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

Topic: Society

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.

There is no fixed EU to remain in

📥  EU Referendum, Society, Uncategorized

The election of two Five Star Movement candidates in Italy to the Mayoralties of Rome and Turin should act as a wake-up call to those still campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU.

Right across Europe and beyond – including in the US with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – mainstream political parties are being challenged by movements described variously as populist or anti-establishment.

These are loathed, sneered at, tolerated or occasionally, grudgingly accepted, by the old guard according to their particular outlooks, hues and figureheads.

On the old Right of the political spectrum in Europe they encompass Nigel Farage’s UKIP that came third in terms of votes cast at the 2015 British General Election, Marine Le Pen’s recalibrated Front National in France, Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and Norbert Hofer’s Freedom Party that so nearly took the Presidency in Austria a month ago.

On the old Left, the most notable include Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, whose Leader, Alexis Tsipras fought a futile stand-off with the EU over debt repayments – a conflict settled, in the end, by just three individuals, none of which were Greek, behind closed doors in Brussels.

In Italy, in part due to the once seemingly endless saga surrounding Sylvio Berlusconi and his eventual replacement by an unelected EU bureaucrat in 2011, there are several parties fighting for the accolade of being anti-elite, which include the Lega Nord that adopts a regionalist perspective and comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which campaigns against corruption in politics.

While emanating from differing directions, what unites these various groups and individuals who – as in the American case need not even have previously been aligned to any side or indeed may have swapped sides – is their identification of a problem with the mainstream elites and their appeal to those who sense themselves as having been by-passed or overlooked by parties that used to represent them.

None can claim to being fully formed and indeed there are quite evident problems with the maturity of some of the main players and their organisations, though this should not blind us to their ability to galvanise significant numbers of people such that we ought to expect them to change and develop into more mature movements in due course.

The lazy approach is to sneer at them and especially their current leaders with a view to dismissing the entire enterprise. That would be a grave error for, as we see now in Italy, they are all placed to achieve significant breakthroughs, if not now, at some point in the not too distant future.

And what this means for the Remain campaigners in the current debate in the UK over membership of the EU is that their very name and aim – to Remain – is erroneous. No matter what the outcome from the referendum on 23 June, there will be no remaining in an unchanged Union.

The lie perpetrated by the Leave side to this debate is that there is a significant Brussels machine hell-bent on usurping our national sovereignty. In fact, it is popular sovereignty that is under threat as the real decision-makers in the EU are figures that are well-known to us all, including David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande.

But that European Union – the one primarily driven by its Council – is only as strong as the sum of its parts. And if all of its parts are under attack domestically, through the rise of the alternative movements we see elected in parts of Italy today, then it will be a very different EU irrespective of the outcome.

It is to this most pressing need that all ought to be turning their attentions to in the immediate future – the need to reconnect politics with the people. And it is that that only the Leave side represent – in whatever corrupted form they present it in.


Panic is spreading to the shires as rural police react to the threat of terrorism

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📥  Society

This article first appeared in The Times Red Box

Twelve years ago exactly, in an article for the New Humanist magazine, just two-and-a-half years into the ‘War on Terror’, I warned of a ‘bizarre badge of honour that could readily become a self-fulfilling prophecy’. Today, as a Police Federation chairman warns of fears that police officers in rural areas would be ‘sitting ducks’ in the event of a terrorist gun attack in the UK, my analysis has come home to roost in spades.

Back then I noted that ‘no serious local authority can afford not to have revised its emergency procedures’ in the light of the presumed threat posed by Al Qaeda. I added with a rhetorical flourish that ‘it almost seems that if your town, city or region is not assessed as potentially being on Osama bin Laden’s hit-list, it cannot be worth visiting’.

Now, it would seem, it is not just large urban areas that can sense themselves as potentially being under attack, but remote rural localities too. More so even, as we are advised that the police in such circumstances are ‘unarmed and vulnerable’.



Brussels Attacks

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📥  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

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📥  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/.


Paris terror attacks: France now faces fight against fear and exclusion

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📥  Society, The Conversation

The attacks that took place at a series of venues in Paris on November 13 were the deadliest on French soil since 1945. At least 129 people have been killed in six different places. Reports say that nearly 100 are in a critical condition. Police have reported that eight people believed to have carried out the attacks are also dead – seven by blowing themselves up.

It was not as though France had not prepared itself to face such a tragedy. Anti-terrorist measures have been at their highest level in Paris since January, when two brothers attacked the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12.

This was obvious to any bystander over the past few months. Armed soldiers have become part of the Paris experience. Yet the government’s security plan, the plan vigipirate, was not enough to stop what is so far believed to be the most organised and coordinated attack Islamic State has perpetrated outside its territory. Details are still thin on the ground, but IS has claimed responsibility. President François Hollande has blamed the group and made it clear that he sees this as an act of war.

As scenes that were indeed reminiscent of war spread across the centre of Paris, Hollande declared a state of emergency. He announced a series of radical measures such as re-establishing border controls. Schools and universities have been closed.

Meanwhile, there was the blizzard of unconfirmed information that’s to be expected in such a situation. The climate of fear was reinforced by the 24-hour news media’s tendency to not only relate the facts – as messy and incomplete as they are – but to encourage speculation.

Even as the attacks were still underway, commentators could be heard discussing what could happen next and what type of attacks we could, or indeed should, expect. The sense of panic only intensified with the proliferation of amateur videos on social media.



Northern Irish Politics and the DUP – from Protest to Power

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📥  Public Policy, Society

Dr Sophie Whiting, lecturer in our Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies, recently won the prestigious Political Studies Association of Ireland Brian Farrell Book Prize for the Best Book published in Political Science for her co-authored book ‘The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power’. Here she blogs on the key messages from the book and its relevance for contemporary politics in Northern Ireland.

Dr Whiting with Northern Ireland First Minister, Peter Robinson at the book launch.

Dr Whiting with Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP Leader, Peter Robinson, at the book launch.

From Protest to Power, published last year by Oxford University Press, is the result of a two-year Leverhulme Trust research project on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland. Drawing upon unprecedented access to a party historically suspicious of outsiders, the book offers a unique insight in to an organisation traditionally viewed as a party of opposition grounded in Protestant religious principles.

For more than forty years following the party’s formation in 1971, the DUP was led by the fundamentalist Protestant preacher, the Reverend Ian Paisley, who opposed all compromises with Irish Catholic Nationalists and Republicans in his stout defence of Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. Having campaigned vehemently against the Good Friday Agreement back in 1998, it amazed many, including party members, that by 2006 the party had agreed to enter a power-sharing arrangement with its historic enemy, Sinn Féin.



Magna Carta 800 years on

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📥  Society

Professor Bill Durodié, Chair of International Relations and Head of the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies delivered this speech at the Bath Civic Celebration on Sunday 25 October 2015.


What matters most about Magna Carta is not the document itself but the ideas it generated – it is not so much the letter of the law but the spirit that matters. As Winston Churchill once noted Magna Carta became; ‘the foundation of principles and systems of government of which neither King John nor his nobles dreamed’.

It may serve to remind some of us here, in various positions of authority today, that it is not simply what we do in the present that really matters as its legacy. And for ideas and actions to stand the test of time they need to capture – not just the spirit of the times – but the aspirations of the future. That’s a tall order for us all to follow but – history is still young – and there is still plenty of time and history ahead of us.

Much of Magna Carta of course is specific to its time – its 63 clauses can come across, in parts, as impenetrable, obscure and even just trivial. But buried among the list of grievances presented by the 25 Barons to King John were not just clauses about fish weirs or standard measures for ale. Clause 39 remains extant to this day to the effect that;

‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed, or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his peers/equals, or by the law of the land’.


Giving our children equal opportunities

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📥  Public Policy, Society

A generation of children are growing up with a starker divergence in opportunities than ever before: a trend that will take its toll on every aspect of their adult life.

Bath’s Centre for the Analysis of Social Policy and Institute for Policy Research (IPR), together with the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, hosted Professor Robert Putnam, Harvard professor of public policy and author of the acclaimed Bowling Alone and recently published Our Kids, along with a high-profile panel of academics, business leaders and policy-makers, to discuss what can be done.

End of the American Dream

Putnam described how equality of opportunity among American children has been eroded over three generations. Today, for those born to mothers with only a High School education the future looks increasingly bleak. America, as Putnam describes it, is “pulling apart” along class lines – it is increasingly divided by class, by education, and by marital status. The American Dream, founded on the ideal of equal opportunity for all, is rapidly breaking down, across an array of outcomes covering economic circumstances (earnings and incomes), relationships (stable marriages) and health (obesity).

As Putnam explained, today in the US, set against the core value of equality of opportunity, we know that it’s parents’ income, not ability, that’s critical in determining whether their children will get a college degree.

College-educated parents are increasingly investing in their children, and the gap between them and those with lower educated parents has grown rapidly. The last 30 years have seen increased differences by class in the amount of time parents invest in children, the number of enrichment activities they take part in, the likelihood of having a family dinner together (important to Putnam ’s ‘cultural capital’). The opportunities presented to children of working class parents have rapidly fallen behind those of the middle classes.

Why have children’s opportunities been polarised?

The collapse of the economy for the working class is in part responsible, but so too is the fraying of family bonds. Seventy per cent of children with parents of high school education or lower live in lone parent families. And the evidence, according to Putnam, tells us that children in lone parent families fare less well than those who grow up with both parents – it is quite simply easier to raise a child with two parents. Economic and family instability are intrinsically intertwined.

But there are wider social changes at play that matter too. The societal bonds that have in the past protected all our children are now unravelling.  Children are no longer seen as the responsibility of all, but more narrowly their parents.  This individualisation of responsibility has implications for all as the provision of public investments for children – whether in play parks or swimming pools – has shrunk. This has dramatic implications for the opportunities of children from lower social classes and the numbers taking part in extracurricular activities has withered. Community is in decline - church attendance is falling and social trust is being eroded.

What lessons are there for the UK?

The growing gulf for children in the US is divided by parent’s educational attainment, but in the UK there are grounds to be less pessimistic. Higher education continues to expand, and, while average earnings have fared poorly since 2007, in the last year real pay has begun to grown again.  The compelling US narrative, of a world where the classes are pulling apart, has less resonance for the UK.

However, although the UK economy is beginning to grow, analysis by Gavin Kelly (Chief Executive of the Resolution Trust) shows that there are problems ahead – earnings mobility remains low, the low paid increasingly remain so for long periods of time, and the earnings of young people are falling behind. In-work poverty also looks set to increase as the number of people working very short hours is set to grow, while incentives to work shrink.

When should public policy intervene?

The case for greater intervention in the early years, Putnam argues, is overstated. Instead he puts the case for public policy interventions to tackle problems at different stages of the lifecycle, with individuals showing remarkable capacity to adapt and learn throughout their lifetime. Former Minister, David Willetts (now Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation) argued at our recent event that limited public finances means that policy should focus on problems once they become obvious. Interventions in early childhood, before problems emerge, may be a costly means of intervention.

Social mobility is a political problem, says Putnam, and he is optimistic that it is something that it is not beyond the wit of policy makers to fix. His suggestions for reform are wide-ranging, from interventions in the labour markets and criminal justice system; to policies to intervene in the early years to support families and to invest in public education.  Finding a solution will require determination from policy makers.

While Putnam believes there are grounds for optimism what remains certain is that the issues of social mobility will remain firmly on the policy agenda over the next decade across the trans-Atlantic divide.

Professor Putnam, David Willetts, Gavin Kelly, Sacha Romanovitch (CEO of Grant Thornton) Dr Liz Washbrook and Professor Alissa Goodman took part in Child Poverty and Social Mobility: Lessons for Research and Policy which took place in Westminster, London on Thursday 8 October. See the Centre for the Analysis of Social Policy for information on forthcoming seminars.


Volkswagen in crisis: how to salvage their reputation?

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📥  Society, Uncategorized

Volkswagen board members meet today to decide on action as the ramifications of the emissions scandal unfurl. For one of the world's best known and trusted brands it surely won't be an easy road to recovery. To restore its trustworthiness VolksWagen has two tasks: to deal with the immediate crisis and to address the underlying problems within the organisation that have led to the crisis.

The need for sincerity

In terms of the immediate crisis, research on breaches of trust with other institutions tells us that the best course of action for CEOS is to apologise, in person, in front of people rather than a Twitter feed, express profound regret and order an immediate investigation.

This action of apology needs to be in person and in front of key audiences, customers, employees, environmental groups etc. The reason for it needing to be in person is because that is how people gauge the sincerity of the CEO or director. People gauge trustworthiness partly by actions and decisions of leaders but also their behaviour. Pithy statements down a Twitter feed are not enough right now.

Exits may be swift

The investigation of the immediate crisis has to be conducted by some independent third party who has not been implicated by the crisis. They could be internal or external but the process of the investigation needs to be open and transparent. Due to this need for independence and transparency, it may be impossible to keep key managers implicated in the deceit within the organisation. We may see swift exits.

In the medium term, and depending upon the outcome of the immediate investigation, in order to restore trust companies usually have to address one or some of the following factors: their ability or competence to fulfil their mission, be that car manufacturing or managing airlines or whatever; their basic levels of benevolence towards their communities, employees, customers, societies - are they entirely self seeking or are they bothered about the impact of their activities upon others; and, of course ,the basic integrity or morality of the company. What unspoken values underpin their decision making?

The heart of the problem

In Volkswagen's case their competence as a car manufacturer is not in doubt. What is in doubt is their integrity, their transparency and honesty: their moral compass as well as their sense of responsibility towards the environment, their customers and society as a whole. These issues can only be addressed by looking deeply into the way they take decisions, the way they choose their leaders and the way they measure and reward those leaders for the decisions they take. It's the underlying culture that causes these crises and that will take years to address.

Professor Veronica Hope Hailey is Dean of the School of Management