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Islamophobia(s) in the aftermath of the Nice attack

📥  defence, France, terrorism

Dr Aurelien Mondon is Senior Lecturer in French and Comparative Politics at the University of Bath. His research focuses predominantly on elite discourse and the mainstreaming of far right politics, particularly through the use of populism and racism. Dr Aaron Winter is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of East London.

On the 14th of July 2016, the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice ended in carnage. Eighty-four people were killed when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove his truck through a crowd of bystanders: men, women and children, who had gathered on the Promenades des Anglais to watch the fireworks. Within hours, the French media and politicians denounced yet another ‘Islamist terrorist’ attack, despite the lack of evidence present at this early stage. Even though it appears increasingly that Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s links to terrorism and IS were indeed tenuous at best, Islam, once more in the spotlight in France and Muslim communities in the country (and wider Europe), remains under collective suspicion and the target of fear and hate.


Islamophobia in France is nothing new, from its colonial heritage to the more recent focus on terrorism. In the years since 9/11, Islam, Muslims and, closely linked, the issue of Islamophobia, have become central to public, policy and research debates and agendas in France as well as in Europe and the wider West (Levey and Modood 2008; Morey and Yaqin 2011). Various surveys have shown in recent years that ‘anti-Muslim biases’ (Taras 2013, 426-31) have been prevalent across much of Europe (for a more thorough overview in France, see (Hajjat and Mohammed 2013, 37-68) and in Britain and the United States, see (Kundnani 2014)). Many have argued that this trend has increased, as have anti-Muslim hate crimes, in France and elsewhere, in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks in the past 18 months (LeMonde.fr July 17 2015; Mark November 18 2015; Al-Othman December 1 2015).


bayualam / Shutterstock.com

While some repercussions took the form of traditional far-right hate and violence, what we have witnessed recently in France - and which has been consolidated in the wake of the first attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 - is a form of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hate that, far from traditional racism, appears liberal and progressive, attacking Islam in the name of secularism and free speech (as well as women’s rights in the case of banning the hijab and burka (Delphy 2006; 2015)). These features make it more acceptable in mainstream French society, as it hijacks once progressive concepts such as the Republic, laïcité and the popular motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité. This has allowed parties on the far right, such as the Front National, to normalise their neo-racist discourse as much of their criticism of Islam could now be couched in mainstream terms (Mondon 2014; 2015).

The intersection between traditional far-right forms of racism and the subtler mainstream Islamophobia, which has become increasingly prevalent in our societies, has been the basis of our current research project (Mondon & Winter 2015, 2016). The aim of the present article is to illuminate the current situation in France using part of the theoretical framework we are currently developing. Our research argues that to understand the changing nature and articulations of, as well as debates about, Islamophobia in the current context, it is necessary to understand it in the plural, and in particular to differentiate between what we have called its illiberal and liberal forms.

The distinction between the two forms of Islamophobia we identify begins with what appears to be an analytical distinction and disagreement, albeit a functional one. The main debate amongst academics, and within the media and civil society (for different reasons from understanding to hate), has been whether Islamophobia is about religion or race, based on whether Islam relates to a race/people or religion/belief system. This is less about definitions than whether anti-Muslim discourses and rhetoric are a form of racism and unacceptable or about belief and thus acceptable. As such, it is not really about what Islam is or Muslims are, but how the definition allows people to say certain things about it and avoid less palatable ones. While many scholars and activists, as well as Muslims on the sharp end of Islamophobia, see it as a form of racism directed at a people and often based on physical or cultural markers and signifiers (to use the traditional understanding), the religious argument does provide a convenient cover for those wishing to argue that they are attacking a belief and not people or ‘race’. In a mainstream context where racism is allegedly unacceptable and associated with the far right, this focus allows Islamophobes to wriggle out of or deflect such charges, as well as permitting the far right to recast themselves as legitimate and mainstream through simple rephrasing. In this context, it is thus not surprising to hear prominent mainstream commentator Elisabeth Badinter declare: ‘we should not be afraid to be called Islamophobes’. Obviously, defining and seeing Islamophobia only through the prism of religion ignores many of these and others issues, processes and effects, most notably racialisation (Meer and Modood 2009; Garner and Selod 2015). It is in fact particularly functional and politically expedient in so-called liberal secular societies such as France, Britain and, to a lesser extent, the US, where criticism of religion is considered a healthy and necessary practice to allow for freedom of thought and expression, and central to the conception of the nation and national identity, as the case of France highlights particularly well. Muslims are not French, not because of who they are, but because of what their beliefs are believed to be and the values this imagined and caricatural belief system prevents them from accepting. This is where the distinction and intersections of the liberal and illiberal qualities of Islamophobia become particularly relevant.

The illiberal type of Islamophobia or ‘anti-Muslim’ hate, is closest to traditional racism based around exclusivist, essentialised notions and concepts of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion, as well as identity itself, and is commonly associated with the far right and authoritarian treatment of minority groups and rights. It presents Islam as monolithic and innately threatening and inferior (in terms of ‘race’ if not also culture). Like traditional forms of racism, it views Muslimness as an immutable characteristic (akin to biology), Muslims, and not just Islam as a religion, as a problem, and can be seen for example in calls for repatriation, genocide or violence against Muslims and mosques. As such, it falls outside the remits of what is considered acceptable in the hegemonic discourse and apart from the most ideologically-focused groups on the right, most have tried to distance themselves from such labels. Yet this type of Islamophobia is essential to allow for the very existence of the liberal form as it acts as a unifier within mainstream society: it binds the norm within boundaries by drawing a clear line of demarcation between the extreme and the norm. It is the construction and containment of a clearly delineated type of Islamophobia at the margins of the political spectrum, one which falls outside of the liberal ideal because of its essentialism, unmediated call for violence, total rejection and open discrimination, which make it possible for subtler forms of Islamophobia to enter the mainstream discourse due their apparent allegiance to liberal democratic rules.

Liberal Islamophobia is based on the construction of a pseudo-progressive binary and narrative. It creates a loosely defined Muslim culture and community inherently opposed to some of the core values espoused in a mythical, essentialised, culturally homogenous, superior and enlightened West, or specific western nation, based on specific examples where the West embodies progress, such as democracy, human rights, free speech, gender and sexual equality and rights, and ironically tolerance. As David Theo Goldberg (2006, 345) argues, ‘Islam is taken in the dominant European imaginary to represent a collection of lacks: of freedom; of a disposition of scientific inquiry; of civility and manners; of love of life; of human worth; of equal respect for women and gay people’. Criticism of Islam and Muslims is praised as an example and defence of liberal free speech. Nowhere is this clearer than with the example of Charlie Hebdo, with its satirical cartoons of the Prophet, designed to express free speech and provoke to prove the point about a fantasised version of Islam and Muslims’ backwardness.

Of course, the construction of a liberal West standing unified behind equality and freedom willfully ignores the tensions within liberalism itself in terms of the legacy(ies) of the Enlightenment, universalism, racism, colonialism, imperialism and patriarchy, as well as increasing inequalities and curtailment of freedoms within the ‘West’. Liberal Islamophobia thus acts as a decoy to provide ‘Us’ with a righteous sense of self as the defenders of a more progressive vision of the world, and displace tensions, failures and inadequacies inherent to our societies onto Islam. This is particularly important and even ironic considering that much of the Muslim population in France and other European countries originally come from former colonies - such as the Nice attacker, who was from Tunisia - and have been subjected to racisms that both represent a reaction to the loss of empire and reassert the racist colonial schema of the civilised versus the primitive.

The two forms of Islamophobia though are not mutually exclusive, as they both target and scapegoat Islam and Muslims, and the liberal form fails to adequately conceal or erase the racism and other contractions in liberalism and the enlightenment project. More explicitly, the Charlie Hebdo attack did not just create an opportunity for liberal opposition to Islam, but led to a rise in illiberal hate crimes and violence. In addition to that, the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ sentiment expressed in the aftermath by world leaders - many of whom would lead a march through Paris in solidarity despite leading states with repressive laws, including France, which would enact a state of emergency, and engaged in aggressive and imperialist militarism - exposed the hypocrisy if not lie of such liberal framing and rhetoric. Subsequent attacks in France in November 2015 and July 2016 would see an assertion of the more aggressive illiberalism form from hate crimes within civil society to securitisation and authoritarian repressive state measures.

Islamophobia(s) in the Context of the Nice attack

Despite the liberal framing and rhetoric, it has been common for Islamist terrorist attacks to be couched by the mainstream western media and some opportunistic politicians and commentators as being part of a broader clash of civilisations between fantasised visions of Islam and the West. This was very much the prevalent narrative after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015: the ‘West’ represented freedom of speech and progress in line with liberal Islamophobia. ‘Islam’ (and anyone loosely defined as Muslim) was caricatured as censorious and retrograde. No space was left for nuance or the shortcomings of the ‘West’ with regard to freedom of speech in increasingly unequal societies. After the November attacks in which 130 were killed, most politicians reiterated that France was ‘at war’. Prime Minister Manuel Valls went as far as discussing the ‘enemy within’ – a phrase with clear connotations with the Second World War. Still reminiscent of France’s darkest hours, prominent politicians on the right called for any suspect to be imprisoned without trial in ‘interment camps’. The attacks on the Bataclan and wider sites of Parisian nightlife in November 2015 were taken by some to represent an attack on the liberal culture and lifestyle of the young in France by Muslims opposed to drinking, mixed gender socialising, dancing and social pleasure itself. Yet, these events lacked the specificity and iconic symbol of Charlie Hebdo. Instead, repeated attacks and a growing fear, comfort with hate and security measures have hardened politicians, the press and public opinion.

On the 14th of July, within hours of event, terrorism and not the defence of so-called liberal values became the focus as François Hollande declared that this was ‘an attack whose terrorist quality cannot be denied… it is the whole of France that is under the terrorist threat’. As demonstrated by Le Monde, the ‘Islamist terrorist’ line remained the preferred explanation for French politicians (and much of the media in France and beyond) for days, despite conflicting evidence which should have suggested a much more cautious approach. While, as these lines are written, the links between Lahouaiej Bouhlel and so-called Islamic State remain ‘unproven’ - and, in fact, increasingly tenuous - the French Minister of the Interior continued to defend on the 18th of July what, at that stage, was mere speculation: the modus operandi was reminiscent of IS and, while the attacker seemed to suffer from various mental health issues, he had been ‘quickly radicalised’ despite no evidence being presented to the public. Of course, this is not to say that this official explanation is not the correct one, but that in the absence of publicly available evidence, one should expect more caution on the part of public servants, particularly in such a delicate context. This simplistic coverage has led opportunistic and demagogic politicians to demand ever more stringent measures to fight terrorism, but also to the further stigmatisation of the Muslim communities in France. This also has acted as a diversion away from real issues. The state of emergency and the call for more policing have been criticised as ineffective as they not only curtail the civil liberties of all but also ignore the root causes affecting millions in France and potentially driving a handful to committing terrorist attacks. In February 2016, Amnesty International denounced the state of emergency, highlighting that only one person had been arrested on terrorism charges out of 3210 often violent interventions. Such policies and the associated rhetoric are likely to feed into IS’s propaganda machine as they will no doubt highlight the unfair treatment Muslims are subjected to in France. While most Muslims will ignore such simplistic calls, it will only take one person to answer them to send us further down this infernal spiral of an eye for an eye.

In this context Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right Front National, kept mostly quiet in the aftermath of the attacks. As mainstream politicians outbid each other in a race towards securitisation and suspicion, at the expense of civil liberties and fostering further discrimination of Muslim communities, Le Pen has steered away from polemical grounds and simply claimed that mainstream politicians had failed in their duty to protect their citizens. Instead of taking the necessary step back which should be expected by politicians in a democracy, the government and opposition jumped to radical conclusions early on and called for an escalation of the war against terrorism, playing right in the hand of both so-called Islamic State and the far right and its demand for ever more stringent laws on civil liberties and against immigrants and minorities. Such reactions have further legitimised Islamophobia in France and freed the actions of those espousing its most illiberal forms.

This short article, first published on e-ir.info, is part of a larger project studying the rise and interaction of liberal and illiberal Islamophobias in France, the United States and the United Kingdom.


Al-Othman, Hannah. December 1 2015. “Anti-Muslim hate crimes in London more than triple in the wake of Paris attacks.” Evening Standard. London.

Delphy, Christine. 2006. “Antisexisme ou antiracisme? un faux dilemme.” Nouvelles Questions Féministes 26 (1): 59-83.

———. 2015. Separate and dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror. London: Verso.

Garner, Steve, and Saher Selod. 2015. “The Racialization of Muslims: Empirical Studies of Islamophobia.” Critical Sociology 41 (1):9-19.

Goldberg, David Theo. 2006. “Racial Europeanization.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 29 (2):331-64.

Hajjat, Abdellali, and Marwan Mohammed. 2013. Islamophobie. Comment les élites françaises construisent le “problème musulman”. Paris: La Découverte.

Khiabany, Gholam, and Milly Williamson. 2011. “Muslim Women and Veiled Threats: From ‘Civilising Mission’ to ‘Clash of Civilisations’.” Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media, edited by Julian Petley and Robin Richardson. Oxford: One World.

Kundnani, Arun. 2014. The Muslims are coming: Islamophobia, Extremism and the domestic war on terror. London: Verso.

LeMonde.fr. July 17 2015. “Les actes islamophobes et antisémites en nette progression au premier semestre en France.” Le Monde. Paris.

Levey, Geoffrey Brahm and Tariq Modood (eds.). 2008. Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mark, Michelle. November 18 2015. “Anti-muslim hate crimes have spiked after every major terrorist attack: after paris, muslims speak out against islamophobia.” International Business Times.

Meer, Nasar, and Tariq Modood. 2009. “Refutations of racism in the “Muslim Question”.” Patterns of Prejudice 43 (3/4):332–51.

Mondon, Aurelien. 2014. “The Front National in the Twenty-First Century: From Pariah to Republican Democratic Contender?” Modern & Contemporary France: 1-20. doi: 10.1080/09639489.2013.872093.

———. 2015. “The French secular hypocrisy: the extreme right, the Republic and the battle for hegemony.” Patterns of Prejudice 49 (4): 1-22. doi: 10.1080/0031322X.2015.1069063.

Mondon, Aurelien & Winter, Aaron (2015), Breaking taboos or strengthening the status quo – Islamophobia in the name of liberalism in France and America, BSA conference – manuscript currently under review

Morey, Peter, and Amina Yaqin. 2011. Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Taras, Raymond. 2013. “‘Islamophobia never stands still’: race, religion, and culture.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 36 (3): 417-33.


Giving back control? A contradiction at the heart of Universal Credit

📥  employment, policymaking, Welfare

Professor Jane Millar is a member of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Leadership Team, in addition to her role as Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath. Fran Bennett is Senior Research and Teaching Fellow in the University of Oxford's Department of Social Policy and intervention.

As Damian Green arrives as Secretary of State in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Universal Credit must be at the top of the long list of issues he faces. And the decisions he takes will have a major impact on the incomes and living standards of those ‘ordinary working class’ families that the new Prime Minister has promised will be the focus of her government.



An estimated ten million people will be in the Universal Credit net when the new system is fully in operation in the next five years. The current system is very complex: people have to find their way through a maze of benefits, and they have to make new claims for some benefits every time they move in and out of work. Universal Credit will smooth that transition by replacing six existing means-tested benefits (Income Based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, Income Related Employment and Support Allowance and Income Support) with a single benefit.

Having one single benefit will, it is asserted, encourage more people to work, improve take-up of benefits and tackle in-work poverty. The idea of Universal Credit – and in particular the simplification of the system – has itself received almost universal support. This has come from political parties, from think-tanks and NGOs, from the House of Commons Select Committees, and from the Social Security Advisory Committee. There have been some cold feet about the very slow and very costly implementation, with critical reports from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee among others, and the recent announcement of further delays until 2022 highlight the very real challenges of making this system work. But Iain Duncan Smith’s vision for Universal Credit remains, so far, largely intact.

The fact that there is support from a wide range of interests and groups might be taken as a good sign. But policy consensus can also mean lack of scrutiny and challenge. Perhaps we need to look more closely at the design and try to understand what it might mean for those millions of people as they try to access the system. If we walk through the system, as it is supposed to work, what happens?

First, you must make your claim online. This is the only way to claim and the only way to update your claim if your circumstances change, though Jobcentres or local advice services may help complete this for you. This is a big step into the modern IT world – but perhaps not a step that everyone is able to take yet. Many people with low incomes have no access to computers at home, and must rely on friends or public systems in libraries or Jobcentres, which are not always readily available. Others will lack the experience and skills to easily negotiate complicated online forms. DWP evaluation has already found some significant barriers to the use of IT, which suggests that this area might require significant and ongoing investment.

Second, you must sign a ‘claimant commitment’. This kind of arrangement will be familiar to people who have claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance, most of whom have always had full-time work requirements as part of their benefit conditions. Universal Credit extends these work requirements in various ways, depending on your circumstances. Lone parents will have to be actively looking for work once their youngest child is three, and be preparing for work before that. But so will partners with children, who have not previously had work requirements like this. And people already in part-time work may be required to try to increase their earnings or hours. A new role within DWP – the ‘work coach’ - is being introduced to support unemployed people into work and help those in work to increase their hours. The work coaches will have some discretion to vary work requirements (for example, for disability and caring obligations) but will also be responsible for sanctioning those who fail to meet their claimant requirement. Some early evidence suggests that people in work are bemused by these requirements, which they feel are very unfair.

Third, you must report changes in circumstances, apart from changes in earnings. Changes in earnings for employees will be picked up automatically by the ‘real-time information’ system that uses PAYE data – a big step forward and key to making work transitions smoother. But all other changes in circumstances must still be reported and there are many of these, in total (including earnings changes) when fully operational this could mean as many as 1.6 million per month.

Experience with tax credits shows that many people will struggle to understand what exactly they have to report and when. And when they do report, the changes will be applied on a single assessment date each month and treated as though they apply to whole of the previous month. This might be good or bad news, depending on the event and the timing. Universal Credit is paid for the month just gone, not the month to come. So if you have a baby just before the assessment date you will get almost a month’s extra benefit. But if your oldest child leaves home just before assessment you will lose almost a month. This creates a disjunction between income and circumstances, making it harder to meet current needs or to plan ahead.

Fourth, you will receive your benefit as a single monthly cash payment. This is intended to give people the opportunity to manage their money in the same way as they would in work. But the single payment will challenge budgeting practices that rely on the receipt of different sources of income at different times. There are systems to allow for alternative arrangements in certain circumstances, and support for budgeting and money management has been piloted alongside the digital support services. But again it is clear that not everyone will want, or be able, to access such support. Perhaps most tellingly, one of the conclusions reached so far is that the ‘most significant challenge in delivering personal budgeting support was that...trial participants simply did not have enough money each month...’.

Which takes us to the final point about the difference between the current situation and that under Universal Credit: there will be less money. The 2015 Budget proposed cuts to tax credits, some of which George Osborne was forced to postpone after challenge from the House of Lords. But these were not abandoned; they were instead pushed ahead to Universal Credit. Spending on Universal Credit will fall by £3.7 billion (leaving aside temporary protection for some new claimants) compared with the existing system. The impact on families may be mitigated in part for some by rises in the ‘National Living Wage’ and personal tax allowances, and much will depend on individual circumstances. But many working families will receive less from the Universal Credit system than they do now from tax credits. As a new Universal Credit claimant, you will also wait longer for your money; there are seven waiting days (for which you get no money), meaning a wait of about six weeks to the first payment.

So far, the evidence about the impact of Universal Credit is limited. The early evaluations do show some positive effects on moves into work, and increases in job search. The work coaches are generally upbeat about the personalised support they can offer, and some claimants respond well to this. But the main groups brought into the system so far are single people and childless couples. There is a long way to go before all families, with their more complex circumstances and needs, are covered. Simpler systems may work very well for straightforward cases, and this could be a huge gain for Universal Credit. But there are limits to simplification for means-tested benefits, especially when the aim is to target people whose circumstances are not secure.

Universal Credit is supposed to be ‘like work’ and thus make people feel more independent and – to use a Prime Ministerial phrase of the moment – give them back control. But there will be no escaping the state for these millions of people, subject to ongoing means tests, having to report changes in their lives, fulfilling tougher work requirements even if already working, getting less financial support, and for many also being advised how to budget. This is a contradiction at the heart of Universal Credit. It is intended as a simplification, but the intrusion and control embedded in the design are substantial and extend both to more people and to more aspects of their lives.

Note: the above draws on the authors' published research in Social Policy and Society.


Theresa May and the Varieties of Capitalism

📥  banking, Brexit, Economy, political parties

Rhetorical commitment to social justice has featured in every new Prime Minister’s No. 10 doorstep speech in recent years. Theresa May’s remarks were well crafted and confidently delivered but it is her commitment to economic reform, not social mobility and fairer life chances, which has surprised observers. She starts her premiership with bold promises to reduce excessive executive pay, set higher bars for foreign takeovers of British firms, legislate for workers on company boards, and devolve economic powers to cities. She has even included “industrial strategy” in the title of a government department, where once mere mention of the term was banned.

May has been pursuing this agenda in speeches and interventions over a number of years. It consciously echoes older, pre-Thatcherite conservative traditions, drawing on Chamberlain municipalist and Macmillanite Tory heritages. Although the development of her ideas pre-dates the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, Brexit gives the Prime Minister a new opening, since it forces the construction of a new political and economic settlement, both within the UK, and between the UK and the EU. May will position her reform agenda as a post-Brexit national (and unionist) economic project: one which gives each of the regions and nations of the UK, its social classes and major economic interests, a stake in the future.

Such a project is shot through with risk, not least in meeting the political challenge of reconciling restrictions on free movement of workers from the EU with continued access to the single market. But fatalists will argue that fundamental reform of British capitalism is also chimeric. To use the terms of the academic Varieties of Capitalism (VoC) literature, Britain is a Liberal Market Economy, whose fundamental institutional features – flexible labour markets, low rates of unionisation, firm level bargaining, reliance on general, rather than vocational, education, and so on – are inimical to reform on continental, coordinated lines. The structures for collaboration between firms and unions, and the dense networks of institutions that support long-termist, highly skilled and high-productivity capitalism in Northern Europe simply don’t exist in the UK. On this account, May would do better just to loosen the spending taps, and invest in infrastructure, R&D and skills, while leaving corporate governance reform, industrial strategy and regional policy to Heseltinian romantics.

In large part, these debates focus on the supply side of the economy and how to reform it. But from within the comparative political economy academic literature a new focus on how the demand side can explain differences in national economies has recently emerged. In an important paper, Lucio Baccaro and Jonas Pontusson of the University of Geneva develop a new analytical approach that focuses on differences in components of aggregate demand in the explanation of national growth models:

“Borrowing from post-Keynesian economics, we emphasize the demand side of the economy and place the distribution of income, among households and between labor and capital, at the center of our analysis. We focus…on cross-national diversity, but in contrast to the Varieties of Capitalism (VoC) literature inspired by Peter Hall and David Soskice, we do not conceive this diversity in terms of institutional equilibria that predate the crisis of Fordism in the 1970s. Our analytical framework identifies multiple growth models based on the relative importance of different components of aggregate demand—in the first instance, household consumption and exports—and relations among components of aggregate demand. Our 'growth models' are more numerous and more unstable than Hall and Soskice’s 'varieties of capitalism.'

Empirically, we illustrate our approach with data for Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom over the pre-crisis period 1994–2007. In all four countries, the Fordist model of wage-led growth ground to a halt as the institutional channels whereby productivity growth fed into household consumption and investment—most obviously, collective bargaining based on strong unions—eroded in the 1970s and 1980s. Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom illustrate, we argue, three different solutions to the problem of finding a replacement for the faltering 'wage driver', whereas Italy is a case of persistent failure to solve this problem. Over the period 1994–2007, the United Kingdom relied on household consumption as the main driver of economic growth, spurring household consumption through a combination of real wage growth and the accumulation of household debt. In marked contrast, Germany came to rely on export-led growth, repressing wages and consumption to boost the competitiveness of the export sector. Sweden enjoyed robust growth of both exports and household consumption. Italy, finally, experienced sluggish growth in both domains and, hence, overall stagnation.”

This is a startling and original thesis, with numerous implications. It draws attention to the fact that the growth of the financial services sector, by allowing the UK to run a current account deficit, benefited workers as well as the banks, since it made possible robust growth of domestic consumption, thus boosting demand for low-skilled labour and pushing up real wages (at least until 2003-4) – as well as facilitating expansion of household credit and boosting the tax revenues that underpinned investment in public services. This is in sharp contrast to Germany, where a low-wage, low-skilled service sector developed alongside the dominant export-orientated manufacturing sector in which real wages were held down to preserve competitiveness, exporting demand to the rest of the Eurozone.

Of course, much has changed since the financial crisis. The UK’s productivity has slumped, growth has been relatively weak and real wages have been stagnant. A heavy price has been paid for financialisation, and the UK has yet not found a new, sustainable growth model. Baccaro and Pontusson speculate that where growth is consumption-led, governments of both centre-left and centre-right will respond to downturns by stimulating domestic consumption, which is indeed what happened in the UK, despite a restrictive macro-economic fiscal stance. Yet constraints on household credit and the prospect of falling real wages will also inhibit consumption-led growth, while business investment is currently paralysed by Brexit uncertainty. That suggests that government investment will have to rise to usher in, if not a new era of state-led economic development, then at least one in which public sector investment and strategic intervention plays a much more central role.

Baccaro and Pontusson also point to the importance of high-end exports in the UK economy, such as business services and higher education, but also, of course, financial services. These sectors will be accordingly critical to any post-Brexit future economic settlement forged by the Conservative government. As the authors put it, “any hegemonic social coalition must arguably include the financial sector, which has played a crucial role in enabling the United Kingdom to run persistent current account deficits, benefiting workers as well as capitalists.”

How a new Brexit era growth model takes shape will therefore have as much to do with the social coalitions that underpin it, as with the ambitious supply-side reforms outlined by the Prime Minister. It will sharpen up the political choices that need to be made in the coming months and years – overlaid on the shifting territorial politics of the UK, as well as its social class and economic interests.

The Brexit referendum and the future of the EU

📥  Brexit, EU membership, EU Referendum, EU renegotiation, Euroscepticism, future

Dr Nicholas Startin is Senior Lecturer in French and European Politics in the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies.

Earlier this year, I was invited to speak at the European Ideas Network’s (EIN) annual summer school in Croatia. The EIN is a centre-right think-tank which promotes new thinking on the key challenges facing the countries of the EU. The title of my talk, ‘The Future of the EU’, was scheduled for exactly one week after the announcement of the Brexit referendum result. Inevitably events dictated both my pitch as well as the mood of the delegates.



The EIN is sponsored by the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest transnational group in the European Parliament (EP), and the summer school was attended by a significant rump of the EPP’s MEPs. The group comprises centre-right MEPs from across the member states and historically it has had, and still retains, a pro-EU outlook. It is the home of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former and would-be next French President Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as current President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the European Council Donald Tusk. The British Conservative party famously withdrew from the group following the European elections in 2009 and set up the smaller, more EU-critical grouping called the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). As a result of this development my presence at the summer school as a British national, which took place in the aptly named city of Split, was something of a novelty in the aftermath of the referendum result. It was fascinating to witness the reaction of delegates, who, like myself, were still coming to terms with the result and its potential consequences for the future of the European project.

The rollercoaster of Brexit

I began my talk by giving an overview of the roller coaster ride the seven days since the referendum result had been from a UK perspective – both the Conservatives and Labour embroiled in leadership crises, the UK potentially disuniting, the markets in turmoil and a general sense that nobody really knew what was to follow! To provide some context I examined some of the supply and demand-side variables that had shaped the outcome of the referendum (see Startin 2015) and focused primarily on the polarised nature of the two campaigns.

The ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ campaign was almost wholly built around the perceived economic benefits of UK membership of the EU, based on the assumption that the economic growth and jobs vital to the future of the UK economy would only continue while a member. In spite of the backing of major economic and financial organisations such the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in isolation the so-called ‘rational choice’ argument posited by the Remain campaign did not prove sufficient to win the argument. Built more or less singularly around the status quo, the one dimensional pitch of the ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ campaign failed to make the emotional case for the EU. Beyond the economic argument there was scant mention of the EU’s perceived benefits be they minor, such as the abolition of mobile phone roaming charges, or major, like the fact that there has been no military conflict between any member state since its formation!

The ‘Vote Leave’ campaign was also largely one dimensional in approach but was centred on the issue of immigration. In spite of the tragic death of the Labour MP Jo Cox one week before the plebiscite, the ‘Take back control’ slogan utilised by the Leave campaign gained significant traction in the closing stages. It was buoyed by the front-page bombardment approach of three of the major tabloids – The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express – all of whom focused their major rationale for voting leave around the theme of migration. False claims that Turkey would soon join the EU and constant reminders of a potential rise in net EU migration to the UK (as the consequence of staying in the EU) saturated their front pages in the build-up to the referendum.

The ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign failed to make a cogent case for some of the positive benefits of EU migration and this allowed Vote Leave to take ownership of this most salient issue. In the context of the refugee crisis and against the backdrop of the terrible events of 2015 and 2016 in Paris and Brussels, the issues of immigration and security had become intrinsically linked. A major flaw of the Remain campaign was that, in the face of the tabloid bombardment, it failed to differentiate between Freedom of Movement and the Schengen passport-free zone, and to robustly emphasise that the UK is not part of the latter. Freedom of Movement, in terms of its perceived benefits for UK citizens, was largely ignored and should have been pitched in a more positive light. In contrast to immigration, which was owned by Vote Leave as an issue, the ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ campaign failed to take ownership of their flagship issue – the so-called economic, rational choice argument. Vote Leave focused to great effect on the £350 million a week they claimed the EU was costing the UK.

The generational and socioeconomic cleavages of Brexit

Beyond the immediate political uncertainty created by the referendum result in the UK, the vote revealed two major divisions which were part of a wider political malaise facing Europe’s political elites, namely generational and socioeconomic cleavages. According to a YouGov poll on the eve of the referendum 75% of 18-24s who voted did so for Remain, which was in contrast to the 61% of over-65s who voted leave. Significantly though according to Sky News data the turnout was only 36% among the under-25s compared to 83% among the over-65s, raising significant questions about the impact of the polarised nature of electoral participation on the actual result itself (see Speed 2016)[i]. With 82% of 16- and 17-year-olds saying they would have voted to Remain (if like their counterparts in the 2014 Scottish referendum they had been given the franchise), this only served to underline the glaring generational gap on the issue of EU membership and to foster a notion that the younger generation had been ‘sold down the river’ by their parents and grandparents[ii]. In the immediate aftermath of the result a petition was signed by over 4 million people (many of whom were under 25 and had not voted) calling for a debate in parliament to discuss the possibility of a second referendum[iii].

The second cleavage underlined by the result of the referendum was the glaring socio-economic gap in terms of the vote. Both demographic polling data and geographic data from the referendum itself would appear to suggest clear lines of division between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. According to polls both prior to and post the referendum the ‘leave’ vote was significantly skewed towards voters with low levels of income which, as Nick Pearce observed, pitted ‘working-class voters in post-industrial towns and cities, deprived seaside resorts and the agri-business rural areas of England and Wales, against the young, middle-class and-university-educated cosmopolitan centres.’ (Pearce 2016)

There is a certain irony in the fact that it was the country among the EU 28 that has arguably the least collective understanding of the EU (see Eurobarometer data on the so-called ‘knowledge deficit’) that was the first to vote on whether to remain in the EU, since the UK itself voted to stay in the European Community in 1975. While there is a long-standing debate over whether people actually believe what they read in newspapers and while generalisations about the socio-demographic profile of ‘tabloid readers’ should be treated with caution, the link between the ‘knowledge gap’ and negative attitudes towards the EU is nevertheless well documented (Startin 2015). There is no doubt that the UK tabloid press exerts an influence over how the EU is framed in the UK which is unrivalled in other EU nations (Startin 2015). Certainly, the front-page bombardment approach of the aforementioned tabloids intensified in the build-up to the referendum at a time when many voters remained unsure of which way to cast their vote. There is no doubt that the influence of the tabloids was a significant ‘supply-side’ influence which shaped the outcome of the referendum result.

What next for Europe? The future of the EU

What does Brexit mean for the future of the EU? First, I believe that the referendum result will be remembered as a symbolic turning point in the history of European integration which will serve to galvanise Eurosceptic voices across the continent, with Far Right Front National leader Marine Le Pen already calling for a referendum in France on EU membership and similar opinions being espoused by other populist leaders such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Euroscepticism has become increasingly embedded and mainstreamed across the EU member states since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the 2004 Big-bang enlargement and the subsequent economic and refugee crises. Although a British invention, Euroscepticism is not a uniquely British phenomenon! The EU must, as a matter of urgency, learn lessons from the result. Its political elites have historically been slow to respond to dissenting voices in spite of the fact that Eurobarometer data has indicated for a number of years that public support and trust for the EU has clearly declined across member states. EU elites have not sufficiently engaged with opponents of European integration: Eurosceptics, in some respects, are the equivalent of the opposition in a domestic political context.

Europe’s elites must acknowledge that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is now redundant in terms of recalibrating and re-energising the EU. Such an approach is more likely to continue to divide than to unite. There needs to be some recognition that the appetite for ‘ever closer union’ has waned in many nations and that the reform agenda (of which we hear so much) must be embraced as a matter of urgency if the EU is to survive this setback. While transparency, accountability and democracy remain the buzzwords which should drive the EU forward, it is vital that concrete reforms are enacted that Europe’s citizens would be able to interpret both in a positive light and as of direct benefit to them.

What would our priorities be if we were starting the European project afresh? I suggest the following potential areas the EU should consider in order to redress a growing sense of disillusionment among Europe’s citizens:

·         The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP): Despite previous reform it is clear that in an EU of 28 (or potentially 27 post Brexit) the CAP saps too much of the overall EU budget. How can it be right that what was set up essentially as a self-preservation mechanism to provide self-sufficiency in foodstuffs in the aftermath of the Second World War should, nearly 60 years on, still account for 40% of the EU budget when agriculture is only responsible for about 2% of EU nation states’ GDP? Could this money not be spent more wisely elsewhere on policies which affect Europe’s citizens more directly like the Globalisation Adjustment fund or on more robust attempts at combatting Europe’s chronic youth unemployment than currently exist under the umbrella of Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion?

·         The European Commission: The EU’s reputation for a lack of transparency, accountability and democracy stems in no small part from the image of the Commission. Trimming back both the size and role of the Commission would certainly help to restore the EU’s tarnished image. More visibility and accountability within this institution would help to re-assert that the EU is indeed an intergovernmental project where actual power lies with the Heads of Government of the European Council. Linked to this, developing further the legislative role of the European Parliament should also be part of a recalibration of the EU’s institutions.

·         Freedom of Movement (FOM): Although enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty and a pillar of the Single Market, FOM, more than any other issue, has created tensions across the member states. While this is a highly contentious issue – as the principle of the FOM is core to the European project – it continues to be a galvanising force across the EU for Eurosceptics. The EU must face up to this as challenges to the FOM show no signs of receding. A mechanism must be found which gives nation states some flexibility in managing the impact of migration on their labour markets.

In my concluding remarks I re-emphasised that the EU must take some responsibility for the position in which it finds itself and acknowledge the criticisms surrounding its transparency, flexibility and democracy. Communicating its message more effectively will also be key in the months and years ahead. Back in 2014 I argued that ‘overcoming the ‘knowledge deficit’ is perhaps the major challenge facing the EU and ought to be one of the overarching priorities of Jean-Claude Juncker’s new European Commission.’ (Startin 2014) This must continue to remain a key priority. One of the key lessons from the Brexit referendum result, beyond the need for the reform agenda to finally kick in, is that the ‘knowledge gap’ on EU affairs is a potent force which populist parties will continue to exploit. Whether Brexit means Brexit (and only time will tell whether it does while Article 50 remains unlocked) the referendum result underlines that the European Union is at a major crossroads. A failure on behalf of Europe’s elites to respond to this warning shot has the potential to lead to the unravelling of the European project.


[i] This turn-out figure has since been disputed by evidence compiled by the London School of Economics (LSE); the YouGov data nevertheless raises significant questions about the impact of electoral participation among young voters and its influence on the actual result (Helm 2016: 3)
[ii] According to a poll by The Student Room 16- and 17-year-olds having the vote would have led to a Bremain victory – http://tsrmatters.com/eu-referendum-uk-result-would-have-been-remain-had-votes-been-allowed-at-16/
[iii] ‘A House of Commons debate on a petition calling for a second EU referendum will take place on Monday, 5 September. The Commons Petitions Committee confirmed the record-breaking online petition, signed by more than four million people, will be put forward for debate. The petition, which was set up by a Brexit supporter before the referendum was held, called for the Government to annul the results if the Remain or Leave vote won by less than 60 per cent on a turnout of less than 75 per cent.’ (Osborne 2016)



(2016) ‘EU referendum: How the results compare to the UK's educated, old and immigrant populations’, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/24/eu-referendum-how-the-results-compare-to-the-uks-educated-old-an/
Helm, T. (2016) ‘New figures reveal young people turned out in high numbers for EU poll’, The Observer, 10 July, p:7.

Osborne, S. (2016) ‘Second EU referendum petition to be debated in Parliament after receiving more than 4m signatures’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-second-eu-referendum-petition-latest-news-debate-parliament-mps-uk-position-in-europe-a7132836.html
Pearce, N. (2016) ‘Labour is caught in a bind between its metropolitan and working-class heartlands’, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/02/brexit-labour-divisions-way-forward
Speed, B. (2016) ‘How did different demographic groups vote in the EU referendum’ http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/06/how-did-different-demographic-groups-vote-eu-referendum

Startin, N. (2014) ‘From the margins to the mainstream: ‘Europe’ as an issue for the Radical Right’ Networking European Citizenship Education Policy brief, Vienna.
Startin, N. (2015) Have we reached a tipping point? The mainstreaming of Euroscepticism in the UK. International Political Science Review, 36 (3), pp. 311-323.
Startin, N. (2016) ‘To be or not to be?’ ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ and other clichés: the 2016 UK referendum on EU membership’ http://www.bath.ac.uk/ipr/pdf/policy-briefs/eu-referendum-debate.pdf


No love on the dole

📥  universal income, Welfare


Dr Rita Griffiths is a researcher at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR). Her PhD focussed on the relationship between family structure and the UK means-tested social security system.

How would you feel if, by living with your partner, you lost your financial independence and were obliged to ask him (or her) for money? What if you had children but your partner was not your children’s father? This was the situation facing Nina, a 46 year old lone parent with three children I interviewed in 2013 as part of a qualitative study of partnering behaviour among 51 low-income mothers living in the North West of England. Employed part-time as a family liaison worker, Nina faced the unpalatable prospect of losing her Working Tax Credit and Housing Benefit if she started to cohabit with her new partner. In her circumstances, what would be the responsible thing to do – to throw caution to the wind by moving in together, hoping your partner would financially support you and your children? Or would you opt instead to live separately, allowing you to retain your financial independence? Like many of the low-income mothers in my research, Nina fashioned a compromise which did not entail the loss of income and control of the household finances; she delayed officially declaring her partner was living with her until she was working full-time and earning above the threshold for state financial support. Nina was not alone in challenging the indiscriminate way in which welfare rules force mothers like her into financial dependency. “[My new partner] hadn’t played a part in the children’s lives up to that time … so I thought it was unfair that we would be considered to be cohabiting in a way that meant he was responsible for providing for me and the children … That’s not to diminish [his] relationship with [them]… [but] I don’t consider him their father and nor does he, so why should he be responsible for them financially?”



But what if, as the research also found, this ‘living apart together’ arrangement was deemed by the authorities to be ‘marriage-like,’ and you were investigated for ‘failing to disclose a partner’? Fear of being criminally prosecuted forced Lorena’s hand. A 38 year old divorcee with an eight year old child, when Lorena’s partner began staying over more frequently she faced two equally unenviable alternatives - whether to continue claiming as a lone parent and risk being prosecuted for benefit fraud, or ending her claim and asking her new partner to financially support her. “I felt that they’re putting me in a position now where I have to be dependent on someone who really was not supporting me financially … but ... we’re not married, he was not responsible for me or [my child] … How can I just say, ‘actually ... can you give me money?’ ... It would destroy, not build a relationship … How badly as a woman you would feel … It’s a little bit like prostitution isn’t it?” Caught between the rock of potential criminal prosecution and the hard place of enforced financial dependency, her dilemma apparently resolved when she became pregnant and went on to marry her partner. However, having given up her job to care for her new baby, she remained deeply ambivalent about being financially dependent on her new husband, a situation made worse through having also lost entitlement to Child Benefit,[1] her only independent source of income.

There was to be no happy ever after for others in my research. Imperfect understanding of welfare rules led many mothers in this study to believe that they would remain legitimate claimants if their partner stayed over no more than three consecutive nights a week. But as Hattie found to her cost, there is no such rule. A lone mother with a four year old child, though her partner was stationed abroad and provided no financial support, she was found guilty of failing to disclose a partner, electronically tagged and required to repay £20,000, a monumental sum she was struggling to chip away at a little at a time from her benefits.

Whether ‘lifestyle choice’ or ‘Hobson’s choice,’ this invidious set of alternatives requiring either dependency on a partner or dependency on the state is often the context in which low-income couples reliant on benefits or tax credits are obliged to conduct their intimate relationships and make decisions about partnering, family formation and living arrangements. The dilemma arises because of two poorly understood aspects of the UK welfare system - the ‘Living Together as a Married Couple’ (LTAMC) rule and closely aligned system of family-based means testing. Using an interpretation of cohabitation as ‘marriage-like,’ outdated notions of breadwinning and financial support obligations in couples and the (often fallacious) assumption that couples who live together pool and equitably distribute their income, under these rules, couples who share the same household have no independent right to access state financial support; if eligible for help, they must claim benefits or tax credits jointly. But here’s the rub – only one person is eligible to claim. Although this can be either member of the couple, women’s typically lower earning potential and greater responsibility for childcare, together with stringent job search conditions attached to claiming unemployment benefits, mean that in couples with dependent children, the woman is rarely the claimant. And although couples can currently opt to pay certain benefits to the non-claiming partner,[2] there is no legal obligation on the person in receipt of the benefits or tax credits to transfer any part of the payment to his or her partner. Furthermore, as my research showed, inequalities of power and financial control within couples mean than, even if payments were made into a joint account, there was no guarantee that both individuals had independent or equal access to the money.

More troubling than this for the mothers in my research was the fact that entitlement for benefits and tax credits is assessed against the combined income and earnings of the couple. When a low-income mother starts to cohabit (or marries), she therefore potentially loses not only an important source of income, but if she has no or very low earnings, she risks losing her financial independence altogether. In this context, who was earning, who was entitled to claim benefits and tax credits, who received payment, how household income was accessed and shared between the members of a couple and on what and whom the money was spent, came sharply into focus. The focus was particularly keen for cohabiting couples because, unlike spouses, cohabitees are under no legal obligation to financially support one another. For lone mothers the focus was keener still, particularly if her partner was not the biological father of her child or children.

A favoured trope of the tabloids and a perennial target of welfare reform, the single mother incentivised to maximise her benefit and housing entitlement by concealing the presence of a partner or ‘pretending to separate’ is a powerful and persistent narrative. By unpicking the complexities of the regulatory and administrative aspects of the welfare system, my research found that, contrary to popular discourse, it was the extent to which mothers were able to exercise financial autonomy in different partnership and household configurations that was most influential in decisions affecting family structure and living arrangements. Whereas the aspects of welfare which facilitated a mother’s access to an independent income served mainly to strengthen couple relationships and encourage family formation, those which enforced financial dependence on a partner were apt to de-stabilise relationships and discourage cohabitation. Out of step with modern-day relationship norms and liable to reinforce gender inequality inside the household, by obliging the members of a couple to be financially dependent on each other, joint means testing and the LTAMC rule therefore acted as a significant deterrent to family formation and repartnering.

The findings give lie to simplistic and stigmatising discourses suggesting that some women ‘choose’ to become lone mothers or ‘pretend’ to separate in order to become eligible for higher levels of state financial support. Against the backdrop of a welfare system which removes an individual’s independent right to claim if they live with a partner, resisting dependency by retaining a regular and reliable source of income over which they had a meaningful degree of control was a more compelling driver of mothers’ behaviour than financial gain. Ceding responsibility for safeguarding the family’s financial well-being to a new or precariously employed partner was seen as a particularly risky arrangement. Even when her partner was the biological father of her child, the creation of a financially and emotionally stable household for raising children was a mother’s primary concern - better to withstand the challenges of lone parenthood than become financially dependent on an unreliable male ‘breadwinner’ or on a new or unproven partner.

Such unintended outcomes of welfare rules have important implications for welfare reform. Universal Credit (UC) which is being rolled out nationally in phases, amalgamates six means-tested benefits into a single, monthly payment. The LTAMC rule and a similar system of family-based means testing continue to underpin UC, but in a significant departure from legacy benefits, the monthly UC award will be made in the form of one lump sum per couple transferred into an individual or joint bank account. Couples can choose into which bank account the money will be paid, but they can no longer opt to have the payment split between the partners. Findings from this research suggest that both for lone parents and for married and cohabiting couples struggling to stay together under conditions of economic austerity and reducing welfare payments, switching to a single, monthly payment regime could create an added burden of risk in terms of family formation and relationship stability.

In showing that the aspects of welfare which institutionalise economic dependency in couples can undermine relationship stability and deter cohabitation, the findings from this research strengthen arguments in favour of reforming the social security system in ways which increase the financial independence of women and men living in couple households. Options for achieving this are many and varied. Disaggregation - operating the welfare system according to the same principles of equal and independent treatment as the income tax system - would cancel out many of the disincentive effects to family formation and repartnering highlighted in this research, but is expensive. A fiscally neutral but more modest alternative would be to equally divide or allow couples to split the payment of UC. Increasing the earnings disregard for second earners in couples would be less costly but fails to address the underlying assumption of financial dependency in couples. At the other end of the spectrum is Universal Basic Income (UBI). The advantage of UBI over simply individualising welfare eligibility or entitlement is the wholesale elimination of means testing and work conditionality, thereby removing all incentive and disincentive effects to partnership formation and dissolution, as well as to paid employment by either partner in a couple. However, in the current political and economic climate, the prohibitive cost to the public purse is likely to remain a serious obstacle.

[1] Child Benefit was a universal, non-means tested benefit paid to all families with children, regardless of income. From January 2013, households where at least one person earns more than £50,000 have their child benefit means-tested. Eligibility for child benefit is lost entirely for those earning £60,000 or more, while families where one parent earns between £50,000 and £60,000 have their benefit reduced.
[2] For example, Child Tax Credits can be paid to the main carer


After the Referendum: Picking up the bits, by Professor Graham Room

📥  Brexit, EU Referendum, policymaking


What have we learned from this referendum campaign, the passions and fears that it unleashed?  Were the electorate truly energised by the question, to leave or remain, or were they asking quite other questions than that on the ballot paper?  Was this a national – and rational - debate about our membership of the European Union - or a mix of quite different hopes and especially fears, using this referendum as a brief opportunity to express themselves?

These questions arise most fundamentally for Labour, as they sense the gap that has opened up, between the internationalism of their London-based elite and their traditional supporters in the Midlands and the North.  If Cameron, with his divided party, was forced to look Left for some hope, Labour was itself forced to look to its progressive middle class and younger supporters.

How did we get to this situation?  How in particular did immigration divide Labour from its base?

Immigration into the UK over the last decade has been 5.77 million.  Many have gone into areas of low-cost accommodation, alongside the working class households from whom Labour traditionally drew its support. True, there has been emigration of 3.48 million (meaning net immigration has been 2.49 million) but not necessarily out of those same localities.  During the same period, austerity and recession have meant cuts in public services, in jobs and in benefits, which have hit those same areas particularly hard.  Is it so surprising that established residents should infer a causal connection?  And is it surprising that they should feel insecure and abandoned?

In such a situation, it is incumbent on political leaders to unpick a complex mix of problems and offer policies which unite and build resilience.  This both major parties have failed to do.  Labour assured us that immigration was a good thing: those who said otherwise were bigoted or misguided.  After all, had not immigration been accompanied by some growth in GDP? (Maybe so, but real wages for households on average incomes stagnated).  And did not immigrants contribute more in terms of social security contributions than they took out in benefits? (Maybe so, but in localities receiving large numbers, policies of austerity meant there was little if any financial support for the extra services needed.)

In the mid-20th Century, Tawney and Titmuss and T H Marshall provided an account of the development of UK social policy strongly related to national identity and solidarity. It set the fraternity and mutual interdependence of citizenship against the divisions and inequalities of class and against the turbulence and insecurity of an urban-industrial society. It was a solidarity that would welcome the stranger - but this generosity depended on that foundation of solidarity. When other writers – Rimlinger and Esping-Andersen for example - wrote the comparative history of social policy in other countries, it was similarly in terms of the solidarity and resilience of local and national communities.

We might also go back to those sociologists who described the changes that came to working class urban communities in the mid-20th Century. Wilmott and Young described the move from the close-knit relationships of Bethnal Green to the nuclear families of Debden.  Richard Hoggart described the ways in which rising levels of material consumption, while welcome in themselves, left those solidaristic links to atrophy.  By the end of the century, New Labour was able to bring consumerist aspiration and choice in public services to the centre of its electoral promise. The question was reduced to how well ordinary citizens would deal with this cornucopia, and how much a benign government would need to nudge them, if they were to exercise those choices wisely.

Such optimism for the new century was understandable.  The economic crisis following 2008 - and the programme of austerity that followed - changed all that. Solidarity failed: all but the wealthiest suffered: Labour’s natural constituency suffered most of all. The referendum provided an opportunity for them to give vent to their sense of abandonment. It is this that we as a nation must now address.

The need is for positive action to rebuild our solidarity and creativity as a nation.  Austerity has not worked and is intellectually bankrupt, having played a major part in producing the disaster we now face.   Something different is needed.

Re-Building Solidarity

The recent direction of UK social policies has been to push as many as possible into the market place, narrowing public generosity towards those who remain. The burden of austerity has fallen on the most disadvantaged, multiplying the uncertainties to which they are exposed.  This is the politics of fear - and of surrender to the global market.

In contrast, the post-war social contract between State and citizen, across the western world, involved a pooling of risks and uncertainties through systems of social security. The same period saw governments confronting the economic instability of capitalist society. This has sometimes been characterised as a consensual process, the benign fruit of economic progress. Nevertheless, as T H Marshall warned: ‘in the twentieth century, citizenship and the capitalist class system have been at war’. [1]  It was only out of that struggle that institutions of shared security emerged.

If the social changes of the 21st Century are to be managed successfully and with public consent, they need a new social contract to underpin them. We need to mobilise the energies and talents of all sections of society: and we are more likely to pull together if the distribution of rewards is less unequal.  Such a contract would need to include several interrelated elements, going well beyond traditional welfare systems:

·       Individual security against risks of income interruption: the heartland of traditional welfare states, albeit in the last half century on the defensive, across much of the industrialised world, in face of neo-liberal hostility to State welfare;

·       Investment in everyone’s capabilities, not just in those with parental wealth: what many have referred to as the ‘social investment state’. There is good evidence that for a given financial outlay, it is investment in the lowest-skilled that can produce the greatest benefit for national productivity; [2]

·       The rebalancing of our economies to provide ‘decent jobs’ which make use of everyone’s capabilities;

·       Investment in vibrant local communities, as loci of education, learning and creativity for all: in particular for disadvantaged communities, which are often poorly connected to the community at large;

·       Involvement of all in the governance of social, political and economic institutions, with active citizenship and scrutiny of public policies, and of the corporate interests which might otherwise detract from such a contract.

These are complementary elements of development.  Such a contract would involve a broad range of policies of relevance to all citizens, rather than focussing just on society’s casualties. It would need to go far beyond the notion of a basic income, which in various guises has again reared its head across the political spectrum. It would limit the risks of poverty but also promote economic growth; promote individual security but also collective resilience and adaptability. It would also go far beyond the extension of choice in public services, with the citizen seen primarily as a consumer.  It would involve rebuilding local and national communities, as points where these different policies can be connected up.  It would leave the market where it belongs, as the servant of the community not its master.

This would also re-shape the debate on immigration.  First, by investing in the skills and creativity of our own population, we reduce the need for employers to look elsewhere – for nurses, for IT specialists and others - in ways that denude poorer countries of those in whom they have invested their slender national resources.  Second, by taking collective responsibility for the infrastructures of those communities to which large numbers of immigrants come, rather than ‘devolving’ this burden to the local areas in question, we reduce the risk that those communities will see immigrants as a threat.

The main political parties cluster around a narrow agenda of neo-liberal policies with low political risk. Nevertheless, the 2008 crisis produced enormous discontent and a loss of legitimacy for major social and political institutions.  It is to that discontent that the rise of the SNP, the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the victory of the Leave campaign have now variously given expression.  It must be collectively addressed.

Away from Austerity

The EU referendum was remarkable in bringing together the leaders of all the major political parties in defence of Remain.  Concealing as it did their dramatically different visions of social and economic policy – and by extension their vision of the UK’s future within Europe – this subterfuge only underlined the artificial nature of the referendum debate.  The latter instead served as a distorting mirror, in front of which the electorate struggled to make sense of the futures paraded before them.

Central to this strange tableau was the Chancellor George Osborne, whose austerity policies have been so wantonly destructive of our social fabric and who thus - no less than the Leave campaigners themselves – was the reckless co-architect of their victory. It is to the wholesale replacement of those austerity policies that any effective response to the referendum must now be geared.  Just as the near-defeat of the British establishment in the Scottish referendum forced some recognition of Scotland’s grievances, so also this more dramatic defeat requires a clear re-engagement with the have-nots of the country, if these deep divisions are to be healed.

Austerity insists that reduction of the public sector deficit must be the principal economic goal, pursued mainly through cuts in public expenditure.  Shrinkage of the public sector is meant not just to reduce the deficit, but also to stimulate the private sector.  Underlying this view is the assumption that the market, left to itself, will automatically adjust, and produce investment, full employment and economic growth.  Government only gets in the way.

There is an alternative and very different analysis of the modern economy: one which aligns with the foregoing argument for a new social contract. This recognises that Government must play a leading role, in maintaining the general buoyancy of the economy, and in using public investment to build its long-term capacity. Viewed from this standpoint, to make reduction of the deficit the top short-term priority has been unnecessary and unhelpful. If government expenditure is continually cut back, the economy is likely to stagnate: business investment will remain low, the growth in the underlying capacity of the country will be slow, and tax receipts will be flat or falling. And, as we have seen, the most vulnerable communities disproportionately bear the costs. It is like the medieval practice of blood-letting, overlooking that this only weakens the patient and reduces the likelihood – or at least the speed – of recovery.

Whether a new government dominated by Brexiteers will offer such a vigorous re-orientation of economic policy is rather doubtful. The immediate response by the public authorities to the economic uncertainties created by the referendum has been to promise new rounds of ‘quantitative easing’ by the Bank of England. Such measures lower the interest rate and, it is argued, make it easier for businesses to borrow money and invest. Keynes however showed that if those businesses lack confidence in the future level of economic activity, then no matter how cheaply money can be borrowed, they will not invest in new programmes of activity.

What the successive rounds of QE over recent years did do was to channel money not into investment in the real economy, but into equities, very much to the advantage of the already wealthy. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that the announcement of new rounds of QE in recent days has sent the FTSE soaring, after the falls immediately after the referendum.  Whether the working class communities, who voted in large numbers for Brexit, will take similar delight from the announcement, is more doubtful.

Re-Building Europe 

The Brexit victory demonstrates deep disaffection with the European project across broad swathes of the UK – including areas which have benefitted from EU regional support. This disaffection must be addressed, if some new and positive involvement by the UK is to be possible.  It will not be enough to tell those who voted to leave that they should be less xenophobic: nor that the City of London needs to be part of the single market.

How can those who believe in a shared European future now recast the European project, so that it encompasses first and foremost the sorts of communities that brought Brexit its triumph?

In the Eurozone, as in the UK, economic orthodoxy demands balanced budgets and constraints on public spending.  This ignores the interconnections of the European crisis.  On the one hand, German industry has enjoyed a ‘virtuous circle’ of exports, investment and productivity growth: a process which has however weakened the economies of the European periphery. Meanwhile, austerity and unemployment in that periphery have prompted the migration of skilled workers to the job markets of the north, with a transfer of human capital paid for by the home countries.

Recent decades have seen vigorous calls for public and private investment in Europe’s knowledge economy, in the social cohesion of its diverse peoples and the solidarity of its regions, whatever their different stages of social and economic development. In the Eurozone however, these calls have been trumped by austerity.   The resulting stagnation is politically destabilising: and the effects spill far beyond the Eurozone proper.

It will therefore be necessary to confront the toxic austerity regime that Berlin has imposed on much of Europe and that sends a clear message of disregard to communities which are being left behind.  This will mean working with reform groups in other European countries.

In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles imposed heavy reparations on Germany and restrictions on how it might re-build its industrial base. Keynes famously condemned the Treaty in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). [3]  This was in part on grounds of justice - and the need to build a peace in which the new and democratic Germany would feel included. It was also because a Germany without a thriving economy would hardly be in a position to pay the reparations that were being exacted.  It was however primarily in relation to the rebuilding of the European economy as a whole that Keynes advanced his case. Europe involved highly interdependent national economies: within this, the German economy was central: restoring prosperity to Europe would be impossible if Germany remained devastated.

For modern Germany, the dominant economic power in Europe, it is no less important that these interconnections today are fully recognised; and that Germany takes a major responsibility for building a sustainable Europe for all of its communities. How Germany does this will in large measure shape Europe through much of this century: no only its economy, but its cohesion, its democratic institutions and its global influence.   What this will require is much more than a single market, a single currency and a single labour market: and adding further levels of political union will also not suffice. What is also needed is a European-wide social contract, with investment in the       social and economic security of communities across the Continent - and in their active citizenship, confidently in charge of their own destinies, and with none feeling left behind.

It is still possible for the UK to be part of this grand re-working of the European project. The referendum was a collective decision: and responsible citizens, individually and collectively, are able to change their minds.  The dialogue between citizens and their political representatives need not and should not be confined to a single visit to the polling booth.   We are collectively free to choose an alternative to Brexit.

[1] T H Marshall (1950), Citizenship and Social Class, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
[2] S Coulombe, J-F Tremblay and S Marchand (2004), Literacy Score, Human Capital and Growth across Fourteen OECD Countries, Ottawa: Statistics Canada
[3] J M Keynes (1919), The Economic Consequences of the Peace, New York: Skyhorse Publishing


More Brexit...

📥  Brexit, EU Referendum

I have a piece in today's Observer, expanding on the issue of the political economy of Brexit. It is in a section on the choices that confront Labour on Brexit. You can read it here:


Meanwhile, down under, the Australian general election has produced a cliffhanger:










On the worldview of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove

📥  Brexit, Michael Gove, political parties

Some years ago I wrote a blog on Dominic Cummings, an adviser to Michael Gove and one of the key architects of the Leave campaign. The blog focused on a long essay he had published on leaving the Department for Education. The blog is no longer available on-line, but a few people have asked me for it, so in light of recent events, I thought I would republish it.

I was too generous to Cummings in the blog, as readers will doubtless note, and I got some of it wrong. But I think some of my reflections on his thinking remain valid and help explain his worldview. My description of Gove as Schmittian looks particularly appropriate after today.


Until now, Dominic Cummings has been little known outside Westminster, where he is spoken of as a brilliant, mercurial and Svengali-like special adviser to Michael Gove.

But the engineered leak of his departing advice to his minister - an extended essay entitled Some Thoughts on Educational and Political Priorities - has brought his name onto the comment pages of the national newspapers. The main charge against him is that he has exaggerated the influence of genetic inheritance on a child's educational outcomes, a criticism he strongly denies. It is unfortunate, however, that the debate on Cummings' essay has been reduced to this time worn issue because its intellectual range is wide and stimulating.

The author certainly doesn't wear his learning lightly, but his intellectual exhibitionism is nonetheless rewarding, as it opens a window onto what animates Gove's political agenda - an agenda which has perhaps more drive and energy than any other part of modern Conservatism (indeed it could be argued that it is the only part of the modern Conservative project which has any real political momentum).

Cummings sets out the case for an integrative 'Odyssean' education, a term he borrows from the physicist Murray Gell-Mann to describe an exacting synthesis of maths and the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities, into 'crude, trans-disciplinary thinking'. He is excoriating about the education of the broad mass of the population in modern democracies, but reserves his most acidic criticism for the elites whose world he inhabits: MPs, civil servants and journalists. 'Most politicians, officials, and advisers,' he writes, 'operate with fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science (few MPs can answer even simple probability questions yet most are confident in their judgment) and little experience in well-managed complex organisations. The skills, and approach to problems, of our best mathematicians, scientists, and entrepreneurs are almost totally shut out of vital decisions. We do not have a problem with "too much cynicism" - we have a problem with too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much.'

If this thesis sounds familiar, it is because it is largely a version of CP Snow's famous Two Cultures argument that British education and intellectual life in the 1950s had become damagingly divided between scientists and their literary counterparts. Cummings simply substitutes politicians and the bureaucratic class for Snow's literary intellectuals and gives the whole thing an Asian pivot by extolling the virtues of a rigorously trained leadership class servicing a project of national advancement. It is, as an academic friend of mine remarked, 'CP Snow in Singapore'.

As it happens, Cummings is more selective in his interests than his sketch of an Odyssean education would imply. His essay is chiefly preoccupied with mathematics and computer science, evolutionary biology and military strategy, and he has clearly digested modern complexity economics. This is an impressive range, and one that is vastly wider than one would normally encounter in Westminster. But he has little of value to say on contemporary political economy and social science, and his treatment of political philosophy is cursory. Unsurprisingly for one of his outlook and false modesty, Cummings regards Nietzsche as the last philosopher of any note worth reading. (As far as I can see, Carl Schmitt doesn't make an appearance in the essay, but if any political theory best typifies Gove's conviction politics, it is Schmitt's decisionism.) Cummings' Odyssean learning is perhaps best thought of as a Renaissance education shorn of its civic humanism and democratic potential, with a reductivist bias towards mathematics and the natural sciences.

What is the political purpose of this project? The ostensible goal is to make Britain 'the school of the world', that is, 'the leading country for education and science'. But that is an instrumental goal in service of a deeper objective, namely to secure a 'fragile civilisation' from the existential threats of global warfare, economic cataclysm and deepening resource conflict. Cummings is a prophet of dystopia - humanity's evolution predisposes us to group conflict, and our mastery of technology enables self-destruction. His essay is replete with military allusions and metaphors, while his interests in the history of warfare, genetics and computer science lend it a Cold War sensibility and sci-fi tone. It is Robert Heinlein at the Gates of Salamis.

Nonetheless, the essay has flashes of penetrating insight which illuminate how Team Gove sees the world. In a telling phrase, he notes that there is 'constant panic, but little urgency' in modern government. If Gove's tenure has been marked by anything it is urgency. He is impatient with the protocols of modern bureaucracy, dismissive of social partnership and disdainful of professional opinion. Cummings' essay gives as good an introduction as one will get to the Govean style of governing and the imperatives driving it. And, just like Gove, Cumming has a Janus-faced vision for public services: at once highly centralist, bordering on authoritarian, and at the same time Hayekian in its belief in the virtues of distributing information, decision-making and risk across a plenitude of social actors. While not a conservative in the Burkean mould, Gove tempers his radicalism with an appreciation of the importance of stable, liberal social order within which evolutionary change can occur.

Like Gove, Cummings is Eurosceptic to his core. The European project is airily dismissed and there is little but disdain for most contemporary European thought. The very expanse of his intellect also reveals where the conservative mind has become closed. His reference points are for the most part Anglospheric.

For all that, Cummings' essay demonstrates how Gove has been able to pin the English left onto the defensive on education policy. As a secretary of state, he has taken world-class standards in education from a rhetorical phrase to a serious concern of policymaking. His blindspots are many and varied, and his centralism is truly Napoleonic, but he has forced education debate onto new territory. Above all, he has given conservatism a national project in education, which previously it lacked. The 'global race' is an organising narrative which Gove has been able to translate into a set of policies, some of which at least have popular appeal. If Labour wants an alternative story of national renewal for its 'race to the top' then it too will have to develop an account of the fundamental purposes of education, where innovation and energy can be harnessed to improve standards in our schools and colleges, and how English education can be reorganised. If nothing else, Cummings' essay is a useful spur to these tasks.

The Political Economy of Brexit

📥  Brexit, Economy, EU Referendum, migration

Sociological analyses of the vote to leave the EU have largely focused on the working class revolt in England & Wales: the rage of the hollowed out netherworlds of post-industrial Britain in which respect, status and the prospect of a decent wages are in short supply, but where older worlds and their cultures and attachments still linger. Of course, it is much more complicated than the “left behind” versus the cosmopolitans: social class, age, education and identity each played a role. The fact that post-industrial areas in Scotland voted to remain in the EU, while those in Wales and Northern England did not, or that Liverpool voted to stay, while all bar one local authority in Kent did not, is testament to this complexity.


But however you want to describe it – the networked knowledge economy versus the minimum wage service economy, London elites and their satellites in the cosmopolitan cities vs. one wage towns – Britain’s political economy was highly visible in the blue and yellow electoral maps of the referendum results. Lines can be traced back from those voting patterns directly to the collapse of Britain’s industrial base and its organised working class in the late 1970s and 1980s.

This is not simply a matter of “globalisation”. The relative decline of industrial Britain, as it was shaped in the Victorian era, began in the early twentieth century, if not before. Miners were losing their jobs long before Thatcher decided to take them on.  Nor has the manufacturing sector simply lost workers because of China’s entry in the global economy; productivity gains in manufacturing steadily reduce employment in the sector, shifting workers into services. And large-scale immigration is as much intra-regional as well as global: mass immigration to the US comes from Mexico, just as people have flowed into Europe from the Middle East, or from East to West in the EU itself.

Workers are also exposed to globalisation in very different ways. High union density in Scandinavia means that the open, trading economies of the Nordic countries are combined with collective wage setting and strong social protection. Migrants find it harder to access these regulated labour markets, so refugees are more likely to be unemployed and socially excluded, creating different kinds of social tension to those thrown up by Eastern Europeans working the farms and agri-factories of Lincolnshire. Germany is different again: it has a highly paid skilled working class in its export sectors, combined with burgeoning low skilled, deregulated service sector employment.

These different dimensions of political economy will matter for Brexit as much as they did for the referendum itself. The dominant sectors of the economy – in particular the City and financial services – will seek to protect their access to the single market and the passporting of their UK regulatory regime into the EU.  Politicians who are desperate to shore up a declining tax base and prevent operations shifting into the eurozone will come under immense pressure to defend the City, further cementing the UK’s dependence on financial services. Other islands of prosperity that benefit significantly from EU funding, like the university towns, will advocate strongly for their interests too, as will the farmers dependant on EU funds, and the food businesses that rely on free movement of labour.

Post-industrial areas – particularly in Wales and Northern Ireland – benefit significantly from EU structural funds, and their governments will advocate on their behalf. But these funds aside, who will speak in the Brexit negotiations for the interests of those people who have just voted to leave? When Britain’s fiscal position deteriorates, will working class voters pay the heaviest price, as economists warned before the referendum? As we become more reliant on the “kindness of strangers” to pay our way in the world, who will argue for investment to flow to Brexit Britain’s heartlands?

Labour is the historic political arm of these workers but it now faces a double bind. If it advocates staying in the single market on EEA terms, which is critical to exporters like Nissan and Airbus, as much as to the City, it will have to concede free movement. Its metropolitan strongholds are proud of their diversity, and the welcome they give to migrants, but its post-industrial heartlands are not. They voted for an end to free movement. UKIP will offer it if Labour does not.

This makes the party manifestos at an impending “Brexit terms” general election critical. What does each say about Brexit? To propose EEA membership, including free movement? Or an association agreement in which both single market access and free movement are curtailed, for British and EU citizens?

Leaving aside the mendacity of abandoning promises made in a referendum campaign almost as soon as it is concluded, the fantasy scenario sketched out in Boris Johnson’s opening salvo on Brexit terms is unlikely to withstand contact with reality. The UK can have free movement rights for its nationals across the European Union, but a points system will apply to those coming here? The UK can enjoy access to the single market but not comply with ECJ rulings? None of this will come to pass.

Yet once a new Prime Minister is in place, and a likely general election has been held, the expectation is that Article 50 will be engaged. The UK will notify its EU partners of its intention to leave. Let us then say that Britain cannot obtain good terms for Brexit. In the current febrile state of EU politics, there will be a phalanx of states that are unwilling to let the UK have the best of both worlds. There are national government veto points too, particularly if the deal is “mixed” (that is, engaging both national competences and those of the EU). The Brexit terms on which the Tory leadership had been contested, and any subsequent general election had been fought, could not be delivered.  What happens then?

Article 50 is silent on whether a country that has notified the EU of its intention to leave, and thereby initiated divorce proceedings, can reverse its position and withdraw its notification. Does that mean that Brexit is a one-way street once Article 50 has been triggered? Perhaps. But another reading is that the text becomes one those creative non-spaces that Europe has used repeatedly in its passage to union. Constitutional experts suggest that it may be possible to “withdraw a withdrawal” – though the ECJ might be asked to provide a ruling.

These are the circumstances in which a second referendum could be held. The country could be asked to vote on remaining in the EU versus the terms of Brexit on offer. If the country chose to remain, the Article 50 notice could be withdrawn. (Of course, such a scenario also relies on considerable goodwill from our EU partners, many of whom will simply want to see the UK amputated cleanly from the rest of the union. But if there is a prospect of a second referendum, the balance may tip in the UK’s favour).

A central question of the Brexit terms general election might then become whether the governing party or parties had made a commitment to a second referendum. Instead of arguing that parliamentarians should ignore the referendum result, refuse to trigger Article 50, or simply propose the UK should remain in the EU, pro-European parties should commit to a second referendum, and put pressure on the Conservative Party to do the same. Not all will have an interest in doing this, of course - the SNP, in particular, will be juggling multiple factors in its political calculations.  And the UK may be engulfed by economic and constitutional crises well before any of these scenarios plays out, such is the pace of the events. But these are the questions that now need to be addressed, in public as well as political party debates.

The most influential text of late Victorian imperialism was J R Seeleys The Expansion of England

📥  Brexit, David Cameron, Economy, employment, EU membership, EU Referendum, EU renegotiation, policymaking

The most influential text of late Victorian imperialism was J. R. Seeley’s The Expansion of England.  In it, Seeley, a Cambridge historian, argued that underneath the surface of British political history - the stories of the rise and fall of Prime Ministers, great events and such like - was a deeper logic of logic of political evolution, that of the expansion of the English state. Through trade and war, England had acquired a mighty empire, within its own islands and across the oceans. Its key challenge was to hold it together: having lost its American colonies in the 18th century, how could it retain the rest of it settler dominions in the 20th century? Should it form an imperial federation to rival the rising states of Russia and America, and secure its unity?


It was not to be. The 20th century was a story of the contraction of England and the end of Empire.  But only now is the reverse logic of Seeley’s master narrative being fully realised. England has voted to leave the European Union and in so doing has imperilled her own union. The wound of Irish partition has been reopened and Scotland now faces the prospect of another independence referendum. Only Wales has stood with England in choosing to leave the European Union.

Empire gave Britain command of the global economy, until hegemony passed to the US. Trade and finance flows kept Britain afloat as it ceded industrial leadership to the US and Germany. Foreign direct investment and the City played the same role after we de-industrialised. Today, our economic weaknesses stand brutally exposed: Brexit has caused mayhem in the markets and a run on the pound.  As we adjust to the shock, we will become poorer.

What is England now? What is her role in the world?  Alas, the referendum debate told us nothing of these things; it was sour, parochial and mendacious. It has destroyed a Prime Minister and there is rubble everywhere.