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A singular failure of the current referendum campaign that can be attributed equally to both sides has been an absence of any attempt to articulate the nature of Britain’s geopolitical relationship to Europe. By geopolitics I do not mean its current form of usage: serving merely as a synonym for international strategic rivalry. What can be described as classical geopolitics is a confluence of three subjects: geography, history and strategy. The reason why geopolitics can provide guidance in practical matters is because it doesn’t obey the artificial boundaries of disciplinary knowledge; it requires synthetic thought to address policy problems and issues. Furthermore, the problems and issues themselves do not respect those boundaries: nor do the solutions.

The British thinker who mastered this synthetic approach and whose ideas have much relevance to the current referendum debate is Sir Halford Mackinder. He was that rare beast in public life: a polymath. Not only did he set up the School of Geography at Oxford , but also what was to become, in 1926, the University of Reading. He was also British High Commissioner to South Russia between 1919 and 1920. Between 1910 and 1922 he was elected and served as a Scottish Unionist MP for a constituency in Glasgow.

In 1902 he published a seminal book titled: Britain and the British Seas. In it he gave outlined the geopolitical relationship between Britain and Europe that is still of pertinence today. The geographical starting point of this relationship, he argued, was the south –east coast of England. This area was both proximate to and opposite what he termed a ‘linguistic frontier of Europe’. This was a confluence between what he termed the Teutonic and Romance peoples. Both influences had shaped Britain. He expressed it in the following way: ’To the Teutonic –Easterling and Norsemen – England owes her civil institutions and her language; to the peoples of the west and south, her Christianity and her scholarship.’ These two streams of influence had converged on Britain from the Rhine delta and the estuary of the Seine respectively.

Britain’s relationship to Europe can be described as a geopolitical paradox. Or as Mackinder himself expressed it ‘Britain is part of Europe, but not in it.’ He also argued that ‘Great consequences lie in the simple statements that Britain is an island group ,set in an ocean, but off the shores of the great continent ;that the opposing shores are indented; and that the domain of the two historic races come down to the sea precisely at the narrowest strait between the mainland and the island.’ This description still is of relevance one hundred and fourteen years later.

Yet it would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that much has changed in the relationship since 1902. Given the importance of trade with Europe and its pivotal role in our security, it could be suggested that if Mackinder were alive today he would have to take into account these economic bonds across the Channel which had never been as strong before in absolute quantity of trade. Geographic factors of what Fernand Braudel called the ‘longue durée’ have been offset by newer – and in fact older – trading patterns. Mackinder argued that it was not until the Tudor epoch that the English Channel became an effective boundary. Before then ‘London was more closely connected on the tideways with Paris, Flanders, and the Hanseatic cities than with Scotland or Ireland or Wales’.

Mackinder’s understanding of the geopolitical relationship revealed the two qualities that were at its heart: mutability and paradox. Before the British public go to vote on the 23rd June they deserve, from our politicians, some engagement with and some acknowledgement of these enduring geopolitical realities that Mackinder did so much to articulate, and the transforming character of commercial links that he acknowledged.

Dr Geoff Sloan

‘Once more unto the breach’ –

On Hillary Benn and Fighting Wars with Words

Dr Nadya Ali

Shadow Home Secretary Hillary Benn has emerged as the unlikely oratory hero through his speech to the House of Commons during the debate on whether to carry out airstrikes in Syria. It has been hailed as ‘extraordinary’ and as one “that will go down as one of the truly great speeches made in this House of Commons”. Benn has been described as ‘the mouse that roared’ and now even as a potential leadership candidate. The effusive coverage of the speech comes in the aftermath of the successful vote which enables the extension of British airstrikes targeting Islamic State (IS) from Iraq into Syria. Leaving aside the context of internal Labour party politics, Benn’s words have a resonance and political utility that extend far beyond the party. Nadya Ali argues despite the plaudits and unlike Shakespeare’s Henry V, Benn did not deliver a great speech but simply the right speech.

His dramatic moment in the House of Commons was the culmination of the successful move to, once more, mobilise British military capability as part of the ‘War on Terror’. According to one journalist the speech was written while the debate took place with Benn sitting on the front bench. This was no doubt intended as a compliment but it needn’t be: everything he said was could have been lifted out of the ‘War on Terror Handbook of Justifications to Fight Wars’, if indeed it existed. Since 9/11 Western leaders have deployed the same set of claims about particular actors, states and terrorist organisations to make the case for military interventions. Benn ticked all the relevant boxes; he talked suitably about the ‘fascist’ threat of IS, of ‘our values’ and the necessity to use further violence.

In their 2007 volume, Adam Hodges and Chad Nilep state: “In response to events like those of 9/11, language formulates the questions and frames the response […] Language, entwined with power, frames and positions the response.”[1] Benn’s words, his framing of the problem, were entirely cognisant of dominant War on Terror discourses regarding the issue of Islamic extremism and the necessity to use violence in order to fight it. Take for example the decision to refer to IS as ‘Daesh’ to undermine their legitimacy. They were also frequently referred to as a ‘death cult’ during the debate which was done in order to undermine their claims to political legitimacy and more importantly strip them of the pretensions to statehood. The physical control of territory, a monopoly on the use of violence and the development of a complex tax system does not a state make. Following on from this, Benn described ‘Daesh’ as fascists with a superiority complex who resemble the unholy triad of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini making them ‘an evil that must be confronted’.

The comparison of IS to emblematic figures of fascism is no accident. Richard Jackson analysed how following the attacks on 9/11, Bush construed the event as a new Pearl Harbour, an event which precipitated American entry into WWII.[2] Similarly, then, 9/11 was framed as a declaration of war which required a like for like response facilitating the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, Blair referred to a newspaper editorial which championed the appeasement policy of Chamberlain as evidence for why Britain should use military force this time. Within this framework there can be no political negotiations or settlements of the kind advocated by Corbyn to limit the threat of IS but only war. Indeed, David Cameron warned the Conservative 1922 before the airstrike debate, “You should not be walking through the lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”.

The drawing of such sharp distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is strongly reminiscent of George Bush’s belief that ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’. The conflicts of the War on Terror have in part been facilitated through the production of national and civilisational identities. IS is a death cult which indulges in the murder of gay men, Yazidi women, and charity workers. Britain is tolerant and decent and for these reasons IS ‘hold us in contempt’. Benn goes onto argue, “They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt.” Again, this strongly recalls Bush in 2001: “They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

The drawing of civilisational battle lines has been at the heart of the on-going military, social and cultural interventions of the War on Terror. ‘They hate us for what we are and not for what we do’. This depiction of Islamic jihadi organisations allows for the convenient erasure of the historical and contemporary context of Western interventions within the Middle East, Africa and South East Asia. What has happened in the last 14 years since the War on Terror was declared? The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq did not result in the creation of liberal democracies but continued insecurity and (violent) contest over who rules and how. Since the overthrow of Gadhafi and the persistent political instability which occurred as a result, Libya has in fact attracted a significant IS presence. The Syrian civil war and the spread of IS, itself an outgrowth of al-Qaeda’s insurgencies against coalition forces in Iraq, has laid waste to lives, infrastructure and post-WWI political settlements. This is not to mention the peripheral theatres of war where Western states interests are deeply vested and often where they intervene without so much as a whisper from the national press: Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and Pakistan. The appalling loss of life – or ‘collateral damage’ – inflicted by ten years of the War on Terror and barely acknowledged was calculated to be at least 1.3 million people by the Washington DC-based organisation Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The role of interventionist Western states, in particular of Britain, is therefore much more complicated and morally suspect then Benn’s speech would suggest. Thus, when he claims: “The question which confronts us in a very, very complex conflict is at its heart very simple” one is reminded of George Orwell’s words in ‘Politics and the English Language’. He wrote, “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”[3] The only aspect of Benn’s speech that was ‘extraordinary’ was that fourteen years after the last ill-judged invasion premised on the defeating evil and bringing change to the benighted people of Iraq, 397 MP’s were persuaded, yet again, to do the same for Syria.

[1] Adam Hodges and Chad Nilep (2007) Discourse, War and Terrorism, (John Benjamins Publishing Company: Amsterdam/Philadelphia)

[2] Richard Jackson (2005) Writing the War on Terror, (Manchester University Press: Manchester)

[3] George Orwell (2010) Politics and the English Language, (Penguin: London)

Dr Adam Humphreys

David Cameron recently described Jeremy Corbyn’s support for nuclear disarmament as a threat to national security. During his premiership, Gordon Brown argued for sweeping reforms to tackle global challenges such as climate change, poverty and the failing banking system, all in the name of ‘the national interest’. But how should we evaluate such political rhetoric? Adam Humphreys highlights the distinction between reformist and conservative reasoning in deciding what a nation really needs.

When it comes to evaluating claims such as those made by Gordon Brown on new global challenges, a degree of scepticism is initially in order. Politicians are prone to aggrandizing visions. This temptation may have been particularly strong for Brown in the wake of the “election that never was” and the collapse of Northern Rock. Some academics are also sceptical of claims about the national interest, noting that they operate primarily at the level of rhetoric. When a politician claims that a policy is in the national interest, this may just be another way of saying: “Support me!”  Worse still, it may be a way of deflecting further scrutiny of the policy.

Certainly, competing for support is the essence of politics in liberal democratic systems. It is natural that politicians will seek to have the mantle of “the national interest” on their side. That is not the end of the story, however. For why is it that some claims about the national interest resonate more than others? Consider how Jeremy Corbyn’s support for unilateral nuclear disarmament enables the government toplay the national interest card. Branding Corbyn a threat is rhetoric, of course, but why is it effective? The answer must be that it taps into a widespread, if inchoate, acceptance that Britain’s nuclear deterrent makes a contribution to our security and hence that maintaining it is in the national interest.

David_Cameron Twitter

David Cameron’s tweet linking the election of Jeremy Corbyn to national security

We therefore need a means of evaluating claims about what is in the national interest. Is David Cameron right that Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to national security? Was Gordon Brown right that global reform had become a core national interest? If not, why not?

The substance of a claim that a policy is in the national interest lies in the idea that it is likely to promote a widely accepted underlying goal. We therefore need to examine not only what goals a policy is intended to advance, but also the means-ends reasoning which links the policy to the fulfilment of those goals.

An account of how policies promote underlying goals can, crudely, start either with policies or goals. Consequently, two basic patterns of reasoning can underpin claims about the national interest. I label these reformist and conservative. Reformist reasoning begins by identifying desirable national goals and asks how they are best promoted under existing or likely future conditions. Conservative reasoning begins with existing national goods and the policies which promote them and infers that, appropriately adapted to changed circumstances, those policies continue to be in the national interest.

reasoningExamples of conservative reasoning are to be found in the frequent claims that a policy is in the national interest because it will maintain Britain’s standing in the world. When spelled out, the contention is that (i) Britain’s current levels of prosperity and security are in part due to Britain’s ability to punch above her weight internationally; (ii) the favoured policy, such as renewing Trident, will help Britain to retain that ability; and (iii) the favoured policy is in the national interest. By contrast, Gordon Brown often utilised reformist reasoning. At the 2009 Copenhagen summit, for example, he reasoned that if humanity wished to survive, given the threat of climate change, it must be in the national interest of all states to favour a binding treaty.

It is not necessarily the case that Labour politicians employ reformist reasoning and Conservative politicians employ conservative reasoning. Tony Blair often stressed that he would maintain Britain’s traditional foreign policy strengths. In practice, however, the New Labour years were notable for the emergence of explicit reformist reasoning in official documents. Foreign and Commonwealth Office white papers typically began by identifying the core foreign policy goals from which policy would flow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these goals were both vague and prosaic. After all, who would disagree that security and prosperity are a good thing? Yet whereas the coalition government’s National Security Strategyemphasised the constancy of Britain’s interests, the reformist reasoning employed by New Labour opened the door to a deeper transformation in Britain’s national interest.

Gordon Brown embraced this possibility. The novelty of his foreign policy vision lay not in his global deal-making, but rather in his insistence that all nations need to reform how they think about their interests. Indeed, he demonstrated once and for all that the content of the national interest need not be limited to its traditional focus on national security, narrowly construed.

The question of whether Brown’s pursuit of global reform would have served British security and prosperity better than David Cameron’s emphasis on competing more effectively in a ‘global race’ is ultimately a counterfactual one. Yet one feature of Brown’s foreign policy that has survived better than most is his emphasis on development spending. Here, too, he employed reformist reasoning, arguing that development is a means to global growth and prosperity. This may seem obvious, but the way he presented the argument highlights an important point of political contestation.

Policies pursued in the national interest are often contrasted with policies pursued out of moral obligation. Where a policy is new, as with Britain’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNP on overseas aid, it is unlikely to be encompassed by conservative reasoning about the national interest. It is more likely, instead, to be identified as a moral imperative extending beyond the national interest. The risk, of course, is that such imperatives become a target when austerity bites. Such opposition is harder to generate if such policies are construed as a core national interest. For Brown, the coincidence of ethics and interests in a globalized world was not just a slogan, but had real political consequences.


Note: This article is based on research just published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations. It was first posted on the LSE’s British Politics and Public Policy blog.


About the Author

HumphreysAdam Humphreys is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading.




Alan Renwick

Note: A shorter, less technical version of this post is available on the Constitution Unit blog. Readers seeking a quick answer to the question of whether the UK election was the most disproportional the UK has seen are encouraged to go there.

In a report published earlier this month, the Electoral Reform Society declares the 2015 general election “the most disproportional election to date in the UK”. The ERS’s website cranks up the rhetoric further: “It’s official: this election was the most disproportionate in UK history.” In marked contrast, my own first cut at analysing the election results, published a few weeks earlier, said that this was not the UK’s most disproportional election: that, indeed, it was the least disproportional since 1992.

So what is going on here? Which of us is right?

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Would a different voting system have produced a different result in Eurovision 2015? And what are the implications for our understanding of the merits of different electoral rules? In this post, Dr Alan Renwick investigates.

The Eurovision Song Contest is over for another year and Sweden has been crowned the winner. But can we be confident that Sweden really deserve the crown? We know that different electoral systems can produce very different outcomes. That applies to Eurovision just as much as to any other contest: in 2011, for example, while Azerbaijan won the official vote, other voting systems that are widely used in public elections around the world would have given the top spot to Bosnia and Italy. So could different counting rules have selected a different winner this time round?

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Has the election result made electoral reform more likely? In an update to a post published just before the election, Alan Renwick argues that it has not.

On Wednesday I wrote a post suggesting that, while the election result might well strengthen the case for electoral reform, the barriers to such reform would remain very high. The election result turns out not to be quite as we were expecting. So are my earlier thoughts on electoral reform in need of revision?

The answer is yes – at least a bit. The case for reform has not been strengthened as much as I expected. And the barriers to reform are even higher.

How the case for reform has changed

I suggested in the earlier post that the election result was likely to strengthen four arguments for electoral reform.

  1. First Past the Post forces voters into difficult tactical voting dilemmas. This argument was actually strengthened by the pre-election situation, so the result is irrelevant to it. The large number of constituencies in which three or more candidates appeared to be in contention made it difficult for some voters to know what vote to cast in order to promote the result they wanted. That hasn’t changed over the last forty-eight hours.
  2. At the constituency level, First Past the Post produces many minority victories. The argument here was that the growth of multi-partism means that more MPs are elected on shares of the vote below 50 per cent – sometimes well below. In 2010, just 210 of 650 MPs secured an absolute majority of the votes in their constituency, and eight secured less than a third. Further erosion of local support for victors would have strengthened the reform case. Full analysis of this point will have to wait for final results to be available. But a quick look through the first hundred constituencies in the alphabet suggests the number of majority victors actually rose: 44 of the hundred secured 50 per cent or more of the vote, implying somewhere around 280­–290 of all 650 MPs. In one remarkable result, the winner in Belfast South scraped home on just 24.5 per cent of the vote – lower even than the (previous) record 26.0 per cent share on which Russell Johnston was elected in Inverness, Nairn, and Lochaber in 1992. But that seems to have been an outlier – and what happens in Northern Ireland doesn’t much affect the debate in the rest of the UK. So the early evidence suggests this argument has not been strengthen.
  3. At the national level, First Past the Post produces huge inequities. The main argument emphasized by those pushing electoral reform before polling day was that the current system produces unacceptable disproportionalities. And it has indeed produced some very marked disproportionalities this time round: UKIP won one seat with almost four million votes, the SNP 56 seats with fewer than one and a half million votes. On the other hand, such imbalances have adversely affected fewer than a quarter of voters directly. Furthermore, the standard measure of electoral disproportionality – Gallagher’s index – was at its lowest (at around 15.0) since 1992. Disproportionalities are a long-standing feature of the British electoral system and should be a cause for concern. But there is little reason to think the problem has just got worse.
  4. A second hung parliament destroys the case for First Past the Post. The strongest case for First Past the Post has always been that it produces single-party majorities. Failure to do so twice would have seriously undermined the case that this justifies the disproportionalities. But now we know that it has not failed to do so a second time. First Past the Post has done its job: converting a multi-party context into a single-party majority. Of course, some will make the opposite argument: converting a 37 per cent vote share into a 51 per cent seat share is a denial of the democratic rights of the non-Conservative majority. But Cameron’s vote share is higher than the share that maintained Tony Blair in power in 2005, and calls for reform got nowhere back then: most British voters rather like single-part y government. Again, the case for reform has not been strengthened.

None of this is to say that there is no case for reform. But if the voting system is actually going to change, more people than before need to push for it. There is little reason to think that will happen.

Barriers to reform

I said on Wednesday that there are two barriers to electoral reform. First either the Conservatives or Labour would need to acquiesce in the process leading to any reform – even though the current system helps preserve their status as the only parties capable of leading a government. Second, public opinion is unlikely to provide much in the way of bottom-up pressure.

If I am right that the case for reform has not significantly strengthened, that only adds to the expectation that public opinion is unlikely to be ignited by the reform cause. That makes impetus from the political elite all the more essential if reform is to happen. But any reason for expecting such impetus that existed on Wednesday has gone. The Conservatives have no need to cosy up to coalition partners. They have said in terms in their manifesto that they wish to defend First Past the Post. And the two parties that might press the issue – UKIP and the Liberal Democrats – are both about to enter periods of leaderlessness and soul searching.

All in all, then, we can presume that First Past the Post is likely to live to fight another day.

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Could the results of tomorrow’s general election really lead to change in the electoral system? Many commentators seem to think yes. Alan Renwick here offers some reason for caution.

Lots of people are suddenly talking about electoral reform. Never mind that the British electorate voted by 68 per cent to 32 per cent in a referendum in 2011 against dropping First Past the Post in favour of the Alternative Vote (AV) system, there is a growing feeling among some activists and commentators that change is on the way. First Past the Post, the argument goes, works well in a world of two-party politics. But now that we have seven-party politics, it produces absurd results that no one can defend. Pressure for reform will bubble up and force a shift.

We should not jump to such easy conclusions. Major electoral reform happens very rarely – only one long-standing democracy (New Zealand) has ditched First Past the Post since the Second World War. We need to think, first, about how the election result might strengthen the case for reform, and then, second, about what barriers the reform cause might nevertheless face.

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Alan Renwick, 29 April 2015


The prospects for a citizen-led constitutional convention in the UK have been transformed over the past twelve months.  When I wrote a pamphlet last April arguing the case for such a convention, I was frequently told that, much as my analysis was interesting and the idea intriguing, it just wasn’t going to happen.  Politicians care about the institutions that shape their power and they therefore won’t accept processes that give influence over the shape of those institutions to others.

But then came the Scottish referendum – or rather the week of mild panic preceding the referendum, which delivered the ‘vow’ to devolve further powers to Scotland.  As everyone acknowledged, that raised big questions about the future structure of the UK as a whole – questions to which there are no obviously correct answers.  Faced both with this problem and with the remarkable popular engagement around the referendum campaign in Scotland, most of the main political parties committed to holding a citizen-led constitutional convention in some form.  And these commitments are now reflected in the election manifestos.

I welcome these developments very much.  Serious debate about many aspects of our constitutional framework is sorely needed.  Such debate should not be dominated by politicians.  However well-meaning politicians may be – and I do not share the popular cynicism on that point – their personal interests unavoidably skew their approach to constitutional matters.

Furthermore, a successful citizen-led constitutional convention could provide the model for a new way of doing politics.  A debilitating divide now exists between voters and politicians.  That leaves many voters prey to populist voices that make grand promises that don’t stand up to detailed scrutiny.  If we want to restore the health of our democracy, we should be seeking ways of engaging citizens actively and thoughtfully in policy-making processes.  There is considerable evidence that, when citizens are invited to engage in meaningful deliberations about policy – rather than to participate in empty consultations or focus groups – they do very well.  So the citizens’ assembly model could be one that we could use repeatedly to explore options on other issues.

But these good things will happen only if a citizen-led constitutional convention works well – and there is no guarantee that it will.  Such citizens’ assemblies have been tried already in Canada, the Netherlands, and Ireland, and, in most respects, they have been highly successful.  But the UK is much bigger and the agenda of a constitutional convention here is potentially much more complex.  Moreover, features of our political system – not least our adversarial tabloid culture – might generate their own barriers.

That makes it essential that a citizen-led constitutional convention be designed as well as possible.  The statement published today by the Constitution Unit and the Constitution Society – signed by many of the leading academic experts in this area – sets out some of the key requisites.  Speaking personally, my view is that its various recommendations can be summed up in four key points.

First, a constitutional convention needs a focused and manageable agenda.  Many people concerned about the state of our politics would like a root-and-branch review of our constitutional structures.  And the time for such a review may come.  But a comprehensive review would be too much for a single citizens’ assembly on its own.  Furthermore, everything we know about how the UK’s – and other countries’ – political institutions evolve suggests that an overarching reform is very unlikely.  Incremental changes may be unsatisfactory, but they can at least move us in helpful directions.

Second, ordinary citizens should make up the majority of members.  There is a good case for including some politicians in order to ensure that the political elite are connected to the process and take it seriously.  But the majority of the members of any constitutional convention should be ordinary citizens, invited to participate at random from the electoral register.  I find that this idea often alarms people on first hearing: they are deeply sceptical that untrained citizens can be charged with such a complex task.  But the evidence from past citizens’ assemblies is that, if we take citizens seriously, then citizens engage seriously.  Those invited to take part are not obliged to do so – and, indeed, once the commitment that is involved has been explained, the great majority typically choose not to do so.  So citizens who are definitely not interested need not get involved.  But past cases have had no difficulty in obtaining a sample of the population that is representative on criteria such as age, sex, and socio-economic background.  And the quality of the deliberations that these people engage in is impressively high.

By contrast, some politicians have been inclined to include representatives of organized civil society or even – heaven forfend – academics.  This is a thoroughly bad idea.  It is impossible to select such members in a representative way and they would only serve to drown out the ordinary citizens.  In any case, including them misunderstands what a deliberative forum is all about.  Rather, such a forum should be much like a jury: it should comprise people who are not committed to certain views before the start; it then hears from the experts and from all those who wish to express an opinion; and then it reaches its own conclusions based on careful consideration of all the arguments.

That leads on to the third point: the deliberations of a citizen-led constitutional convention must be carefully structured and supported.  High quality deliberation does not happen spontaneously.  It should be structured into three phases: first a learning phase, when the basic options are set out and the state of our knowledge about their advantages and disadvantages outlined; then a consultation phase, when members hear from pressure groups, parties, members of the public, and anyone else who wants to put their view forward; and finally a deliberation phase, when members consider the values that they want to promote and the options that might best advance them.  This needs the support of facilitators, note-takers, academics, and others.  The convention should meet at weekends from time to time so that the members have time to get on with the rest of their lives and also to digest and reflect upon what they hear about.  The people who have run similar exercises in the past emphasize the crucial importance of social activities that help the members get to know each other.  They also highlight the quality of the food and other such practicalities during the weekends as key for oiling the wheels.

Finally, there should be a clear mechanism for following up on the convention’s recommendations.  If convention members suspect that their ideas might just be left to gather dust, they are less likely to treat the process seriously.  And if politicians ignore the carefully developed thoughts of a sample of ordinary citizens, that can only serve to increase the sense of alienation between the regular voter and the political world.  The issues passed to a constitutional convention are likely to be too complex for it be possible to say simply that the convention’s recommendations will be put to a referendum – the mechanism that several past examples have employed.  But government should commit itself to some plausible route forward.

Disillusionment with politics in the UK – and other countries – today reflects a sharp ‘us and them’ divide.  Most voters consider politicians to be an entirely distinct breed from themselves – and anyone who puts him or herself forward for election is placed on the ‘other’ side.  Elected institutions therefore cannot be representative in the important sense that they can contain only those people who, by running for election, have removed themselves from the category of ‘us’.  A citizens’ assembly overcomes this: it comprises not people who have chosen to put themselves forward for election, but people who have accepted an invitation.  Creation of such an assembly thus raises the prospect of narrowing the gap in a meaningful way between ‘us’ and the process of deciding public policy.

That, at least, is the theory.  We know it has worked well elsewhere.  Whether it will work well in the UK we can’t be sure of.  But it is certainly worth a try.  In order to give it the best chance of success, it is essential to get the details in the institutional design right.


This post was first published on UCL’s blog ‘The Constitution Unit’.

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The following blog post is written by Ofer Fridman, our School nominee for the University’s PhD Researcher of the Year competition.


Different conflicts that have taken place in the last few decades significantly highlighted the problem of tackling with civilian population and collateral damage. In the last few decades of the 20th century, a universal respect for human life has become a crucial variable within the international community, in general, and Western societies in particular. In this new political reality, military seeks new technologies that have greater precision, shorter duration, less lethality, and reduced collateral damage. While Non-Lethal Weapons (NLW) seem to be the perfect answer for this military quest; to this day the operational use of available non-lethal weapons by the military has been limited.

While an employment of NLW, undoubtedly, demands a paradigm shift in military affairs; the history of such fundamental changes proves that they can occur only under significant pressure and support from the political leadership. In the case of NLW, this required pressure becomes even more significant, as the military approach toward NLW has substantial political roots. The analysis of the existing literature clearly shows that not only their name (Non-Lethal Weapons) was chosen for political reasons, but their proposed role was more political than military, i.e. to add new options for policy makers in the ‘grey area’ between no application of military force and application of lethal military force.

My research, however, argues that despite visible political sensitivity to civil casualties during military operations, political leadership do not pressure military organisation significantly enough to fundamentally re-evaluate its doctrinal approach towards lethality. To solve this puzzle, the research focuses on three cases (Russia, the U.S. and Israel) analysing domestic and international political factors that have the potential to force the military organisations to fundamentally decrease their lethality.

Regarding domestic factors, on the one hand, it seems right to argue that the perception that human life is a universal value expected to stress political leadership, demanding its military to employ less lethal options. On the other, a deeper analysis of this aspect suggests entirely different situation that can be explained by two trends. The first trend assumes that in the 21st century people indeed value human life significantly higher than before. This appreciation, however, has been translated largely into general unwillingness to sacrifice one’s own life and the lives of his relatives, rather than a universal value that applies on the enemy’s civilians.

The second trend suggests that the increasing transparency of the military activity in the 21st century will create more public moral tolerance, thus demanding to minimise civil casualties on the battlefield. To deal with this emerging domestic political pressure, the political leadership with its military have developed different ways to justify civil casualties as an unavoidable part of the military activity that is intended to save more lives than caused deaths. In other words, the military has been required by its political leadership to reduce the number of civil casualties to the politically defendable rather than operationally or technologically possible minimum.

Regarding the international factors, during the last several decades, the number of civil casualties caused by military operations has become an important argument in international relations. Different international players (states, as well as non-state organisations) more frequently and more powerfully make use of this argument to criticise military activity of their international opponents, and therefore create pressure on their political leadership to withdraw military activity or, at least, minimise civil casualties.

However, an analysis of the foreign policy of all three countries suggests that these countries have developed mechanisms that help them to withstand international pressure, thus minimising its influence on political-military decision making process. In the Russian case, to fend international (mainly Western) criticism off, the Kremlin has developed a narrative of ‘Double Standards.’ Facing international criticism Russian leaders powerfully dismiss it, arguing that their activities comply with international law, at least with the same degree as Western actions do.

The American leadership, in its turn, minimises possible international criticism by building coalitions: as many states are involved in the military activity as less pressure will be applied on the U.S. decision makers themselves.

In Israel, the political leadership has decided, long ago, that the outcomes of military activity and the number of civil casualties have nothing to do with the international pressure. In other words, Israel believes that even an unprecedented low number of civil casualties during their operations will not decrease the already high level of the international pressure. Consequently, as the battle for the international public opinion is lost in advance and tight relations with the U.S. will protect Israel in the Security Council, the international pressure has little influence on the Israeli political-military decision making process.

On the one hand, unfortunately, my analysis does not suggest a feasible future for NLW. Political leadership is not stressed enough (domestically or internationally) to demand fundamental changes from their military organisations. Consequently, under insignificant political pressure, military organisations choose to adopt their existing capabilities (precision strikes, selective weapon systems, strict the rules of engagement, etc.), rather than employ NLW.

On the other hand, during the last several decades, military operations themselves have deviated from previous wars, where victory was considered solely by military terms. The winning of the “hearts and minds” has become a vital factor in achieving the final aims of military operations. Military organisations begin to understand that the achievement of a comprehensive victory demands support from the local population; and therefore, harming civilians, in most cases, will increase their involvement against the military and delay the successful end of operations.

Consequently, it seems that the future of NLW does not lie in the hands of politicians, and NLW will be eventually employed not because of political costs of civil casualties, but due to their military effectiveness. However, as history of military innovations suggests, without political demand and support, it can be a very long process.

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Greece has a new government: a radical left – radical right coalition between the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and the Independent Greeks (ANEL). The 25 January 2015 elections were the most critical in decades not only for Greece but also for Europe. Greece is the first country among the European ‘debtors’ to elect a government with a clear anti-austerity mandate. There are expectations of a potential domino effect: already PODEMOS has promised to emulate SYRIZA’s victory in the upcoming 2015 Spanish national elections.

SYRIZA, previously marginalised in the party system, managed to attract 36.34 per cent of the Greek vote, which translated to 149 seats, just two seats short of forming a majority government. The centre-right New Democracy, which was in power since 2012 and has been associated with austerity and harsh economic measures, came second with 27.81 per cent of the vote. Essentially the result was a landslide for SYRIZA that managed to attract a broad voting base.

However, it was not only the far left that benefited from the election. The ultra-nationalist extreme right-wing Golden Dawn came third with 6.28 per cent of the vote translating to 17 seats. While it lost marginally since the 2012 elections, the result indicates that it the Golden Dawn has now consistent support despite the fact that its leading members are currently imprisoned facing indictment and the party did little campaigning.

The River, a centrist party putting forward a socially liberal agenda, came fourth with only 0.23 per cent less than the Golden Dawn and the same number of seats at 17. This indicates low levels of support for the centre ground.

The overall election results are hardly surprising given the context within which they took place: high levels of unemployment, disillusionment and social discontent. Both the campaign as well as the resulting coalition confirm the strength of the pro and anti-bailout cleavage.

The Party campaigns

The debate has taken place along the lines of continuity versus change, stability versus instability, Euro versus Grexit, austerity versus growth, and fear versus hope. During the short pre-election period, discussions were structured around the contrast between on the one hand hope for a better future and on the other hand fear for a worse future to come. This illustrates the extent to which emotions were at the heart of party campaigns. Parties tapped into people’s insecurities in an attempt to attract their vote. It is precisely the fear versus hope campaign that has polarised the debate.

SYRIZA was the advocate for ‘hope’: the party’s logo ‘Hope is on the way’ was accompanied by a rhetoric emphasizing a new beginning, justice and equality, an end to the humanitarian disaster that austerity has created, a new Europe and a future with dignity. On the other hand New Democracy attempted to mobilise on the basis of fear. Its campaign, which in sum was characterised by scaremongering, was centred on the potential consequences of a SYRIZA victory including, the downgrading of Greece’s credit rating, a Greek default, a Grexit, and an overall economic disaster, which would ‘undo’ the sound economic policies that the New Democracy–led coalition government has been implementing since 2012. It appears that hope is a stronger emotion than fear and SYRIZA’s campaign was the most successful.

The new SYRIZA-led coalition government

What unites SYRIZA and ANEL is their anti-austerity stance. But what divides them is their viewpoints on key social issues, including nationalism, religion and immigration. Independent Greeks is a radical right party emphasizing what they term ‘national issues’: for example the Macedonian question, Cyprus and Greece’s relationship with Turkey, which they have identified as non-negotiable ‘red lines’. This party may be classified as conservative authoritarian, emphasising the motto ‘fatherland, religion and family’. These terms would seem to fundamentally contradict SYRIZA’s left wing socially open ideals, such as their pro-immigration stance, their calls for the separation of Church and State and support for same sex marriage. Alexis Tsipras is the first Greek Prime Minister ever to take a political rather than an religious oath for his new government.

However, it is more strategic rather than ideological considerations that have guided the formation of this coalition. The inclusion of Rahil Makri, a former ANEL MP, in SYRIZA gave signs that the party is guided more by the pro versus anti-austerity cleavage rather than the left-right cleavage. Or this could be a good indication that SYRIZA is becoming a catch-all party attempting to attract a social based broader than its traditional left-wing supporters. Already before the elections SYRIZA progressively began to compromise its more radical positions. When it entered the Greek political scene as a contender in 2012, it did so on a radical left platform bearing all the features of a party in opposition. Emphasising anti-establishment ideas, SYRIZA had declared that it would renegotiate austerity at any cost. As the party got closer to power, it began to resemble a party in office: moderating its position in a bid to attract broader electoral support and put forward policies it can actually pull through.


This article was co-authored by Daphne Halikipoulou, University of Reading, and Sofia Vasilopoulou, University of York. They have also co-authored a forthcoming book on the Golden Dawn entitled ‘The Golden Dawn’s ‘Nationalist Solution’: Explaining the Rise of the Far Right in Greece’

Please note: This article has been published in LSE EUROPP Blog, and the Danish newspaper Politiken

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