ELECTION – The Cambridge Politics Podcast

From the University of Cambridge comes ELECTION, a weekly politics podcast; asking the questions that no one else is in the run-up to the British General Election with the most interesting people inside and outside the political arena.

Can democracy adapt to our strained political system? Who (if anyone) will ‘win’ in 2015? What can the lessons of the past teach us about the future?
Professor David Runciman puts these questions to philosophers, historians, scientists, and political thinkers – with enlightening results – in a weekly podcast series coming from his office in the Department of Politics and International Studies.

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The UK’s constitutional future: a view from the US

As both a constitutional lawyer, albeit one specializing in the United States, and a political scientist, I followed with great interest the recent vote in Scotland regarding potential secession from the United Kingdom. From an entirely detached academic perspective of someone with no affiliation with the United Kingdom or any of its regions, the final outcome almost did not really matter. It is simply the case that the actual affirmative vote to remain within the United Kingdom generates different, but still fascinating, questions from those that would have occurred had those supporting secession prevailed. In the latter case, there would have been much discussion, no doubt, about the mechanics by which Scotland would become truly independent and, crucially, whether it would have easily (or at all) become a member of the European Union. Instead, discussion now focusses on the implications of the promises made especially in the final weeks before the referendum, when it appeared that momentum had shifted to the secessionist camp. Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats alike agreed to even stronger devolution than is now the case, with the now-permanent Scottish Parliament being given plenary powers regarding taxation and some important social issues, especially involving the operation of the modern welfare state.

Not surprisingly, these promises, however welcome to many Scots, were apparently received with decidedly mixed feelings in the remainder of the United Kingdom. Welsh nationalists would presumably like a greater degree of devolution than now exists, even if none would actually support a thoroughly quixotic venture into independent nationhood. (Unlike Scotland, Wales has neither sufficient population nor resources like oil that could finance an independent country.) But the most important audience, by far, was composed of those living in England, where the overwhelming percentage of Britons live. Inasmuch as the practical import of devolution is that only the Scottish Parliament would vote on many laws affecting Scotland, including tax policy, some residents of England (whether or not it is proper to describe them as “English nationalists”) are suggesting a kind of reciprocal monopoly, as it were; this would mean that only non-Scottish parliamentarians would vote on measures that affect only the rest of the UK but not a now more, even if not completely, independent Scotland. The mantra of “English votes for English laws” has been adopted by proponents of such exclusivity, and there is great pressure to allow Parliament to vote on such a proposal. Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown has written in the Guardian that “If you want to kill off the United Kingdom, there is no better way.”He described a developing “constitutional crisis” that could as easily test the future of the United Kingdom as would have an affirmative vote for independence in September. One does not have to possess a written constitution in order to have a “constitutional crisis”!

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The making of the Greater Manchester mayor – what next?

Much has been made of backroom deals between the Chancellor George Osborne and Manchester City Council’s chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein to deliver the most significant devolutionary settlement of Whitehall budgets in England.

The price of the deal is an elected mayor, who from 2017, will oversee significant sums of devolved spending, answerable to a cabinet made up of the ten council leaders of the Greater Manchester authorities.

For some attending a cities@manchester debate earlier this week, the imposition of an elected mayor is seen as an unwelcome and undemocratic step.

But this view underplays the way in which this deal represents the culmination of over ten years of hard work and commitment by all the region’s elected leaders (and their officers) to collaborate and innovate to deliver economic and social goals in the region. Greater Manchester led the way in establishing the first combined authority and making it work, despite the political and organisational frictions this entailed.

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Government in Greater Manchester: A mayor for all seasons?

From June, Greater Manchester will get an interim mayor as part of a deal with the Government on regional devolution. But its imposition without a referendum is a fundamental error by the political elite that may well backfire, argues Professor Colin Talbot. ‘Mayors’ seem to have become the default answer of many in the political elite to the problems of local government and governance in the UK, or more specifically England. Linked to the idea of English devolution as an answer to Scottish ‘home rule’ this has become a heady brew. But maybe it’s time to ask some sober questions about this project of ‘Devo Manc’, at least in terms of the proposed system of government for Manchester.

My argument is, simply put:

Elected mayors are based on assumptions about what Archie Brown has called ‘the myth of the strong leader';

They are a ‘presidential’ style of government that is ill-suited to our ‘parliamentary’ political tradition, especially at local government level;

In Manchester specifically it risks undermining the delicate balance that has been so successful with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority;

Its’ imposition without a referendum is a fundamental error by the political elite that may well backfire.

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Time is running out for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

In 2013, the European Union and the United States launched negotiations for a comprehensive trade agreement (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP). TTIP’s objective is to facilitate market access for goods and services across the Atlantic by cutting tariffs and trade restrictions (like the Buy American Act), harmonizing regulatory standards, and setting common trade rules, including on custom policies and protected geographical indications.

The agreement is negotiated in a difficult situation. Europe’s weight in the global economy is declining, whereas the US has recovered from the crisis and is striking a parallel deal with the ASEAN countries in the Far East.

Europe’s economic prosperity depends on trade more than that any other region’s in the world. International trade (import and export) accounts for 87% of EU GDP (against 30% in the US, and 50% in China). But what TTIP is about is the future, not the present. This is the last opportunity for the EU and the US to set the production, environmental, investor and consumer standards for the global economy.

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Nurture and nature: education, blood and nationality

On the 28th of October 1940 the Greek government rejected Benito Mussolini’s ultimatum demanding that Axis forces were given free entrance from neighbouring Albania and allowed to occupy strategic locations around the country. After the war, this momentous event in the history of modern Greece – popularly known as the No Day – became a national holiday, celebrated annually with impressive military and student parades.

Fourteen years ago, one such parade had to take place in a town near Thessaloniki. As a tradition, the best student in the local high school was expected to bear the Greek flag. The best student, though, was not Greek. He was an Albanian immigrant.

Pupils, parents and citizens throughout Greece rose in anger: despite his achievement, how could a non-Greek, an alien, a non-citizen at that, be allowed to carry the national colours? The government, the main political parties and the teachers’ union stood behind the excellent Albanian student but the boy responded to the growing commotion by choosing to step aside, allowing a Greek pupil to carry the flag.

Three years later, the same Albanian – having now distinguished himself as the best graduating student of his school – was again elected to bear the colours in the Greek national holiday parade. The public outcry, in this instance, grew even wider and sharper than earlier. The young man, for a second time, decided not to accept the honour but pass it on to a native schoolmate instead.

The volcanic public discourse surrounding these events had nationality, citizenship and ethnic origin at its centre. Blood, heredity, and even DNA, became salient elements of the debate – pitted against the qualities and achievements of the person, his or her social integration, active participation in and contribution to the Greek scheme of life. ‘What makes one truly Greek: one’s Hellenic outlook, behaviour and genuine belief in Greekness, one’s abilities and success in Greek society and/or one’s historical roots and genetic ancestry?’ was a question resounding loudly across the country and the region. Is it nature or nurture, a cocktail of the two, or perhaps something greater than that, which makes us genuine sons and daughters of a country, a nation or a people?

The perennial echo of this problem was picked up by the then president of the Greek Republic who, in defence of the Albanian student, quoted a line from a famous work by the great Athenian rhetorician Isocrates. “[Athens]”, the ancient man of letters writes in his Panegyricus, “has brought it about that the name Hellenes suggests no longer a race but an intelligence, and that the title Hellenes is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood”.

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‘We are Sierra Leoneans, not slaves’: contesting citizenship in Freetown

In the summer of 2013, Freetown’s King Jimmy Bridge collapsed. This was around a decade after the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war, and a year before the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus; needless to say, the resulting deaths seemed barely newsworthy.

But King Jimmy Bridge, and the tunnels that it took down with it, had particular significance to the many young people who make a precarious living in the neighbouring streets’ vibrant informal economy. The tunnels bore the marks of the chains used to imprison the victims of the Atlantic slave trade, as passages to the Ocean they were about to cross. Before King Jimmy Bridge collapsed, the tunnels served as congregation spots for young people, where discussions ensued about their current predicaments and about the plight of the youthman in a country where high rates of youth unemployment have forced a generation into marginal and irregular income-generating activities.

The powerful symbolism of Sierra Leone’s historical memory of the slave trade (see Shaw 2002) was not simply embodied in marginal youths’ existence in the tunnels under King Jimmy Bridge. It was also explicitly evoked in their articulations of a political imagination based on notions of a citizens’ right to work. In the aftermath of an urban beautification project, Operation WID (Waste management, Improvement of the roads, and Decongestion), that curtailed street trading and commercial motorbike riding, young people’s frustration at this blow to their livelihoods was expressed through a poignant refrain: “We are Sierra Leoneans, not slaves!”

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It’s Bad, but Why? Contextualizing the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015

The recent passage of Theresa May’s controversial Counter-Terrorism and Security Act has been met with a flurry of criticism, reiterating a familiar critique of the government’s counter-extremism strategy, Prevent. Responding to the growing support for ISIS among British citizens, the act introduces a range of more aggressive restrictions on suspected terrorists and new obligations for airlines and internet providers. Most controversially, the act places a “statutory duty” on colleges, schools, prisons, and councils to prevent terrorism, giving the Home Office rights to enforce its counter-terrorism guidance. Whereas the earlier Prevent program had been discussed in the language of community responsibility, the government’s counter-extremism strategy is now a legal obligation for a range of public sector institutions.

The act falls short in several places and has been criticized for limiting academic freedoms and continuing to alienate Muslim communities in Britain. Perhaps more concerning, however, the act reveals the national government’s ongoing confusion about how to address the threat of terrorism. The definition of extremism remains vague and dissatisfying. The extent to which local communities can continue adapting the Prevent strategy to their local context is unclear. Finally, the bill leaves lingering questions about the strength of the central government’s commitment to its counter-extremism strategy.

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