When the Party’s Over

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


 

The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form. (Peter Mair, Ruling the Void)

In the UK, party politics has always been refracted through the first-past-the-post electoral system that demanded that both Labour Party and Conservative Party adopt ‘broad church’ approaches, representing and conciliating diverse sectors of society. Yet the cultural and social shifts that emerged in the 1960s and came to fruition in the 1980s as the twin phenomena of individualization and globalization have been enabling conditions for trends of declining party membership, declining voter turnout across elections, and declining partisan allegiance. It is an important consequence of these phenomena, however, that political parties can no longer play the role of mediating between society and state that emerged with, and sustained, mass party democracy.

With Labour and Conservative vote share declining from 97% in 1951 to 67% in 2015, electoral logic has driven both parties to a focus on key swing voters and a relative neglect of those who, in Peter Mandelson’s brutal phrase, ‘have nowhere else to go’. While with membership declining from 1950s highs of 1,100,000 and 2,800,000 respectively to figures under 200,000 for the Tories and under 400,000 for Labour (helped upwards by a rise under Corbyn), the local infrastructures of both parties have weakened at the same time that professionalization of politics under the discipline of a 24 hour new cycle drove centralization of party control and the disconnection of ‘the Westminster bubble’ from regional and local roots. The changing conditions of these political parties, no longer meaningfully ‘mass organizations’, was further impacted by the post-devolution boost to the SNP and Plaid Cymru as their ability to portray themselves as ‘national’ parties for the whole of the UK (excepting the special case of Northern Ireand) has become increasingly tenuous, with the Greens and UKIP adding to the electoral complexity.

It is commonplace to recognize that David Cameron’s reckless political gamble with Britain’s membership in the EU was driven by a failure of authority within a fragmented Conservative Party that was exacerbated by the rise of UKIP. But this is reflective of a wider phenomenon. As Will Jennings and Martin Lodge argue:

More generally, then, the increased use of referenda and other methods of direct democracy in British politics should not necessarily be seen as advances of participation. Rather, they should be seen as attempts by party leaderships to overcome their own internal party conflicts. In the case of Labour, direct elections of the leader offered the dual promise of reduced trade union influence and symbolic gesturing that office-seeking was somewhat checked by the party. In the case of David Cameron and the Conservatives, it was an attempt to maintain illusions of ‘governing’ (i.e. ‘control’) by offering voters a choice while the real world has turned ever more into one that demands compromise, bargaining and dealing in trade-offs.

The current internal debacle of the Labour Party presents itself as driven by the traditional competing logics of the Party as a vehicle for gaining power and as the medium of a social movement. But lacking the bulwark of mass membership, it is more accurately depicted as a competition for control between an organised sect and a professional elite.

The Brexit Referendum and the responses of the two parties to the outcome of this referendum demonstrate nothing more truly than Mair’s argument that mass party politics, and party democracy, is dead and we do not yet know how, or with what, to replace it.

In this context, what steps may help? Perhaps the first is to recognize the reality of this situation and that the social and political conditions under which our electoral system could be justified no longer apply. A shift to some forms of proportional representation is both democratically necessary as well as providing a mechanism for encouraging greater party responsiveness to people across the UK. A second possible move is for regional devolution in England (modelled on the Welsh Assembly) combined with a shift in the structure of Labour and Conservative parties to a more federal form and, quite possibly, the rise of regional political parties (such as Yorkshire First). In both cases, national government becomes more complex but the role of parties in mediating between society and state is given new, if different, life.

The Strange Death of Parliamentary Democracy

By Will Jennings and Martin Lodge. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Martin Lodge is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Lse.ac.ukTwitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here.


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One hundred years since the battle to end all battles at the Somme, the aftermath of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU offers a stark reminder of the court politics of a different era. Once again the officer class has sent the ‘tommies’ over the top with little thought for what lies ahead. The ‘sun-lit meadows beyond’ that the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson spoke of seem distant at best. Whatever the long-term social and economic consequences of Brexit, the political ramifications of Brexit have displayed a terrifying decline in the political elite’s commitment to representative democracy and a breakdown of the norms and conduct of political debate.

New Politics and Labour

These dangerous times for representative or parliamentary democracy are most prominent in the two main political parties. Take the Labour Party and its leadership crisis. Here the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn suggest that a (non-binding) vote of non-confidence by parliamentary colleagues has no legitimacy. Legitimacy is seen to lie in the election of the party leader by a majority of party members. It is claimed that the future of politics lies in ‘movements’ rather than party organisation. This is no longer about party meetings or canvassing, and winning elections, but about expression of a political worldview and set of values. A disregard for the engagement of political parties in parliamentary processes has been at the heart of so-called militant tendencies on the left for a long time. For these elements, participation in representative democracy is seen as a sell-out to dominant (capitalist) interests. These elements have received a lease of life in the name of ‘new’ supposedly kinder politics. We are now at a place where there is a split between a party in parliament and a (proclaimed) movement outside parliament (though there is little evidence of how large that movement is, despite support for Corbyn in the leadership election last year). This is a dangerous sign for the future of representative government. After all, political parties are supposed to play a dual role – the first is to provide for responsiveness to the views of voters, and the second is to participate in responsible government (and opposition). Suggesting that legitimacy for party leaders lies in a movement undermine the crucial role that political parties play in government. This is politics by an elite that looks different from the Bullingdon boys, but is still an elite nonetheless.

The Death Throes of Club Government and the Conservatives

The leadership battles in the Conservative Party currently resemble the courtier-intrigue of a Shakespearean play. Whatever the twists and turns of the contest, the preceding events of the referendum campaign point to an important decline in the understandings of representative democracy by party leaders. One of the distinguishing (and problematic) features of the Westminster system was its lack of formal checks and balances. The ‘elective dictatorship’ was held in check by ‘responsible’ club government – social ties and conventions were to ensure appropriate behaviour in government. As many have argued, ‘club government’ has been in fatal decline since the days of Margaret Thatcher, given hyper-innovations, such as liberalisation and internationalisation. The last ‘club’, united by a shared school and university background, appears to be the world of British politics. This, as Michael Moran has argued, sets up the stage for tragic failure: a world in which internationalisation and regulation have constrained the levers of the political elite. In turn, this raises the incentive to engage in spectacles and posturing, whether these include grand events such as the Olympics, building projects such as airports, or battle-bus style campaigning to rage against the ‘loss of control’. The consequences of these spectacles are unlikely to come cheap, if only in terms of taxpayer expense. Not least, the prevalence of stage-managed events is itself a source of public cynicism about politics being contrived and out of touch with ordinary folk.

Populism and Illusions of Governing

More fundamentally, offering the spectacle of regaining ‘control’ plays straight into the hands of those politicians with outright disdain for political institutions. Appeal to ‘decent’ and ‘hard-working’ people offer a rhetoric that divides any population into, on the one hand, those who are ‘deserving’ with common sense and the undeserving feckless and undeserving ‘elites’ on the other. This then leads to the rather bizarre spectacle of elite, career politicians campaigning on an anti-establishment and anti-London ticket (a phenomenon that has been well-documented in the US since at least Jimmy Carter). In doing so, they further undermine the role of parties in contributing to responsible government and opposition.

The same holds for the SNP. Here, the vote of a UK-wide referendum has been reinterpreted as a vote of a separate country that stands apart from the rest of the UK. Political opportunism has to be always seen as part of the (legitimate) political game, but it dangerously conflates one issue (the UK’s relationship to the EU) with another (the future relationship of different ‘nations’ in the British Isles).

More generally, then, the increased use of referenda and other methods of direct democracy in British politics should not necessarily be seen as advances of participation. Rather, they should be seen as attempts by party leaderships to overcome their own internal party conflicts. In the case of Labour, direct elections of the leader offered the dual promise of reduced trade union influence and symbolic gesturing that office-seeking was somewhat checked by the party. In the case of David Cameron and the Conservatives, it was an attempt to maintain illusions of ‘governing’ (i.e. ‘control’) by offering voters a choice while the real world has turned ever more into one that demands compromise, bargaining and dealing in trade-offs. That is not the kind of world that fits easily into the legacy-seeking worldview of the debating rooms of the Oxford Union.

An International Phenomenon?

The recent developments in British politics may appear a peculiarly national malaise. They are however consistent with much wider international trends. One such trend is growing bifurcation among electorates between cosmopolitan and provincial places, as one of us has highlighted in work with Gerry Stoker. Another is the dominance of constraining policy frameworks in order to attract international private investment. The latter has reduced discretionary scope for doing politics as governments have lost control over much of their policy agenda, in areas such as taxation and migration. The former encourages divide and rule style of politics that sits uneasily with the myriad ways of parliamentary government and decision-making in international organisations. Pledging that ‘one can have one’s cake and eat it too’ and not be laughed out of the court of popular opinion suggests that politics is treated as student union-type entertainment, and worse. After all, it is not the jester that speaks truth to power that is being feted, but the jester for jester’s sake.

We do not have a rose-tinted view about the pragmatic functioning of parliamentary democracy, in Westminster or elsewhere. Nevertheless, the explicit disdain for responsible government through representative democracy by engaging in political games and posturing without compromise might at first sight appear attractive. It unfortunately resonates more closely to the politics of Weimar than the traditional views of Westminster. This disdain might make for catchy tweets and photo-ops, but it will do nothing in the long-term for the legitimacy of political institutions. In fact, it reduces the actual ability to solve policy problems, and ultimately it will foment the public mood of disillusionment.

Waking up to Brexit, Democracy and Experts

By Matthew Ryan, Politics & International Relations

Friday morning’s announcement of a win for the leave vote in the European Union referendum provided a wake-up call for complacent ‘experts’ like myself.

I voted to remain. From a personal point of view, it was pretty clear that leaving would have uncertain ramifications for funding for research and free movement of students and scholars from the EU to the UK. Moreover, I grew up in a Europhile country before migrating to the UK. In university I studied the European Union in great detail. I learned about how the EU had improved and ensured equal treatment for women and workers in countries emerging from tyranny to join the union. I learned how the Commission and the European Court of Justice had ingeniously protected European consumers by taking on the controlling market tactics of the likes of United Brands and Michelin. Growing up in the Southwest of Ireland during the tiger years I saw many buildings built under large signage celebrating funding from the European Union. Just last week many of us enjoyed for the first time reasonable roaming tariffs as we roamed France in search of footballing glory. I knew what good the European Union was capable of. It may not have been uniquely capable of these feats but at least it had a track record I was aware of.

At some point pretty early on Friday morning the prospects for remaining became bleak. At first I was disappointed and felt a little guilty. I didn’t get around to campaigning much and I felt I might have done more to relay my experiences and knowledge to others. But at least I had participated in a democratic plebiscite and many many others had too. Watching the news unfold I became increasingly angered (frankly) by the number of talking heads, and acquaintances on social media (most are graduates) that began to bemoan the holding of a referendum on the grounds that the citizens that voted to leave were simply not competent enough to make the appropriate decision. The anger and disappointment of those who identify with, and have much invested in membership of the EU is understandable. But for many so-called experts I think the penny still has not dropped.

Debates about democracy and competence are as old as the study of politics itself. The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and later Thomas Jefferson, lamented pure forms of democracy as the worst form of mob rule.[1] Certainly we saw some of the worst elements of populism in the campaign. Many of us witnessed incitement to hatred. It is still hard to know what to say about the tragic murder of Jo Cox. Her family and friends have said it all.

There are though, I think three important points to be made about the state of democracy in the UK in reflection on the referendum campaigns and analysis of the result. First, this was not a mob vote. Opinion research will shed more light in the coming days and weeks, but it is clear that the leave vote was spread across many different constituencies of interest with different takes on immigration, trade and national identity. Despite a focus on working-class votes in the immediate analysis, leave voters were in the majority in rural middle-England, the (post-)industrial north, many parts of the Celtic fringe excluding Scotland, and large urban provincial towns in the South and East. Leave voters are the experts in what is best for them. They reasonably disagreed after a long campaign with remain voters. They were upwards of 17 million in number. Some TV vox pops will no doubt highlight individuals with spurious and racist justifications for their votes, but many reasonable people listened to arguments and agonised in good faith over how to vote until the very last minute.

The geographic concentration of remain votes was stark; much more-so than leave. Again, some have been quick to argue that reliance on a small majority for such a momentous and complex decision results in a ‘tyranny of the majority’. They argue that the referendum should have required a supermajority of 60% or more. This is a perversion of the tyranny argument. Tyranny over minorities occurs when the same groups of people are losing out almost all the time. A democracy is a form of rule where everyone has to lose out some of the time. Perversely, many of those crying tyranny are coming from groups that can be seen to have won out in almost every policy decision affecting life chances in the last 40 years. The key challenge for political leaders and the media now is to facilitate deliberation across these divides. That starts with allowing people to voice their concerns, engaging arguments on their merits and not demonising different worldviews. There is a vast body of academic research on how best to integrate citizen’s innate expertise with technical expertise but some people dismiss it and most have never heard of it – a point I return to below.

If the first reaction responds to arguments about voter competence the second responds to arguments that this was a protest vote that rejected the wrong government. So the argument went among some of the commentariat on Friday, that the EU was the fall guy for all the failures of national governments over the past 20 or more years – governments who have left vast swathes of the population behind. As above there is likely some truth in the protest vote theory. However, I have little enough sympathy for the EU here. The EU has been complacent in the face of repeated warnings that it is out of touch with the public it is supposed to represent. This is not the first referendum defeat of its kind and the EU did almost nothing to try and justify its response to the Greek crisis in democratic terms. Its efforts as a whole to respond to the democratic deficit, time and again have been either overly ambitious (an EU constitution) or tokenistic (running a few consultations with the usual suspects). One thing we did learn in the last few weeks is that despite the ‘us and them’ rhetoric of the extremist populists, there clearly is an appetite among publics to know about, celebrate and praise the best of politicians and politics. For those of us who remain in, the European leadership needs to reach out to its denizens in a more than tokenistic fashion. The EU and its supporters need to learn how to market and communicate its successes and reasonably justify its work to its denizens on a regular basis. And this needs to happen fast.

The final point responds to arguments triggered by Michael Gove’s comment that people in this country have had enough of experts. I agree with many who have pointed out that the exact people they want to hear from in a scenario of uncertainty and complexity are experts. Expertise has a major role to play in advanced specialised societies. But I also find myself having much sympathy with Mr. Gove’s sentiments. Again the post-result response, in particular on the remain side, seemed to focus blame for their own failures on the insults, personality clashes and misinformation from many quarters that came to dominate the campaigns. Misinformation thrives not because people prefer blissful ignorance but because people prefer some form of explanation that they can understand. The experts didn’t provide real explanations, only superficial threats, because they assumed people would not understand the long-winded, abstract, caveat-laden language they deal in. They are right about the latter but the reality is that they could not help people understand. Experts refused, or did not have the skills to engage seriously in the most basic intellectual endeavour – explanation.

Despite recent efforts to combat the trend, the academic study of the social world seems increasingly on a one-way journey to withdraw to the relative comfort of the arcane. Academics are incentivised to write esoterically in journals which are not only unintelligible to most of the society they study, but also to many of their oh-so-clever friends. Ironically, journals dedicated to the study of politics; my chosen discipline and that which the ancients and many famous scientists throughout history have held in the highest regard; have some of the lowest impact factors (a measure of influence) among all disciplines. What is really striking though is that many academics in the social sciences only interact with people from outside their social circles as their subjects (with notable exceptions). We study people but we rarely take the opportunity to explain anything to them.

What we need now is an intellectual populism. We need to remember that the academic endeavour is after all merely the attempt to discover common sense; or at least to discover sense and then make it common. We aim to make the complex simple, without losing rigour. This is a challenge but one we are not stepping up to adequately (and I speak for myself if not my colleagues). Academic rigour requires critical distance and independent scientific analysis. But it also requires communication. Moreover, those of us who have had the privilege of making discoveries about our social world have the duty to help others make those discoveries too – and that goes beyond the small constituency who can afford to spend three or more years of their lives with us. All academics, researchers and graduates need to practice populism. The impetus needs to come from us not elsewhere. The public understanding of science and expertise is crucial for the reinvigoration of democracy.

[1] Aristotle was keener than Plato on rule by the many and the favoured form of rule he termed ‘Polity’ resembling more the constitutional democracy we know today, which is also much influenced by Jefferson’s thinking.

 

China’s Ambitions in the Semiconductor Sphere and Taiwan’s Dilemma

By Dr Ming-chin Monique Chu, Lecturer in Chinese Politics at the University of Southampton.


A Chinese-language version of this article was originally published on www.bbc.com on May 6, 2016. You can access that original article here.


In recent years the Chinese government has systemically strived to improve the competitiveness of domestic semiconductor industry because of the national security importance of this industry. According to Chinese policy makers, a strong domestic semiconductor industry will become the cornerstone of the country’s economic development as well as its national defence.

As a result, Beijing has introduced various policies designed to increase local civilian firms’ competitiveness, market share, and research and development (R&D) capabilities. Efforts have also been made to increase the domestic supply of semiconductor chips, which have been largely imported so far.

Since 2001, Beijing has initiated a series of policies to help spur the spin-on in the Chinese context because of the dual-use nature of semiconductor technology and its recognition of the dominant spin-on trend in the global semiconductor industry. (The spin-on trend means that semiconductor technologies have predominantly flowed from the civilian side to the military because the former has become more superior to the latter in technological advancement.) Once China manages to improve its civilian firms’ semiconductor capabilities, the Chinese military can benefit from the technological transfers from the civilian side of the economy in its attempt to build a capable digitalized modern force, with improved precision strike capabilities and integrated abilities to operate in the battlefield.

It is little wonder that China has recently beefed up its efforts to engage in ambitious merger and acquisition (M&A) activities in the global semiconductor space in order to gain access to pertinent intellectual property (IP) in the pursuit of ascendancy in the strategic industry.

Some of the firms headquartered in the USA or Taiwan, two of the major players in the worldwide semiconductor sphere, have become the main targets. For instance, the Chinese state-owned Tsinghua Unigroup has attempted to acquire U.S. memory chip maker Micron Technology; it has also attempted to invest in U.S. hard-disk drive maker Western Digital, Taiwan’s integrated circuit (IC) design leader MediaTek, and three Taiwanese chip packaging companies. These three Taiwanese packaging firms include Silicon Precision Industries, ChipMOS Technologies, and Powertech Technology that together have more than 17% share of the global chip packaging capacity.

However, the U.S. regulators blocked the Chinese firm’s $23 billion offer to acquire Micron Technology on national security grounds last summer. In March the firm dropped its bid to become the biggest shareholder of Western Digital after the U.S. regulators had planned to investigate the deal.

As the Chinese firm turned its acquisition spree to Taiwan’s IC sector, which functions as one of the major pillars of the island’s economy, the Investment Commission of the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Taipei announced in late March that the three acquisition applications would be reviewed with scrutiny. Hence this case is likely to become one of the first major challenges for Taiwan’s President-elect, Tsai Ing-wen, after she takes office on 20 May.

To analyse Tsai’s policy options concerning the aforementioned M&A cases, it is crucial to understand the way in which Taiwanese semiconductor actors (including firms and individuals) have contributed to the development of China’s sector. According to my research, which culminated in more than 160 elite interviews by 2009, the Taiwanese contributions to China’s nascent industry have permeated through IC design, fabrication, packaging and testing subsectors through trans-border transfers of technology, human resources and investment especially since 2000. The extensive scope of this semiconductor migration across the Taiwan Strait, as detailed in my book, The East Asian Computer Chip War (Routledge 2013 and 2016), has constituted the production globalization trend in the worldwide industry.

Book Cover-The East Asian Computer Chip War-page-001

As Wang Qinsheng, Chair of Huada Electronic Design (HED), noted in Beijing in 2005, “through various forms of “internationalization,” calibre and capital from Taiwan have entered mainland China and played important roles [in mainland’s semiconductor industry]. . . [Taiwan president] Chen Shui-bian is unable to control the trend.”

Klaus Wiemer, former president of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the world’s leading foundry headquartered in Taiwan, and former CEO of Chartered Semiconductor, echoed Wang’s observation: “I don’t think there would be much of a semiconductor industry in China today had it not been for Taiwan. . . Taiwan essentially went across the Strait and started to participate in the Chinese semiconductor industry. They took money over there. They took people and management skills.”

According to pertinent Taiwanese insiders, China’s market opportunities, location-specific resources (such as the availability of software engineers), as well as government policy incentives have primarily accounted for their decision to move across the Strait for the silicon gold rush, sometimes in defiance of regulations at home.

The strategic implications of the said migration are two-fold. In economic security terms, new Chinese entrants may thus become able competitors for Taiwanese firms in due course. In traditional national security terms, the Chinese military would seek to benefit from the domestic civilian semiconductor sector, improved over time with

 Taiwanese contributions, thereby accelerating the implementation of spin-on; this, in turn, will increase the Chinese military’s warfighting capabilities by adopting advanced and home-grown semiconductors as the building blocks of information-dependent military systems.

According to the president of HeJian Technology in 2005, a start-up established in Suzhou, China, with assistance from UMC that “made use of grey areas” in existing Taiwanese regulations, Beijing’s “obvious military ambition” would drive the Chinese military to exploit the domestic commercial IC industry to modernize its forces. China would utilize part of its chip industrial base, by pouring in state money, to produce ICs for the military as it continues to attract foreign investments to develop the industry.

As a Pentagon official argued that it would be “important to have a reliable and vibrant industry domestically” in the U.S. because the country had relied on chips to field its weapons systems, the same observation would apply to China.

Admittedly, the Chinese ambitions to enhance its domestic semiconductor capability are not without challenges, despite the tremendous state-led endeavours to establish national champions. These include, for instance, the abilities of local firms to innovate, the reluctance by foreign firms to transfer their core technologies to China, and the obstacles faced by local firms to acquire foreign giants due to national security concerns on the part of foreign governments.

However, it does seem that the Taiwan factor has continued to foster the development of the Chinese industry. For example, TSMC has recently decided to build a wholly owned 12-inch wafer foundry in Nanjing, China, to further expand its local market share. Besides, experienced Taiwanese engineers and executives have continued to join microelectronics firms in the world’s second largest economy. Two of the most recent cases involve the former president of HeJian Technology and the former president of Nanya Technology.

Given the analysis above, whether Tsai’s new government gives the green light to the applications filed by Tsinghua Unigroup to acquire the three Taiwanese packaging firms may not seem to matter much because packaging constitutes the low-end of the production supply chain. The potential cost of such decision, nevertheless, would be reduction in Taiwan’s market share in the worldwide subsector.

Nevertheless, if the Chinese M&A ambitions spill over to target Taiwanese firms in the fabrication and the top-end IC design subsectors, Taipei may face a serious dilemma. That is, to what extent will the approval of these Chinese applications further erode the economic competitiveness of Taiwanese firms by helping their Chinese counterparts gain access to crucial IPs? More importantly, will such decision run the risk of helping the Chinese military improve its warfighting capabilities, to the detriment of Taiwan’s long-term survival and security?


Dr Chu’s book The East Asian Computer Chip War is published in hardback and now paperback by Routledge. Click here to visit the publisher’s webpage for the book.

 

What is the right to asylum?: Debating the EU’s response to the refugee crisis

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


Listen to PAIR’s Professor David Owen debating with David Goodhart (director of the Integration Hub and former director of Demos) on the right to asylum and Europe’s response to the refugee crisis.

Whereas David Owen puts forward the view that the entire world order of states suffers a legitimacy problem when refugees go unprotected, David Goodhart argues that it is a fantasy to talk about people having human rights when their own states are not protecting them.

You can listen to the discussion in full below:

This debate was recorded for Talking Migration, a podcast produced by Dr Clara Sandelind at the University of Huddersfield and supported by the Centre for Research in the Social Sciences and the Division of Journalism and Media.

The SNP, UK Space Policy and the Politics of Parliamentary Debate

alixpicBy Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of British Politics at University of Southampton (@DrAlixKelso). You can read more posts by Alexandra here.


This article was originally posted on the Political Studies Association Specialist Group on Parliaments and Legislatures blog.

On 14 January 2016, a debate was held on UK space policy in the House of Commons, timed to coincide with a spacewalk undertaken by British astronaut Major Tim Peake as part of his mission to the International Space Station (ISS). UK participation in ISS activities marked the culmination of a significant reorientation of government space policy in recent years, and so it is unsurprising that MPs might have something to say about it, and want to take the opportunity to applaud a significant ‘national moment’. The debate attracted media attention, partly due to its coinciding with the Peake spacewalk, and also because of the message of goodwill sent to MPs by William Shatner, who expressed the hope that MPs would, in debating space, ‘take the tenets of Star Trek’s prime directive to universally and peacefully share in the exploration of it’. An MP performing a Vulcan salute during her contribution also helped on the publicity front. It was clearly a novel policy issue for MPs, and one that the Commons hadn’t properly debated in a decade or so. What was most surprising, however, and which drew me to research this issue, was that the debate was moved by an MP from the Scottish National Party (SNP). What, I wondered, were the SNP doing using up their precious parliamentary time for a debate on a topic as unlikely as UK space policy? In my recent paper in the journal Space Policy, I analyse the parliamentary debate in order to solve this puzzle. The paper identifies a number of themes underpinning the debate, but here I focus only on the question that sparked my interest in the first place: why were the SNP getting involved in this incredibly narrow policy issue, which seemed like an unlikely vehicle through which to advance their political objectives?

The parliamentary motion was tabled by the SNP MP Philippa Whitford, and was the result of time made available through an application to the Backbench Business Committee. Although the tabled motion concerned UK space policy generally, much of the discussion was dominated by what turned out to be highly strategic contributions from the SNP, whose MPs used much of their time to delineate the merits of locating the UK’s first ever spaceport in Prestwick, on the west coast of Scotland. Some research soon helped illuminate their motivations. The Space Growth Action Plan 2014-2030 specified the need for a UK commercial spaceport, operational by 2018, in order to grow existing and new space businesses in the UK, particularly the highly successful satellite industry. Access to space is a key commercial barrier in the space industry, as UK companies face increasing costs in accessing overseas launch sites, and the speedy creation of UK commercial space flight capability was deemed crucial to implementing the growth strategy. The shortlist of possible spaceport locations was published in spring 2015, with Prestwick viewed as particularly competitive, given how closely it met the criteria laid out by the Department of Transport, in terms of a clear flight path north over the sea and a coastal location with low population density.

It is in this context that the SNP contributions can be understood, for two reasons. First, the SNP represent the vast majority of Scottish Westminster seats (56 out of 59), and their 2015 UK general election campaign strategy had its heart the argument that, so long as Scotland remained a part of the UK, the SNP was the best party to represent Scottish interests at Westminster. Second, the regulation of activities in outer space, as defined by the Outer Space Act 1986, is reserved to the UK Parliament, and the SNP’s decision to allocate precious backbench time at Westminster to the issue of UK space policy therefore makes sense in terms of the SNP demonstrating its ability to ‘make Scotland’s voice heard’ in the UK on UK matters. Consequently, debate analysis illustrates the concerted effort of SNP MPs to advocate for locating the spaceport in Prestwick, and, more generally, to emphasise the value of the space industry to Scotland. Prestwick is located in the constituency of the debate mover, Philippa Whitford MP, who spoke at length about its spaceport suitability, as well its proximity to the technology catapults at the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. Many central Scotland MPs spoke effusively about the benefits that would accrue should the spaceport be located in Prestwick, and there was much name-dropping of affected interests in the area: the Scottish Centre for Excellence in Satellite Applications at the Strathclyde University Space Institute, the University of Glasgow’s laser interferometer developments which contributed to the European Space Agency’s Pathfinder spacecraft, and the commercially successful Glasgow-based company Clyde Space were all commended.

Thus, while the ostensible subject of the motion was ‘UK space policy’, it in fact served the purpose of enabling the SNP to champion the Scottish commercial space industry, and argue that the interests of that industry would be advanced if the UK government opted for a spaceport in Prestwick. While the MPs from the other shortlisted locations also contributed to the debate, they were largely drowned out by the SNP’s concerted action and strategic advocacy. In short, the SNP cleverly utilised parliamentary deliberation in order to align Scotland explicitly with the broader goals of UK space policy. They ensured that the responsible government minister ‘heard Scotland’s voice’ (as he was there for the debate and responded to it), while also championing a Scottish commercial sector that arguably has a competitive advantage in the UK.

What does this tell us? For one thing, it provides an illustration of how the SNP are functioning at Westminster in terms of their promise to ‘make Scotland’s voice heard loud and clear’. The dominant position of the SNP inside the UK Parliament, in terms of Scottish seat share, offers a rich opportunity to study how they use that position inside the House of Commons to demonstrate their advocacy of Scotland and their commitment to protecting its interests. What at first appeared to be little more than a backbench debate on an esoteric policy issue turned out to be richly imbued with opportunities for advancing our understanding of how the SNP are operating inside Westminster, and thus also for analysing how Parliament is used by political actors.

Courting Diasporas: The Politics of Emigration Policies in Latin America

DipticBy Dr. Ana Margheritis, Reader in International Relations at University of Southampton (Twitter, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Ana here.


Dr Ana Margheritis was recently invited to give a talk at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy on the politics of emigration policies in Latin America.

A short interview with Dr Margheritis on the subject of her talk is below, and the full audio and a summary is available here.

 

 

 

 

Argentina departs from the Kirchner model, but Mauricio Macri now has to govern a divided nation

By Pia Riggirozzi. Pia Riggirozzi is Associate Professor in Global Politics at the University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


Read Dr Pia Riggirozzi’s new piece for The Conversation on the outcome of Argentina’s 2015 presidential elections.

Follow this link for the full article.

Dr Ana Margheritis on the National Elections in Argentina

DipticBy Dr. Ana Margheritis, Reader in International Relations at University of Southampton (Twitter, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Ana here.


PAIR’s Dr Ana Margheritis has been busy in the national and international media over the past week, offering reflection and analysis on the current national elections in Argentina. Ana has contributed to discussion programmes for Radio FM4 in Austria and for the BBC World Service, and featured in an article in the Daily Express.

You can listen to/view each of Ana’s contributions by following the links above.

Negativity Towards Politics: A By-Product of a Failure in Moral Accounting?

By Jonathan Moss, Nick Clarke, Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Jonathan Moss is Senior Research Assistant for Geography at the University of Southampton, Nick Clarke is Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Southampton, Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). Their project ‘Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2014’ is funded by the ESRC.


Many politicians believe that their world is one of high accountability; after all they put themselves up for election and can find themselves unceremoniously dumped by voters. Also on a daily basis their actions and words are the focus of attention in traditional and new media. So why do 21st century citizens in contemporary democracies appear to be so disdainful of politics and far from appreciative of their politicians?

Here are some quotations from responses to a Mass Observation directive sent out in 2014 – as part of our ESRC research project – asking its panel of volunteer diarists to comment on several leading British politicians.

David Cameron is characterised by mass observers as a ‘sleazeball’, ‘multimillionaire posh boy’ and ‘emotionally unknowable careerist’; he is also criticised for having ‘chubby cheeks’, or a ‘shiny buffed up face’.

Ed Miliband is described as ‘weird’, ‘feeble’, ‘too wet’ and a ‘dweeb’ or a ‘creep’; one respondent explains that ‘he is wiry and gangly and doesn’t exude honesty or truth’, another compares him to a ‘sixth form debating team captain promoted beyond his capabilities.’

George Osborne is ‘pompous’ and a ‘smirking public school bully’; if he wasn’t a politician ‘he would probably be a small time banker swindling old ladies out of their life savings’.

Nick Clegg is a ‘poodle’, a ‘bully’s sidekick’, he is ‘very slippery’ and ‘reneges on promises and plans’.

These comments are not just negative but caustically damning and also bitterly personal in their sense of betrayal. Why given that the politicians are plainly more formally accountable than many others in our society do they attract such a strong sense of moral and personal antagonism? One explanation might be the difference between the formal accountability of democracies and the moral accounting we use as citizens in our daily lives.

As George Lakoff‘s Moral Politics argues citizens draw on shared metaphors to understand and judge politics. There are, Lakoff argues, standard ways in which the idea of moral accounting can be delivered in human societies. To balance the moral books with respect to misdeeds you can engage in reciprocation ( look I know it was bad but look what you got out of it); restitution( look I know it was bad but I am sorry and I am showing it ) or retribution( look I know it was bad but I am paying for it now).We are energised by the idea of moral accounting: good actions must be repaid and bad punished. The moral books must be balanced and when they are not then a social system is in trouble. Politics is not exempt from this moral universe. The problem with today’s politics is a lack of moral accounting schemas that convince from the perspective of citizens.

This issue is amplified because politics is an activity inherently in need of a lot of moral redemption. Politics is not an activity that always shows the best side of the human character. Its leading players often engage in deception, subterfuge, dissembling, pork barrelling, currying favour and intrigue. Consequently, anyone who engages in politics, as Michael Walzer points out, faces the dilemma of dirty hands. To get things done requires a willingness to do the necessary to win the day.

As citizens and observers of politics we have for long understood this negative feature of politics. The idea that moral lapses are characteristic of those that engage in politics is commonplace, as literature and history has suggested over centuries. Indeed as a more recent cultural expression, House of Cards (based of course on the original British version, written by Michael Dobbs at the height of sleaze under the Major government) suggests it is possible for millions of television viewers to enjoy the brilliant Kevin Spacey doing his diabolical worst to get his way in an imaginary version of American politics. Indeed real politicians are often admired for their capacity to get things done and to do the necessary to win elections, legislative votes or other political battles.

The problem is as our research has shown none of the moral accounting options- reciprocation, restitution, and retribution- come easily to hand in today’s political system and as a result politicians struggle to assuage their culpability with us. The moral books are not balanced so formal answerability may be delivered but not moral accountability. The mechanisms of moral accounting fail to deliver for today’s politics and that in turn lies at the heart of the intensity of today’s political disillusionment.

Politics knows the value of reciprocation. Politics can be dodgy but if it delivers for you then maybe it’s OK.   The ends justify the means; and those that share in the spoils can be satisfied as Machiavelli argued. Partisan dealignment has made that solution more difficult to deliver in contemporary politics. In the 2015 British General Election around two thirds of voters supported losing candidates and a third of population failed to vote at all. The Conservatives won the support of just 25 per cent of registered voters. In the 1940s or 1950s over 9 in 10 of voters would have been backing either Labour or Conservative in closely fought high turnout contests and would be pleased with victory or satisfied with a well- fought campaign by the politicians that they identified with. Success for your party in the context of fragmenting voting patterns and the absurdities of a first -past- the- post electoral system has become a balm to sooth political misbehaviour with reduced impact. You can forgive the whoppers, wobbles and compromises if your party wins but only a few of us have that option.

Let us now focus on second form of moral accounting- restitution- where the politician visibly and clearly wrestles with their conscience; showing the strain that getting their hands dirty has put on them. Maybe politicians in the past had more chance of being imagined as engaging in such activities but today’s relentless 24 hour media coverage exaggerates the need for constant bullishness and spinning and seems to leave little space for introspection or thoughtful reflection from our politicians. It may be that politicians do mull over their misdeeds but there appears to be only limited opportunities for the public to observe that.

The third form of moral accounting involves politicians taking responsibility for their sins by doing penance and being punished. We can, as noted earlier, as voters remove politicians from their position but the after-life of the politician appears to have few downsides that we as citizens can easily observe. In the modern era many politicians appear to experience a post-political life boon- far removed from the idea of moral retribution- given the expansion of non-elected governance positions and lobby opportunities. There is clearly some evidence of a tough time being had by some but the focus of attention is in the modern form of politics is on its lucrative books deals, non-executive directorships , corporate consulting gigs, positions on quangos and well-rewarded lecture circuits. All these options appear to offer post- political career deserts only in the opposite direction to any punishment we might feel should be handed out.

We know in our hearts that politicians must behave badly to get the job done but we are made more uncomfortable with politics today because of our incapacity to see some form of moral judgement in play to temper that inevitability. Decreasing numbers of us think that politics delivers for us and are so enabled to judge that politicians achieved good even while doing bad things. The continuous campaign characteristic of modern politics means we cannot observe our political leaders feeling the pain or regretting of their misdeeds very often. And post- career rewards rather than penance appear to have become the norm for the modern politician. As citizens we know that politics cannot be wholly moral but we still think about it in moral terms.   We are cognitively inclined to judge and we need the books to balance but the standard mechanisms of moral accounting are considerably less effective today.