Opinion

Personal views from University of Bath researchers on the news of the day

Topic: Public Policy

Free speech means standing up for forms of expression we disagree with

  , ,

📥  Public Policy

The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, was right to assert – in the aftermath of the pointless terror attack in London yesterday – that we should now carry on ‘as normal’. There are always two elements to such incidents – the events themselves, which are tragic enough for all concerned, but then also how we, as a society, respond to these. It is the latter that defines whether we are terrorised or not. It is the latter that the perpetrators look to for their impact. And it is this satisfaction – that they are having an effect – which we must never afford them.

But May also referred three times to our valuing ‘freedom’ (as well as ‘liberty’), in her short talk outside Downing Street after the Government’s emergency committee meeting last night. And that is where her rhetoric of resilience is at its weakest. For in pointing to the importance of ‘freedom of speech’, which she is right to do – she, her government and others like them all around the world, have conceded far too much already in legislating against particular speakers and certain forms of expression – deemed hurtful, offensive or able to encourage terrorism.

Free speech is not comfortable or easy for anyone. It does not mean the freedom to say the obvious or the popular. Rather, it necessarily means standing up for forms of expression we disagree with – that are challenging or unpalatable and sometimes spiteful or simply inane. What this allows though is priceless. It trains us all in how to address and overcome such words – without which we would be disarmed and seeking those who claim to afford us protection. Free speech is not comfortable or easy – but it makes us all stronger and better.

And what we witnessed in the attack yesterday, as well as the recent incident at Orly Airport in Paris and the many other such occurrences in recent years, were the actions of the all-too-readily offended – the response of individuals who have not been trained in the spirit and discipline of freedom, who cannot contain their emotional anger and who, in a moment of self-righteous rage, lash out at a society they sense no attachment to or engagement with.

In that regards, they are a product of what we have made them – febrile individuals, whose ideas have rarely been challenged or put to the test for fear of offending their assumed beliefs. People brought up to believe that their feelings are paramount and indulged in their distorted sense of grievance and hurt. It is high time the government sought to live by its fine words because, in the long run, it is only by living freedom that we can rid ourselves of this social problem.

 

Comment on the Nice Attacks

📥  Public Policy, Society, Uncategorized

The massacre in Nice of almost 100 people, including many children and inflicting serious injuries on many others, as they enjoyed the Bastille Day celebrations by the beach on the south of France, seems almost too predictable. There is now a long and tragic roll call of similar incidents in the last few years alone. We all know that it is not possible for security agencies to assure the safety of all the people, in all places, at all times. It ought to act as a reminder to us all, as well as our leaders that there are no security solutions to what, at their heart, are social problems.

Too many of the readily disaffected in society today are effectively indulged in their dangerous fantasies by authorities reluctant to challenge their views - for fear of being accused of racism or imperialism - and unsure as to where they wish to lead their societies or what values they should hold. From nursery onwards children are now taught that their feelings are sacrosanct, in schools teachers report not wishing to broach difficult subjects in history for fear of causing offence, and by the time they reach university students demand, and are provided with safe spaces and trigger warnings to protect them from having their, by then unquestionable opinions challenged.

The rise of sheer barbarism that we now witness on a regular basis ought also remind us however that the small groups and individuals who perpetrate such acts in the name of those who they never consulted are not held to account by any moral code or community. That, in the long run, is their ultimate weakness - that they stand for nothing and have no-one behind them - so long as we can clearly articulate our own purposes and engage our people in these.

This may be the week that finally breaks the Labour Party

  , , ,

📥  EU Referendum, Public Policy

Brexit and its aftermath continues to wreak havoc on British politics. David Cameron’s wreckless and unsuccessful gamble may eventually lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom but that is in the long term. In the short term, the failure of the Remain campaign, and Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived culpability in it, is tearing the Labour party apart. This may be the week that finally breaks Labour.

The co-ordinated string of resignations from the shadow cabinet that followed the Brexit vote was designed to pressure Corbyn to resign as leader of the party. MPs have never accepted Corbyn’s leadership and the Brexit debacle presents the opportunity to replace him before changes to the party’s rulebook that make his position more secure are pushed through by his supporters at the Labour Party Conference in September. MPs recognise that this is a crucial moment in the battle for the future of the Labour Party. Many are now prepared to gamble their own political careers on that future.

Deputy leader Tom Watson warned Corbyn that he has lost the confidence of MPs in a gesture many are seeing as a firm elbow towards the exit.

But Corbyn, backed by key allies such as the shadow chancellor, John Mcdonnell, shows no sign of backing down. He fully expects to defeat a leadership challenge.

Corbyn’s confidence comes from two sources. He remains very popular with the party membership, which is now decisive in any leadership contest and seems content with the current direction of travel. Any possible challenger, therefore, would have to be able to trump that popularity with the rank and file and there aren’t that many of them in the Parliamentary Labout Party at present.

(more…)

By riding the tiger of populism, the Conservatives may have destroyed the UK

  , , ,

📥  EU Referendum, Public Policy

It’s a familiar cliché that the Conservative Party is the most successful political party in the democratic world. Once called the natural party of government, it has been in power for most of the last 150 years and, for good or ill, has shaped modern Britain. The UK is a conservative country in all senses of the word.

But the past four decades have demonstrated that the modern Conservative Party can no longer be trusted in its role as the guardian of British institutions.

The revolutionary free-market zealotry of the Thatcherites and their successors not only put the social fabric of Britain under severe strain, but also undermined the credibility of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. Of the three pillars of High Toryism; church, state and monarchy, Britons only seem to still like the latter.

The decline in Tory respect for British institutions has also been on full display, not least in David Cameron’s willingness to risk the union’s survival twice – first in the Scottish Independence referendum, and then, probably fatally, in the EU membership referendum.

(more…)

 

UK votes for Brexit

  , ,

📥  EU Referendum, Public Policy

As the UK dissects the results of the historic referendum on membership of the European Union and the decision of the British people to vote to leave, academic experts* from the University are providing comment and analysis on what this now means for politics, democracy, the economy, business and for the rest of the EU.

* Additional comments will be added to this blog throughout the day.

An uncertain future for the EU.

An uncertain future for the EU.

A far from united United Kingdom – Professor Charlie Lees

“In every single way you cut the cake the United Kingdom is far from united on this issue. We’re divided by age, by our countries and regions and by people with degrees and those without.  

“Many might have voted ‘leave’ in the EU referendum with a view to protecting the UK from further encroachment of laws from Brussels. But now one of the unforeseen consequences will be that Scotland is likely to have another referendum on Independence, which the SNP is highly likely to win, and in Northern Ireland there will be renewed questions over Irish unification. In the long term it’s possible today’s result might actually be the first step in the break-up of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

“Without doubt this is one of the most significant, momentous decisions in our lifetime. And reality is about to bite for the Brexit camp, especially with the Prime Minister’s decision to step down in the autumn.”

‘Europe’ at a crossroads: What lessons from a Brexit? - Dr Nick Startin 

"The UK’s vote to leave the EU is a symbolic turning point in the history of European integration and is already sending shockwaves through the institutions of the European Union. After an intensely fought campaign based largely around the issues of immigration and the economy ‘Europe’ finds itself at a crossroads. With Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty likely to be set in motion by the UK government formalising the process of leaving the EU, the result will serve to galvanise Eurosceptic voices across the continent. Far Right Front National leader Marine Le Pen is already calling for a referendum in France on EU membership and similar opinions are being espoused by other populist leaders such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

"Is this the end of the European project founded in the rubble of the Second-World War? This will depend on how the EU’s elites respond to a UK Brexit. EU elites have been slow to respond to dissenting voices in the past and have not engaged sufficiently with them. Eurobarometer data tells us that public support and trust for the EU has declined across the member states in recent years on the back of the 2004 EU enlargement and the more recent economic crisis. The appetite for ‘ever closer union’ has waned in many nation. If the EU is to survive, the reform agenda (of which we hear so much) must be embraced as a matter of urgency. Transparency, accountability and democracy are the key. There needs to be further recognition on the part of the EU’s elites that a ‘one size fits all’ approach will only serve to divide rather than unite.  Failure to learn this lesion from the UK Brexit vote could lead to an unravelling of the EU as we know it."

The economic ramifications of Brexit - Professor Chris Martin

"The shocking decision to leave the European Union has plunged the UK into a severe political crisis. There is a risk that this spills over into a major economic crisis. The exchange rate has had the largest fall for many years. This has good effects (exports are cheaper) and bad effects (imported goods are more expensive, leading to less demand and more inflation). Large falls in the share price of major housebuilders, suppliers of luxury goods and consumer electronics firms suggests that the markets expect the bad effects to outweigh the good. In addition, Brexit has plunged the UK into a long period of deep uncertainty; uncertainty leads to less demand from consumers and less investment by firms, multiplying the already adverse effects of the fall in share prices.

"But the greatest worry is the very sharp drop in the share price of major banks. The financial crisis of 2008-9 showed the almost existential dangers of a financially vulnerable banking system. Policymakers need to take immediate action to offset these risks and to stop the economy being dragged down further. We need action from the Bank of England. It needs to provide massive support for the banking system. We may feel uncomfortable about providing further support for a deeply unpopular banking system, but there is no choice. The fall in the exchange rate will increase inflation. The Bank of England must ignore this and state that it will not increase interest rates while instability lasts. And we need action from the Chancellor. An emergency budget that raises taxes would make a difficult situation much worse. We need a commitment to increase government expenditure, to support demand and employment for as long as this crisis lasts."

Remain campaign defined by diffuse anxieties and beliefs - Dr Susan Milner

"The EU referendum campaign left voters feeling confused and frustrated about Britain’s place within the European Union. By relying on ‘Project Fear’ over a clear-headed assessment of the benefits and limitations of membership, the Remain campaign allowed the campaign to be redefined by more diffuse anxieties and beliefs. In this context, two key patterns of voting behaviour appear to have emerged.

"First, anger and disappointment of those who felt left behind by economic development translated into a classic rejection vote. The voting count showed this starkly as a geographical divide. Second, the Leave campaign was able in the last few weeks to channel the sense of democratic renewal which had galvanised the earlier Scottish referendum campaign and to articulate it in the theme of ‘regaining control’. In this they were undoubtedly assisted by EU leaders’ own failure to frame European integration as a people’s rather than an elite project. With both main parties revealing deep divisions, Britain’s electoral politics have become highly volatile and internal cohesion is under heavy strain. On one hand, it is not clear where the referendum result leaves the pro-membership swathes of the population – Northern Ireland and Scotland, many urban centres, and younger people who appear increasingly disengaged from mainstream politics. On the other, populist politicians are evidently making gains from growing social inequality."

Vote to leave the EU has imperilled the union - Professor Nick Pearce 

"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."

Read more from Nick via the IPR blog.

To Brexit and beyond - Professor Bill Durodié

"The decision by a net majority of the eligible electorate in favour of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union is a triumph for our freedom and self-determination. It comes despite most predictions and the use of a politics of fear over more than twenty years on all issues from health and the environment to child safety and international security. The European Union as it was came into existence when the Cold War ended. Leaders the world over feared the uncertain consequences of the demise of the old politics of Left and Right. Avoiding risk rapidly became their new organising framework in a period devoid of other guiding principles. But their foremost though rarely stated fear, was always that of their own people. Despite the economic and migration concerns of the elites thrown up in the referendum debate it is those from whom power and authority truly derive who have now spoken the clearest. The European Union now stands discredited with an uncertain future as other electorates will surely take their lead from the United Kingdom and demand their own referenda to leave too. Of course, much remains to be done in the period ahead. This is only a first step. But it will lead to many other debates. It is those who do not fear change to whom the future belongs."

Read more from Bill via The Conversation.

The people have spoken - Professor Graham Room

"The people have spoken: they want out.  It is now incumbent on Parliament and Government to implement this decision: incumbent in a political – if not in a constitutional - sense. What terms of exit are likely to be agreed? What will the EU members be prepared to offer?  The Brexit campaigners argue that it will be in the interests of the EU to agree an early and generous exit agreement with the UK.  That is not self-evident.  Many expect the EU to negotiate a hard bargain, if only to discourage others who might think of heading for the exit, and in order to counter the right-wing nationalist elements which many of them face within their own countries.

"The key question is this: will the UK Parliament and Government feel themselves obliged to persist with exit, no matter how hard the terms which the EU offers?  Or will they take the view that under those conditions they would have no alternative but to put those terms to a new referendum?  Nothing in the EU Treaty would prevent the UK government from doing this: and then allowing the result of that second referendum to abort the withdrawal process. Is it not therefore possible that an informal alliance may now develop between the pro-European elites within the UK and their counterparts across Europe – aimed at ensuring that the deal which the EU offers is indeed meagre: in the knowledge that such a deal will oblige the government to put the terms on offer to a new referendum?"  

Read more from Graham via the IPR Blog.

A Treaty Revision too far for many Eurosceptics - Dr Alim Baluch

"The campaign has been incredibly shallow in terms of addressing the undeniable democratic deficit of the EU. The British Eurosceptic position is remarkably inconsistent. It generally opposes the Treaty Revision of Lisbon which effectively strengthened the European Parliament, thus reducing the democratic deficit. But it is exactly this Treaty Revision which went too far for many Eurosceptics. Now there is a Leave Vote, the absurdity of article 50 of the EU Treaty might trigger further anger at the EU as it calls for a unanimous vote of all 28 member states to agree to the modalities of Britain leaving. UKIP or media like the Sun might very well create the impression that Britain has to ask Germany or Estonia for permission to leave despite the referendum. A sense of indignation might be tapped into (and therefore be encouraged) ahead of future elections. Good times for Boris Johnson."

 

Game theory offers a better way forward in Britain’s EU drama

  , ,

📥  EU Referendum, Public Policy, The Conversation

The way that the EU referendum campaigns – both for and against British membership of the bloc – have been handled has been redolent of game playing. As an academic who studies game theory, a number of parallels are evident. And, from the displays of nastiness on both sides of the campaign, it is clear that Britain needs to forge a more productive path forward in its relationship with the EU – whether it remains or leaves. My work on a new type of game theory may offer some insights.

From the moment David Cameron went to Brussels in February 2016 to secure better terms for Britain’s EU membership, the games began. Having already promised a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, he was no doubt hoping to use the shadow of a Brexit vote as a bargaining chip in his negotiations.

Essentially, he argued that if the other leaders agreed to the UK’s demands for concessions, he would be able to convince the British public to vote to remain in the EU. If the UK didn’t get what it wanted, the implication was that Britain would exit and weaken the EU for the remaining nations. The looming referendum was designed to increase the UK’s bargaining power, but it fell flat and the other leaders called his bluff, making limited concessions.

(more…)

 

Brussels Attacks

  , ,

📥  Public Policy, Society

The incidents at Brussels airport and on the Metro network there this morning ought to serve as a reminder that complete security is unachievable. Having made air-side at airports more challenging to reach, it was only a matter of time for terror attacks to focus on the passenger-side. Those who now talk of the need for better intelligence and even more security seem not to understand this displacement problem.

There can be no security solutions to social problems. But the Belgian PM, Charles Michel, has, like our own PM, David Cameron, sought to legislate his way out of problems in recent times. New laws allowing police raids and opposing hate speech match attempts here that focus more on preventing the assumed inevitable than understanding  its social origins and seeking to alter these through political leadership.

Belgium is different to the UK of course, but not that much so. It is divided between a French-speaking South and a Flemish-speaking North. Brussels in particular is also home to two significant international institutions – the EU and NATO – while having unemployment rates in excess of 30% in some districts. Accordingly, its identity is confused and contested, as are its organs of state, and this has led to a vacuum where its values and vision ought to be.

But young people there are the same as the world over. They want to feel that they belong to, and believe in, something. If the mainstream fails to offer this they will look elsewhere. What we see is not so much radicalisation as disengagement. Worse, those who ought to offer a lead, such as teachers, talk of avoiding engaging youth on subjects such as the Holocaust, for fear of causing offence or angering those in their charge.

This mainstream evacuation means that run-down districts, such as Molenbeek, with which several recent incidents – from Charlie Hebdo to the Paris attacks, as well as those on a Thalys train and now these – appear connected, suffer not so much from resentment and presumed grievances, as a lack of ambition and leadership by those in authority. The country from which more people go to join ISIS in Syria as a percentage of the population is now Belgium.

Going forwards, it will only be by addressing the social confusions of the mainstream that a solution will emerge.

Professor Bill Durodié is Head of the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies and Chair of International Relations at the University. His work focuses on risk, resilience, radicalisation and the politics of fear.

Listen to his inaugural lecture, now available as a podcast, on the politics of risk and resilience. 

For any students or staff in Brussels or Belgium, please note this link

Unpicking the Budget Challenges

  , ,

📥  Public Policy, Society

It was just a few months ago that the Government announced an unexpected improvement in their finances which facilitated a more benign environment with fewer cuts and the possibility of lower taxes. Now we are suddenly faced  with the reverse scenario with the Government needing to make savings, or increase taxes, to fill an unexpected black hole in their finances.

This sudden turnaround should emphasise just how difficult making economic policy is and how cautious we should be on any economic pronouncement with respect to either the future, or indeed the present. It is a hard task, but nonetheless one feels the Government should have done better and in particular been a little more cautious in the Autumn.

Measuring debt

The UK debt stubbornly resists falling as a proportion of GDP. In 2012 gross debt was 85.8% of GDP and by 2015, according to the IMF, it was 88.9%. In part this is because of a reluctance by the Government to raise taxes. In part too it is because the debt to GDP ratio is just that, a ratio. If GDP fails to grow by any amount then the ratio at best will only fall slowly. The emphasis by the Government in this budget will probably lie with further cuts in government spending, but an alternative would be to focus on growth.

In this week's Budget the Chancellor can be expected to focus on cutting government spending. It is difficult because so many areas are ring fenced and it seems likely that the cuts will focus on the welfare budget, hitting the least well off and most vulnerable. There is also likely to be an increase in so called stealth taxes, such as national insurance contributions. Given this, will the Government, as is rumoured, be able to make tax cuts for the higher earners by reducing the rate at which people begin to pay the higher rate of tax?

A surprise in store?

But I think too there will also be a surprise or two in store, something nobody expects, in part to divert attention from the harsh reality of further government cuts. One possibility is measures will be taken to reduce tax avoidance with the Government finally prepared to take this problem seriously, particularly as it applies to large multinationals. Another possibility, unlikely in the short term, but almost inevitable in the long term, is that the ring fenced areas will begin to come under substantial pressure.

Critical to real progress on the debt is a strongly growing economy. If, for example, it grows by 3%, then the debt can grow by 1% but still as a ratio to GDP it declines and quite rapidly. But the world economy is in a difficult state and given our dependence on this for exports, healthy and continuing growth seems a little distant.

Government cuts have real consequences for us all. Government cuts have impacted on local authorities. Bus services are being cut, the police are being cut, the health service although ring fenced is under pressure, road and other infrastructure building is constrained. Although for the South West, probably the biggest issue right now probably has little to do with the budget, but is rather the future of Hinckley Point.

For more on Professor John Hudson's research see http://www.bath.ac.uk/economics/staff/john-hudson/.

 

Mayoral maths: why backing Brexit was the only option for Boris Johnson

  , , ,

📥  EU Referendum, Public Policy, The Conversation

Like all successful gamblers, Boris Johnson knows how to play the hand he is dealt, clearly calculating the odds of success. The London mayor’s decision to break with David Cameron to become a figurehead of the Leave side in the forthcoming EU referendum is the product of untold hours of calculation.

When Boris tells us that the referendum presents us with “a once in a lifetime chance”, we should believe him. If he has made the right calculations, Boris could become the next British Prime Minister. Let’s have a look at what those calculations might have been.

(more…)

Tobacco industry activities in Africa uncovered

  , , ,

📥  Public Policy

Tonight's BBC 1 Panorama reveals evidence of bribery and corruption from British American Tobacco (BAT) in East and Central Africa. Here Professor Anna Gilmore of the University's Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) comments on the significance of the latest revelations.

Following years of rumours to the effect, tonight’s Panorama reveals the first concrete evidence that the industry has been bribing policy-makers and senior government officials in Africa.

The revelations that British American Tobacco (BAT) has used bribery and corruption to influence the political process in East and Central Africa poses serious questions for policy-makers in this country and across Africa. The activities detailed would appear to be illegal under the 2010 UK Bribery Act.

This is not the first time that that BAT has been found to be involved in illegal activities. Its extensive involvement in global cigarette smuggling has previously been widely documented. Yet it managed to silence the government’s inquiry into cigarette smuggling. This time it is essential that a full and public inquiry is held.

Many African countries have shown a massive commitment to implementing tobacco control legislation in order to stall their growing epidemics of tobacco related deaths. Yet they have struggled to make progress. Now we start to understand why.

Over recent years, as tobacco control legislation has been tightened in the developed world, as researchers in this area we’ve observed a definite shift in attention from Big Tobacco to focus marketing and advertising efforts in less developed countries. Africa is key to the tobacco industry’s future and this is particularly the case for BAT, the market leader in the region.

According to the WHO, the tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced killing 6 million people a year. Nearly 80 per cent of the more than 1 billion smokers worldwide now live in low- and middle- income countries where the burden of tobacco-related illness and death is heaviest.

Members of the TCRG played an advisory role on the programme.

For more on the work of the Group see the Tobacco Tactics website.