logical enough. But London is a place in itself, a city of millions with a distinct population, an economic and social system with its own needs and interests, a place with an identity and politics of its own.

At a time when attention is fixed on Scotland it is worth remembering that it is not just Scotland or areas such as Wales or Northern Ireland that are distinct political spaces. London, an area with a larger and faster growing population and economy than anywhere else in the UK, and the UK’s most powerful cultural and political centre, deserves more attention. And, for this author and others, it deserves its own fully devolved government. The ‘London question’ – how the rest of the UK relates to its capital city that is fast becoming another place – is one of the most pressing questions in British politics.

There are many political topics which we could use to examine London’s distinct politics: transport, the environment, inequality, race relations, policing, economics, identity and so forth. One area where a clear distinction has begun to emerge is on the matter of Europe. Of all the areas of the UK it is London that has the biggest interest in the UK’s relationship with the EU. If, as has been argued repeatedly, the EU is important to Scotland, then so too is it important – and arguably more so – to London.

Londoners are not exactly what some might term Eurosceptic ‘Little Englanders’. UKIP have long under-performed in the capital. The 2014 European Parliament elections continued this trend, London seeing UKIP’s second lowest regional vote after Scotland. Voting patterns reflect opinion polling that shows Londoners have more comfortable view of the EU. Recent polling by Chatham House found Scots and Londoners hold similar views on the EU. This similarity between Londoners and Scots has been clear for some time, as shown below in the data from the British Election Study Continuous Monitoring Survey.



Question wording: “Overall, do you strongly approve, approve, disapprove, or strongly disapprove of Britain’s membership in the European Union?” Source: Source: British Election Study Continuous Monitoring Survey, June 2005-December 2012 (pooled monthly cross-sectional surveys). Weighted data.


There are four reasons that could lie behind this more comfortable view of the EU.
First, a large part of the material wealth of London is tied to the economic vibrancy of the European market. London is Europe’s global city, its richest region to which European citizens and businesses flock to do work. Britain might not be in the Euro, but that does not stop London handling more euro foreign-exchanges than the Eurozone combined. A survey by Deloitte showed that London hosted an estimated 40% of the European headquarters of the world’s top companies. Alongside 60% of top non-European companies have their regional base in London. Companies such as Goldman Sachs and the Lord Mayor of London have warned of the cost to London and the UK of an exit from the EU. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, is no avid Europhile. But even his recent report on options for London-EU relations, while offering several options including withdrawal, made clear that even in the event of a withdrawal a close relationship with the EU was vital for London’s economic interests.

Second, London’s international population also makes it more likely to view the EU more positively. Over a third of Londoners were born outside the UK, with white-British still the largest single group but now 45% of London’s population. That young Europeans especially have flocked to London has not passed unnoticed in the press. London’s has long adapted to influxes of new arrivals, being home today to the largest BME community in the UK. As Tony Travers argues, ‘The word Londoner is an entirely inclusive concept’. This is not to argue that London has been without its problems, as the 2011 riots showed. But London has a long experience of dealing with the political and social tensions immigration brings. And while in other parts of the UK people might complain about Polish plumbers, in London anger – especially over house prices – is likely to be directed towards Gulf Princes or Russian oligarchs.

Third, London’s population makes for a unique identity that is a mix of English, British, European and global identities. That more Londoners think of themselves as ‘British’ than any other part of the UK helps instead of hinders London-EU relations. As research by the IPPR has shown, Euroscepticism is more likely to be found amongst those who associate more closely with an English identity. This difference should hardly come as a surprise given that in large areas of England London can appear an increasingly alien place. UKIP’s own campaign in 2014 was in part ‘anti-London’. ‘London’ has become a by-word for something that is distant, strange and out of control. As one defeated London UKIP councillor argued, UKIP’s poor performance was because of London’s young, educated, cultured, media-savvy population that can’t understand the heartache felt by the rest of the country. This might have been picked over for her insinuation that UKIP supporters elsewhere are old, ill-educated, uncultured and that the ‘media-savvy’ were somehow duped by media criticism of UKIP. But her warning that London is becoming a place apart from the rest of the UK has been echoed numerous times elsewhere.

Finally, for Londoners the government and political systems of the UK and EU do not appear as distant or uncontrollable. London is blessed with more political representation and networks than any other part of the UK. It is home to the UK’s royal, political, government and legal centres, main financial and business communities, media hubs, think tanks, diplomatic community and has its own elected assembly and mayor, to say nothing of the city state that is the ‘City of London’ and its Lord Mayor. It is London’s links with these that cause resentment elsewhere. Too often UK government can seem to be London government, governing in the interests of London rather than the UK. When David Cameron vetoed an EU treaty he did so to protect the UK’s financial services industry, and while the sector is of interest to the whole UK, it is an industry overwhelmingly centred in London.

So does this mean that London will vote to stay in the EU should the UK ever face an in-out vote on its EU membership? We should not overlook that while Londoners are more positive about the UK’s EU membership, this is hardly overwhelming. The same applied to Scotland where there are limits to how far support for the EU will go. As the earlier polling shows, just over 40% of Londoners and Scots disapprove of the UK’s EU membership. The London Mayoral and GLA elections of 2016 could coincide with a period of renegotiation of UK-EU relations, meaning the issue could be a live one in the elections. It is likely that if the UK government seeks to renegotiate the UK-EU relationship then one aim could be some concessions for ‘the City’. If granted then support of Londoners could be assured. Equally, should the EU try to crack down on London, or appear to turn against it then support for the EU could decline. 

Perhaps the most difficult situation would be if in a referendum London voted to remain within the EU while the rest of the UK, or more likely large areas of England, voted to withdraw. Some worry this could drive the Scots from the UK. It could also provoke long-standing complaints from London that the rest of the UK is a drain on its wealth and damaging its future. Londoners will likely resent being labelled “Little Englanders” when their city is – and voted to be – connected to the EU and outward looking. It could be that an in-out referendum helps to politicise London’s identity politics within the UK.

How likely this scenario is depends on how well entrenched Londoners opinions are about the EU. Given London’s strong international identity, it may be that support for ditching both the UK and the EU could grow. Despite London’s incredible power and place in British life, it remains an under-researched political space. Further work is necessary and highly likely given the Scottish referendum, growing English nationalism and the continuing accelerated growth of London.

Dr Tim Oliver is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and a non-resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Washington D.C. The opinions expressed here are his own.